You know that scene in Donnie Darko, where Donnie’s teacher draws a line between the words Fear and Love…? That’s the visual I get sometimes when I think about how to best move in the direction of joy, and connection and love, instead of fear. Most of the time, I’m thinking of it in relation to unschooling, because at the heart of unschooling is the idea that there is so much joy to be found in the world if we let ourselves and our children find it, in whatever form that may be to them.
Much of parenting is fear based – fear of not being enough, of not doing enough, of not teaching enough or pushing enough or letting go enough, or maybe fear of letting go at all. So often when I am stuck on something, or curious about what is the best decision to make, I find myself driven by fear. ‘If I don’t get this right…’ or ‘If I don’t do this right…’ then I will have royally screwed up. Again.
This happens a lot when I try to focus on the bigger picture (which doesn’t really exist, of course). Thinking in terms of ‘education’, I might start to wonder, ‘What if I forget to introduce them to something?’ or ‘what if they don’t learn something that is truly essential for them to know?’
These are the kinds of questions that deserve immediate debunking. That need a conscious seeing to, if you like. I can’t let that voice get away with creeping doubts in, and so I spend a lot of time picking apart inherited fears from my experience of school, where nearly everything was done out fear, where pressure and intensive teaching was seen as healthy and necessary to mould children into the Important People of the Future. Except now, I can see that the kind of future I want to participate in, where questions of sustainability, environmental and social responsibility are paramount, had little to do with anything I learnt at school. Qualities like kindness, empathy, passion, mindfulness, compassion? I can barely find traces of them in my school learning.
So when questions about ‘education’ creep into my thoughts, I try to remind myself that the aim is NOT to recreate school in a different environment. It is not even to provide learning opportunities (which is a little like saying, unless I make oxygen my kids won’t breathe). My aim is to provide opportunities for joy to be experienced, and I can do that through facilitating interests and responding mindfully and helpfully suggesting and, more than anything, being their partner in as much as possible.
I need to remind myself, almost constantly, that there is no such thing as essential knowledge. There is only what we need to know today, since we can’t possibly know what we may need to know tomorrow, or in ten years.
And even if there are things I think useful for my children to know, there’s no way to force a child to learn it. There just isn’t. Perhaps with enough pressure and manipulation and threats of punishments or rewards, there are ways to make a child memorise certain things, to pass tests (since it seems that in many cases passing tests is the goal in schools) but there is no way, none, to force a child to really retain information unless they are interested in it. Unless learning a thing is useful to them. So why not trust that they will keep on learning the things that are useful to them? Are we that scared that unless we pack young children full of information they may, possibly, need to know later in life, they won’t do it themselves when the time is right for them? Doesn’t that seem completely counter-intuitive? To assume that we lose the capacity to learn if we are not forced to?
If I need to know something, I will learn it. No amount of teaching in the world can do the trick unless I am interested. The best teachers I had showed me their own passion in the subjects they taught and inspired me to find out more. In fact all of those teachers were also people who modelled qualities that I found inspiring too. I was interested in them. I longed to have conversations with them.
I love the thrill of learning, and when I stumble across something that sparks that curiosity, I will explore it happily, willingly and thoroughly. I won’t need to be coerced in one fashion or another. And I will most likely keep that knowledge and use it, because it is useful and interesting to me.
Almost all of that means moving from fear to joy, and trust. Which is so much harder than it sounds, particularly if you are moving away from that kind of experience in childhood and towards something you are not used to.
It helps to stop thinking of the big picture, to stop worrying about shaping your kid to be one thing or another, and to take joy in who they are exactly as they are right now. To play and have fun, because my goodness, so much learning happens when there is joy. So many more opportunities to have fun present themselves when you start to say yes more, when you start to see more things as possibilities in themselves, and when the priority is keeping your relationship connected and joyful.
Here are some of the things I find joy in at the moment; Felting, sewing, knitting, garden renovations, The Good Wife, The Poisonwood Bible. If I were to take any one of those things and pull it apart, I might be able to name a dozen or so other things I am also learning about, but luckily, since I am an adult now, I have no one looking over my shoulder and demanding that I demonstrate what knowlege I’ve picked up. Luckily I can trust that, as has always been the case, there are an infinite number of untold connections taking place.
Luckily I don’t have to separate it out into subjects, abstracting real life learning by segregating it, and boxing it up, where I should be excited by all the connections I am finding between the various interests I currently have. Now, as an adult, I go from project to project, always learning, with only the goal to have fun, to do things that make me happy.
Yesterday we watched ‘The Little Mermaid’ on Ava’s request. I pulled out some paper and pencils and some of our shell collection. Ava came over and asked me to keep drawing the shells whilst she wrote a story. Then she asked me to draw more shells. We spoke about many things – mermaids, sealife, songs, words that started with ‘sh’, and then went back to watching the film. Ezra was occupied with grapes and then came over and played with the crayons and shells.
A year ago I would have felt guilty that Ava was watching anything at all, especially a Disney film. I would have been afraid that watching films might ruin her mind (because films can do that, you know) or that she should be doing something else or that Ariel is hardly a good role model for a young girl. I would have failed to see that the fact it brings Ava joy is usually reason enough to let her watch it. I would have failed to see that because it brings her joy, it also opens up endless possibilities to play and learn and imagine.
There are so many moments when I am not sure at all what decision to make, and I think of Alfie Kohn’s suggestion to choose the option that keeps you most connected to your kid. Even if that doesn’t fit with my expectations, it more often than not works to keep us close.
Some things I have said yes to lately: Yes, to Ava watching TV whilst eating dinner.Yes, to Ava going outside in a summer dress and bare feet in the cold.
Yes, when Ava asked if we could go on an early morning date to get coffee.
There a lot of other things, and a lot of things I’ve said no to, but these are three examples of things that I automatically wanted to say no to before I thought about it. And saying no to all of these would have been fear based.
No, you can’t watch dinner in front of the TV, because I don’t like the idea of it and am frightened I might seem like a bad parent and it doesn’t fit the picture I have in my head of how you should want to eat dinner at the table and I like it when we all eat together.
No, because if you go out when you’re half naked and get rained on you will get cold and probably get pneumonia and besides it will be a hassle to have to dry you and find fresh clothes.
No, because going to a coffee shop at 8 in the morning wasn’t on my agenda.
But saying yes meant that Ava got to have the kind of dinner she wanted, doing something fun to her. I don’t always want to eat dinner at the table, why should I expect my 3 year old to? And if I had made her sit at the table, she would have been upset and angry, dinner would have been rotten for everyone, and she likely wouldn’t have eaten in protest. Why shouldn’t she get to choose where she eats? Is it more important that she does what I say or that she has the freedom to eat dinner where she likes? Why do we need to have a traditional family dinner where we talk to each other when we spend all day and night doing that too?
Saying yes means that she goes outside, gets wet, helps me with some painting (it turns out that rainwater doesn’t kill you, after all), decides after a few minutes that she is wet enough, comes in after having had a blast, gets dry, picks a new outfit.
Saying yes to an early morning coffee means an unexpected adventure, learning about arches and patterns, talking to builders, enjoying cake for breakfast, finding cherry blossoms.
And all of those things, small as they are, fill her cup, and make her happy, and trust her, and honour who she is and what she wants for herself and give her ways to have fun, and more importantly, show her the same respect I would to anyone I care about.
”It sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t. Being connected is better than being controlling. Being interested is better than being bored. Being fun is more fun than not being fun!” — Melissa Wiley