Today I want to share with you some of things I’ve learned on my unschooling journey about the value of walking together through our days WITH our children. I’m going to touch on:
- ways to shift and see situations through your child’s eyes;
- some of the challenges we’re likely to encounter as we move to this new perspective; and
- why it’s integral to creating a solid unschooling environment.
To get started, let’s take a moment to look at what unschooling looks like through the eyes of conventional society.
Because it’s definitely an unconventional lifestyle.
In fact, nowhere is that more apparent than in the comments of newspaper and online articles about unschooling.
What seems to happens is, experienced unschooling parents, living happily WITH their children and excited to let others know that the option exists, agree to be interviewed and answer questions about what their lives look like. That’s great!
But after publication, the comments start flying, and we’re reminded that the phrases we use to describe unschooling are often interpreted very differently when heard through a conventional filter.
Let’s look at some examples that highlight the difference between the unschooling perspective of living joyfully WITH our children, and the conventional perspective of children as subordinate to their parents.
In articles, unschooling parents are often quoted as saying, “My kids learn whatever they want.”
That’s definitely a true statement.
And it’s the most direct answer to that common question, “What do your kids learn?”
I mean, you’re not going to launch into a deconstruction of curriculum and real learning at that point.
But for someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about learning, what pops into their head when they hear “learn whatever they want”?
“My kids would never want to learn anything!”
And from their perspective, that’s true, isn’t it?
One of the big disconnects here is that while we see the learning in everything our children do, they are looking for learning to look like school.
And it’s true, kids aren’t likely to choose to sit at the kitchen table, open a school board approved textbook to page 1, and get started.
What about, “My kids choose what they do all day.”
Again, a true answer for unschoolers.
But what might others envision when they read that?
“My kids would just watch TV and play video games all day.”
And from their perspective, that could very well be true too!
Given newfound freedom, kids probably would choose to do things that have been restricted up to that point, A LOT.
Conventional parents typically restrict these “mindless” activities because they don’t yet see all the learning that is wrapped up in them.
“My kids have no bedtimes.”
It’s true for many unschooling families: their kids go to sleep when they’re tired.
But how would a conventional parent probably envision that?
“Chaos! My kids would stay up all night and be so cranky the next day.”
Again, they probably aren’t wrong.
Given the school and conventional parenting environment in which those children live—it probably would look like chaos if their parents just “dropped the rules,” like bedtime, and left their kids on their own to do whatever.
This disconnect between what unschooling parents mean by their answers, and what conventional parents interpret those answers to mean, is summed up so succinctly in this quote by Carol Black from her online article, A Thousand Rivers:
“Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.”Carol Black
It’s not hard to imagine that killer whales kept contained in a tank and trained to do tricks for treats behave differently than those living in the open ocean. Yet the idea that the contained and controlling environment of school and conventional parenting techniques influences children’s behaviour just as significantly, is foreign to most people.
In fact, our conventional tools for raising children have been woven so thoroughly into our lives that society looks at children’s behaviours and believes them to be an attribute of being a child; not of being a child in that particular environment.
From the outside, it’s really hard to envision just how differently children think, act, and behave when they live in an unschooling environment.
Yet from my own experience, and through connecting with hundreds of other unschooling families in person and online, it’s true.
Knowing that, what’s one of the most helpful steps you can take to see this difference for yourself?
It’s looking at life from your child’s perspective.
When we clearly see our child’s world through their eyes, our fear-driven need to control them fades, and our relationship blossoms.
When we clearly see our child’s world through their eyes, we better understand them. They are no longer mysterious and irrational beings. What we understand, we don’t fear.
Since you’re listening to this, I imagine you’re curious about cultivating a solid unschooling environment with your children!
It’s an environment where:
- We nurture strong and connected relationships with our children.
- We actively support them as they follow their interests and passions, learning all the time.
- We give them lots of room to discover who they are as a person—their personality, their needs, their dreams, and so on. And
- We help them explore ways in which they mesh with the world around them.
Let’s dig into the value of seeing our child’s world from their perspective by looking at some of the obstacles we might encounter.
Challenges Along the Way
One obstacle we’re likely to encounter at some point is when our children want to do something that, for one reason or another, we dislike.
