A few months ago in the post “Who Am I and What Makes Me Tick?“, I talked about some of the reasons behind my choice to extend our unschooling beyond academics. There I looked at the “why”; now let’s dig more into the “how”.
The unschooling lifestyle in support of learning life skills is a wonderful dance of everyday living, relationships, and choice:
- The usefulness of these life skills shows up in the everyday living—eating, sleeping, taking care of our bodies, taking care of our stuff, maintaining our environment etc.
- We live with others in both our family and our extended community, so relationships weave through everything.
- And unschooling learning itself, academic or otherwise, boils down to choice. That is where the best learning is because that’s where the person’s thoughts are swirling, where their thinking is leading them: to make this particular choice. They know the motivation behind their choice and are interested in seeing how it plays out, whether it’s to mix the baking soda and vinegar, to use a particular strategy for a boss battle, or to stay awake to watch the rest of the movie.
This learning through the exploration of their environment is not so much about the individual choices themselves but about the process: our children experience the results and then incorporate them into their understanding of themselves and the world. And from that place of deeper understanding they make their next choice. And they gain more experience. And then they make their next choice, and so on. That’s the process of real learning—learning that is understood and remembered because it is meaningful to them.
Yet as parents, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment of each decision because often we envision that the choice they’re wanting to make now, “if we let them”, is the choice they’ll make again and again and again into adulthood. Our fear extrapolates this moment far into the future: “if I let them stay up late and sleep in, they’ll never be able to get up for a job”; “if I let them eat ice cream for breakfast, they’ll never want to eat eggs for breakfast again”; or around last week’s chore topic, “if I let them choose whether to help out around the house, they’ll never help.” (Sandra Dodd has an interesting collection of “if I let” quotes on her website that she’s gathered over the years.)
The choices our children make today as they explore the world aren’t cast in stone moving forward. In fact, one of the interesting things they learn through making choices is that making different choices in the future doesn’t mean they were “wrong” before—maybe they have different goals now, or can see more options, or better predict an outcome. Through this process they gain experience that helps them get better at both analyzing situations and making choices that work out as anticipated more often. They learn a lot more about how the world works this way than through the process of following a rule. They also see how their preferences and goals change over time, and how their choices change accordingly; meaning they learn a lot more about how they work too.
Another interesting shift happens when our children know they are free to make their own choices. Their perspective moves from feeling like they are “getting away with something”, to honestly evaluating their environment, the circumstances in the moment, their goals, their options, and then making what they believe is their best choice in the moment. They take ownership and responsibility for their actions. Yet giving children choices doesn’t mean that the parents are out of the picture; instead of stating a rule, unschooling parents share their experience and perspective so it can be added it to the mix of information being considered.
Two areas of learning life skills often discussed are sleep and food but they boil down to the same idea: exploring living through choices. Some imagine chaos, yet our children also don’t explore in a vacuum—they live with their family and real limitations. There is a family budget for food. There are other people in the family that also want to eat—and sleep. There will be appointments to be kept and activities at certain times that they’ll want to get to. Reality. The big shift for parents is, instead of thinking in terms of limits which shut down exploration and learning, to think in terms of figuring out ways for everyone to meet their needs and goals: help them explore.
There is one bit I’d like to reiterate here from the “tick” post I linked to:
“If you do choose to move to an all-encompassing unschooling lifestyle, as with all unschooling learning, the key is when they’re interested. As their parent, you have an idea how your children tick and can make a good guess at what works for them—they’ve been communicating that information to you since they were born. Don’t overwhelm them with choices they aren’t interested in making. But when they are interested in trying things differently—like a change in their going to sleep routine, or in their eating habits, or in how tidy their room is, or whatever bit of life they are contemplating—be open to letting them explore. That’s when their interest is piqued and their learning is sparked.”
So back to helping them explore. As an example, one reason I hear pretty regularly for set bedtimes isn’t related to the children’s sleep itself, but to the at-home parent looking for a break in the evening. And that’s understandable. Yet a bedtime for the kids isn’t the only possible solution to meet that need. If the children are looking to stay up later and the at-home parent is looking for some quiet time, brainstorm some ideas to try to meet both those needs. Ask the kids for ideas too—that helps them begin to see the scope of considerations beyond themselves.
Maybe the spouse/partner can plan some focused board game time or story time with the kids while the other parent has some quiet time to read or take a walk or whatever they find relaxing and centering. And does it actually need to be in the evening? Maybe they’d enjoy getting up earlier in the morning to have some solitude and space for their projects. Or maybe the at-home parent discovers a rejuvenating activity they can do during the day and the children happily choose to join in—or decide to keep themselves otherwise occupied. Those are just a few ideas but I imagine you get the picture. Try something and if that doesn’t work out try something else.
I know it’s easy to say—”keep trying different things and see how they work out”—but not so easy to do. It is challenging to work things out with real people at cross-purposes. It does take a lot of time to talk with those involved, to do the work to understand our own needs and explain them, to see things from the perspectives of others and empathize with their needs, to brainstorm possible solutions, to try them out and see how things go, and to tweak it by doing the whole process all over again and again. And what works now may not work six months from now—people, children and adults, change.
But in my experience it’s definitely worth the effort, both in terms of the incredible amount of learning about living everyone is doing and in terms of the depth of your relationships.
The connected and trusting relationships that develop over the years are priceless.