Some of the best memories that I have from when my daughters Heidi and Melanie were young life learners / unschoolers involve us hanging out and doing things together. Our life learning / unschooling companionship took many forms: Family excursions to the zoo, rollicking road trips (we lived in an RV for a while), leisurely hikes across town and on country roads, gardening, baking, cooking, sewing, building LEGO villages. And then there were the conversations…talking about everything and nothing while doing things or just sitting in the kitchen enjoying each others’ company. In fact, as memorable as the excursions were, what I really miss is the companionship – the hours spent sitting together in the same room, each reading our own books, doing our own work, or just absorbed in our own thoughts.
We’ve probably all encountered people who wonder what our unschooling family life looks like – and have struggled to explain a day in the life (or been frustrated at having been asked). Sometimes, the questioners are homeschooling families that want to move away from curriculum and towards active learning; other times they’re curious onlookers. Or they may be the many people with negative judgments spurred by media coverage of unschooling – that it’s “non-parenting,” that the kids do nothing all day (except perhaps eat donuts), that life learners’ lives are without structure, and so on.
The reality is that encouraging active, self-directed learning can look like doing nothing. It involves providing space and materials, modeling behavior (a fancy way to say going about one’s own business), and keeping out of the way while remaining accessible, companionable, and supportive. It is often, indeed, about the “un” in “unschooling.” It’s about curing oneself of what Naomi Aldort, writing in Life Learning Magazine back in 2007, called a disease named “teacheria.” Teacheria symptoms include needing to explain or take over, to turn dinner into a lesson, to answer simple questions with complex answers, to find an audience, to get in the way of learning.
Keeping out of the way and allowing independence to develop naturally is harder than it looks…and it’s certainly not “unparenting.” But its importance – and the power of companionship in unschooling families – can be difficult for others to understand. In our culture, we have a fear of idleness, and therefore tend to over-program kids, rather than giving them space and time for themselves, or opportunities to enjoy adult company and to be part of our real-life activities. I remember that when I was a child, my mother never allowed me to be still, especially during summer vacation when my time wasn’t programmed by somebody else. Fearful that my idleness would lead me into “trouble,” she would program my time and/or create some busy work for me. Her efforts were futile, possibly because I was stubborn enough to reject her suggestions on general principle, probably because it only looked like I was doing nothing. And if I did admit to boredom, that was a plea for spending some time with my mother, rather than for one of her projects designed to keep me out of her way.
Life with my own unschooling daughters was quite different. For one thing, there was a great deal more trust and respect – on both sides. We also enjoyed being together, which is something that surprises many parents of young children. In fact, we were usually in the same space together for much of the day, no matter how large our living space was. When I was sewing, the girls would bring their projects into the sewing room. When I was cooking, they were in the kitchen with me, whether they were participating or doing something else. When I was doing magazine work or writing, they were often in the office – companionably doing their own thing. Sometimes, I didn’t even notice there was a child curled up beside me intently focused on pencil and paper, puzzle, book, or toy. When their dad or I needed to take a trip to the store, post office, bank, library, accountant, printer, or other personal or business destination, they were usually eager to go along for the ride, a chat, and whatever adventure there was to be had.
A great deal of learning resulted from all of those opportunities to be together. Like most kids, Heidi and Melanie soaked up information from whatever was going on around them, and they were, in fact, being mentored in many aspects of life and learning without us even really noticing. Our trust and respect for them led to them having a huge amount of choice and control over their lives. Our companionship was readily available and help was near when they asked for it. One of Heidi’s earliest sentences was, “I can do it myself!” But she also made it clear that she didn’t want me completely out of the way; what she really wanted was my trust, support, occasional assistance, and companionship. That not only gave me some great memories but put them on the path to adult independence.