It’s pretty easy to support them when they ask for our help to do something we “approve” of:
- Say, they want to take a trip to the big city Science Centre. In your mind, you imagine taking their picture with their hand on the Van de Graaff generator, their hair standing on end. Classic learning! Let’s go!
- Or, they put that super cute chemistry set you guys saw at the store on their birthday list. Science! Check!
- Or, they want to play Monopoly and all that dice and money math dances in your head as you practically run to the shelf to pull it out.
All great learning, you think. And it is! But what about when we’re ambivalent, or even actively dislike, something they are interested in doing?
In my experience, if we don’t like something, chances are we don’t know much about it—we don’t like it, so why would we have spent much time learning about it? But then we extrapolate that uninformed opinion into the future, imagining all sorts of negative outcomes. It’s scary!
Let’s look at a few that have tripped me up over the years:
- Joseph played video games A LOT, and at first I imagined him forever escaping reality and solving disagreements with violence.
- When Lissy started listening to punk rock music and wanting to go to shows, I immediately envisioned her covered in piercings and tattoos, and being trampled in a crazy mosh pit.
- And when Michael first started talking about parkour, my mind jumped to visions of him and his friends loitering around town, climbing buildings and carelessly damaging public property.
In those moments of fear, often our first instinct is to reach for control, like:
- Setting time limits on video game playing.
- Insisting they stay out of the mosh pit at shows.
- And restricting outdoor climbing play to the park.
I think, at the heart of it, what many of us are really scared of is being judged by others as a bad parent.
We rationalize it by telling ourselves that our children still get to participate in the activities, just within the bounds of our existing comfort zones. Everybody wins, right?
Well, let’s look. What does the situation look like from our children’s perspective? What are they really learning from our reactions?
It isn’t quite as simple a thing to do as it sounds.
First. we need to recognize the conventional filter of judgement that so instinctively shapes our actions. So many stereotypes dance in our heads!
But we can give ourselves permission to feel that initial burst of fear and then wait it out, taking a moment, or more, to pause and let the adrenaline pass through our bodies and dissipate. Then we’re usually able to think more clearly. Sometimes I found it helpful to approach it more playfully, like a game of “what if?” Less personal.
Either way, find a way that you can move past the negative filter and get curious. Watch your children while they’re engaged in the activity, and after. Over and over. Speculate about why they’re making this choice and that. Talk with them, when the moment arises. With genuine curiosity, ask them what they love about it. Absorb their joy as they talk about it.
Now, how do your initial fears compare with reality?
For me, there was so much to discover outside my comfort zone!
What I discovered was that Joseph was learning so much more than I had ever imagined through gaming! And he had a good grasp on reality—he could attack in-game enemies with weapons, yet not do that with his siblings. And I saw him learning so much about himself as he figured out ways to deal with frustration when parts of the game were super challenging. When I released my judgements, even unspoken, he sensed that and opened up even more, inviting me into his gaming world. It was brilliant!
When Lissy began closely following the alternative music scene and going to shows, I chose to go with her. At first, I was looking to gain some comfort through understanding the environment, but later I continued to go because we really enjoyed it together. It turns out I had a LOT of fun! Even though I didn’t go in the mosh pit, I enjoyed listening to and watching the bands—young musicians following their own passion. And never once did I see any badly injured kids being carried out of the mosh pit. In fact, she found the vast majority of them were very nice. So much for the conventional stereotype. She got her lip pierced when she turned 16. And her first tattoo on her 18th birthday. And she’s still a thoughtful and caring person. My comfort zone has grown beautifully.
Michael would bring his bo staff and nunchuks home to practice and never once did he use them to hit or threaten anyone. Haha! As his interest grew to include parkour, I noticed he treated public property with care and always considered safety as a top priority. He would sometimes attempt things that I thought were risky (as in risking broken bones) but watching closely, I could see that he was comfortable with the challenge. I also saw him choose to not try things he felt were unsafe. It became apparent to me that our comfort zones were just in different places. And since he has more intimate knowledge of his abilities and limitations than I do, he’s in a better position to make those calls
So, what did I learn through doing all this thinking and observing?
