Watching Your Flowers Bloom: Unschooling & Child Development

[Disclaimer: these musings and theories are not one-size-fits-all, particularly when there are special needs involved!]

One significant thing that has evolved on my parenting journey is the way I view learning, in its broadest definition.  It occurred to me recently, as I have noticed a pattern in the advice that I dole out to other parents, that I incorporate unschooling philosophies into our lives more than I realized.  Now, we are not Radical Unschoolers.  Far from it, really.  I strictly limit screen time, screen content, and junk food, and I insist on personal hygiene, good manners, safety rules, and a decent night’s sleep.  (Wow, I sound really strict!  But really I’m not; in fact, my children are currently parked in front of PBS Kids so that I can write this!  And sometimes they go to bed without brushing their teeth!  And we like to eat at Sonic!  See, I’m human, too. ;))  So that pretty much disqualifies us from claiming the title of Radical Unschoolers.  But that is beside the point here!  So, what I realized is that among all the battles that I pick to fight as a mother, the ones that involve normal child development are not among them.  At least not anymore.

There is a philosophy that I love and identify with called Free-Range Parenting.  It involves (in a nutshell), teaching your children basic safety rules, having a lot of faith in humanity, and letting them figure out the world on their own as their age and abilities allow.  You do not have to be an unschooler to be a free-range parent, but I am thinking that unschooling and free-ranging kind of go hand in hand.  At least for us.  Being a Mom of Many has led me down this path, not only because of experience and continuous research, but because when you have a lot of children, you have no choice but to carefully pick your battles.  So, what has come of this is that I have let go of the preconceived notion that we actually have to teach our children to do certain things.  Unschooling is about having faith that, given the freedom and opportunity to do so, your children WILL LEARN what they need to learn.  Really, with academics, all they need to do is learn to read, and that opens up the entire world for them to learn from.  And boy, do they drink it up!

self-taught reader

So that brings me to the issue of child development and how it relates to unschooling.  I am talking about “teaching” children to walk.  To talk.  To eat with utensils.  To use the toilet.  To sleep through the night.   To wean from the breast, or a pacifier, or even from co-sleeping.  To swim.  To ride a bike.  To read.  All of these things will happen naturally if you allow it; if you are willing to wait, and have the patience.  All of them!  I have seen it with my own eyes, several times over!  For me, and other MoMs (I assume), the patience bit is a non-issue, because we are so busy doing endless laundry and getting food on the table that we just don’t have the opportunity to worry about every little thing.  Perhaps some would call it laziness. And please do not be confused by thinking that not actively teaching these things equates neglect.  It most certainly does not.  One part of unschooling is being a “facilitator” instead of a “teacher.”  Teaching implies direct instruction of something, while facilitating involves supporting and allowing learning.  I have found that being a facilitator is easier and, more importantly, happier for all involved, and even more successful (in my personal experience), than trying to teach things that don’t need to be taught.

The middle three children, here ages 6, 6, & 3, are all self-taught swimmers.
(as is my oldest child, not pictured here)

So, reviewing what I have already written, I am afraid that I paint a picture of myself as refusing to ever teach my children anything.  Again, not true.  But the way that I teach is not necessarily direct and assertive.  It is mostly opportunistic and random, and their natural curiosity and hunger for knowledge (and questions, oh, the questions!) fills in the gaps.  I lazily teach my babies sign language, and they pick up on some of it.  I allow that binky-addict to keep his binky at bedtime (because I think security items are security items for a reason, and I feel that forcibly removing them is damaging…and I speak from experience), and shortly before his fourth birthday, he seems to forget about it.  Eventually, sometime after their first birthday, I will think to hand them a spoon at the dinner table, and might be delighted to see that they have watched the rest of us use utensils enough that they already know what to do with it!  Same with a tooth brush.  And I don’t care if they don’t get it right.  They will watch.  They will learn.  They will try, and fail, and try again.  I will not put pressure on them, because I believe that kills the joy and wonder of discovery, and sets everyone up for failure and conflict.  I feel this way about many things, including using the toilet and getting dressed.  Eventually they will figure it out, through trial and error, but I do not want to lower the quality of our relationship by fighting about it, and I do so LOVE watching them figure things out!  There is no greater wonder in parenthood.  Those are the moments that make it all worth it, so why would I want to decrease the frequency of them?  I don’t want to be proud of myself for “teaching” my child something; I want to be proud of my child for learning something!  Instead of thinking, with pride, I taught him well! I think, with awe, I gave birth to that!  It’s what gets me through the darkest of times.

