How to do nothing

My daughter is painting a picture and is intensely focused. The picture is of a castle on a hill, with the sun setting in the background. I’m about to proclaim what a beautiful painting it is, but stop myself in time. She isn’t painting for me, and she’s concentrating on her work. She doesn’t need to hear my opinion right now, even though I would feel good saying it. I’ll tell her how much I love it later, when she is no longer in this creative space.

My sons are having a heated debate about politics. I can feel it rising a notch or two, and sense myself tense up a little at the prospect of someone getting really cross. Experience tells me it could go either way. So, I resist intervening and offer everyone a cup of tea instead just to shift things a little. One of my sons says, ‘Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree then’, and the tension gives way to something lighter. Phew.

Someone is generally out of sorts and feeling bored. I know that the word ‘bored’ is the blanket term for a host of feelings, so suggesting something to do may well miss the mark. It’s possible they just need some time to work through whatever they have going on in their head. And, that if I hold back, they will use their own resources and intuition to figure it all out. It’s hard to know what’s best, and I may well get it wrong before getting it right.

The day is filled with countless moments like these, some subtle and some less so. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with suggestions, distractions, corrections or encouragement. I can admire a painting, step in to help redirect an argument, or suggest something to do. In fact, all of this comes naturally to me. What comes less naturally, and what I have had to work at, is understanding when these things are not helpful or needed. They may once have all fallen automatically into my definition of ‘being a good parent’, and that’s hard to shift, but the the truth is that when I intervene for intervention’s sake, it’s unlikely to be helpful.

I suspect that doing nothing doesn’t come naturally to many of us any more. I imagine our ancestors were far better at sitting with the mystery of life, trusting in these ancient processes, and intuitively knowing not to disturb delicate moments.

But, in the name of good parenting, we easily project our insecurities and fears onto our children, quietly derailing their natural processes, then using the derailment as proof that these processes don’t work and that our constant interventions are essential. At the bottom of all of this is surely a lack of trust, in our children, in ourselves and in these intricate processes of learning, growing and being. We see a bored child or a brewing argument and we panic into reacting. We think it’s up to us to give meaning to a moment, to their art, to their thoughts. We don’t trust that things can flow to a good place without us attempting to guide them.

It can feel strange at first to just let things unfold without comment, or to trust that many situations will be resolved without our intervention, but over time it becomes easier, and opens the door to a new quality of space with our children.

So, how to do nothing when nothing is needed?

Be aware of your triggers
Be curious about the kind of thing you automatically react to. Are you responding to real needs or is there some fear or worry about you or your child that’s triggering you?

Observe
Stay curious and see what happens when you do interject and when you don’t. You’re likely to be happily surprised at some of the outcomes. Each time things come to land without your help or thrive without you trying to direct the process, you’ll gain a little more confidence.

Let go of how things ‘should’ be
This is probably the hardest and most important aspect of unschooling. Trusting our children and their processes means letting go of what we think it should all look like. Letting go of specific desired outcomes takes away a lot of the urge to intervene when not needed.

Be authentic
There’s so much social and cultural baggage around parenting, that it can be hard to understand what is authentic and what is deeply learned behaviour. Commenting ‘Good job!’ every time a child does anything vaguely interesting doesn’t make much sense to anyone, and I suspect most children just learn to zone that out. But, expressing genuine admiration or delight in something they do seems pretty wonderful. New words in Russian, gymnastics moves, a new tune on the tin whistle. I’m often impressed and I know that none of it is done to please me, so I celebrate these things freely.

Choose your timing
If someone is really focused on what they are doing I try not to interrupt, particularly if it’s to comment on what they’re doing or ask a question about it. It’s probably just not the right moment.

Take a deep breath
Mindfulness is a great companion to unschooling. It helps create a little space between the trigger and the automatic response, giving us time to react consciously. Which may well mean, doing nothing.

And that reminds me of a beautiful Zen proverb, which I should probably put on the wall somewhere in the house: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.” So true.


Other posts you might like
What is unschooling?
Things I wish I had known
Children and the natural business of life

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