Many of us are the lone unschooling family when our families of origin gather for holiday celebrations, birthdays, reunions etc. That is certainly our case, both for visiting my own family and my spouse’s. The choices we’re making as parents are different than those of many others, and sometimes we can feel a bit isolated even in a crowded room. But there are a few things I do to set these visits up for success and I thought I’d share them in light of the holiday season.
First off, things go much more smoothly for me when I remember that I’m choosing to visit, or to invite others over. I don’t have to see anyone. You won’t be arrested or jailed for not visiting with relatives. So right off, it’s my choice. It’s a much better mindset because from that perspective I see opportunity, not obligation. And if I’m choosing to go and hoping to avoid friction, then it’s worth the time and effort for me to set up the visit to be successful.
Because we are doing things differently, we are interesting—or at least a curiosity—so chances are relatives will ask questions. It’s so easy to feel defensive when others ask questions about how we are raising our children; it’s deeply personal. And maybe the questions are meant confrontationally, maybe not. But it works best for me not to get pulled into that quagmire. That’s part of the work I choose to do, to shift past any defensiveness before answering and assume there is honest interest somewhere behind the question.
You may cringe at hearing some version of the same old question, maybe “Are you guys still homeschooling?” Or unschooling. Or whatever words you’ve used in conversation to describe what you’re doing. Even if you feel what they really mean is “have you come to your senses yet?” you don’t need to react with some version of “yes, we are and we will be doing this forever so get used to it.”
There’s no need to draw a line in the sand over personal parenting and educational choices. That can invite argument because it can feel to others that you’re implicitly judging their choices. “It’s working well for us now” is a fine answer that is both truthful and open to the understanding that people and circumstances can change. And without that tone of finality it can, without any direct words at all, help other parents realize that they too can change their minds; if their kids are in school, it might be working well for them now, but people and circumstances can change.
One thing I don’t do in conversation though is invite their opinion about what we’re doing. I love them, but I am choosing to create a different parenting paradigm than their worldview so what kinds of answers would I expect to get? It’s a family gathering, not a parenting conference. I remind myself to not to have any expectation of, or need for, their support. If I have questions, or want in-depth conversation about parenting or learning or education, I wait until I’m in a group of unschoolers, face-to-face or online, because that’s the filter through which I am looking for answers.
I also don’t grouse about my kids, or any parenting challenges in general, because that’s just a question in disguise: family members want to be helpful and will likely volunteer any solutions they see. But again, they’d be coming from a different perspective than what I’m looking for so that experience would just be frustrating for both of us. Not my goal.
And remember, if any conversation starts to feel uncomfortable, feel free to change the subject, or go to the bathroom, or go play with the kids, or take the kids for a walk around the block, or pull out a game and invite others, adults and kids, to play. You aren’t a hostage even if you’re in someone else’s home.
Conversation Starters and Activities on Hand
Questions are great conversation starters and subject changers. But, as I mentioned above, steer clear of topics that you already know you guys have difference of opinion. I wouldn’t walk up to my sister-in-law the teacher and say “Did you see that article online about how homework sucks?” Others can feel attacked just as easily as we can.
Instead, I love to ask questions about their interests, maybe because curiously, many adults I talk to don’t seem to think they have any. I like inviting them to think about themselves. It’s also a great conversation starter with kids because, if interested in chatting, they can talk and talk about their passions. Or they might invite me to play or watch or whatever. I love seeing their eyes light up! And I get to learn more about them.
And not to be subversive or anything, but you’re also introducing them to the world of passions and interests and how fun it can be to immerse yourself in something, not to mention discovering how much you learn along the way: the basis for unschooling. If you can draw them in through doing, maybe one day they might begin to understand where you’re coming from. Or not—you’re just planting a seed.
Also, before you go, take the time to think about who’s going to be there and what they like. It helps you have interesting questions at the ready. You can talk to your kids before you go too. “Hey, remember Grammy showed us that sweater she was knitting last time we saw her, let’s remember to ask her if she’s finished yet.” Or “Aunt Sue loves to be outside, why don’t we invite her to walk to the park down the road?” Or “We’ll probably eat lunch when we get there, but after do you guys want to ask Grandpa to play Crazy Eights? It’s his favourite card game.” Or even the other way sometimes. I’ve called my Mom before we visit, “Hey Mom, the kids are really into Monopoly in this week, if I bring the game do you want to play with us?” If she does, great; if she doesn’t, I can let the kids know ahead of time and we can come up with something else to bring or do during our visit.
Giving everyone a heads up lets them look forward to things, brings to mind things they both enjoy so conversation starts more easily, and even gives them a head start in coming up with a response instead of feeling put on the spot. “I don’t really like Crazy Eights, can we play War? I’ll show you how to play, Grandpa!”
I’d also keep a peripheral eye on what was up with my kids. If I noticed a relative starting a conversation, I’d watch to make sure my kids were comfortable. If not, I wouldn’t leave them to struggle or be quizzed, I’d join them. Maybe for moral support, maybe answering questions for them, maybe changing the topic, or maybe inviting them to join me somewhere else—it was dependent on the situation and on any plans we’d made before we went about how they’d like me to help them out.
Another thing I did when we went to visit relatives was bring toys, games, and/or crafts for my kids, things they would like to play with so they aren’t bored. The point is for them to enjoy the visit too! Depending on who we were visiting, I’d also bring things we could all do together—children and adults. From something as simple as card games like Go Fish, to Bingo, to Monopoly, we’ve enjoyed many games over the years. If the adults are amenable, games can be a great way to spend time together where kids can be kids, the adults can get to know them better, and the pressure of conversation is minimal. And time passes much more joyfully when you’re having fun!
Have a Plan
If things have a habit of going off the rails once the “things” are done and conversations are left to meander and flow and potentially get away from people, understand that and plan for it ahead of time. For example, maybe plan to leave after dinner is done. And say it firmly when you arrive (if you’re asked) so you don’t invite someone to try to coerce or guilt you into staying longer. Set that boundary, or else they’ll continue to try that every time.
And especially when the kids are younger, spend lots of time with the kids. They are learning about navigating relatives too! They need and appreciate your attention and company. The typical “adults in one room, kids in the other” did not seem to work very well. I was often the lone adult hanging with the kids, playing games, having fun, and enjoying wonderful and sincere conversations. And it meant there weren’t kid battles for the adults to complain or yell about. And bonus, they weren’t complaining about my kids. It often worked well. 🙂
A little time and planning before any visit with extended family can go a long way to helping it play out with less frustration and lots more fun. Enjoy!