Well, one thing I learned is that I’m really good at blowing things way out of proportion in my head when I’m steeped in fear!
I discovered that so many of the fears I was handed through stereotypes were definitely far off base.
I also learned that trying something once doesn’t mean I’m obligated to do it again and again. Or that they’ll want to do it forever. It’s okay to try something and see how it goes. Everyone gets more information from the experience and that helps us make more informed choices moving forward.
Another thing I learned was that limiting my children’s choices eroded their trust in me. It said, “I don’t understand you.”
A solid unschooling environment relies on connected and trusting relationships with our children because that’s the foundation on which open communication is built.
And without open communication, through words or actions, learning suffers.
Now let’s look at a second obstacle that can get in the way when we’re trying to see the world through our child’s eyes.
We can definitely get stuck when we’re uncomfortable with our children’s behaviour:
- Maybe we’re out in public and our child becomes actively upset, or
- Maybe we’re at home, and we worry that if we “let” them behave this way now, we’re giving them tacit approval to act that way forever.
Fear has us projecting their behaviour today far into the future, and in those moments we often instinctively reach for control.
And the conventional tool for managing their behaviour is consequences.
If we can make the consequence even worse than the initial upset, they’ll stop, right?
Some typical examples are:
- “If you don’t stop screaming, I’ll send you to your room.”
- Or “If you keep getting so frustrated and angry at that game, you’re going to have to turn it off.”
- Or “If you guys keep fighting over those toys, I’ll take them away.
We may convince ourselves that we’re giving them a choice, “IF you do this, THEN I’ll do that,” but we’re really not.
We’re keeping the power and wielding it in an attempt to mold their behaviour. We’re not trying to understand their distress, just control it.
That definitely takes a toll on our relationship.
Instead, how can we shift and see these moments through our children’s eyes?
The first shift that helped me was to realize that they aren’t behaving this way specifically to frustrate me—their behaviour isn’t about me at all!
It’s as much communication as they can muster in this challenging moment.
The second shift was to realize they are NOT adults. Projecting today’s behaviour onto their 20yo selves is meaningless and perpetuates fear, which in turn interferes with seeing things clearly TODAY. Children are learning and growing and changing with every experience. Your six-year-old will only be six for a year.
These shifts help us move past our fears so we can more clearly see the situation from our children’s perspective.
Now let’s look for patterns.
What was their mindset leading up to that moment? Did they have a specific goal in mind they were trying to accomplish? Was their day going well up to that point, or were they already a bit frustrated? Was this their first attempt? Or have they been trying to do this for a while? What were the reactions of those around them?
Is this something that regularly frustrates them? If so, maybe try to avoid putting them in that situation for now. Like going to restaurants. Don’t keep setting them up for frustration and anger. And by extension, setting yourself up.
Or, if their reaction seems random, look back over their day—have small frustrations been building over time?
Patterns can give you solid insight into behaviours.
If your child seems to be knocked off kilter by new or infrequent situations, try taking the time to brief them beforehand. Maybe an hour before, or a day before, or a week before—however long they need to process the information.
When they have a good idea of what to expect, and what will likely be expected of them, they may be able to stay more centered. And stay close to help them during the event too.
And later, in a relaxed moment, debrief. How did they feel? What helped? What made things harder? What might you try next time?
Kids are people too, just like us, trying to figure things out. Join them where they are and help them find ways to move forward that work for them.
I’ve been having an email conversation with a mom over the last few weeks and she asked me about a seeming contradiction she saw in my words: at one point I talked about helping a child avoid situations that frustrate them and at another point I talked about how much our children learn about themselves as they experience and work through those frustrating moments.
So which one is it?? she wondered.
I replied that figuring out which frustrations to avoid and which ones to work through is a big part of the dance of parenting.
If it was something they were intent on doing, I’d do my best to help them move through it: they were fully engaged in that moment and that’s often when solid learning happens. When I could anticipate challenges and do or change something beforehand to help them avoid getting frustrated in the first place, I’d do that. Keeping an eye on the environment was key, especially when they were younger.
