Reader Question (paraphrased for length):
I recently interacted with a family who are following unschooling principles. The biggest concern I see is the lack of discipline; and that children are not taught manners necessary to act in socially-acceptable ways in others’ homes. How do unschooled children learn manners so they know how to act in society?
I read your books on unschooling, so I think I know what this mother is trying to accomplish. However, she seems to be adopting a “laissez-faire” approach—giving the children carte blanche to act and do whatever comes to mind, with no boundaries, and no guidance, and then using I-messages in an attempt to understand the frustrating situations the child finds himself in.
In your book “Free to Live”, you state “Patience doesn’t mean carte blanche”, and you give the example of a boy’s rude behavior in the playground. You state that parents new to unschooling might misunderstand the principles of unschooling, and believe they should give their children free rein to do whatever they please, whenever they feel like it.
I wish and hope you’d go on to explain how to avoid this pitfall.
Let’s start here:
You state that parents new to unschooling might misunderstand
the principles of unschooling, and believe they should give their children
free rein to do whatever they please, whenever they feel like it.
I wish and hope you’d go on to explain how to avoid this pitfall.
When people first start learning about unschooling it does sometimes happen that, as they look to stop controlling their children, they overcompensate and swing too far in the opposite direction. In an effort to avoid imposing their will, the end up giving their children little feedback or support about the environments in which they find themselves. They are still seeing their relationships from the perspective of “power”, and in trying to give their children more power, they almost completely remove themselves from the equation of any given situation.
It’s important to note that this may just be a step in their journey, part of their exploration of what parenting looks like within the context of unschooling. As they continue to learn about unschooling and observe their children’s behaviour in various contexts, many discover that disconnect and begin to work more effectively with their children, more actively supporting them as they explore and interact with the world-at-large.
If you find a friend in that situation, what can you do to help? It depends on your relationship. Maybe you and she talk about parenting and you can share some suggestions directly about other ways to approach these social situations, ways she can support her children’s needs within the context of the situation. But if she isn’t open to that discussion, she may feel judged and react defensively, which not only isn’t a particularly good mindset for her learning, it may also jeopardize your friendship.
If that’s the case, show her other parenting possibilities by example. As you and your children interact while she’s around, conversationally share a sentence or two about why you did/said what you did in that moment. Or as things come up, share what you’ve done in similar circumstances. Make it about your parenting, not hers. Share bits and pieces of your experiences and let her make the connections. That is where real learning lies. And encourage her to continue learning about unschooling: more bits and pieces to connect to her growing understanding. All this will help her gain a better appreciation of ways to help both her and her children navigate social situations.
Just remember, you can’t control what she chooses to do with all this information. Your concern for her and her family is wonderful, and your suggestions, support and encouragement may be just what she needs and wants. Or not. Maybe her current parenting path is where she’ll choose to stay, at least for now. In the end, it’s her journey to take.
… and then using I-messages in an attempt to understand
the frustrating situations the child finds himself in.
I wanted to talk about this for a moment. I understand the idea behind using I-messages as a tool to help parents move away from using controlling language to manipulate their children’s behaviour. But sometimes I-messages, which encourage us to observe situations from our own perspective and then share that information, can get in the way of seeing things through our children’s eyes. We stop at our perspective.
In my experience, when I stop filtering things through my POV and shift to seeing things from my children’s perspective, I gain a much deeper appreciation of what they are trying to accomplish. And from that place of greater understanding, I can add in my understanding of the other people involved and of the world in general, and share the pieces of the bigger perspective that will help my children the most. Not just how I’m seeing the situation, but also validating how it looks to them, sharing how Grandma sees it, and how they all mesh together. Then I can share my ideas on how we might all get our needs met, and discussion can open up and flow from there.
How do unschooled children learn manners so they know how to act in society?
Unschooling parents actively help their children understand the ins and outs of social situations. It’s about understanding your children individually. Chat with them beforehand about what will be expected of them in the situation, and why. Are they comfortable with it? Can they handle it? Not do you think they should be able to do it, but are they capable? And are they willing? If they don’t understand or won’t likely remember what is expected in a social situation, and if they and/or the parents still want to go, then it will behoove the parents to stay close to their children and actively help them as things arise. And to actively advocate for them where they think some leeway is appropriate.
I’ll give you an example from when my kids were young and we’d visit my husband’s family for Sunday lunch. I’d do what I could to set it up for success. First, I’d chat with my hubby to understand the ins and outs of the expectations. Then I’d talk with my kids beforehand about them, in a conversational way, not in a “you need to do this” kind of way. Because when they weren’t able and/or willing, I’d always step up to help.
