I would love to hear your take on unschooling in a co-operative circumstance. How much “getting out of the way” and how much instigating would you encourage? I know all kids and families are different but isn’t it just as much our responsibility to teach kids how to work together, respect each other and learn through organized activities?
There are so many facets to this lovely question—I really enjoyed diving into it! To organize my answer a bit, I pulled out four ideas that it touches on and discussed them from an unschooling perspective. Let’s get started!
Idea 1 – how much “getting out of the way” versus “instigating”
First, let’s look at the question of “how much”. That little phrase is so interesting! And it’s so understandable to want to have some guidelines when we are first getting our feet wet with something as unconventional as unschooling. We love to measure things and see how well we’re doing. Yet unschooling really isn’t about external measures, like the number of occasions you steered clear of or instigated activities—it’s about your children’s needs. If you find yourself tempted to look to the clock to measure you involvement with your children by time, or to count questions answered or activities attended outside the home each week, catch yourself, breathe, and look to your children. Are they curious and engaged with life? In good spirits? That’s your measure.
As for the question of “getting out of the way” or “instigating”, your children will let you know how much they would like you to be involved. If they are immersed in an activity, not asking you questions or wanting your help, that’s probably a stay out of the way kind of moment. Yet “getting out of the way” doesn’t mean being uninvolved. When those moments happened, I did my own thing but I stayed nearby, careful to respond to questions or requests quickly so as to help them stay in the flow. I’d unobtrusively bring drinks or food when I thought they might be needed. I would support their intense engagement and learning by not interfering with it.
And then there were other times, moments when they seemed to be between activities, or looking for something new. In those moments I’d mention some things I’d come across recently that I thought they might enjoy until one caught their attention, or inspired another idea of their own. “I found this board game at the yard sale down the street. It looks like fun! Wanna play?” Or “The other day a friend linked to this new website with games I think you’d like. Here, I’ll show you.” Or “Shall we go to the library and look for pirate books?”
If after a few ideas nothing seemed to catch their attention, that was a clue that maybe they were looking for some down time to hang out and be for a while—they don’t always have to be doing. Maybe we’d watch a favourite movie, or do some baking together, or take a walk. I’d look for slower pace activities we could do together that would allow for conversations to blossom, or give them the space for internal processing to happen, whether or not they wanted to actually talk about it. Again, it’s about following their clues.
Idea 2 – looking at the concept of “instigating”
To me, those were (and are) instigating moments—opportunities for me to bring new things into their lives, or to create a comfortable and inviting space to slow down in a world that prizes busyness. I have the feeling though, that most people have a stronger characterization of “instigating”, so let’s dig in a bit deeper.
When it comes to instigating, I think it’s all about your motivation. My handy online thesaurus helps me make this point: the words encouraging and persuading are both synonyms for instigating. Yet the motivations behind encouragement and persuasion can be very different—it’s a subtle, but important, distinction. Important because our motivation influences our actions.
With unschooling in mind, I think of instigating or encouraging as bringing interesting things to their attention: “Cassy, there’s an exhibit of landscape paintings by local artists this month. I know how much you love painting trees—do you want to go on Thursday?” It’s about bringing something to their attention that you sincerely think they might enjoy. That’s an example of the influence you can have in the relationship once you’ve developed yourself as a trustworthy source of information. And in the realm of encouragement and influence, “no, thanks” is always a fine answer. The motivation here is to support Cassy’s interest in painting.
Persuasion isn’t quite so amenable to a connected relationship: “Cassy, there’s an exhibit of landscape paintings by local artists this month. You’ll learn how to paint trees better—you want to improve your painting, right? We’re free Thursday, we’ll go then.” Here there is definitely pressure on Cassy to go. In fact, there’s really no opening to say “no, thanks” without belittling her own interest in painting. The motivation here is to support the parent’s interest in teaching Cassy to paint. And further, if Cassy isn’t interested, when they do go, she’s not likely going to learn much. It’s more likely she’ll be complaining and/or watching the clock to see when she can leave.
Which way better supports Cassy’s real learning? And their relationship?
With unschooling, instigating isn’t about pressuring or coercing your children to do something with an end goal of your own in mind. It’s about bringing something to their attention that you think they might enjoy—their enjoyment is the goal. That’s because we know their learning is rampant when they’re pursuing what interests them.