Again, it’s about looking to the child and seeing their world through their eyes. How important is this moment, to them? What are they trying to accomplish? Today, is it more about the goal or the process of getting to the goal? Can I help deliver the goal quickly and with little fuss? Or is he intent on accomplishing the goal on his own terms, and how can I support him as he explores the process?
This dance of parenting is all part of creating a connected and trusting unschooling environment. It’s how we help them explore their world, and themselves.
And this isn’t something you do once or twice, find the “answer,” and move on. This is amazingly important learning about being a human being in the world that we continue to revisit, even as adults.
We are always learning and changing and growing.
And now let’s look at a third obstacle that can often challenge us as we try to see things from our child’s perspective: feeling overwhelmed.
I remember that feeling regularly when I had three children ages five and under. And I’ve felt it again and again over the years. I still do, sometimes.
Does this sound familiar?
The house looks like a tornado hit and we’re having sandwiches for dinner again. I’m the only person tidying up the family room, feeding the pets, doing the laundry, and taking out the garbage. And I can’t see any end to that!
It’s hard to consider anyone else’s point-of-view when we’re already feeling so overwhelmed in our own—there’s no room left!
Not only that, conventional wisdom encourages us to stay firmly stuck in our own perspective by telling us that when we’re feeling overwhelmed, we need to get things under control.
When we’re uncomfortable with our children’s choices, we’re encouraged to gain control by setting limits.
When we’re uncomfortable with their behaviour, we’re encouraged to exert control by doling out consequences.
And when we’re feeling overwhelmed, like we can’t do everything on our plate, we’re encouraged to create clear expectations for others.
In my experience, this typically means we organize a job board or chores list and demand that our kids “do their share.”
We might even be able to convince our family that this is just what we need to get everything done. We explain that we’ll be less grumpy and we’ll have more time to play.
I mean, it sounds logical, doesn’t it?
But is it true?
I think you can probably envision how chore charts usually play out. The first few days might go relatively smoothly—it’s new and maybe even fun. But soon it’s not so new. Soon the kids likely start to resist. They start to feel like we do about chores—that they’re, well, a chore. That’s not what we were looking for. Where’s the fun “we’re all in this together attitude” we conjured up in our imagination? We may not have seven kids, but can’t the ones we have whistle while they work?
Well, do we? The chore chart itself tells our kids exactly what we think about the regular work on the list. It’s the stuff we don’t enjoy doing but that has to get done. We just want everyone to share the pain. It’s practically a recipe for conflict and power struggles. And when our relationship suffers, their learning suffers.
Think about it. If they have a question they’d like to ask you about something, or they’re wondering where the glue is, but they’re pretty sure that if they come to you the first question you’ll ask is whether they’ve emptied the dishwasher, there’s a good chance they just won’t bother asking. They may even actively avoid you. That’s not good for unschooling. Really not good.
So, let’s go back to the question: Is our premise true?
Well, let’s look at that overwhelming “to do” list. Is it full of things we really WANT to do? Or are some of them things we think we SHOULD do?
This is an important question! Take the time to really nail down the what, before figuring out the how. For everything on your list, ask yourself why it’s there.
Let’s take an example: say, your family visits your mom every Sunday but there is so much prep work involved in taking your young children that you find it exhausting—a chore. Let’s dig into that:
- Do you really need to go every week? Maybe revisit the value of that tradition.
- Do you really need to be that prepared? Prepared is awesome but maybe you could leave some toys or supplies at you mom’s house so there’s less packing and schlepping every week.
- Can she come visit you instead? There’s no packing required for this option.
- Or can you meet somewhere else? Maybe it seems like a lot of work to host too, and it’d be easier to meet at a park sometimes.
Maybe come up with a combination of things that make it less overwhelming for you.
Or how about the playroom? Your daily chore list says you want it tidied up every night before the kids go to bed.
- Can you make it easier to tidy up? Maybe set up easily accessible boxes and bins for things so they can be quickly put away.
- Do you tidy up WITH them? You don’t want them to think of tidying up as a “punishment” or something nobody likes to do—eventually that might discourage them from taking their toys or crafts out to play in the first place, and that’s where so much learning is. Plus, you’re showing them by example ways to approach the task.
