Continuing with this month’s theme that unschooling encompasses the whole range of learning that goes into being a person, a human being, let’s look at relationships. Supporting our children as they learn about themselves and explore how they relate to others will help them immensely as they interact more and more with the world.
Note that gaining experience with relationships doesn’t necessarily mean interacting with lots of people. In fact, discovering how many people and relationships they are comfortable managing in their lives at any given time is an integral part of this process. There is no right or wrong answer—it’s part of their personality, their being. They may revel in their time alone, or in spending most of their time in the company of others. They probably have a preference for being home or going out and about on a regular basis. Sometimes they may be looking to expand their connections with others; other times they may be looking to cocoon, to be with their own thoughts. And there’s all points between. No matter, it’s fine. It’s great! Understanding and being comfortable with themselves is what’s important. The number of friends a person has is not a useful measure of a human being.
And not only is this place of comfort with ourselves a wonderful place to be, it’s also from this place that we feel most capable of stretching ourselves, of exploring our boundaries and discovering something new—learning. So, how can we support our children as they explore relationships?
Earlier this month I talked about being a responsive partner to your child in the learning dance of questions and conversations and silences as they piece together their unique picture of the world and how it works. Well, no surprise, we learn about relationships the same way! Help them explore and discover how they like to engage with the world around them.
For example, as you help them pursue their interests, explore different social environments with them: individual; family; small groups; large groups. Find appealing opportunities and offer them—people often gather around shared interests, from local clubs of a handful of people to large-scale conventions. If your child isn’t interested at the time, don’t worry, it’s enough for them to know that these these opportunities exist in the world. Expanding their world doesn’t necessarily mean they have to personally experience everything: pictures of the continent on the other side of the world, or of moon, broaden their understanding and knowledge; as does listening to recordings of bird sounds or ocean waves; as does knowing there are philharmonic orchestra performances and comic book conventions and karate dojos nearby, if and when they’re interested. And they have a lifetime to be interested.
Through this exploration, maybe they discover large groups overwhelm them. Or excite them. Maybe they find them tolerable when the reason for the gathering is near and dear to their heart. Explore one-on-one relationships. If they find another child they’d like to spend more time with, invite them over to visit regularly. Or be willing to take your child to visit them. Or meet them at other places, like a park or a museum, if that works out better.
All the while, conversations will come up. Emotional topics can be challenging, but don’t dodge them. Chat with your child about their relationships: their feelings when things go awry; reasons why their friend might be acting certain ways; how other households and families function. Even if your child strongly prefers the company of his family, opportunities will arise for these kinds of conversations, not only through your family interactions, but also through TV shows, and movies, and books, and online exchanges, and extended family gatherings.
Whatever your child’s preference for relationship connections, large numbers or small, it won’t likely change drastically as they get older, so it’s most useful to help them understand and be comfortable with themselves and gain experience engaging with the world from that perspective. That’s valuable learning. If ever you are feeling unsure, wondering about their social interactions, look to them: are they comfortable with the relationships in their lives? Sure, dig into your thoughts and understand why you are feeling uncomfortable—that’s your learning about yourself. But then shift and see the world through their eyes, and help them explore their thoughts and experiences. Support their learning.
Unschooling parents appreciate the value of supporting our children as they explore relationships. That learning is as valuable as any factual knowledge. Understanding themselves and how they relate with others is knowledge that will help them throughout their lifetime. They will be able to take it into consideration not only in their personal relationships, but in pursuing career and/or job opportunities as well, like choosing compatible work environments, and managing relationships with co-workers.
Relationships are a fundamental piece of the being human puzzle. Conventionally, parents have one way of relating to their friends and colleagues, and another way of relating to their children. The beauty of the relationships developed in unschooling families is that we don’t treat people differently based on their age, so what our children learn about relationships growing up will always be helpful. Certainly the topics we chat about, and the language we use, evolve as they get older, but how we relate to each other as people, honestly and respectfully, doesn’t change—from childhood, through the teenage years, to adulthood. The strong and trusting relationships I’ve developed with my children over the years are a wonderful foundation for their learning—and for our lives—together.