This post is part of a series delving into “Mainstream Mantras,” peeling back the layers to discover where they go awry.
I imagine most of us heard some version of this growing up. It was a kind of threat—that “something to do” was something your parent was sure you wouldn’t want to do, a household chore like tidying up your room or cleaning the bathroom. The underlying message was received loud and clear: keep yourself busy.
Even now, when a parent sees a child “just” hanging around they’ll often comment, “Nothing to do? I’ll find you something.” The child likely replies, “No, I’m busy,” and goes to their room to find something to do, or to at least appear to be busy (out of sight, out of mind), whatever they were thinking about chased out of their head.
Why is busyness prized?
Our society prizes productivity—something to show for the time we spend awake, no matter our age. Parents have work; children have school. On top of that, parents want their children to succeed in life, and typically success to parents means college. Getting into college means good grades at school and lots of extracurricular activities, to show you are “well-rounded.” Not to mention, parents look uncaring to their friends if they don’t get their kids involved in extra-curricular activities.
Being busy is a badge of honour in our society: if you’re not busy, you’re lazy. Parents share their schedules, trying to one-up each other: “Between hockey practice and games for Bill, and dance classes and girl guides for Robin, the only night we’re home is Sunday. Which we spend helping them with their homework and getting organized for the next week.” To which the reply may well be, “Nice! I wish we had Sunday off!”
This highly scheduled life is what most children live so it probably shouldn’t have been so surprising to me that, as young a teen, the typical response my daughter received when acquaintances found out she didn’t go to school was, “You don’t go to school? What do you do all day? Aren’t you bored?” They were so used to being told what to do they had a hard time imagining anything else.
Have an interest? Take lessons!
Another contributor to the world of busyness is that many parents see organized lessons as the only way to pursue an interest. Their child loves video games? Programming camp! Dances around the house? Dance lessons. Loves to sing along with the radio? Singing lessons. Enjoys kicking the ball around? Soccer league. And so it goes. If a child expresses any interest in something, parents immediately jump to lessons.
Dancing around the house and singing to the radio don’t count as a productive use of time. There’s no teacher around, so what could they be learning? Yet unschooling parents understand that their children are learning a lot through their own exploration. In fact, the learning found by following their own unique path of connections through a topic is often stronger than the learning found by following a generic curriculum path.
So though organized lessons and sports leagues give parents “proof” that their children are learning and busy, they also have a couple of downsides. When a child’s keen interest in something is turned over to formal lessons and competition, the child loses control over the activity. Their excitement may quickly fade as their interest is co-opted by the mundane routine of organization—practices on Wednesday and games on Saturday; work on this piece of music this week. The joy of play is replaced by resistance to practice.
Another downside is that all these organized extra-curricular activities have left children little time for free play. Okay, a lot of parents might call that an upside: “they are safe, being watched over by an adult”; “it keeps them out of trouble.” But there is an incredible amount of learning to be found in free play. Peter Gray is a strong advocate of play which, in his book Free to Learn, he defines as “nature’s way of teaching children how to solve their own problems, control their impulses, modulate their emotions, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences, and get along with others as equals.” Unschoolers see that definition in action every day. (I wrote a review of Peter’s book in this issue of my newsletter, if you’d like to read more.)
That’s not to say organized activities are “bad.” I don’t think they’re very useful for a child when the main goal is to be busy, but they can be a wonderful experience when it’s the child’s choice. Choice is key. If they want to participate, if they are enjoying themselves, that’s great! If they want to quit, that’s okay too. Talk with them. Help them explore not only their interests, but also how those interests fit into their lives. Happily, unschooling families don’t have the time commitments of a school schedule, so they have a lot more time to play around with.
Time to think.
So if the goal is busy, then “not busy” is the adversary. Yet “not busy” is really the only time we get to think, to process, to contemplate. The challenge is that we have nothing to show others for the time investment, no proof of accomplishment. And besides, society imagines, what does a child really have to think about?
Newer unschooling parents often do a lot of soul-searching work to be comfortable living without conventional proof of their children’s “accomplishments” to share, and as part of that journey they gain a lot of respect for the process of thinking—for the time that it takes and the space that it needs. Contemplation and introspection are an integral part of the learning process, even though they can’t be measured or tested. It’s how the bigger picture of life comes together. It’s in those times that connections are found between seemingly disparate bits of life, illuminating them both a bit more. It’s how people, children and adults alike, figure out who they are, and who they want to be.
Yet time to think doesn’t necessarily mean sitting still in silence. In my family it’s looked like many afternoons spent on the swing in our yard, or wandering through the forest. It’s looked like the soothing and repetitive nature of a video game, building experience encounter by encounter by encounter, or a marathon of a well-loved TV show. Sometimes it leads to conversations as they share their questions or their insights. Sometimes not. Sometimes its preciously theirs and theirs alone. And that’s okay, it doesn’t need to be measured.
Life needn’t always be about the doing.
The time to think and to wonder and to be is a valuable piece to the puzzle of a life well-lived, at every age.