Recently, I’ve found myself replying to unschooling list posts with some variation of “take the time to see things through your child’s eyes”. It’s an important shift of perspective, one that is key to learning about unschooling, so I thought I’d take a moment to dig into what it really means.
One important note on what we’re going to do: it’s about the process, not the product. What I mean is, this exercise of “seeing things through your child’s eyes” does not provide a universally “correct” interpretation of a situation. Everyone is different. Their motivations and actions / reactions will be based on the interplay of their unique personality and life experiences, adult or child, so this analysis isn’t meant to provide an “answer”. The clues discussed may mean different things for different people.
This exercise is about looking at the process of gathering the clues the child is leaving, digging into them and developing a hypothesis about what the mom might do to help support her child and their relationship, and to take that understanding into their next interaction. And then doing it all again – gathering clues from that next interaction, thinking on them, further developing understanding – round and round.
So, let’s go through an example together. I’ll pick a hypothetical story from my book, Free to Learn:
It’s a beautiful fall day and you are looking forward to going for a walk. Jeremy quickly pulls on his running shoes, dashes out the door, and shouts, “Come on, Mom!” Your smile falters as you notice his sweater still hanging on the hook, remembering the talk you gave him just yesterday about wearing it when he goes out in this cooler weather. As you walk through the door you say firmly, “Jeremy, get back here and put on your sweater!” A beat passes and you add, “NOW!” Running back he protests that he’s not cold, but you insist. He does as he’s told but his excitement has waned and the joyful stroll you envisioned has morphed into a determined march around the block accompanied by repeated moans about the sweater, and you both head back inside.
Why is this an interaction that would inspire the mom to dig into and learn from? Because they were both unhappy with the result: Neither of them enjoyed the walk in the end.
In fact, even if only one party is unhappy with the outcome of a situation, it’s worth some time to examine. Building a trusting relationship means taking both the time to try to understand the other person deeply enough to anticipate their unhappiness, and the time to work together to try to find a path forward that those involved are comfortable with.
First, let’s take a look from the Mom’s perspective. What clues do we have that point to the thoughts and motivations behind her actions?
- She wants to enjoy a walk outside: It’s a beautiful fall day and she’s expecting Jeremy will enjoy going for a walk with her (she’s smiling at the thought, and he’s happily calling to her get the activity started).
- She is adamant that Jeremy wear a sweater outside: Not only does she ask him to wear a sweater, she’s insistent, not only when they leave the house, but also throughout the walk.
From her perspective, I imagine it seems like a reasonable request (or she wouldn’t be so insistent). It’s cold outside, and she likely feels more comfortable in a sweater so it makes sense to her that Jeremy will too. She probably extrapolates the colder weather into imagining Jeremy sick with a cold and the challenges that can pose, so she wants to take any reasonable actions she can to prevent that outcome. Besides, wearing a sweater does not impede Jeremy’s physical movements on the walk at all so she probably doesn’t see an issue at all. She might well think that, as his parent, Jeremy should trust her implicitly. He should know her actions are motivated by love, whether or not he understands her motivation for insisting he wear a sweater. She likely wants him to learn that “cold outside temperatures means wear warmer clothes”. And maybe she feels that changing her mind once the activity started will show “weakness” and encourage Jeremy to argue with her in the future.
It’s all rather understandable, from her point-of-view.
But now let’s look at the interaction from Jeremy’s perspective and find clues that might point to how he interprets the situation.
- Jeremy wants to enjoy a walk outside: You can tell he’s excited about the activity because he gets ready and out the door quickly, and calls for mom to join him.
- Jeremy does not want to wear a sweater: He leaves the house without it, he hesitates to return when asked, and he complains about it throughout the walk.
So, from Jeremy’s perspective, looking at the situation through his eyes, what might these clues tell us?
We know he’s happy at the thought of spending time with his mom, of walking around the block. Once she insists he wear a sweater though, his mood changes. His actions suggest that he’s likely just as sure as she is that the opposite is true: He’ll be uncomfortably hot wearing the sweater during the walk. If he wasn’t quite sure, he probably wouldn’t be so insistent. He’d grab the sweater and be on his way. His insistence means it’s an important point to him. Maybe it’s another clue in a larger pattern of ongoing power struggles between them, pointing to bigger issues. Or maybe he’s frustrated his mom hasn’t realized he’s always feeling hot. In that instance, he probably feels like his mom is ignoring his real needs and doesn’t trust him to take care of himself. That she’s spouting rules without taking the time to consider his perspective. Another example, to him, that she doesn’t really care about him.
Looking through Jeremy’s eyes, his thoughts and reactions are understandable as well!
So, after you have analyzed the situation, picked out the clues, and hypothesized how your child probably interpreted the situation, ask yourself, “Is that what you wanted him or her to learn from the situation?”
It’s so easy for the parent to think they are “teaching” one thing, while the child is learning something completely different. Taking the time to look at a situation through the child’s eyes gives us a chance to not only better understand our child, but to also understand how they are interpreting the messages we are sending them through our actions.
Are the messages we want to send and the messages they seem to receive, different? If so, it’s time to figure out why and start trying to communicate, i.e. act, in ways that better deliver the message we intend.
So, in this hypothetical situation, how might Jeremy’s mom take this new understanding and better communicate next time? Once she realizes, through her son’s resistance to wearing a sweater, that this is important to him, even if she doesn’t understand why, she can show her trust by dropping her own insistence. The power struggle is avoided and the situation is no longer about their relationship (who can insist longer, who has the power to control whom) and more about the son’s real physical needs–and that’s what the mom likely wanted him to learn about in the first place, how to take care of his physical needs.
And to support him even further in that learning, she can bring the sweater along. That gives him the opportunity to choose to put it on during the walk if he gets uncomfortably cold. Knowing the sweater is available, he is continuously choosing whether or not to put it on during their walk. He gains experience and learns more about what his mom is wanting him to learn–how to take care of his physical needs.
The result? They are both physically comfortable and enjoy the walk, adding another happy and connecting experience that strengthens their relationship and builds their trust in one another.
Taking the time to see things through your child’s eyes is not about giving up your perspective, or judging the child’s perspective right or wrong. It’s about understanding your children better, improving your communication with them, and building a more strongly connected and trusting relationship.
Take that time–it’s worth it!