For example, on arrival, it was expected that they kids would seek out and say hi to the older relatives—grandparents etc. That’s a pretty socially polite thing to do. But when my kids were younger, understandably that wasn’t something that interested them. I’d mention it at home when we chatted about visiting, explaining the reason behind it: they were excited the grandkids had arrived and wanted a moment to greet them. But on any particular visit, if any of my children felt intimidated or out-of-sorts, I’d happily pick them up and do the talking—both protecting them, and satisfying extended family. They didn’t need to be actively participating to see these social practices playing out. They didn’t need to be “forced” to take part in them when they were uncomfortable to learn them. They took them over when they were ready—it was a pretty seamless process.
Some other ways I helped them navigate the ins and outs of the occasion? I’d bring toys, and play with them, to keep the kids engaged so they enjoyed the time. I’d keep an eye on the lunch prep and let the kids know when it was getting close and that we’d be going to sit at the table to eat. I’d dish up their plates and prep their food so it was easy for them to eat, minimizing frustration at the table. When they were done eating and leaving the table, I would excuse them, asking them if they were full and so on. That way the other adults would know they had my okay to leave (as well as having heard my reason: they were full). Then any frustration the other adults had would be directed at me, not the kids. I was the buffer. And exuding confidence and joy throughout the visit also went a long way. 🙂
As an unschooling parent I want to help my children explore the world, including any social situations they may find themselves in. Just remember, there are not a lot of things we truly “have to” do. But if we want to do them, it’s worth the effort to make them as enjoyable as possible without negatively impacting those around them—because, everything being equal, the children don’t want that either. To figure all that out, they need real information. And someone to bounce it all around with. It takes time and effort, but not only does it help them enjoy the moment, it’s how they gain experience analyzing situations and choosing ways to move through them that they feel good about.
And last, but not least, for those learning about unschooling who may find themselves veering more into hands-off parenting rather than active support, I thought I’d snapshot a couple of situations I’ve seen mentioned lately and share some ideas on how to approach them.
During social visits, children are offered candy and then leave a mess behind them.
Knowing my young children would enjoy the candy but that it’s often a messy affair, and that my hosts wouldn’t appreciate extra cleaning, I’d find a way for both things to happen. When the offer was made I might invite them outside, “Those look delicious! Why don’t we enjoy them outside so we don’t make a mess in the house?” The problem and the solution all in one short sentence. Notice I don’t send them outside, it’s not a punishment. I go with them.
If they aren’t interested in that, maybe I’d offer up a game to play at the kitchen table (like a dice game—something plastic that I could easily wash up when we were done, or a verbal game like twenty questions). Or to watch a short video, sitting on the floor, maybe putting down a plastic tablecloth and going picnic-style, to minimize the mess. At a minimum I’d stay with them and tidy up any pieces of candy that dropped, “Oops, let me put in the garbage so we don’t make a mess.” Again, short and sweet. I’d probably grab a bag to have with me, and it may well become a game, them putting what they’re done with in the bag.
There are many possibilities that would keep everyone happy.
A child is inconsolable when something doesn’t unfold as expected and
the parent works to recreate the situation to match what their child envisioned.
Often people who see this unfold are concerned it will teach the child that every situation should go as they want and that they aren’t learning how to deal with “real life.” The short answer is no, it won’t—unless that’s the motivation with which the mother is approaching it. Sometimes re-enacting a situation really does help a child get unstuck and move through it. I remember doing that with my children sometimes. It does not mean they’ll need to process things this way for the rest of their life. That’s more projection and fear talking.
Sometimes when reality doesn’t unfold the way the child is expecting, it’s profoundly disappointing. And sometimes a re-enactment can help them process it all. It may seem to an outsider that all that is happening is they “get their way,” but it can be a helpful part of the process of learning about themselves. Now they have two memories/experiences to call upon: one where things went the way they were expected, and one where they didn’t—a do-over doesn’t erase the initial experience.
One caveat: don’t expect others to participate. Absolutely some might be willing to help out, but in those moments I was the one trying to help my child explore ways to process the experience at hand; it wasn’t anyone else’s responsibility.
If you like to read more on this general topic of helping your children learn how to navigate social situations, you can check out this post, Unschooling Days: Outside in the World.
And don’t forget to have fun! 🙂