This month I’m going to delve into some of the lifestyle questions that come up pretty regularly as people learn about unschooling. They are also the ideas that can trip up those newer to unschooling because they are like advanced topics: the journey of unschooling into a lifestyle is more about how, after having seen how wonderfully unschooling supports your children’s more academic learning, you begin to appreciate and pursue the idea of extending that same approach to learning life skills: managing their environment, sleep, food, relationships, money, work etc.
But if you’re newer to unschooling, that doesn’t mean skip this month’s posts! I just want to give you a heads up that these ideas might not make much sense right now, or may seem rather overwhelming. If that’s the case, no worries, just let them pass on by. Maybe say “hmm” to yourself. And then make a note to come back and read them again in, say, three months, or six. You may find they make a lot more sense then.
So, having waved the “proceed with caution” flag, let’s talk about chores. 🙂
One of the basic pieces of this lifestyle puzzle surrounds the more conventional parenting attitude of “us versus them”, of adults expecting their children to believe their parents know best and do what they’re told. With unschooling, we are choosing to not mold our children into our image of a perfect child, but to help them explore and learn about themselves. For that to unfold more smoothly, it helps to imagine yourself as helping them do their work, rather than directing it; to think of everyone as a full member of the family.
That’s a good start, but I’ve also seen that used as a reason to insist children do chores: “You’re a member of this family and this is our house, so you need to do your part to keep it up.” In my experience, the big issue with this stance is that it’s the parent’s standard being used, not the child’s, so the child is understandably resistant.
Let’s dig into that a bit more. As parents, what’s our goal with the whole chore thing? Getting help to meet our living standard? It’s a fair question. Sometimes we do need help. But probably not as often as we think. I think far more often we convince ourselves that we’re asking our children to help us with the goal of teaching them life skills. But from what we already know about learning through unschooling, is teaching a good way to encourage learning?
There seemed to be a disconnect there, so I asked myself more questions. How long does it really take to learn how to clean a toilet? The real answer is, once they want to clean a toilet, less than five minutes. Or vacuum? Ditto. No matter how we rationalize it, chores are really about asking our children help us meet our own standard of living. Hmm …
And then I thought some more. Would me doing the bulk of the upkeep in our home be “spoiling” them? Letting them “get away” with something? Shouldn’t they be “taking responsibility” for our home? As I mulled that over, I eventually came to disagree. In fact, it dawned on me that choosing to do the work myself to meet my own standard of living is a good example for them of taking responsibility.
Huh? Not making them do chores is an example of responsibility? How? Because they know it’s my benchmarks of cleanliness that I’m looking to meet, not theirs. (If it was theirs, they’d be asking me to clean the bathroom. 😉 ) By doing the work myself I’m taking responsibility for fulfilling my own needs. But don’t do it in a vacuum! Appreciate your accomplishments: “Yay! I can see the kitchen table!” Share your intentions: “This weekend I want to tidy the great room.” Let them see the process in action—that’s how they learn.
What this perspective also did was release any expectations I had of others. It was surprisingly freeing! And it better fit with my long-term vision: to support my children as they explore their standards and discover the environment in which they feel most comfortable day-to-day. Real learning about themselves that will benefit them throughout their lifetime.
And without expectations, when I do ask for their help, they can truly choose to help me. Conversely, if they feel I’m expecting their help, saying yes would also mean worrying that it could be used against them in the future (“but you vacuumed last week”). If that’s the case, it’s more likely they’ll say no, even if they have the time and inclination. Without expectations, each moment is its own and everyone has a real choice.
“But the house is still messy! And I’m still frustrated!”
I’m sorry. So now let’s delve into that issue—it’s a different question. 🙂
As parents we can support our own standards in our home without imposing them on everyone else. Remember, we’re looking at all the members of our family as unique individuals of differing ages. Not only will adults and children likely have different barometers for judging their environment, the adults themselves will probably have different needs too. Maybe you like it reasonably tidy, and your partner likes it completely clutter-free. Or vice versa. Maybe your kids are indifferent. So if tidiness is an issue you and your partner are struggling with, first nail down exactly what’s bothering each of you. That’ll help you not only better explain your needs to each other, but also help you narrow in on possible solutions.
