Jennifer refers to them as her assistant farm hands. My two children ages 2 and 4 help with various tasks around her 90-acre farm. For an hour a week, they dig holes for new trees and fill bird feeders. Alongside them I help out too and learn how to know when cows are hungry and how to identify the tracks a fox makes.
The children, of course, do not always do what they are invited to do. Sweeping the barn becomes an occasion to leap, broom and all, into a pile of straw meant for a wheelbarrow bound for the compost pile. An invitation to pick up the willow branches felled by a windstorm becomes a chance for the kids to pluck clover and chase each other in the wide-open meadow.
In these moments, my pulse quickens as I struggle to refrain from calling the children back to the tasks at hand. At home, where the environment has been curated over time, I’m comfortable with the playful tangles they make and expect resistance to my requests. But at Jennifer’s, I find myself wishing they would behave more. I breathe deeply and remind myself they are young children whose attention can turn like the wind. This is learning too, right? My learning, I think, because the one who needs to do the work of modulating my expectations is me.
Some may think pre-school age kids are too young to unschool. How can children take the lead in their own learning when they dig up the seeds they just helped plant in a garden? When they refuse to wear a raincoat during a rainstorm? When they flush silverware down the toilet? But a shift in mindset can help. Parents may see themselves playing a general supportive role to encourage their children’s unschooling processes. But, they engage a far more pivotal role especially for young children because parenting approaches shape how children learn. Parenting influences the emotional tenor of the early beginnings of children’s unschooling journeys, suggesting how relational the process can be.
Freedom and Responsibility
At the root of the philosophy of unschooling, Kerry McDonald writes in her book Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom is who decides the question of “the balance of freedom and responsibility.” When children take the lead in their learning, they can experience a sense of freedom. To have some freedom in directing their learning, children take responsibility for their education.
The notion of the importance of freedom when it comes to education is not something to be taken lightly given the way schooling institutions generally impose standardized metrics and timelines to children’s learning. Institutional schooling spaces that micromanage children’s time and movement can create a competitive and stressful atmosphere to learning. Unschooling, McDonald suggests, challenges these dominant structures of control.
When children’s interests shape the path of their education, they can pursue their interests rather than expend energy to learn specific content at the speed at which someone else thinks they should learn. Through the act of pursuing their interests, children gain some control over their lives and at the same time take responsibility for their education. This responsibility emerges from practice at identifying their interests and then deliberately choosing to pursue them. Children in this way take ownership of their learning — with freedom comes responsibility as the saying goes.
Parents, from this perspective, assist with their children’s unschooling by allowing their children’s interests to drive the process. Unschooling advice generally tasks parents with supporting their children’s self-directed learning. Parents create environments that help children follow their interests by exposing them to various experiences through books, travel, and people. They make resources available like online or in-person classes and lessons, art materials, or tutors. The parental role of respectful facilitator is clearly not about imposing control on their children but about letting children’s interests guide their learning.
The Power of the Attachment Bond
But how does the balance of freedom and responsibility look when it comes to how parents support younger children whose interests at times sync with what their parents or the people around them do? One answer is to move perception of the process from a personal to a relational one. It may seem paradoxical, but what may enrich children’s early unschooling journeys is for parents to undertake some of their own self-directed learning about parenting. Because infants and toddlers rely so heavily on their attachment to their parents to develop, parents initially shape their children’s processes of self-directed learning in ways that may be difficult to trace. In other words, how parents parent sets the emotional tenor of their children’s unschooling journeys.
As I continue to learn about unschooling and talk about its ramifications with my husband, we realized at one point that we are homeschooling our children already. We do not have to wait until our children are school age in order to formally begin unschooling (what an ironic “schooled” realization)!
Parents have a profound influence on the way their children learn, especially at a very early age. Psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth are often credited with developing attachment theory that suggests that the bonds between infants and young children with their primary caregivers impacts the emotional set points that influence people throughout their lives.
If children feel protected and comforted by responsive caregivers, they develop a secure psychological base that encourages them to engage in the world with confidence and security as they grow. This means they tend to develop independence, build strong social relationships, and experience less anxiety than those who did not have strong attachments as young children. Parents, from this perspective, are central figures that shape their children’s learning trajectories.