Once you are adept at reading your children and understanding what they’re up to in the moment, they will give you pretty clear clues as to how involved they’d like you to be throughout the day. Just remember, with unschooling, “instigating” shouldn’t be veiled attempts at “teaching”. Which leads us nicely to the next idea.
Idea 3 – what is meant by “our responsibility to teach kids”
Going back to the idea that the words we use (even in our heads) are important because our thoughts influence our perspective and actions, pay special attention when using the word “teach”. When you catch it in your internal dialog, that’s a clue to dig deeper into those thoughts. To understand unschooling more deeply, it’s important to make the distinction between teaching and learning—they are two completely different acts. We’re interested in our children’s learning.
When we look for our children’s learning in their every day activities, we begin to see the all learning that happens as they go about their day, without any teaching. And it’s real learning, learning that makes sense and is remembered, precisely because it came up naturally. It’s just part of the puzzle of the moment as they strive for their goal—whether that’s building a block tower or playing a board game or reading a video game guide or reorganizing their bedroom.
The other interesting phrase is “our responsibility.” It’s worth taking some time to think about that idea too. Our responsibility to whom? To society? I remember these conversations with myself as I was learning about unschooling! Certainly most parents choosing an unschooling lifestyle for their family aren’t approaching it as an excuse to shirk “our responsibility to raise decent human beings,” though when people first learn about the kinds of things unschoolers do (or don’t do) sometimes it can appear that way—until they understand the principles behind it. As I thought more about this, I realized that I had even higher goals for my parenting than society in general did, which led to the realization that if I focused on the responsibility I felt to my children, in the end I’d more than meet any responsibility I felt to society, and that phrase soon withered out of my vocabulary.
Idea 4 – “work together, respect each other and learn through organized activities”
And finally, let’s take a moment to look at these goals. They sound pretty reasonable, don’t they? Things that many adults do? Yet is teaching really the way to go? Following from idea 3, let’s look at these from the perspective of learning.
How might our children learn these kinds of skills? Through experience. And that’s real learning, learning that makes sense to them because it’s playing out right in front of them, not them being told how to behave beforehand and then trying to remember that in the moment.
Using the “teach kids how to work together” example, they’ll be noticing the other kids’ goals and behaviours, their own feelings surrounding the situation, what their goals are and how they’d like to see things move forward. It’s at that time that information we share about ways to analyze and work through the situation will make sense and be helpful.
It’s a dance that you and your children will get better at as you get to know each other more deeply—they will be open to chat about the situation, to think about how their goals differ and how they are similar, to imagine ways they might all be met, to evaluate how important things are to them, and to think about ways they might choose to compromise. And then there’s the whole negotiating piece, working with the others involved to come up with a plan they are all willing to follow to accomplish the work together. They are gaining experience with skills that will be useful over their lifetime.
The next example given was about teaching kids respect for each other. Think of people you respect. I suspect that respect was not taught or learned—it was earned through behaviour and actions over time. The plea for siblings to “respect each other” seems to parallel appeals for them to “get along”. Earlier this year I wrote an entire talk on this topic alone, A Family of Individuals. LOL! The point is, think about whether respect is really something you can teach.
The last example was about teaching kids to learn through organized activities. Again, that’s a reasonable question for people newer to unschooling. The conventional idea of learning through organized (meaning adult-run) activities is so ingrained in our society that it’s valued above so many other ways of learning. And sure, some kids will enjoy that format—if they are interested in the activity. My kids have certainly enjoyed some organized activities over the years, but it’s not the only way to learn. And it’s not a more important way over any other way. It’s dependent on the child. Again, look to your children.
The first thing to ask yourself is whether it’s an activity they are interested in. Sure, you might encourage your child to try something out because you’re pretty sure they will enjoy it once they go even though right now they are hesitant. But a well-connected relationship allows that to happen without the child feeling undue pressure and it takes time to get there. Watch your child.
Once their interest is established, then it’s a question of whether it’s an environment they enjoy. When we first checked out Michael’s dojo years ago, I mentioned there were other dojos around and if he didn’t enjoy the class, we could try others. Find the environment that works for your child, don’t try to mold your child to fit the environment.
It always comes back to watching and supporting the child, doesn’t it?
This determined support for your child as they explore the world and how they tick blossoms into a strong and well-connected relationship, a deep level of mutual trust and respect, and an incredible amount of learning that no generalized curriculum could envision.
It is the heart of unschooling.