- Is tidying up interfering with their joy and learning? Maybe they’re in the middle of a Lego build or acting out a story with all those stuffed animals set up in the corner. By insisting that everything get put away, you may be cutting their activity short, and they may not have the patience to start back at the beginning the next day. What looks like a mess to you, may be an intricate, longer-term undertaking to them. Ask them if they’re done, if it’s okay to put their stuff away. Seeing the playroom the way your child sees it, helps you keep their interests and goals in mind.
The idea is to thoughtfully pare down your to do list to the essentials.
Try to remove anything that feels more like an obligation than a joy—meaning something you should do versus something you want to do.
This process also help you remember why you want to do some of those things in the first place. When my list is filled mostly with things I WANT to do—or at least, want to have done—I look forward to accomplishing the tasks, instead of feeling overwhelmed.
Plus, when I’m happily doing something, if I ask someone if they could help me out, they are so much more willing to join me than when I’m acting resentful and put upon.
Another thing I’ve tried when I’m feeling overwhelmed but don’t want to put that burden on the kids, is to streamline MY time. In my imagination, I become super efficient. I remember trying to schedule my days, breaking them into half hour chunks, and starting super early, while everyone else was still asleep. There’d be chunks of time dedicated to cleaning, playing with the kids, cooking, laundry, bills, and so on. Everything I could think of.
What happened after a few days?
- The kids would have something cool to show me during my “cleaning time.”
- They’d be busily engaged with their own activity during my “play with the kids time.”
- We’d be deep into researching something fun when my phone alarm would go off to tell me it’s time to start cooking dinner.
Real life, real learning, would get in the way of my schedule.
And I’d have the realization, again, that while routines can be comforting, in my experience, time-based schedules come to feel more like handcuffs.
I found things went more smoothly when I remembered to follow the flow of the day, engaging with the kids, and mindfully watching out for times they’re occupied. I’d fit the things I wanted to accomplish into those moments as they appeared. If there was something on my plate, I may not get it done today, but I would almost always find some time that week. Or soon enough.
And if it truly needed to be done that day, we added it to the list of things we needed to make space for that day. But I found not too many things got down to the wire like that.
In the meantime, my relationship with my children was strong and they were learning in leaps and bounds.
In the end, chore lists and daily schedules came to resemble curriculum and class time to me.
I had done a lot of deschooling to discover the incredible value in giving my children’s academic learning the space and time to flow at its own pace.
And it turns out, these overwhelmed feelings were the perfect catalyst to consider whether that same learning environment would ring true for life skills as well. I looked at my children’s unschooling days through their eyes and discovered that the answer was absolutely!
Of course, just as with the rest of their learning, it followed their interests and needs, not mine.
So, instead of my children learning what MY comfort zones are through me saying, “your room is messy, time to clean it up,” they were learning about their OWN comfort levels. Maybe it was “Hey mom, I want to clean up my room, can you help?” Sure. Or “Mom, come see, I cleaned up my room!” I went to look and appreciated it with them. Or I walked in and was surprised, “Hey, you tidied up! Does it feel nice? Your collection of cameras looks great on the shelf.” I’ve experienced all three over the years. THAT is learning about themselves that will be helpful for them for a lifetime.
Another example: without scheduling meals and bedtime by the clock, they’re hearing and responding to the messages from their body—eating when they’re hungry and sleeping when they’re tired. Or sometimes choosing not to listen to the messages and discovering what happens. More super-useful learning about themselves.
When we give life the time and space to flow, pay attention to the motivations behind our children’s actions, and respond to and support them as they explore, we see them learning so much!
I found that not only did releasing my need for control go a long way toward dissipating my feelings of being overwhelmed, it also gave life in general more room to flow in new and surprising directions. Time and again I discover that while I may think I know the direction things SHOULD go, there are so many different and wonderful places they COULD go. There really aren’t a lot of truly wrong ways for life to unfold, unless I get caught in the trap of “my way or the wrong way.”
There is so much joy to be found in NOT needing to know where things will end up.
Change is Hard
I’ve talked a lot today about how helpful it is to take the time to clearly see things from our children’s point-of-view.