To say that parents have a central role in young children’s self-directed learning processes is not to replace school dictates with imposed parental ones. But rather, this notion provides an opportunity to consider how parental growth influences children’s growth because fostering the parental bond can enrich how children approach learning. Parenting books like Michaeleen Doucleff’s Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans offer some relevant advice.
At Jennifer’s, my children watch as I grapple with an unfamiliar environment and tasks alongside them. Parents model and set the tone for their children’s behavior even when they do not realize it, and kids are always watching. Doucleff makes the point that children often imitate their parents. If parents yell, their children learn to yell. However, if they respond to children’s tantrums with the utmost calm, children will generally learn to modulate their emotions and eventually calm down too. Parents influence their children’s learning paths by modeling how to engage challenges and adapt to new situations.
One valuable lesson for parents, Doucleff proffers, is to expect their kids to be emotional, make messes, and act unreasonably (in adult minds). They will refuse to put on their shoes or sit in their car seats. When parents consider how quickly their children’s bodies and brains are growing, they may realize it does not make sense to argue with children because they are generally not purposefully trying to upset them. This view does not condone permissive parenting without boundaries. What it does mean is the value of coming to terms with the notion that how parents engage their children creates a template for their children’s behavior, including how they approach learning. Parents need to strive to engage their children calmly, sometimes with humor, and always with love.
Invite them to help
Young children’s interests often relate to what they see their parents doing, so let them. At Jennifer’s, more often than not, the children do want to do what Jennifer and I are doing. When we lift heavy bags of pine mulch off a truck, the children want to help too although all they can do is put their hands on the bags. Doucleff suggests that parents can learn to make it easier for children to help out with household tasks. In fact, invite them to help.
Children want to help fold laundry, vacuum, clean the dishes, and cook. Offer them small tasks to contribute to the larger real tasks you are doing. And when children volunteer to help, it is important to welcome their intimations because accepting the offers is an important way to help them feel they have a role in a family or group. Acknowledging their contributions encourages them to pitch in with family tasks as they get older without having to be told to do so. It also helps them on the path toward self-directed learning because their interests are met with openness.
When they help, don’t intervene too much
Often though, parents may not welcome a toddler’s help because it complicates a task. When a child helps scramble eggs, the eggs may end up outside of the skillet. Dishes may break on their way to the drying rack. Even so, strive to keep the children safe but withhold comment. Resist grabbing their hands or berating them to hurry. Let them figure things out for themselves, Doucleff suggests, because this can help them foster a sense of autonomy that motivates them to continue trying. If parents view their children to some extent as copartners in regard to particular activities, parents can foster their children’s interest in collaboration. To give them a sense of self-reliance gives them a sense of control over their lives, something that unschooling strives to achieve. It gives them a sense of competency.
Doucleff explains that there is a difference between independence and autonomy, and it has to do with connectivity. Independence suggests acting without influence by or regard for others. For children, this means acting in solitary and disconnected ways. It means acting without obligations and in turn means the family and community have no expectations of the child. But acting with autonomy suggests that freedom is tempered with expectations that show children they have roles in their families and communities.
To allow children to contribute to the real tasks that adults do and giving them space to do it their way encourages children to explore freedom and responsibility within relationship. This means they can feel like through their actions they contribute to the community they are part of. How parents let their children help with tasks enriches their children’s self-directed learning processes by implicating the relational nature.
How parents parent influences how children learn. I initially thought of visits to Jennifer’s farm as an unschooling type of mini-apprenticeship-of-sorts for my children. The visits gave them a chance to be in a different kind of environment from our home, to build a relationship with another adult, and to encounter new activities. But the visits have also become occasions for me to navigate an unfamiliar environment in front of my children and reflect on how I parent.
My view of my role changed when I started to see how visits to Jennifer’s farm were not only in service of my children. Rather than be present as monitor or caretaker, I am a co-participant learning too. This shift in mindset gives me permission to learn (and mess up) and to consider how there’s much to grasp not only about life on a farm but also about being a parent. It encourages me to see how the textured landscape of my own process of self-directed learning about parenting generates space for my young children’s unschooling journeys.