Let’s say you start with the general issue, maybe something along the lines of, “I’d like to keep the house clean.” From there you can ask yourself things like, is it really the whole house? Or mostly the family room where you spend most of your time? Or the kitchen? Or the bathrooms? Or the basement? Sure, it’d be nice if house elves kept them all tidy, but which room(s) is it that actually triggers your frustration? Is it mostly the tidiness that bothers you, like clutter? Or is it cleanliness, like dirty walls or dirty dishes? Why does it bother you? Does it trigger your mom’s voice in your head making you feel bad? What is actually “bad” about it? Or does the clutter truly make it hard for you to concentrate?
Once you’ve really nailed what is triggering your general “must keep the house clean” response, then you can dig into that. If it’s the stuff all over the place in the family room, what is that stuff specifically? Maybe all the stuff shows you that your kids are busily and happily playing and exploring: they are learning. Can you walk into the room and see the learning instead of the mess? If the main play room is the first thing you see when you walk into the house and it knocks you off your game immediately, can you maybe move the main play area somewhere else? A more out-of-the-way and rarely used dining room? The basement? Can you think of a way to make your children an awesome play space that will also keep the messes less conspicuous?
Can the current play space be reorganized so that it’s much easier for you to quickly tidy up? A wall of shelving or a set of plastic bins that makes tidying up easier, and maybe a bit more enjoyable. And don’t forget to look at things from your children’s perspectives too: would they be okay with you tidying up their stuff? Maybe what you see as messes is really a wonderful work-in-progress in their imagination and your “tidying” is more like “destroying” in their eyes (which would interfere with their learning). Ask them. Play with them and see how and when the messes grow. More information for you. If they are okay with your tidying up and you do so, are they excited to see a clean play space, a fresh canvas? They are learning about their environment. And you have given them a beautiful gift in that moment.
When you understand more about their needs surrounding play and works-in-progress and a fresh play space, and your real needs for some semblance of tidy in some area(s), it’s a great time to ask everyone for help—work together as a family to brainstorm ideas and figure out a path forward that works for everyone without resorting to control through assigned chores.
In my experience, when I’m tempted to reach for control or coercion as a tool (the conventional go-to answer), it usually means that I haven’t taken the time to understand the other person’s point-of-view (because if I had, I’d understand why they didn’t want to do it in the first place) or I am trying to get them to take care of my needs (it’s something I want, but I don’t want to do the work myself to get there).
As you talk with your family here and there about your needs (the real ones, the ones that go deeper than “keep the house clean”, which to them would seem a vague and gargantuan task) remember, you’re not trying to come up with expectations that you’ll hold them to. Show, don’t tell. If you guys decide to add shelving and bins to make tidying up easier, you’ve made it easier for those who want to tidy up to do so. Maybe that’s just you and your partner right now. And a tip: don’t be grumpy about it! Who would want to join in, or initiate, an activity that makes people grumpy and/or that others seem to avoid as long as possible?
“There are a lot of toys on the floor and I’m finding it distracting. Are you guys finished playing with these stuffed animals over here? Is it okay if I put them back in their box?” Lead by example: let them see you taking care of your needs. With that perspective and attitude, they won’t develop a sense of entitlement, an expectation that you’ll do everything for them, because they’ll know you’re not doing it for them, you’re doing it for you.
And sometime, maybe later when it’s no longer a charged issue, you’ll enjoy surprising them with a clean slate. Or they may excitedly ask you to do it, or to help them. They’ll see you as choosing to do it, not as you fulfilling an expectation of theirs. You’re helping them discover the joy of a tidy space. Which, if they do find it enjoyable, will naturally motivate them at some point to do it for themselves, to meet their own needs. Real learning.
And in my experience, once the topic is no longer a battleground, they’ll happily choose to help you out when they can too. Living and learning together. 🙂