As unschooling parents, our intuition at first and our experience soon after, shows us that our children’s best learning happens when it’s part and parcel of pursuing interesting things in their lives. That’s when it has meaning to them and they are motivated to try to figure it out.
Why? Because people are unique. And just as a one-size fits all curriculum doesn’t provide the tailored body of knowledge and skills more useful to a particular individual, trying to fit a model character onto everyone ignores that uniqueness as well. As we support them exploring the world to find what fascinates them, we can also support them digging into themselves to find what drives them. Help them discover the kind of person they want to be.
Across North America certainly, character education has become part of the curriculum, trying to teach character traits like respect, responsibility, self-discipline, caring, trustworthiness, fairness, honesty, courage, sportsmanship, citizenship and positive attitude. One of the issues with that is described by John Holt, in How Children Fail:
“Teachers and schools tend to mistake good behavior for good character. What they prize is docility, suggestibility, the child who will do what he is told; or even better, the child who will do what is wanted without even having to be told. They value most in children what children least value in themselves. Small wonder that their effort to build character is such a failure; they don’t know it when they see it.”
It’s another instance of adults trying to mold children into their singular vision of the perfect person. The problem is what they often mean is perfect for the adult and for the current situation. They value what makes their life easiest in the moment. That isn’t surprising though, is it? We parents can find ourselves doing this too. And is it weird that what just jumped into my mind was a quote from JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire?
“Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”
Thanks, Dumbledore! Okay, maybe that’s a little melodramatic. But it’s about character, isn’t it? If you find yourself more often making the easy parenting choice, maybe ask yourself if you’re giving it your best effort. And this John Holt gem bears repeating: “they don’t know it when they see it”. That’s a good reminder for us parents as well.
Instead of trying to mold our children from the outside, unschooling parents work from the inside, helping their children discover what works best for them. We celebrate the fact that people are different, that we are each a unique combination of personality and character and interests. It’s from that place of understanding that we help our children explore the world, and themselves, and find how they most comfortably fit together.
So what does it look like when we extend the unschooling learning philosophy beyond academics and into character? Character is the set of qualities, or traits, that make up a person, especially the person’s qualities of mind and feeling. Instead of teaching these traits, we give them the space and support to learn about them through living.
There are plenty of situations that arise that involve real choices about character—no need to make them up. And as unschooling parents we are involved in their lives, helping them process these situations, helping them see the different ways they can choose to act and react, helping them figure out the kind of person they want to be. And by living openly alongside them, we are showing them that learning and growing and moving towards being the person you want to be is a lifetime activity. It’s part of being human. I am growing and stretching and challenging myself regularly, in character as well as in knowledge: the self-discipline of writing weekly for this blog is one small example. 🙂
The need for, or usefulness of, positive character traits will come up in everyday situations, just like the need for and usefulness of other skills such as reading and writing comes up in life, as we talked about last month. The key, as always, is to support our children, not try to direct them. Help them discover why certain traits are helpful; don’t demand that they exhibit them.
Let’s dig into a trait as an example. One situation that often challenges parents is joining activities; or more precisely, quitting activities. You’ve probably heard some version of this parenting argument: “She needs to finish what she starts. She needs to learn self-discipline and responsibility. If we don’t insist she finish, she’ll just give up any time something comes along that is hard or she doesn’t like.”
First off, I find the idea of “teaching self-discipline” an oxymoron: self-discipline can’t be imposed from the outside because it’s all about internal motivation. But leaving that aside, if as a parent you force your child to finish out whatever activity you feel they’ve committed to—for example, a series of lessons you’ve signed them up for—are they really learning self-discipline?
Put yourself in the child’s place. What might you be thinking about, and hence learning, if you’re told you have to finish that series of lessons you signed up for? The next few times you go you’re probably thinking this is a waste of time, you could be doing X, Y or Z instead. Or maybe your distaste for the subject begins to grow to loathing proportions and you swear you’ll never pick up a paintbrush again (or baseball bat, or swimsuit etc.). Or maybe you vow to never sign up for anything else again! Maybe eventually all three. I imagine that self-discipline wouldn’t really be on your radar at all. But you’re likely soured on that activity, and maybe on exploring any activity in this fashion.
Instead of trying to teach them self-discipline, help your children find ways to develop it. At one point they had the motivation and self-discipline to keep pulling themselves up and trying to walk, again and again, for example. When we have a personal goal, we’ll discover how much of our time and effort we’re willing to invest to achieve it. That’s one of the wonderful things about unschooling: our children are encouraged to find those things they are truly interested in, to find those audacious goals that they want to reach. That, more than anything else, helps them develop self-discipline.
Has your child ever gotten frustrated trying to do something yet still continued to attempt it? A cartwheel? A drawing? A video game level? They are developing the ability to motivate themselves right there: they are continuing to pursue something despite the challenges they are facing. Those experiences show them the connection between effort and reward. And their self-discipline grows as their interests expand and the distance between effort and reward gradually gets larger. You don’t have to teach this stuff, life is full of it. Instead, do your best not to short-circuit it.
I still remember the late afternoon that stretched into dinner time when I instead stayed at the pool watching my determined daughter practice diving over and over (and over) until she was comfortable she had it. Celebrate those times when their determination and self-discipline is just a joy to watch in action. See those moments, not a late dinner. Remember them.
Same goes for the other traits that make up an individual’s unique galaxy of character. By experiencing real reasons, in their real life, to explore and develop these traits, children understand them better than through any lessons about character others try to teach them. And as a result of this exploration, and the support of their parents during it, unschooling children are often quite knowledgeable about themselves, their strengths and their weaknesses.
Watch your children in action. They are pretty incredible, aren’t they? Continue to figure out ways you can support and help them as they explore themselves and the world. That’s raising children.