Brigit at 15 months, figuring out the fork.

Connor at 19 months, self-initiated tooth-brushing...with MY toothbrush.
(the original caption for this pic said "This is why we have doorknob covers")

So in the interest of clarifying my methodology, I will explain a little bit about how I facilitate, rather than teach, what I consider to be normal developmental milestones.  When it comes to potty “training” (a subject near and dear to my heart after learning the hard way), I prefer to offer the potty every once in a while from about the age of 1; before baths, mainly, or when it’s time for a diaper change and the diaper is dry.  My babies have all seen me use the potty.  The more family members, the more opportunity a child has to witness this necessary function and how the big people deal with it.  Around the age of 2, we might start having naked time a lot at home (the baby, not the rest of us! ;)), keeping a potty chair or two in the living areas.

Eventually the child will use the toilet.  No pressure.  No anger at “accidents.”  No shaming.  No punishments.  I just keep a spray bottle of all-purpose cleaner (around here, that’s water, white vinegar, and a squirt of liquid soap) and some rags on hand, and clean up a few puddles every day (it helps to NOT have carpet…if you do, then I don’t know what to tell you!).  The baby still wears diapers at night, during naps, and when we go out.  Just naked time at home.  In our experience, this no-fuss potty learning took about a year from the first self-initiated urge recognition (read: he ran to the potty to pee of his own accord) before the child could wear underwear out of the house.  So worth it!  And I’ll tell you why: with my first 3 children, I went a more traditional route with the potty training.  There were sticker charts, candy, countless changes of clothing, anger, blame, yelling.  It should not have to be like that!  And the kicker?  It took LONGER for them to train than the kid I did NOTHING for!  Lesson learned.  So much easier, so much happier, and really, so much faster!  All because I sat back and let nature take its course (no pun intended there!).

Connor at 2 1/2, figuring out the potty.

So, the bottom line is that I have come into my laissez faire style of parenting both out of necessity (having a lot of children being the main one, but struggles with depression and debilitating back pain are certainly a part of it) and because of my own trial and error.  It turns out that there are many things that parents are concerned about that I have found really don’t need to be worried over.  It’s a case of picking your battles.  But honestly, I think that modern society has trained us, the parents, to believe that we have to teach our children certain things or they will NEVER LEARN them.  That is so untrue that it makes me sad, because then, hands-off parents like me (and often MoMs in general) are perhaps viewed as lazy (in a bad way ;)) and neglectful, because folks cannot fathom how children can learn something without direct instruction (I’d like to invite those people to take a stopwatch to their nearest school, and time exactly how long a teacher actually spends directly instructing any particular child each day.  The results may very well astound you…and invalidate your argument.  MOST children do MOST of their learning on their own.).  AND, it denies children some of the pride and joy of figuring things out on their own.

In the modern commercial world, there are countless products available to help your children “learn” things that OH MY GOD they will never learn to do without said specialty items.  Like, how will my baby ever learn how to sit up if we don’t buy a certain baby chair that happens to rhyme with Dumbo?!  Not knocking all those products; many are really cool and some of them can certainly make life easier (and I own a lot of them!), but that’s not the point.  The point is, they are not NECESSARY.  Your child (under neurotypical circumstances) will still learn to talk without you sitting down to do speech exercises with fancy flash cards every day. If that’s your thing and you both enjoy it, then by all means, keep it up!  But don’t think that you have to (in fact, that example brings up another philosophy that I ascribe to: Delayed Academics.  Research shows that it can detrimental to the developing brain to force complex thinking before a child is ready…and in my experience, they will let you know when they are ready!).  So, relax; enjoy watching your little flowers blossom.  Give them sun and water and let nature do the rest (metaphor there; children really actually need more than just sun and water!! ;)). But, my children are happy and healthy and creative, and we all celebrate their discoveries and milestones together, with equal delight, because we know that it happened naturally.  That is SUCH a magical feeling.  AND, Mama keeps just a little bit more of her sanity intact in the process.  Win-win!

Self-taught bike riders, here ages 6, 9, & 6
(Never mind those training wheels; they came off not long after this pic was taken, and she got the hang of it within 5 minutes just like her brothers did.)

Happy watching!

