LIVING AND LEARNING WITHOUT SHAME
by Pam Laricchia
Have you found yourself in similar circumstances?
You walk into the family room and find your child building a tower with the set of base-10 math blocks you bought recently and your first thought is, “that’s not how you’re supposed to use them.”
Or you walk into the play room and find the ball of yarn you picked up to show your child how to spool knit, unravelled and strung around the room as a giant spider web. Your vision of cuddling on the couch and knitting together crumbles as you think, “yarn isn’t a toy!”
As unschooling parents we actively encourage our children’s learning, yet it can be challenging to remain supportive when their actions don’t align with our expectations. In those moments, often our first impulse is to explain to them in no uncertain terms why their choice was wrong.
That’s not surprising. Many, if not most, of us were steeped in this culture of judgement throughout our childhood. Our answers to questions were either right or wrong. The way we did things was either right or wrong. The way we behaved was either right or wrong. We received praise for being right, and were shamed for being wrong.
Shame is powerful, isn’t it? It’s an effective training tool—if training is your goal. Conventional schooling and parenting continue to use it to their advantage. And the result?
Here’s how Ken Robinson described it in his 2006 TED Talk, How schools kill creativity:
“Kids aren’t frightened of being wrong. Now, I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.”Ken Robinson
Young children ooze creativity but most have been judged and shamed enough times that, as adults, they actively avoid suggesting anything new, anything different, in both their work and personal lives. Fear of being judged negatively has sapped their ability to think creatively.
But what if training your child to conventional norms isn’t your goal? With unschooling, we aren’t looking to ingrain a fear of being wrong in our children. Instead, we aim to cultivate a sense of exploration, a joy in learning and in discovering new-to-them things. We understand that there will be times when things go unexpectedly—most times a much more accurate descriptor than “wrong.” And that these moments are ripe for learning. Learning instead of fear.
It makes sense, but still, it can be hard to remember when we see our children in action and our first thought is, “they’re doing it wrong.” Our instinct is to show them the “right” way to do it. However it’s worth the effort to try to catch ourselves in that moment and choose to give our children the space to figure things out their way. By that I don’t mean be uninvolved. I mean don’t direct. Give them the time to explore things for themselves without always being given “the answer.” That’s real learning.
Still, you might be wondering why it’s such a big deal to pay attention to when you step in. And really, the answer is situational, as is so often the case with unschooling. One could argue the child may be interested in knowing how something is typically used or done. And yes, that is great information to share with them. But not until they have satisfied their own curiosity and freely followed the questions that came to mind.
If we do jump in while they are still actively engaged in the puzzle, they will likely feel silly for not yet having thought of our more experienced idea. And they’ll feel even worse if we tease or shame them about it. If we do it regularly, the message they’ll probably internalize is that they aren’t capable of figuring things out for themselves. And once they believe that, they’ll just want to be shown things, to be given the answer. While there is some learning in that—or at least memorizing—there is often little understanding. They won’t know why something is that way, they’ll just know that it is. Their curiosity will dwindle. Their creativity will atrophy.
Yet if they ask for your input or help, by all means, do that! When they ask, they are showing you that they’re open to other ideas and ready to move on, so give them a hand.
And there’s another really interesting link between unschooling and cultivating creativity: making connections.
In a 1996 interview in WIRED magazine, Steve Jobs, the creative visionary behind Apple Computer and the mobile computer revolution, shared this insight about creativity:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity.”Steve Jobs
His understanding that creativity is just about connecting things dovetails beautifully with the essence of unschooling, where following their curiosity wherever it leads is encouraged. Our children’s learning and creativity blossom as they build their own unique web of learning connections that grows far beyond the discrete and linear curriculum path of school.
His observation that creative people have had more experiences, and thought more about them aligns closely with the unschooling lifestyle as well. Unschooling children have lots of experiences. Not only do they avoid being secluded inside a classroom for thirty plus hours a week, but their parents actively support their exploration of the real world through their interests and passions. Unschooling children also have time to contemplate their experiences, to roll them around in their mind and discover interesting connections.
And he’s right, it’s rare. Growing up in an unschooling family is rare. But it’s a beautiful and creative lifestyle where living and learning weave together and connect in spectacular ways, beyond the fear of judgement and shame.
First published in The Natural Parent Magazine, Issue 17, Summer 2014.