I’d like to dig more deeply into something I mentioned last week when I talked about dropping the prevalent “adults versus children” attitude and the power struggles that ensue:
This can be thought of as us adults handing more power over to our children. And though that image is a step closer, it still leaves us with an image of “us and them”; just with the tweak that we’re looking to balance the power between the adults and children in the family. That can be tricky to implement though, and sometimes parents can overcompensate.
When we first realize that using our inherent power as adults to control our children interferes with both their learning and our relationships, often our reaction is to pull back. It’s a very understandable response, and a great first step.
What can happen though, if parents pull back hard and stay there, is they often end up ignoring their own needs in favour of their children’s. After a while that can lead to feelings of martyrdom, which can lead to expectations that at some point their sacrifice will be acknowledged, and possibly bitterness when that doesn’t happen. “I give and give and I don’t think I can give any more.” Burn out.
Or, for parents still caught up in the notion of “us and them” but trying to maintain a sense of balance, life can get overwhelming. Balancing power is like trying to balance a teeter-totter: it’s just damn hard. Why? Because when power is a factor, it can lead to decisions that seem random and inexplicable. Decisions become focused around an arbitrary fulcrum point, instead of on everyone’s needs. “Why did you let me do that last week, and not this week?” “Well, last week you got do all sorts of things you wanted to do, so this week I’d like to choose some stuff.” When decisions are based on someone’s arbitrary view of “balance”, the people involved can feel wronged and discussions can go on and on without resolution. There is almost always a “but” to be added. Parenting becomes more intense and challenging than it needs to be. Burn out.
What’s my point? Dropping the “us and them” paradigm not only better supports unschooling and long-term family relationships, it also makes parenting a less contentious and more rewarding endeavour. But at the same time, it’s important that parents express their needs too. It’s important that everyone’s needs are considered.
It’s easy to say (well, relatively—it’s taken me about 400 words to get here!) but not so easy to do. It takes experience. It takes understanding each other’s needs and personalities. It takes trust. And all those things take time to develop. But keep trying. Everyone in the family will get better at it over time.
It can feel a bit scary at first, bringing our needs into the discussion. Maybe this is something new to you because as a kid (or adult!) you were never asked to verbalize them. Maybe you’re worried you’re asking for too much. Maybe you’ve heard the reminder to “say yes” more and you’re worried you’re not being supportive enough of your kids’ needs. But don’t wait until you think you have yourself all figured out before saying something—nobody is perfect at this. But that’s the great thing about doing it as a family: you’ll get feedback. You’ll give feedback. You’re all working together.
What kind of internal work can we as parents do to help the process along? Take the time to ensure we bring real needs to the table. Not whims, or wishes, or whatevers, but real needs. If you’re quite sure the request in front of you needs a “not right now” answer because you really need to eat something immediately or else your frustration will spill over, do it. Explain that. And go eat something right now. And see how that works out. Remember, a “no” in this moment doesn’t mean that every time for the foreseeable future that you feel hungry you need to say no. And if you say you need to do something right now and then you don’t end up doing it right now, that’s a clue to reconsider next time.
Examine and evaluate your needs. Evaluate if fulfilling them helped. Tweak them. That examination also helps ensure that power does not sneak into the equation—watch out for self-talk like “I’m the adult; I should be able to do XX.” This process is where you’ll find those leftover unexamined beliefs you were handed. Watch out for words like “should” and “have to”. Maybe they are true for you, maybe they aren’t. But until you examine them, you won’t know. And, bonus, once you examine them, you can explain them to others if you decide they are a real need of yours, at least in this moment. That builds trust.
It’s interesting to note that kids usually have much less work to do in this department because they haven’t had a childhood full of “you can do that when you’re an adult” situations handed to them. They are already pretty good at expressing what they are sincerely interested in doing.
Beyond burn out, what else can happen if parents ignore their own needs? I think we’re doing our kids a disservice if we don’t show them that others may have differing perspectives or needs; that it’s worthwhile to take the time to consider the needs of others involved in a situation and find an inclusive path forward. And that path can look different each time, even with the same people—remember the science centre example from last week? This effort helps build strong and trusting relationships. And it’s a wonderful skill to develop. In fact, from conversations with my young adult children, this seems to be one of the more prevalent social skills that’s lacking as they meet more and more people out and about in the world: many people seem unable to understand the impact their choices have on those around them.
What else? If a parent chooses not to express their needs, their children may interpret those actions as “the way to make the people I love happy is to ignore my needs and satisfy theirs” and bring that attitude to their future relationships. That might not work out very well for them.
But adding our needs doesn’t mean we have to be dogmatic about it. We can express our needs and choose to gift our kids with extra attention, extra supplies, extra anything. Expressing our needs helps them understand when we’re going above and beyond so it doesn’t become an expectation.
Not just “yes”, but “I’m tired, but I know how much you’d like me to watch that show with you. I’ll do my best to stay awake!”
Not just “yes”, but “I bet you’ll have so much fun with that toy! I’ll help you pay for it out of my fun money.”
Not only are kids learning to trust that their parents will help them meet their needs, parents are learning to trust their kids too. Trust that their kids will only ask for what they really feel they need. This allows parents to be more comfortable stretching themselves, going above and beyond to meet their kids’ real needs, trusting that there will be time to satisfy their own needs as well.
And you’ll get better at it with experience. You’ll get better at understanding the motivations behind their requests to do things, helping you feel more motivated to support them. You’ll get better at understanding your own real limitations, helping you take better care of yourself, and to push through when you’re more restless than tired. You’ll have a better grasp on which tools help both you and your kids move more smoothly through frustration.
Over time, you will all get to know each other better, your relationships will get stronger and the trust between you will grow. All those things will help make the “figuring out a path forward” moments go more smoothly.
The great thing is that envisioning your family as a wonderful team with the power of everyone in the family behind it, actually helps remind you to bring your needs to the table: you’re part of the team. It helps us remember to consider everyone’s needs. And that helps us develop the strong relationships and trust with our children that are the foundation of a thriving unschooling home.