BEING OUR CHILD’S PARTNER
by Pam Laricchia
I think YES may be my most favourite word—it just screams engagement in the moment. It says, “I am here!” There are so many amazing things that can happen when we say yes. And that definitely includes when we say yes to our children.
“Yes! Let’s set up the paints.”
“Yes! Let’s go outside and play catch.”
“Yes! You can build a fort in the family room.”
Saying yes to our children is always an opportunity for connection. And fun! Yet often our initial impulse is to say no.
“No, paint is too messy, let’s get the crayons.”
“No, I can’t go outside to play, I need to make lunch.”
“No, I don’t want all the blankets to get dirty.”
Granted, sometimes circumstances call for a no, but not as often as we might think. And if no becomes our default answer, imagine all the things we might miss out on!
Pause. Take a breath. Consider the possibilities. Is there a way to say yes?
It’s our choice
We always have a choice in how we answer our children, yet it’s hard to really call our answer a choice if we don’t honestly consider more than one possibility.
As adults we’ve become accustomed to looking at the moment after the moment, and deciding the consequences are too high. But by whose standard? Sure, we can quickly recall all the things on our plate, like lunch and laundry and dishes. But are we taking into account the active engagement and real joy that moment could bring our children? There’s a line from my book Free to Learn that still regularly comes to my mind:
“As the parent, you can take a moment to look at the bigger picture and realize these are wonderful and exciting adventures to your child; more exciting to her than a clean living room would be to you.”
It gives me goosebumps every time because it reminds me that our children are exploring the world with joy and abandon. Do I really want to discourage that? Do I want to dampen their enthusiasm for engaging in their activities at full throttle? I don’t.
Not only because I want their days to be joyful, but also because I know that is where the best learning lives. And that was a big reason why I chose unschooling in the first place. If it becomes our habit to redirect our children rather than to engage with them, unschooling suffers. Their learning isn’t as expansive as it could be and our relationship isn’t quite as strong.
My point isn’t to make anyone feel guilty about saying no, but to encourage parents to make a real choice. There are so many possibilities between yes and no to consider. Yet if you find yourself saying no regularly, that could be a clue to dig a bit deeper and wonder why.
How rules can get in the way
One of the ways we can get into a rut of redirecting our children is through relying on rules. Conventional parenting tips abound about having rules and making sure your children follow them. And it seems logical, at least on the surface. Don’t they need to learn boundaries? Aren’t there safety issues?
Yet one of the many things I’ve learned through unschooling is that hard and fast rules can get in the way of real learning and solid relationships. So often rules are used as shortcuts—substitutes for thinking in the moment. “In that situation, always do this.” Well-meaning parents want their children to memorize the “right” thing to do in a given situation.
But what happens when parents aren’t around? So often I’ve seen children choose to break the rule when the parent isn’t there to enforce it. And there’s no real thinking involved: it isn’t about the pros and cons of the action itself, but about who’s around to see it.
How about when our children get older and encounter new situations? As parents we can’t always predict every possible situation before it happens. I’ve found that they make better choices when they understand the reasoning behind the rules. When they understand the principles involved, when they are adept at anticipating the consequences for both themselves and the people around them, they are much better equipped to analyze situations and figure out a reasonable path forward. They can think for themselves.
In fact, when they understand the rationale behind a rule and it makes sense to them, the rule itself isn’t really needed. They will choose to do what makes sense because, well, it makes sense!
So, while rules may seem quick and efficient in the moment, discussing and evaluating situations leads to much more learning. It does take more time, but with unschooling we’re choosing to take that time. We want our children to be able to think for themselves. Not only that, these discussions also improve our relationships because we get to understand each other better as we work through these situations. All great things.
Without rules automating our responses, it’s easier to take that moment to consider the possibilities. To ask ourselves, why not yes?
Being our child’s partner
When we choose unschooling as our children’s learning environment, we are choosing to be intimately involved in their days. Sometimes that means being directly involved with them in their activities; other times it means being accessible. Either way, it means being available and willing, and genuinely considering our children’s requests.
When we say yes, not only are we helping them explore the world, we are stepping more firmly into the role of being their partner. In that mindset, I am much less likely to let my own assumptions and fears distort my vision, and from there, I begin to really see the world through my child’s eyes.
We see the way they are mixing the paint to get the colour they envision. We see their abundant energy as they run after the ball, time and again. And again. We see their genuine excitement as they invite us into the fort to see the treasures they’ve gathered: their favourite book; their pillow and snack; the power cord they’ve run inside to keep their DS charged and at the ready.
These are priceless moments of connection that won’t happen if we are not open to them. And without this depth of connection and understanding, our ability to fully support their learning can be hampered. When we don’t know them intimately, we don’t quite know which suggestions and ideas that come to mind might work better for them.
Of course, we aren’t always going to be “right”—we’re always learning too. Yet if we’re consistently off-base, it will become quite obvious to our child that we aren’t paying very close attention, that we don’t really understand them. And their trust in us will begin wither. And without that trust, they won’t come to us for help when they have a question or a problem. We will become less and less involved in their lives and learning. Unschooling will suffer.
Instead, meet them where they are and help them accomplish their goals. That’s where engagement and flow lives. Where learning and creativity thrives. Where strong relationships blossom. In that moment.
When we do the work to shift beyond the parent-child dynamic and think of ourselves as our child’s partner in exploring the world, we keep the possibilities open.
We find the YES.
First published in The Natural Parent Magazine, Issue 22, Autumn 2016.