Not so long ago, in that little space between lockdowns, I was talking with two friends about the tension we sometimes feel when our children don’t want to do things we think they’d enjoy. The context that day was simple. We’d planned to go for a hot chocolate and a walk with some of our children. Companionship, nature, conversation, fresh air, hot chocolate… there was nothing not to love. Unfortunately, none of the children were interested, so it wasn’t to be. We were all a little frustrated because we were in the mood for hot chocolate and a walk, but one friend was particularly disappointed. Her son had been feeling down and she had imagined this would cheer him up.
We’d all been there many times. A gymnastics class, a playdate, a course, a club – if I talk with these same friends, we can all remember countless things that seemed perfect for our children, but that they chose not to do. And, although they are free to choose, occasionally it feels like they are making the ‘wrong’ choice. And, at those times, whilst the conscious, evolved parent in us totally gets it, there is also a less-evolved inner parent silently screaming, ‘But it’s good for you!’ It is hard to get beyond the idea that we know better.
A wise unschooling mother recently told me that she considers unschooling begins in that space where reality and expectations clash. I thought that was a wonderful observation. We can all unschool happily when our children agree with us, and go along with how we think it should all play out. Then we are three jolly families out for a muddy walk in the rare winter sun, laughing with our hot chocolates in hand. Unschooling is a doddle! But, our learning edge is precisely when it does not play out like that. And the learning edge is not in what the child chooses or doesn’t choose to do. It is in our response. So, how to respond when we have long since given up stamping authority on the situation in the knowledge that we know what is good for them?
Since trust is at the heart of unschooling, it may seem that when someone turns something down, that would be the end of it. They know their own minds, so that’s it. But, I think there is far more depth to this space where expectations and reality clash. This uncomfortable, complicated grey space invites reflection. It is where our children’s choices and our responses meet and, when we are able to reflect and respond from a place beyond our own ego, we will support our children in ways that go far deeper.
And so, as always, we need to start by unpicking our own stuff. Why I am so concerned that someone does a particular activity? What am I so attached to? Maybe I’m disappointed because, like my friend with her son, I thought I’d found a solution to something. Perhaps I’m worried about lack of exercise or vitamin D. Maybe the activity is something I spent a long time researching, or something that fits perfectly with a future career they are busy mapping out. I almost certainly feel frustration that they can’t see this in the way that I see it. I may well feel some resentment. Whatever is going on in my mind, my frustration, disappointment or resentment will certainly be the fruit of dashed expectations.
Does the parent ever know better? I have more information about certain things and many more years of lived experience, so objectively I do bring some extra knowledge to the table. But, at the same time, my view of the world is entirely created from my own limited experience, and so, at the same time, it is still narrow. And, of course, I am not them. We all have different interests and personalities, and see the world and our place in it through wildly different eyes. So, it’s probably fair to say that my suggestion could have a lot of merit, but there is also every possibility that I’m not right either.
Once I’m beyond my own trigger, I can settle into that complicated grey space where nothing is ever the same. There are certain shapes that are generally familiar, but others are constantly moving and shifting. The thing that became so clear yesterday may well have morphed into an entirely new shape today, one that may keep slipping from my grasp. Sometimes it’s easy to understand the ‘no’. They don’t want to go out because they have become intensely involved in some other activity. Or perhaps I pushed too far on something, and the ‘no’ is a rightful reclaiming of territory, of ownership of their interest or their time.
Sometimes the ‘no’ has a sad ring to it, and if I take it at face value I’m missing something. It might have to do with lack of confidence, fear of failure, or worry about not fitting in. This is the hardest space to navigate, to understand what is needed. It might be a hug and a gentle nudge, or it might be a reminder that they don’t need to push themselves too fast if it doesn’t feel right. It can be hard to tread the line between encouragement and coercion, between offering reassurance and creating new expectations. In the case of a neurodiverse child who knows that certain situations will trigger anxiety, this is an even trickier path. I am sure that every parent of a neurodiverse child has struggled with this dilemma of when to nudge and encourage, and when to hold back. If you are the parent of a PDA child, then you are likely to spend a lot of time engaged in this incredibly intricate dance. Refusal to do things they initially wanted to do may well be anxiety-based. Here, it is still a work in progress, but understanding my son is the only way I can respond in a way that’s helpful to him. Sometimes, it is about just letting him honour his ‘no’ and not feel bad about it. But, more often his need is for gentle encouragement. He wants to move beyond the anxiety that stops him doing things, and so that is the response he needs from me. But even though the result may fit with my expectations (him going to a new club, for example), the way I respond to him in that moment must be in tune with his desire and not with my expectations. That sounds like a subtle difference, but it is actually huge. It is the difference between helping him feel empowered and disempowering him.
And so what about that most simple ‘no’ that we all go to when we just can’t be bothered with the effort? Particularly now, when it’s cold outside and the world is slow and worrisome. Do you give up on outside walks when you know it would feel fabulous and that you would all come back in a great mood? When you are sure in your bones that it would be good for all of you. Here, I do admit to some low level sneakiness. Pre-lockdown I would probably add a suggestion like a popping into a favourite shop, or seeing a friend on the way. If the person jumps up to put their shoes on, then I know I’m on the right track. If they don’t then I won’t insist, but I will go on a little walk myself, and they can’t fail to notice that I come back in a lighter mood. Right now, I can’t count on shops or friends to help me, but we do have a couple of cafes doing take away drinks. So, my only available resource is really a take away hot chocolate. And, if hot chocolate isn’t enough to entice anyone out, then I’ll just have to trust that they know best.