Some years ago, when my eldest son was still a toddler, I came across a book about learning at home. The author had interviewed many families (parents and children) on different topics to do with how the children lived and learned. The majority of these families didn’t follow a curriculum or do any formal classes. Most had tried some kind of directed study initially but found that it just didn’t work, and had ended up following an unschooling approach to learning, based on their children’s interests.
I was fascinated by this book. It was the first time I had ever heard that children learn easily to read by themselves when they’re ready (though my mother has since told me that I learned to read by myself, so I guess I did know that at some level). But the thing that most struck me was how parents talked about the importance of conversation in their homes. Not just as a way to connect, but as part of their children’s learning. I specifically remember a father describing family car journeys, when they would discuss everything under the sun and how he would be amazed by the depth of his children’s knowledge.
It’s funny to be living that same experience all these years later. Just like those parents in the book, conversation is hugely important in our daily lives. Of course, conversation is important in all families, but when children are self-directed in their learning, it fulfils a number of other needs related to their exploration of life. In fact, beyond all the things required of me to support my children’s learning and exploration, simply being available to talk is probably the most important. More essential than organising activities or finding resources, is that I have the time and patience to listen and to be present to their thoughts.
The conversations happen continually throughout the day. There’s no discernible rhythm to any of it, though if you watched over time, you’d probably spot a kind of ebb and flow. The quiet acquiring of information is often followed by a desire to voice, share and ruminate with someone else. So the conversations take place at breakfast, on walks, when we’re making dinner, late in the evening. Any time is good for talking.
Sometimes, the conversation is driven simply by their desire to share something they found interesting or funny. They each have preferred resources for learning about what interests them, including video channels, Wikipedia, favourite TV shows, books and video games. Oftentimes, I’m getting on with something, when someone comes into the room and says, ‘Did you know…?’, followed by something I almost certainly didn’t know. This new piece of information then flows on to all sorts of other places.
Other times, they are working through their thoughts on something and need a sounding board for their ideas. A new invention, how to become an architect, the big bang, ways to make money, how to buy an island…they are each navigating a fast-moving river of curiosity and ideas. Sometimes it’s just a mulling over of the world – figuring out how we could all be living better, or getting annoyed about so much being done so badly. There are lots of conversations about economics, politics and morality. Other times it’s about making sense of life and trying to find their place in it. The #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and gender identity have all led to thoughtful discussions.
That these conversations are a key part of their learning process is clear to me. The need to talk things through is as necessary as the experiences they have, and the information they take in. Talking helps them clarify things, get more information, or just satisfies that common human desire to connect and share around things that matter to us.
Having conversations sounds easy of course, but it’s curiously contrary to modern life and modern parenting. To really engage means to slow down and pay attention. My children can always spot when I’m distracted and not fully listening, so it can require some conscious effort on my part, particularly if I’m engaged in thoughts of my own. That’s not always easy. To leave your inner musings behind and become open and curious to someone else’s at the drop of a hat can be challenging.
So, for me, over the years, it has meant opening my mind to all sorts of things that I’ve really never thought about or been interested in. I confess that my heart sometimes sinks when someone wants to talk to me about a subject that I just don’t feel much curiosity for. Recent topics that come to mind are space travel, electricity, and military spending… It’s credit to my children, their enthusiasm and their ability to unearth something fascinating about pretty much anything, that even on these topics I have managed to muster up some interest. And I have actually become interested in lots of things that I believe would never have been on my radar.
Authentic conversation also requires us putting aside any notion that the adult knows best. It means allowing for a subject to be explored, without naming what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Sometimes I don’t agree with one of my children’s opinions, and I might even find them shocking, particularly if politically incorrect. My knee jerk reaction would be to say that they can’t possibly think that. But if I stay away from my fears and I follow their thoughts, eventually I understand exactly why they are saying something, and they are invariably making an interesting point. I still may not agree, but they are finding their way through it all, and my place is to allow that process, not to shut it down.
I’m writing this early in the morning, and everyone is still asleep. I love the tumbling of thoughts and ideas that will begin just as soon as everyone is up, and I will do my best to keep up with it all. But I am also enjoying the luxury of delving into my own thoughts. I’m reminded of a few friends I have with whom I love to debate all the things I’m most interested in, and I’m hoping one is free for a coffee today so we can put the world to rights. I like nothing more than spending an hour chatting with someone who is open to my ideas and who has their own thoughts to share. I find it inspiring and energising, and the sharing often gives way to new perspectives. I wonder if the modern world with its emphasis on fast, productive lives, is missing a trick. There’s just so much to be gained from a good conversation.