When everything means something

Society seems to have created an odd hierarchy of children’s activities which, at first glance, is there to help us parent better and ensure our children go on to great things. Sitting at the top are the worthwhile activities (reading, playing an instrument, doing a craft etc) and, lurking at the bottom, are the time-wasters (think screen time or just not doing anything much at all). Between these extremes are all the other things our children spend their time on. As believers in this hierarchy, we parents judge, praise, worry, redirect and encourage, all to make sure that our children’s time is spent in a meaningful way. That they don’t waste their lives somehow by doing pointless things.

Thank goodness no one scrutinises my time that way. Sometimes I can while a whole day away doing things that someone else would find entirely pointless. But they have a meaning to me and, unless I explained why I was doing it, I’d guess that no one else would know what my motivation was. I’d get pretty annoyed if, in one of those moments when to the outside world I am wasting time, someone came along with a disapproving look and suggested I read a good book, or go outside and get some fresh air. The implication would be that what I am doing is meaningless and that I can’t be trusted to know my own needs.

It would be different if they thought that perhaps I was feeling a bit lost or in need of some human connection. Or, they just felt that maybe I would be interested in something that hadn’t occurred to me. In which case, a cup of tea and some kind words, or an invitation to do something else would feel good. And, if it turns out that I’m perfectly happy with my activity and it is exactly the thing I want to be doing right now, I’m free to say no without feeling judged.

We know that how we feel is just as important as what we’re doing—the activity itself isn’t intrinsically meaningful or meaningless. That depends on how we feel about it and why we’re doing it. I may read because I’m really into the book, or because I have to do some paperwork to do and I’m procrastinating. I could go for a hike because I’m filled with energy and want to breathe some mountain air into my lungs, or because I have a decision to make and want to mull it over. I may write because I’m feeling inspired, or out of necessity because I have to finish something.

I’m not sure why we think children would be any less complex. A lot of people tell me that they couldn’t unschool their children, because the children would ‘do nothing’, that nothing meaningful would happen. My experience is that children are more interested in having a meaningful life than most of us. In fact, I think this is a huge part of their experience —learning what really matters to them and what their future place in the world could be. By imposing our definition of meaningful on them we risk undermining their path.

When our children first left school, one of the most challenging things for me was letting go of these preconceived ideas of what was or wasn’t a worthwhile activity. In fact, this is probably the hardest part of most parents’ ‘deschooling’ journey. Computer time was a big trigger for me (of course!). D and E would be on their computers and, after a while, I would start to feel anxious. It was ingrained in me that this was somehow inherently harmful, and it took months of just paying attention to what they were actually doing to finally let go of the anxiety.

I remember one day in particular when E was playing Minecraft. I went to do something, then came back a little while later and he was still on his computer. I could feel the tension in my body—a sense of fear that this was all wrong, that I had to take charge at once. I was just about to suggest that he might want to do something different, when he called me over to have a go at an online geography quiz he had just done. I felt guilty and more than a bit stupid for my little moment of panic. Not because he had moved from a game (time wasting) to geography (worthwhile), but because I had allowed myself to fall into that fear. And, guilt for the assumption that Minecraft is somehow lower down in the pecking order than a geography quiz. It isn’t. In my son’s eyes they are different and equally fun and meaningful. Embarrassingly, I got a much lower score than he did in the quiz as his geography is streets ahead of mine.

It’s obvious really, but at that moment I finally understood that they don’t naturally label things as we do. On the computer they can be gaming, researching WWII, looking at maps, writing a story, looking up the words to a song they like. Just about anything. They don’t divide into ‘educational’, ‘fun’ or ‘time wasting’. Those labels have no meaning for them. Whatever they do is worthwhile to them in that moment. Of course, just like us, there are times when they don’t know what to do, and there are times when they’re using an activity to soothe difficult emotions. I think we all do that. At that moment, all we can really offer is connection.

So, what is our place in all of this? I think it comes down to creating the right physical and emotional environment in which they are free to explore their needs, interests and desires without feeling judged. To me this means three things. Firstly, leading by example by engaging in things that are meaningful to us, and inviting our children into those things whenever possible. Sometimes they’ll participate happily and sometimes what they’re doing is more interesting to them. It doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that the adults in their lives are investing time in fulfilling activities.

Secondly, we can create a healthy environment where there’s a sense that if someone wants, there are lots of things to do and people willing to help. This is as much about attitude as it is about physical space, although a well thought-out space is helpful. So, when they think of things that they’d like to try or do, we’re able to facilitate that. In our case, we’re often just a sounding board or a helping hand. We have to be careful not to get overly excited about their ideas and unconsciously hijack them. Many parents notice that if they push a project along faster than its natural course would take, they end up demotivating their children. Also, we’re really falling back into that place of fear if we’re celebrating when a ‘worthwhile’ activity comes along. See the next point…

Thirdly (and by far the hardest) is putting all judgement aside about what they’re doing. Whether it’s geography, cooking, discussing world politics, a new video game or a favourite YouTuber, they’re all worthy of our respect. It may be an activity that I don’t get any sense of purpose from, but they do. Here, no two days are ever the same, and often one activity dominates their minds for a little while then subsides and something else comes along. There’s a natural fluidity about it, and just when the doubts threaten to creep in, they’ve usually moved on to something else.

It’s been a big relief to me (and definitely to them) to embrace this shift. Even though the little schooling the children had was child-directed and relaxed, social conditioning is a powerful thing, and really trusting them still felt like a gigantic leap of faith. But, by trusting them, we are finally letting go of that constant, gnawing fear that comes from trying to control what isn’t ours to control. I see their innate need and desire to engage with life in a way that is worthwhile to them, and that has been a life changer for everyone.

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