Unschooling is sometimes also called child-directed learning or life-learning. Labels can be misleading as they tend to miss out more than they actually say. So, the accent in these particular labels seems to be the ‘school/learning’ bit. Yet, as anyone who identifies with any of them knows, that really isn’t the defining part of the experience. It isn’t possible to trust in our children and their natural abilities to learn without extending that trust to all other areas of life. You can’t coherently let go in one area, whilst holding on to old assumptions in another. Well, you can and it certainly happens here, despite our best intentions (old habits die hard). But it won’t feel right.
Allowing a child to direct their own time means letting go of the idea that they cannot self-regulate, and that without rules and coercion they won’t make the ‘right’ choices (i.e. our choices). Unschooling is based on the knowledge that in a healthy, supportive environment children can and do self-regulate, that when they have the freedom to make their own choices, they will choose what is right for them. It may not necessarily always be the choice that we would make for ourselves, but we can accept that the choice makes sense to them. Sometimes, like us, they may regret their decisions, and sometimes, because we have been around longer and been able to make lots of terrible decisions ourselves, we may feel that offering another perspective is helpful to them.
By not taking away their autonomy, they have the opportunity to explore and understand their own needs, whether these are social, learning, physiological or any other aspect of life. This seems to me to be a far more solid way to go through life. Through trial and error, they can develop an intrinsic trust in their own internal compass and, as they grow, be able to make choices and decisions that really make sense in the context of their own complex, multi-faceted lives. Lives that at some point we will have little direct influence on. This seems infinitely more sensible than doing what so many of us do or have done, following social convention or the internalised voice of a parent or teacher, whether it’s right or wrong for us.
Before embracing unschooling, there were a lot of inconsistencies in my parenting (it’s still a work in progress). I naturally leaned towards co-sleeping, breastfeeding until they were done, and child-led weaning. Just as sleep training, naughty steps, time-outs and reward charts have never made any sense whatsoever to me. And yet, even when our children had autonomy around lots of things, there were certain aspects of life I always struggled with. I couldn’t entirely let go of my need to control. That sense that certain things needed to be a certain way.
The main two struggles were mealtimes and bedtimes, with bedtimes being the most difficult for me. My British upbringing had instilled in me that, at some arbitrary time, chosen by me, my children should quietly get their pyjamas on, brush their teeth and get into bed ready for a story. Partly, to ensure they get enough sleep (fair enough). But also, in the belief that, after a certain time, children are a sort of intrusion on adult time. It may well be their house too, but at some point in the evening they are no longer welcome in our space. The thing is,that no matter how well I tried to control bedtime, it was always fraught with anxiety. So, those delightful bedtimes I had imagined pre-children, followed by quiet evenings with a glass of wine and a film, never happened anyway. The bedtime ‘routine’ which lasted several hours was an awful lot more stressful than no bedtime routine.
At some point, I let go of my ideal bedtime, and life got a lot easier. The children now sleep when they’re tired and get up when they’ve slept enough. We’re not so odd here in Spain, where dinnertime can be as late as 9pm (10pm if you’re in Madrid), so children tend go to bed late anyway. In the long, hot summer holidays, sit in any Spanish square late in the evening and you’ll see young children at play while their parents enjoy the relative cool of a terrace cafe.
Letting go of bedtime anxiety has helped all of us. D (13) is still naturally a night owl and tends to go up quite late then sleep later the next day. Sometimes it annoys him that he is out of synch with the rest of us, and he makes the effort over a couple of days to get back onto our schedule. He used to find that difficult, but now knows he can do this quite easily. He knows what his limits are, what happens later if he has an afternoon nap, how long that nap should be, and all sorts of other useful things about his own unique body clock. E (11) and C (6) have a different rhythm and go up earlier, but they all know when they’re tired and they sleep as much as they need. I’ve realised that when there is any resistance to sleeping it is almost always fuelled by anxiety. Maybe they had a nightmare the night before, or just don’t want to be alone. Whatever the reason, sometimes they’ll just want some company to work through it, or maybe just prefer to go up later that evening.
This does mean that there can be different energy levels in the evening. The challenge is in compromising so that we can all be happy. Sometimes someone will want to play a game and if I’m tired and don’t acknowledge that I may well get grouchy. So I think it’s all good practice in recognising our individual needs and communicating them. There certainly can be conflicts but an awful lot less than when bedtime had a specific time.
Dinnertime was another tricky one for me. I always believed we should have our mealtimes together around the table. We did this for many years, harmoniously enough, until at one point people didn’t always want to do that. I remember going through a phase when there was a lot of friction between two children. It must have been our fourth dinner in a row that ended with someone storming off cross. Not much fun for anyone. That was the day I had to finally wonder whose version of ideal this really was. Not mine!
Now, we still mostly eat together around the table. If someone isn’t hungry, that’s okay. They can eat later when they are hungry. And if they prefer to take their plate and go eat somewhere else, that’s fine too. When we do sit together it’s because we all want to.
It’s hard to let go of these deeply ingrained social norms, but it’s liberating too. Not just for our children, but also for us. The realisation that there is no ideal version of family life, along with an acceptance of each person’s different needs and ways, leads to more understanding relationships. More than anything, I have no idea what the future may hold for these children but I do know that, like every child, at some point they will be completely in charge of their own lives. And when that time comes, I’m confident that they will know how to understand their own needs and desires and be well versed in making choices that respect these. For me, that autonomy is really what unschooling is all about.