There are discussions from time to time on whether the term unschooling is applicable for children younger than school age. Granted, in some countries school entry age is getting younger and younger, not to mention the assumption that children will attend preschool. Yet if pressed, I tend to fall in the “it’s unschooling when your child is compulsory school age and you choose to instead create your own learning environment for them based at home” camp, though it doesn’t bother me when people use it in conversation with me because I know what they mean. That said, it can be confusing for people new to the idea unschooling—you don’t need to choose your child’s style of education soon after birth—so I tend to stick with the “compulsory school age” threshold, especially since nowadays there’s a pretty reasonable term available that I think pretty closely describes the kind of parenting implied by unschooling for young ones: attachment parenting.
Attachment parenting, a term coined by Dr. Sears, focuses on nurturing the connection between parent and child. From his website:
“A close attachment after birth and beyond allows the natural, biological attachment-promoting behaviors of the infant and the intuitive, biological, care-giving qualities of the mother to come together. Both members of this biological pair get off to the right start at a time when the infant is most needy and the mother is most ready to nurture. Bonding is a series of steps in your lifelong growing together with your child.”
This parenting style not only supports the development of a wonderful relationship with your child, it also encourages parents to discover and learn things about themselves and their children that will facilitate a reasonably smooth transition to unschooling, should they choose to take that route. Let’s talk about three of those ways.
1) Developing this bond leads to a strong and connected relationship with your child and that relationship is fundamental to a nurturing unschooling environment. You play with them, you answer oodles of questions, you show them things you think they’ll enjoy, you hug them when they’re sad, you help them when they’re angry, you feed them when they’re hungry, and you probably feel like you’re constantly changing their diapers and clothes. In other words, you live life alongside them. You’re responsive to their needs. Every time you help them meet their needs, you’re building a more connected relationship. They are comfortable coming to you for help. You become their trusted guide to the world around them.
2) Another aspect of this lifestyle, taking signals from your child about their needs (versus requiring them to fit into your expectations and schedule) also leads smoothly into the unschooling mindset. This is a bit different than all the connecting you’re doing above; it’s more about getting comfortable with your child following their interests. Each time you see your child expressing and then satisfying a need, with or without your help, you see the connection between them. Through your observations over time, you realize that their needs aren’t arbitrary or random: there’s a real internal motivation behind them. That experience builds trust that inspires you to help them meet their needs, even when you don’t yet know what the motivation is. Unschooling at its finest.
3) Yet another benefit of this style of parenting young children is that you are observing and helping them all the time. That means you see their learning in action. Whether it’s learning to turn over, or crawl, or walk, or talk, or eat, or reach the doorknob, or pick up a toy, or any of the the incredible number of other things they learn in their first few years, you are awed by their determination to do whatever they set their mind to. As John Holt wrote in How Children Learn, “Fish swim, birds fly; man thinks and learns.” It’s another unschooling principle brought to life: people are wired to learn, and the best learning happens when they are interested and engaged in an activity.
There’s another reason I would encourage parents of young children to think in terms of parenting rather than unschooling: so they don’t put more pressure on themselves. Being a parent of young children is time-consuming and often physically exhausting—I remember when I had three children ages five and under. You are their capable emissary to the world, helping them meet the many needs they can’t yet fulfill on their own while supporting them as they try so determinedly to learn how to meet them themselves. If on top of all that parenting you add expectations about unschooling, it can get overwhelming.
Absolutely, if you’re interested and curious, read and learn about unschooling. You’ll find lots of ideas that will support your attachment parenting lifestyle, inspire your days, and likely excite you with thoughts about what the future holds. But feel free to remind yourself that right now, with your young children, you’re “just parenting”. And the great thing about attachment parenting is, if you do end up choosing unschooling for your child’s learning environment, there won’t be any difference in what your days look like before and after your child’s “first day of compulsory schooling.”
It’s living our lives together as a family.