The conversation that sparked these thoughts happened over Christmas at a gathering of local friends. I had a great time that evening, and it was a very enjoyable conversation. When I noticed our paths diverging, I naturally let the conversation flow in a new direction and we continued merrily along. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it over the next few days. The moment was a bit of a revelation for me. It brought a more solid shape to a nebulous curiosity surrounding the word trust that I’ve had since my kids first started hitting the teen years.
Over those years, I’ve noticed that when my conversations with more conventional parents roll around to teen behaviour, it’s so easy to be misunderstood. The odd time I mention that I trust my teen it’s usually interpreted as I think they’ll do nothing wrong, that they’re perfect. Their response—sometimes in words, sometimes in attitude—is usually along the lines of “that’s putting your head in the sand.” This was the case that night.
My thoughts typically become a confused jumble at that point. It’s true, I don’t think they’ll do something wrong, but mostly that’s because, from my perspective, we learn from all our actions without having to judge them right or wrong. That said, of course things can go wrong. And I don’t think they’re perfect, but, well, I don’t think they’re inferior either. Yet those kinds of thoughts feel quite foreign to me in general because they imply a judgment that isn’t part of my everyday repertoire. That’s usually where I got stuck.
What became clear to me as I sorted through the conversation in the days that followed was that, while we were both talking about trust (relying on the integrity, strength, surety of a person—in this case, our teens), we were using very different measures to assess it.
For many conventional parents, “trusting their children” means believing that their children will follow their rules when the parents aren’t around to oversee their actions: if they don’t consistently follow the rules of their own volition, they can’t be trusted. Using that yardstick to measure trust, along with the conventional wisdom that teens will rebel against parental rules, I can see why they’d think me naive to say I trust my teens.
The challenge is that instead of rules, unschooling families use principles and analysis to help our children choose their actions. Without rules to measure against, what does trust mean to unschoolers?
- It means that although our children may make different choices than we would in a given situation, we’re comfortable that they will make reasonable choices that make sense for them. With years of experience living and learning with them, we understand them well. Their actions aren’t an enigma to us, they make sense.
- It means that although we know things may go awry—that happens to us too—we’re comfortable that they won’t knowingly endanger themselves or anyone else.
- It means that we’re comfortable they will use their good judgment. Unschooling children have been by our side for years, interacting with the world, so we know they have a pretty good understanding of how those pieces of the world work. We are also comfortable that they won’t step too far beyond their comfort zone of that understanding without support.
- It means that we are comfortable that if our children find they want or need our help, they will ask for it. Our children have years of experience being supported through situations without being criticized and judged. They value our input because, in their experience, it has always been shared with their goals in mind, not as subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation to get them to act in accordance with our expectations. They trust us too.
And there’s something else. We don’t use trust as a tool. I’ve overheard many conversations where a child asks to do something and a parent replies along the lines of, “no, I don’t trust you to do that.” Unschooling parents are more apt to say, “yes, let me help you with that.” Just because there are situations in which we don’t yet trust our children to be solely responsible for their actions, we don’t judge them as “bad” or hold it against them. We continue to support them as they pursue their goals, happily by their side, or nearby to offer help, as they gain experience in those areas until we are comfortable that they can take on the responsibility themselves.
And though I trust my children, that doesn’t mean I don’t worry occasionally as they venture out into the world on their own—trust doesn’t mean no risk. It’s life. Things can go wrong. We don’t have control over everything. That’s scary and freeing, at the same time. My trust in them is wrapped up in the knowledge that they trust me. I trust that if they want or need me, they will ask.
With unschooling, whether it’s learning or living, it all comes back to the strong, connected, trusting relationships we have built over the years.