What does out and about in the world look like in an unschooling family?
One of the especially lovely bits of unschooling is being free to head out and explore places when they are significantly less busy—meaning, while the vast majority of kids are in school. But timing isn’t the only thing that often looks different. Have you ever shared a museum visit with kids on a school trip? What a different experience, yes? An unschooling family’s trip to a museum doesn’t look like kids spending X minutes at an exhibit and then being told to move on. Or kneeling on the floor to scribble answers on a worksheet full of only those questions that align with their grade-level curriculum. For unschooling families, going to the museum isn’t called a “field trip” and it looks more like spending as much, or as little, time at each display as wanted—questions that cross their mind blurted out in quick succession, or maybe their face a study in quiet contemplation as they take it all in. To each their own style.
I also notice conventional parents pushing and pulling their kids this way and that, trying earnestly to keep their kids on their adult schedule. “Don’t touch that.” “Come here.” “We have to leave.” “No, you can’t have that.” “Stop whining or we’re going home right now.” “I’m gonna count to three.” You can sympathize with their frustration even while you question the usefulness of their demands.
The difference in family dynamics in unschooling and conventional families can be quite stark. That’s because there are different priorities at work. Unschooling parents work with their children when they are out and about in the world. Let’s look at three less conventional ways we work together as a family.
Briefing and Debriefing
I believe Anne Ohman first introduced me to the idea of briefing and debriefing in this context. The terms don’t describe any particular process, they remind us to talk with our kids. Before going places, let them know what to expect—brief them. Like you would ask your spouse to do before accompanying them to a business dinner. Or a friend to do before meeting up with their extended social group for the first time. Be considerate.
Take a moment to think about the kind of information your children would find useful. Will there be lots of people wherever you’re going or are you guys on your own? Will there be certain scheduled activities (like dinner time at Grandma’s) or are you guys following your own timetable? How negotiable are the scheduled things? If you’re exploring say, a museum, are the exhibits mostly hands off or are kids invited to touch? Is it a place where running is frowned upon or encouraged? Is there a certain time you need to leave and why? And don’t expect that they will remember what you told them last time you visited. Happily and matter-of-factly let them know what’s up today.
The point of helping them understand what’s expected and why in different situations is to help them learn the ins and outs of the world around them. It’s not for parents to have rules to hold up and scold their children when they fall short. You’re sharing good information with them. And while you’re out, help them as best you can to figure out ways they can be comfortable within the environment.
How might you do that? How about an example. I remember trips to the library when my daughter was still looking at books while her younger brother was done and getting antsy. I recall sometimes saying “Your brother’s done, are you okay looking at books on your own while I take him outside to run around? We’ll check back in with you in ten minutes.” If yes, that’s what we did. If no, we’d try come up with another path forward. Maybe she only needed five more minutes and I’d try keeping her brother occupied with a couple more books, or chatting about the posters on the wall etc. Maybe she wanted longer but wanted me close by so we’d keep thinking. Maybe I’d see if her brother wanted to use a library computer for a while, or suggest checking out what we had now, taking her brother home, and then coming back later just the two of us so we could stay as long as she liked—maybe after dinner that night or on the weekend. If we did do that, I’d remember to thank her for leaving earlier than she’d wished. And I’d do my very best to make sure we went back ourselves as soon as possible: follow through on your plans to build and keep their trust in you, or else next time they’ll understandably be less inclined to accommodate others’ needs in the moment.
Then on the drive home, or maybe sometime later that day when things have settled down, check in with them: debrief. Did they have fun? What did they enjoy? What didn’t they like? Leave a quiet and comfortable space in the conversation for them to bring up things they found challenging so you can process them together. If things went awry at any point, chat about what you guys might do next time a similar situation arises. Which leads to my next point.
Match Activities and Personalities
If you let them know what the expectations are for a particular place or event and your child finds them too much, that’s not a failure on anyone’s part. It is what it is for now. Things change over time—this moment doesn’t define forever.
And remember to think outside the box: we’re an inventive bunch and there are all sorts of ways to accomplish things. Let’s say you love eating out but your children find restaurants challenging—maybe the noise or activity level is too much, or they can’t sit still very long at the table and start running around and disturbing other patrons, or maybe they’re louder than the ambient noise level. Yet giving up restaurant dining isn’t your only option; there are so many ways you might accommodate them. Let’s brainstorm a few:
- bring quieter activities to keep them busy—we were never big restaurant people but the odd time we went we’d bring handheld video games to pass the time, I’d keep paper and pencils in my purse to play tic tac toe or hangman, and our mainstay was to play twenty questions while we waited for our food to arrive (we adults would play with them—don’t expect them to occupy themselves);
- choose family-style restaurants so they are less formal and much more accommodating to children, like handing out crayons and activity pages and having a fun kids’ menu;
- during other seasons we’d choose take out so we could eat in the comfort of our own home, maybe setting out a “picnic” with paper plates, or a more formal setup with candles, to make it an event;
- arrange for grandparents or a family friend to stay with the kids (or the kids to visit!) while we dine out.
And I’m sure you can keep going. The point is, there are so many options that we don’t need to put our kids in situations beyond what they can do. Beyond what they want to do—just because they happened to sit quietly through your last restaurant visit doesn’t mean it’s fair for you to now expect them to do it again and again.
Staying Home is Okay Too
With unschooling we talk a lot about exploring the world. But if any of your kids just aren’t interested in going out very often, that’s okay too! That’s another difference with unschooling families. Many conventional parents expect their kids to just tag along and do what they’re told: their children’s chance to explore the world on their terms is when they move out. But unschooling parents want to help their kids figure out the world and how they fit into it now—before they start navigating it on their own. So we work with them to accommodate their wishes as much as we can. Why is that important? Because if that’s what’s on their mind now, that’s what their brain is itching to explore and learn about. If they’d prefer to stay home to continue digging into their activities of choice, more power to them!
What if one wants to go somewhere and another doesn’t? Brainstorm! Can it wait for a time when both parents are available to split up, one home and one out? Or can multiple destinations be combined into one trip to satisfy multiple wishes? If you’d like to explore this further, I wrote in some detail about our brainstorming around visits to the science centre, including when one child wasn’t interested in going, in my post Unschooling and the Power Paradigm.
Remember, staying home is not synonymous with being sheltered—you can bring the world to your kids. It’s even easier now with the internet at your fingertips. Use your google-fu skills to find websites, games, and videos that you think your child would find interesting and share them. Browse library shelves yourself and bring home new books and movies. Hit clearance sales and thrift stores for treasures to share. Just remember to do so without expectations. Even if they don’t dive in for any length of time, you’ve introduced them to another bit of the world that they can explore if and when they become interested. And maybe it’s just a season. Don’t be tempted to permanently define them by their current wish to stay close to home.
And last, but not least, don’t forget to search for things in the world that excite you! Like that really old atlas or dictionary or Candyland game you found at the thrift store. Or that clearance sale popcorn maker. Let them see that engaging with and exploring the world isn’t just for kids.
Live life joyfully together.