SELF-AWARENESS AND TRUST IN THEMSELVES
by Pam Laricchia
In my years of experience with unschooling, I’ve come to see some pretty consistent traits that grow when they are steeped in the supportive and engaged lifestyle of unschooling. There are a number of them, but for now, let’s look more closely at two of them: self-awareness and trust in themselves.
One of the striking outcomes of growing up unschooling is our children’s level of self-awareness.
Unschooling parents see great value in actively helping our children become aware of their thoughts, behaviours, and fears. And that awareness helps them understand themselves better—both intellectually and emotionally. We show them, through our words and our actions, that their needs, thoughts, and feelings are important.
Even if we need to slow down so we can pay close attention to their words and body language.
Even if their wishes change widely and often.
Even if we need to be open to shifting gears and figuring out a new path forward.
Even if it stretches our comfort zones.
As unschooling parents, we lead by example, sharing our observations as we strive to, (1) understand why we do the things we do, (2) get comfortable challenging our beliefs, and (3) keep an open mind. Our children see us learning and shifting and growing—it’s something we do throughout our lives.
Conventionally, there’s a yardstick of “normal” actions and behaviours that parents and teachers are subtly trying to guide children toward, often using tools such as judgment and shame. But judgment pours the adult’s expectations deep into the mixture, making it much harder for children to suss out how they feel about the situation, as opposed to how they are “supposed” to feel. Shaming children (and adults) for their seeming shortcomings or mistakes mostly just encourages them to distance themselves from those moments and try to forget them, rather than to understand and learn from them.
Just as giving them the support to explore the world through their interests helps unschooling children cultivate their curiosity, giving them the space and support to explore their inner world helps them better understand how they tick.
What makes them light up? What brings them satisfaction? We all find out together as we help our children follow their curiosity, choose something to do, see how it turns out, and see what they think and feel about it. Many people assume that since unschooling children are choosing what they do, they will always choose easy things. It doesn’t work out that way! They are often challenging themselves, and it continues as they get older. In my experience, young adults who’ve grown up unschooling do not shy away from challenges. They know the delight and gratification that comes from accomplishing a difficult task, and they are, I suspect, more willing to attempt something ambitious because they didn’t grow up being judged negatively when things didn’t work out as expected.
“Didn’t work out as expected” is not just a way of avoiding saying “made a mistake.” When learning is as intricately connected with living as it is with unschooling, it’s hard to imagine an outcome as being definitively “wrong.” If things don’t work out, we celebrate the effort, commiserate over the outcome, help our children process the situation to learn what they can from the experience, and encourage them to try again, or to try something new.
Another thing to consider when supporting our children as they follow their interests is that their choice may be to quit something. And that’s okay. When our overall goal is to help them learn more about themselves (rather than to learn more about a particular thing), choosing to quit fits the bill nicely. Maybe it wasn’t what they were expecting. Maybe their interest has faded. Maybe the atmosphere wasn’t a good fit. Regardless, greater self-awareness is the result.
When they understand themselves reasonably well, they are able to make better choices moving forward. As they evaluate potential choices and opportunities, their assessment of the pros and cons is more accurate, allowing them to seek out activities and work environments that better mesh with their interests and personality. In addition, their awareness of the changing nature of life means they aren’t expecting things to stay the same indefinitely. They are regularly re-evaluating their circumstances, interests, and goals, and feel more free to tweak, or drastically change, their course along the way.
Having grown up in a family that appreciates everyone’s individuality, they also understand that different people have different goals and perspectives, and they bring that awareness with them into their extended relationships with friends and colleagues. They appreciate the value of seeing situations through the eyes of others and working together with them—empathy. They are experienced at digging into situations with differing viewpoints to discover their essence, and brainstorming ways to move forward that meet the goals of both the group and the individuals involved.
Self-awareness is such a valuable skill for day-to-day living. Giving our children the time and space for introspection, and our active support as they process what they discover, is a valuable part of our unschooling work.
Another notable outcome of growing up unschooling is our children’s trust in themselves.
Our understanding of our child grows as our relationship deepens. Their actions make more sense to us as we more clearly their personality, their interests, and how they weave together. Over time, we come to see that, even if we would make different choices in their shoes, their choices make good sense for them. Once that piece firmly clicks into place—that we and our children have our own unique perspective on things; not wrong, just different—our trust in them will deepen. And in time, our children will feel this fundamental paradigm shift to trust through our actions, our attitude, and our words. This seemingly subtle internal shift is a significant moment in our relationships with our children.
As unschooling parents, we want to help our children explore the perspectives that make sense to them. And allowing them to own their experiences is priceless.
To that end, it’s important from time to time to take a moment to check in with ourselves to see if our support is overstepping their needs. In our excitement, we can sometimes inadvertently take over their experience, making it more about us and less about them.
Yes, sometimes it’s nice to surprise them with something we’ve done to help their plans along, but sometimes it’s also good to ask if they’d like our help before we dive in. This is all part of the dance of relationships. It’s not always going to go smoothly, so it’s important to pay attention to the clues. If we look up and find we’re out of step, it’s probably time to regroup. We’re partners—better not to try to lead for too long.
Our children learn the most when we help them accomplish what they want to accomplish. If we push past that into what we want them to do, they will end up learning more about us than about themselves. Turns out, we’ll own that experience, not them. And if this happens regularly, the message we’re sending is that we don’t trust them to figure things out and move through their days.
But if we mostly inhabit the role of partner or facilitator, their experiences are their own. They pursue their interests, make choices, live the results, and incorporate what they learn from those experiences into their lives. They develop a deep trust in themselves that they are capable of making choices and adapting to changing circumstances. And, rather unsurprisingly, they also develop a sense of responsibility for their actions, because they own the experiences.
As unschooling children get older, they already have a lot of life experience to draw on. They’ve made many choices over the years, owned the outcomes, and more than likely encountered quite a few situations where things went unexpectedly. And during it all, they have been given the space they were looking for to discover that they can figure things out. They trust themselves. They have confidence in themselves. And they feel even more confident knowing we have their back.
Bonus, having grown up in a supportive environment where judgment and shame weren’t regularly used to confine their actions to the box of convention, their creativity has survived as well. They can definitely make some pretty creative choices!
And, in my experience, those choices work out a lot more often than my old conventional self would have ever imagined.
First published in The Natural Parent Magazine, Issue 24, Spring 2016.