It seems simple enough, but it’s not so easy to get there. Change is hard.
I read this the other day, funnily enough in a book called The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne.
“When human beings are faced with chaotic circumstances, our impulse is to stay safe by doing what we’ve always done before. To change our course of action seems far riskier than to keep on keeping on.”
As I mentioned earlier, moving to unschooling can seem chaotic to those first hearing about it.
Leo Babauta, an unschooling dad who writes a lot about changing habits on his blog, zenhabits.net, talks about small steps.
He writes, “Take that first step. Celebrate that first step. Love the step, not the destination. That step, even the motion of taking the first foot off the ground and moving it forward — that’s everything. You haven’t achieved any goals … but you’ve moved. You haven’t created something amazing … and yet, more than ever before, you have. “
If you berate yourself for how much further you still have to go rather than enjoying the step you took in this moment, how likely are you to take the next one? And the next?
And trying to make a big change in one leap can be overwhelming. Out come the detailed plans and schedules. Soon frustration follows, we give up, and there’s no change happening.
Take small, realistic steps and enjoy the journey.
Leo also talks about that “perfect” movie that runs in our head. I mentioned one earlier, where everyone happily does their chores, whistling while they work.
We run that movie over and over in our head, comparing it to what’s actually playing out in front of us, and we get discouraged because often they aren’t even vaguely similar.
But that movie is unrealistic, isn’t it? It’s as fictional as the latest superhero movie. But we still get caught up in it, our expectations so high that we can’t help but fail to meet them. Then we throw up our hands and give up altogether.
Again, no change happens.
Be mindful of your movie.
Focus on the why behind our wish for change and actions more easily follow.
By concentrating on my understanding of unschooling, I could more more steadily take that next small step, and more easily release that fantasy movie in my mind.
Instead of jumping in with control, I was able to more patiently wait and see how things actually unfolded. And so often I was amazed. We ended up places even better than I first imagined.
If we move to unschooling so quickly that our actions jump ahead of our understanding, life CAN become chaotic. And chaos isn’t fun for anyone.
Focus on understanding unschooling and, small step by small step, your actions will change over time to align with your evolving outlook.
So, what do we learn through looking at our children’s unschooling lives from their perspective?
When we look at our children’s choices through their eyes, we see they are grounded in their needs and goals. We realize our likes and dislikes are just that—our own. Not theirs. And with that deeper understanding we can connect with our children even more, bringing things into their world that truly interest THEM. Our trust in each other grows.
When we look at our children’s behaviour through their eyes, we learn so much about their desires and challenges, giving us insight into ways we can support them as they learn about themselves, their personality, their likes and dislikes, what frustrates and angers them and ways to move through those emotions, and what brings them joy. It’s not easy work, but it’s incredibly valuable.
And when we look at our overwhelmed behaviour through their eyes, we see that, almost paradoxically, releasing our expectations and giving our days more space to flow is often more effective than trying to wrestle things under control. When we stop comparing our days to the “perfect” movie in our head, and just look at our real days, they are often pretty spectacular. We learn that there really aren’t a lot of truly wrong ways for life to unfold.
Our fear-driven need to control our children through limits and consequences and expectations fades as our understanding of them grows. Our relationships blossom.
And these strong and connected relationships are the fertile soil in which unschooling thrives. It’s beautiful.
What are some of the tools that can help us along the way?
To get started on this journey in earnest, we probably need some level of trust in what unschooling parents are sharing about their observations and experiences.
This can help us take those first small steps toward releasing control.
Over time we’ll build our own deep trust based on seeing unschooling in action with our own children.
When we stop judging and trying to control our children’s actions and behaviours, it frees up space for us to discover and empathize with their needs, goals, and feelings.
And from there, we can meet them where they are today and help them pursue their interests as they move forward.
And when we live mindfully, we’re more attentive and aware of each moment.
That helps us to take a pause, to respond rather than react, so we can choose the words and actions that move us closer to the person and parent we want to be.
Remember, rather than trying to mold our children into our vision of the perfect child, with unschooling we focus on helping them explore who THEY are and the kind of person they want to be.
Take the time to see the world through your child’s eyes and you will truly be walking together.