In case you haven’t yet come across the idea of rules versus principles as related to unschooling, here’s a super quick summary. Rules are often used as shortcuts—substitutes for thinking in the moment. “In that situation, always do this.” What to do. On the other hand, principles encourage the discussion and evaluation of a situation: learning and understanding. Why you’d choose to do it. More experience analyzing circumstances. More experience seeing situations from others’ perspectives. More experience brainstorming possible paths forward.
Living by principles sounds pretty logical when real learning—learning that is understood and remembered—is the goal. And not only are these discussions an opportunity to understand each other a bit better, the process minimizes power struggles because the conversations aren’t fraught with “do as you’re told” edicts. The downside? It takes time. But without the stress of rushing the kids through a day dictated by a school schedule and evening homework, you have the time to help them develop this valuable, lifelong skill.
But what if there is an area of life that you’ve already spent a lot of time analyzing and have come to some pretty solid conclusions? What if you have some pretty strong beliefs? These beliefs are truths for you. Your life feels better living this way and you believe your child would be better off living this way too.
It is hard to imagine that your child may not hold the same beliefs as you. That they may not draw the same conclusions as you from a set of facts. Yet it’s true. Your child is not a carbon copy of you—they are a beautifully unique combination of genetic material wired to think their own thoughts.
Certainly when they are younger you have much greater control over their environment, over what comes into your home. You just don’t cook or serve meat. Or you don’t buy processed foods and you do your own baking. Or you go to a place of worship every week. Or you faithfully recycle and bike most places. Or you don’t have a TV. It’s just what your family does.
The turning point comes when your child becomes aware that other options exist. In that moment, you may feel a rising fear of dissent, a fear mired in all those reasons you chose to eschew those options in the first place. Watch how that fear may push you to let your strong principles become rigid rules. Yet fear is not a good motivator for making choices. And rules aren’t a good tool for real learning.
What else might you do? You can choose to share with them information about why you do the things you do. In digestible chunks as it comes up—not in a big, sit-down, “I’m going to convince you why I’m right” talks. Remember, your strong beliefs developed after you were interested enough to dive deeply into the topic, learning and questioning and developing your own understanding. In moments when they are interested, share a bit more information. Not just stuff edited for your view. The surrounding bits too. Real learning.
Let’s play with an example. Maybe you’re staunchly vegetarian. You have your reasons: maybe they’re mostly health-based; maybe they’re based on your thoughts surrounding animal cruelty; maybe you find the texture of meat in general unappealing. Whatever your reason, that’s great!
Yet when your child discovers that some people eat meat, how will you react to their curiosity? Maybe you share briefly why you guys don’t eat it, in language that is appropriate for your child (remember, don’t try to create fear). Maybe that satisfies their curiosity for now. Maybe they ask some more questions and you continue the conversation until they move on.
But supporting their exploration doesn’t mean you need to toss your principles out the window. Take the time to understand your thoughts surrounding the situation. That’s important, not only so that you don’t feel unduly pressured to act contrary to your principles, but also so that you can share your thoughts to help them understand how you came to your conclusion. Then maybe at some point they’re interested in trying some meat. Let’s brainstorm a few ways you might go:
- Maybe you are comfortable picking up some meat at the store, or the farm, next time you’re out and cooking it up, while not eating it yourself. Ask what they might like to try and chat about that;
- Maybe you’re not comfortable buying and/or cooking it, but you’re comfortable with someone else doing it. Maybe your spouse? Maybe your child is old enough to do it? If the smell would bother you, you could go out for a couple hours;
- If that would bother you, maybe you arrange for your child to visit family or friends for a meat-based meal. Or ask someone takes them to a restaurant to try it.
There are many ways to respect your principles while still supporting your child’s wish to explore.
And if, in the end, you choose to place your principles above your child’s exploration and learning, do so mindfully—understand the potential ramifications. From your child’s perspective, there’s a good chance they will, at some point, be drawn to exploring the topic. In fact, by drawing a line in the sand, chances are your child will probably be pretty curious about what’s on the other side. But with your firm stance, they’ll also know they need to do it under your radar. If that happens, you obviously won’t be there to talk with them, nor will they likely feel comfortable coming to you to talk about it after. That may or may not be a biggie. They may or may not resent the fact that you have forbidden a piece of the world. It may put a strain your relationship. They may trust you a bit less. Make the choice mindfully.
And if you choose that path, I’d suggest you try not to react judgmentally if you discover they have been exploring “behind your back”. Remember, your choice set up that paradigm. “You had burgers over at Tom’s house? Did you like them? What did you put on it?” Even if you couldn’t in good conscience have arranged the meal over at Tom’s place, it will do nothing but hurt your relationship to condemn your child for trying the meat (or the cookie, or the TV show) when they were curious and had the opportunity.
And heads up, you might also find yourself in the reverse situation—I know I have! As your children get older, they may hold, or choose to explore, strong beliefs that you don’t personally hold. Maybe they choose to eat vegetarian, or vegan, or want to try out a religion. Do you still support them? I hope so! Is your support lukewarm? I hope not! The world is full of fascinating opportunities and supporting their exploration and learning is golden. You may find that you and your children don’t hold all the same beliefs and principles, but you do share the passion and self-awareness that drives them. Celebrate that.
Being their partner as they discover the person they want to be: priceless.