When we get past the first impressions of unschooling as “crazy,”often the next stage is seeing it as almost utopian. What a wonderful way of life for our children: diving into what interests them; enthusiastic yeses to their requests as often as feasible; strong and connected family relationships where their voice is heard and fully considered etc.
And it is wonderful! But does it mean their life is perfect? Not by any stretch of the imagination.
As we spend more and more time with unschooling we begin to see it more clearly for what it is: life. Real life, with all its twists and turns and ups and downs. As unschooling parents we do our best to help our children’s lives align as closely as possible to their goals and aspirations, but as they get older it inevitably dawns on us that things aren’t always within our control.
Let’s explore one such question I’ve seen come up pretty regularly in the lives of unschooling kids over the years: finding friends.
It can be challenging to support our children as they explore ways to work through these realities. We don’t like to see our children sad or upset. We wish we could fix it for them, or somehow convince them not to be sad about it, but reality has its own timetable. And looking back, we come to realize that the skills our children learn as we help them explore ways to approach these kinds of situations help them better weather the storm the next time it happens, and the next.
On the topic of finding friends, there are three things I’d encourage you to consider before you dive into conversations with your children.
First, if you find yourself ruminating about your children and the quantity/quality of their friendships, first check that it’s a concern of theirs, not just of yours. Sometimes unschooling kids are happily immersed in their world, maybe with a couple of siblings, maybe with a friend they see irregularly. If the concern is specifically yours, that’s a whole different conversation. For our purposes here, let’s assume it’s the child who is wishing to find more friends.
Next, let’s take a moment to note that this question is unrelated to conventional society’s ongoing concern with socialization and home/unschooling. There’s a big difference between socialization and being social; between “acquiring the social skills appropriate to their social position” (dictionary.com) and hanging out with friends. Unschooling parents are pretty quickly comfortable with the idea that school is not a great place to learn social skills. But might it be a good place to find friends? Maybe.
Yet one thing’s pretty certain: if you mention to a more conventional friend or family member that your child has been wanting to find more friends, in my experience, the most likely suggestion you’re going to get is to send them to school—along with a helping of guilt that you’ve been depriving them of friends up to this point by keeping them home. Heck, that may be where your mind goes first too! And that’s not very surprising—we’ve been well-trained. (This is as good a time as any to remind you that even if you think you “finished” deschooling long ago, I can almost guarantee that as new situations arise over the years you will excavate more pockets of conventional thinking to be examined. Or maybe I’m the only one?)
And that brings us to the third thing to contemplate: Is this really an unschooling question? Or is it a human question?
Think back to your days in school. Did you have a lot of friends? How many close friendships? Did you feel connected to the kids around you? Did you have much time to be social during school hours?
In reality, many school kids are lonely too. If school is “the answer” to the question of finding friends, how can that be? It doesn’t make sense. Our experience—and even the conventional stories told through books and TV shows and movies—tell us that having lots of kids around in no way guarantees solid friendships will develop.
Friendships are about connections, about finding common ground. At school, kids are gathered through shared geography and lumped together in classrooms by age. There’s definitely a concentration of kids! Yet living in the same neighbourhood is a pretty weak connection upon which to build a friendship. Shared interests can definitely be a stronger starting point, yet still maybe a deeper friendship develops, maybe not.
When our children express a wish to find friends we can do our best to help them pursue their desire for more connections. We can brainstorm ideas for finding and making connections (what group activities relate to their interests?). We can support them emotionally by commiserating with them about the mismatch between their reality and their vision surrounding friends. We can support them physically by inviting people into our homes (host a gaming day, a lego party etc) and driving our children places (is it really “too far”?). We can do our best to create an abundance of possibilities, but we can’t control the outcomes.
We can encourage them to be open to other ways connect with people, ways that may not be their first choice, but that may surprise them if they give them a shot, like online communities or conventions. We really can’t predict where or when a connection might spark. We can validate, and yet accept, their disappointment. If we react too deeply, if we take on their sadness as our own, we risk sending the message this disappointment is a bad thing, a failure. No. Life is disappointing sometimes. Shit happens. We can keep going.
We can share our stories. I have a few close friends that I initially connected with through unschooling, while others remain lovely acquaintances. In contrast, the friends I had in school dropped away quickly once we left school: we didn’t have enough connections outside of school to sustain the relationships. That’s all okay—that’s life. My daughter has made friends through girl guides, through volunteering, and through her interest in photography. Some have faded, others have blossomed. My son has a great group of friends right now at his dojo. But over the years one thing we’ve discovered is that the friendships we make aren’t always in sync with our desire for friendship.
Seeing that bigger picture, that ebb and flow over the years, helps us and our children be more patient with, and open to, the complexities of life. Through it all we support our children as they explore the ways in which they enjoy connecting with people, as they play with how much time they want to spend cultivating relationships, both how many relationships they want to nurture and how deeply. It’s an ongoing conversation. It’s living. It’s unschooling.