Offering children choices is one of the central principles of unschooling, and I think most people know what it’s like not to have had enough of them growing up. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made, though, has been in going too far the other way with my children, sometimes offering so many choices that they get overwhelmed and frustrated. And the number of choices hasn’t been the only problem; I’ve also withheld guiding them because I feared I would be controlling my kids too much. That is not good unschooling.
It took me a quite a while to see that unschooling is not about putting the child in charge as much as possible. The parent still needs to lead her children while thoughtfully offering choices as they come up in everyday life. Sometimes it’s choosing between a few options for a meal, or deciding what game to play or what to wear. But leaving every little decision up to children, and sometimes offering too many options, all the time, is actually neglectful instead of empowering, resulting in their being burdened by too much responsibility (which definitely gets in the way of connection and learning!).
Another huge downside of my not taking enough charge was that I was not paying close enough attention to my kids’ needs and preferences, and therefore not really seeing them. I would often ask, for instance – usually disrupting what they were doing – how many chicken fingers they wanted, what sauce they wanted to go with them, what they would like on the side, etc. In my mind I wanted to make sure they knew they had options, but in practice I was saying that I wasn’t paying attention to their needs. I was also communicating, in my attempt to control how much food I was serving (mostly because I was afraid to waste it), that food should be limited. Those subtle messages I was conveying, namely that their preferences aren’t important to me and that eating needs to be regulated, add up over time, creating distrust and feelings of scarcity.
Keeping all of those observations in mind, I’ve been stopping myself lately from asking and just acting instead. As an example, F enjoys getting his little pot of tea every evening after dinner. He and I sometimes forget about it, but last night I remembered. Standing in front of the kettle, I considered asking him if he wanted his tea, but then decided to just make it. When I placed the pot and cup on the table in front of him, F’s delight made it clear that, in that moment, he felt loved. And interestingly, by simply making the tea instead of asking first, I felt like I was offering something from the heart instead of from a sense of “have to”, which made it sweeter for me, too.
So as I continue moving towards unschooling, I’m learning that giving what’s needed or wanted without asking, and especially without being asked, is the greatest kindness we can offer our children. It is the most direct way of assuring them that “I see you, and I love you.” And that is good unschooling.