A few months ago I was in conversation with someone and we ended up at the old saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Us adults being the “old dogs,” of course. It was someone I enjoy speaking with and during the course of our conversation, a couple of light bulbs went off for me about learning and how our unschooling lifestyle may be perceived by others.
Are adults set in their ways?
Well, it’s likely we have some pretty established habits—thoughts and actions we’re comfortable with and return to—if for no other reason than we’ve been doing them that way for so long. We probably have beliefs we haven’t challenged in a while: what’s the point of re-visiting something we’ve already figured out? Besides, change is hard. So I can understand what she was implying when she used the phrase.
But I think we can continue to learn throughout our lives—if we’re interested. I continue to learn new things as I approach my fifties. The list of topics I’m excited to learn more about at some point is long! And I find questioning my beliefs and habits once in a while a refreshing exercise: do they align with the image I have of the person I’d like to be?
Being curious about the world and engaged in the lives of those we love is an invigorating way to wake up every morning, young and old.
What’s the difference between supporting someone’s learning and coercion?
Another piece of the conversation I found absolutely fascinating was the implication that by trying to support change in another adult, I was really trying to coerce them, because adults are set in their ways.
It was interesting to see that the actions I was talking about were assumed to be motivated by me, instead of by the other person. Oops. Though I shouldn’t have been surprised by that conclusion—trying to change others to match our own expectations is pretty common practice. So often adults try to sculpt not only their children, but their spouse and their extended family members as well, trying to match the “perfect” picture of those roles in their mind.
Yet people are individuals, not the roles they happen to inhabit. And they grow and change. As unschooling parents, we can support both our children and our spouse/partner as they explore and decipher the person they want to be and ways they might move closer to their own ideal.
I know we often see things quite differently as we look at life through the lens of unschooling, but it can still surprise me when the motivations attributed to our actions by more conventional onlookers are almost diametrically opposed to our reality. To conclude I’m coercing others to learn or act in certain ways against their wishes? “No way!” is my first thought. Yet that feels dismissive, uncomfortable. My curiosity soon bubbles up. It doesn’t hurt to take a moment to recheck my motivations, nor to confirm that my support isn’t being felt as manipulative, and that it’s still wanted. All good?
These moments do remind me that helping my family do things they want to do, can sometimes look on the outside like I’m “making” them do them. Take something as simple as a teen hugging a parent good bye. The typical conclusion from onlookers? Obviously the parent expects/requires it and is using some level of guilt to receive it because no teen wants to do that. So much of our unschooling lifestyle looks like one thing to outsiders while the actual motivation behind the actions is entirely different.
In those instances of misinterpretation, what seems to have worked best for me over the years is to not react defensively. If asked, a quick answer will do. “Nah, she doesn’t have to hug me good-bye, she wants to.” To not get pulled into trying to explain myself, even if I see disbelief written all over their face. Of course they see it the way they do. Instead, I let time work its magic. Show, don’t tell. Over time they see the action repeated in different contexts and their understanding of the real motivation behind them grows.
That’s real learning, real understanding, rather than me blabbering in their ear.
Moving to unschooling as adults
For adults, us “old dogs,” moving to unschooling can mean a lot of personal work. We sift through so many of the conventional messages about learning and parenting and relationships we’ve absorbed over the years, seeing how they hold up against our own experiences and goals. We re-visit our beliefs, our habits, our vision of the person we want to be. This deschooling is not easy work.
But it’s worth the effort because it’s those deep roots of understanding, along with the strong and connected relationships we develop with our family as a result, that carry us through those moments of disappointment when our lives are misinterpreted by those around us.
And in the end, which is more important: that an acquaintance or extended family member gives us the thumbs up, or that we live our lives the way that makes the most sense to us?