Some of the best memories that I have from when my daughters Heidi and Melanie were young involve us hanging around together: family excursions to the zoo, hours spent sitting together in the same room each reading our own books, rollicking road trips, 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.
That’s why, as Hope Nilges writes in her article “What Do You Do All Day?,” life learning seems so mysterious. We’ve probably all encountered people who wonder what our 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 learning often looks like doing nothing. It involves providing space and materials, modelling behaviour (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 called a disease named “teacheria” in an article in Life Learning’s May/June 2007 issue. Teacheria symptoms include needing to explain things, 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 except when asked for help can be harder than it looks…and it’s certainly not “unparenting.” But its importance 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. 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 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 my mother’s attention, rather than for one of her projects designed to keep me out of her way. Eventually my down time would end and I would find something new and more challenging to do than the busy work she provided.
Life with my own daughters was quite different. For one thing, there was a great deal more trust and respect—on both sides. We also enjoyed each others’ company. In fact, we were usually in the same space together for much of the day. 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 not. When anyone needed to take a trip to the store, post office, bank, library, or other destination, they were usually eager to go along for the ride. When I was doing magazine work or writing, they were in the office. Often, I didn’t even notice there was a child curled up beside me intently focused on pencil and paper, puzzle, book, or toy.
I think that children of all ages want to know that help is near, that they’re not on their own in life or in learning. But they need and want to be in control. In fact, one of Heidi’s earliest string of words was, “I can do it myself!” She didn’t want me completely out of the way, even as she pushed me aside; what she really wanted was my trust, support, and company.