Sometimes, it’s easy to feel confident. Seeing a child curled up reading a book, looking up ingredients to do some baking, or just getting cross about politics in the kitchen. At these times, I can’t help but think that all is well. We look like someone’s idea of what this should look like. We are relaxed, busy and all getting on with meaningful things. Luckily, just as I’m at risk of feeling smug, things change their natural course.
Suddenly, the house has gone silent, and we no longer look like anyone’s idea of anything much. There are no happy children getting messy in the kitchen, no intellectual conversations, no creating and making. One person is watching their favourite TV comedy, one is gaming, and the other is playing in their room. Nothing going on at all.
There’s no particular rhythm to this ebb and flow of life, no telling how or when activity will give way to these quieter times. Some days are a mixture of action and silence. Or there may be several days where new ideas and projects reign, followed by days of nothing in particular.
At the beginning of our journey, I would get edgy in the quiet times. I’d be fine for a while—a silent house can be rather lovely after all. But if the minutes turned into hours and the hours into a whole day, then things started to feel wrong. I’d begin to question if this was working, and feel guilty that I wasn’t doing enough. And if I don’t do enough, logic (and some ancient mother guilt) says that my children won’t be enough. And, despite the fact that the house was quietly content, I might just intervene, to get things back on track. Back to how I imagined unschooling should look like. Busy, messy children and intellectual conversations, I guess. And back to not feeling guilty about what is or isn’t enough.
The main problem with intervening (and I think there are quite a few), is that it undermines the trust. It shows that I only really trust my children’s autonomy and respect their choices if those choices are something I personally approve of. Which is all quite incoherent of course. My interventions were generally quite ‘light’—cheerful, breezy suggestions that we do something else, such as a walk, some baking, a craft… Usually, my children would detect a little tension in my voice. The tension that only your own child could possibly hear and that indicated that despite my pleasant tone, I was quietly panicking inside at how they were spending the day. If they said no, I would be back to questioning what I was doing wrong.
Over time, I’ve understood that the quiet times are an integral part of life and I enjoy them now. There’s a contained energy about them, and they are as valuable and meaningful as all the other times. The child chooses when to take action and the child chooses when they are done, when they need to regroup, to relax, to unwind, to think, to zone out. Just like most of us, in fact. And, after some years at this, I also know that eventually, the quiet times end and something else arises. Often, the conversations or activities that come are connected to something learned or absorbed in that ebb and flow, inspired by a programme or a game, or just some random thoughts that had the space to arise.
Today was a pretty good example of a quiet day, each person doing the thing they most turn to. D spent most of the day playing Tropico on his PC, and E has been catching up on late night comedy shows from the US. C and I walked a neighbour’s dog, and made paper windmills, but there was also plenty of time alone in her room mostly watching videos of cute animals, a YouTuber who does gymnastics, and singing along to her favourite songs on YouTube. I took advantage and went for a long walk by the river that no one else felt like coming on (I still suggest – I just don’t mind if they say no).
The house came alive once more this evening. Inspired by the gymnast, C practised her moves, then persuaded me off the sofa and onto the mat to do our Yoga with Adriene session together. D showed Mariano how to play Tropico. The game is all about running a country in political turmoil, and since Mariano and D have very different ideas about economics, I think it probably became a competition in economic prowess. We had to close the door on them as it got late and the laughing was so loud. E shared some of the jokes from the shows he’d been watching. It turns out that he was combining political satire with reruns of The Great British Bake Off, so he also had some ideas about something he wanted to bake. So, I guess we naturally found our way back to politics in the kitchen and baking, after all. We just took the scenic route. And if we’d arrived at an entirely different place, that would have been fine too.
I am reminded that it doesn’t matter at all what this looks like to the outside world. Yes, I’ll probably always feel secretly reassured when it looks busy and purposeful, even if I pretend otherwise, just because that paradigm is so deeply ingrained in me. But, I also know that the busy times and the quiet times are two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without the other. So, far better to trust, let go and take the scenic route, to wherever it’s headed.
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