I chose Living Joyfully as the name of my website because I found that joy was, and is, an unerring compass for all aspects of our unschooling lifestyle. Last time we looked at learning, so now let’s look at why joy is such a valuable touchstone for building strong and connected relationships with our children (or anyone else, for that matter).
Conventional relationships are often structured around power and control—especially parent-child relationships. The traditional assumption is that adult needs are more important than child needs. Full stop.
I imagine you’ve seen this relationship dynamic play out many times, at the grocery store, on the playground, in a friend’s home. Anywhere parents and children interact. A child asks to do or have something and their parent firmly says no. If the child asks why, they are reminded who has the control with that ubiquitous response: “Because I said so.”
So much power is wrapped up in those four words.
When power is a principal component of family relationships, it not only plays out between parent and child, it also influences sibling relationships. They will regularly tease or annoy one another as a show of their power, and use each other as leverage: “you got X for her so you have to get me one too.” And it just spirals down from there.
If you’re looking for strong and connected relationships, ones based on genuine love and respect, power isn’t the way to go about it: control-based interactions tear down relationships, they don’t strengthen them. Nor are they enjoyable. Not even for the “winner,” because they can’t let their guard down lest they “lose” next time.
Instead, focusing on the joy moves relationships away from the power paradigm and toward connection. If you watch people who are genuinely connecting, you will see them treating each other with kindness and compassion in that moment. There is none of the push and pull of power struggles.
So let’s dig into an example of what “focusing on the joy” looks like. I thought I’d use a situation I’ve experienced from time to time over the years. It starts by feeling down and draggy and put upon. Sound familiar?
Soon we decide that we should take care of ourselves by insisting that we get our share of whatever it is we think will help us feel better—with our children that may be acknowledgement, attention, appreciation, help etc. The more we think about it, the more unappreciated we feel, and the more focused we get. It’s a vicious circle.
Over the years I’ve gotten better at noticing when I’m caught in this downward spiral, and whenever the realization hits, I make the effort to focus on the joy. I know, it seems paradoxical, but whenever I’m feeling needy, feeling like I need to grab more for me, if I remember to shift and focus on the joy, that needy feeling dissipates more quickly.
For me, I first focus on bringing joy into my children’s lives. I love them up. I shift my focus out of my head and to their lives. What do they love to do right now? What would make them smile big? Sometimes I ask, sometimes I offer things. And we do that. Together. I sink into enjoying those things with them. And with full engagement—not complaining or worrying or planning dinner in the back of my mind. Soon I see the joy on their faces. I listen to their chatter and their laughter. It starts to rub off a bit. I’m smiling now.
Then, maybe alongside them, I start doing something I enjoy (but have been putting off for what are now starting to seem like martyrly reasons). Now I’m feeling pretty good and I’m chatting away with them too. And, all of a sudden, that needy icky goo bubble around me bursts.
Wow! With my now open and joyful perspective, things are so much clearer! Now I can see the acknowledgement and appreciation my children were giving me all along—they were just giving it to me in their ways. I was so busy looking for what I thought I needed, my filters laser-targeted on looking for me, me, me, that I couldn’t see what I was already getting.
Focusing on joy helps to quickly remove those filters and bring the real world back into view.
Not only that, it’s in this open and joyful place of relationship where people—children, spouses, and friends—are so much more likely to help us out too! Which do you react better to, genuine requests (where no is a perfectly acceptable answer) or implied demands? Smiling invitations to join in and help out, or appeals to go do something by yourself?
Focusing on bringing those in our lives as much joy as we can muster has a truly positive and beautiful effect on our relationships. It builds strong connections because we enjoy connecting. It builds trust because we truly trust the other is watching out for us and wanting our days to be joyful.
And these strong, connected relationships are fundamental to unschooling because they create a relaxed and open atmosphere where children and parents are comfortable communicating with each other, asking and answering questions, offering and accepting help. In other words, living and learning together.
Whenever I find myself mired in relationship discontent, joy is the beacon I follow.
It pulls me out of the goo every time. 🙂
You might also like …
1. A Family of Individuals — A talk I gave on 2013 about some of the ways unschooling families foster a long-term atmosphere of joy and harmony.
2. The World of Siblings and Unschooling — Answering reader questions about sibling relationships.
3. Unschooling and the Power Paradigm — What if we don’t assume power struggles between parents and kids are inevitable?