~ Michelle

6 thoughts on “Watching Your Flowers Bloom: Unschooling & Child Development

  1. You put learning experiences in their path! 🙂 I love knowing that they can figure it out on their own! Since my oldest is 3 and a half, I haven’t experienced enough of it to really trust it so I really really appreciate hearing from moms that have gone through it!

  2. YES!
    Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes!

    One thing that I didn’t see mentioned is how badly trying to teach children how to do things the “right” way can screw them up – for life. “No, that’s not right! You’re supposed to do it THIS way,” is the very best way to make a child self-conscience and, usually, give up even bothering to try again. It’s where the “I can’t do it” or “I’m not good at that” come from.

    My oldest (14 y.o.) taught himself to read at 3 1/2. He loved playing Reader Rabbit games on the computer, but was constantly asking me to read him the instructions whenever he decided to switch which game he was playing. Every. five. minutes. I finally just told him he’d have to remember the instructions or figure out how to read the instructions on his own. Two weeks later, he was reading.

    My youngest, now 3 1/2 is just starting to teach himself to read. I love watching his developments. It’s also interesting to notice the different learning styles of my children. My oldest sounded out words phonetically. Little Guy seems to go more with whole words.

    Anyway, I agree with everything you’ve written. And, yes, the very best part of letting children decide what to learn and when to learn it is being able to have the best seat in the house for observing every little stage of the learning!

    • Thank you, Alicia! I was a little nervous about this essay because it tends to be a controversial theory (sadly). But it wasn’t until I wrote the first draft and was searching for photos that it started to click with me that we have been doing this type of self-taught approach for longer than I thought. And I am SURE I didn’t list everything; there is a whole world of possibilities with regards to self-teaching! Thanks for reading and sharing your experiences! ~ M

  3. Really enjoyed this post. I really want to remember it and especially that every time I hear ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I’m not good at it’ that I remember Alicia’s words that it’s probably my fault, I should have got myself out of the way. I need to remember that there is rarely a RIGHT way to do it, that they can usually do it their own way, although sometimes it’s a hard call e.g. with letter formation, my nearly 4 year old is loving ‘writing’ (her choice, my 7 year old has barely written a word since leaving school 4 months ago and I’m not pushing him. School totally ruined writing for him – far, far too pushy) but I have been told that if I let her be free-form her letters for too long, she will find it hard to write letters the ‘right’ way and this is an issue. It’s an issue for sensible reasons; learning to form the letters ‘correctly’ makes it easier to write neatly and fast when they’re older which is usually satisfying for children, let alone parents.

    It seems there are sometimes cases where ‘the right way’ is that way for a good, useful, sensible reason. I must just be a better judge of when that is and tread VERY carefully with the times when the ‘right’ way may be a good path to follow e.g. with something like writing. I encourage my daughter when she writes something that I can really read (not just pretend to read), because it brings her great joy. She knows the difference, she knows when she writes real letters and is very proud of herself even though I’ve been very encouraging of her scribbles. As much as she’s enjoyed me pretending I can read her scribbles by making up a message she might have written, she knows that wasn’t what she was writing, she knows therefore that her writing wasn’t ‘right’ in that her scribbles weren’t conveying a message she wanted to send me. She’s starting to want to read messages that I can really read, to convey through writing instead of verbally her thoughts. This is of course the point of writing.

    So, keep your fingers crossed for her that I do ‘the right thing’!! and don’t put her off writing. And please hope that my very verbal son one day finds the desire to also communicate by writing – typing is absolutely fine, it doesn’t have to be through handwritten notes. BTW, being able to type is not the answer. I hoped it would be. He learned to type but still doesn’t want to communicate this way. I adore writing, I find it SO liberating and hope that one day my kids will find that pleasure too. But if they don’t, I hope it’s not because of anything I did wrong!!

  4. my 3 yr old (a couple months ago) is already doing sounds to all the alphabet, i did NOT teach him. I let him play the Leapster games which he loves and answered (5million times), “wha dat, momma???” while he’s pointing out a letter. my 5yr old is JUST getting to a similiar type point. though, she has now figured out life will be more fun if she doesn’t have to wait on momma to come read something to her, hence her willingness to start learning. if you offer different things, they will pick up on those things. we are a bit more classical in the homeschooling, but my oldest LOVES workbooks and those few minutes of having momma or daddy to herself. but i have given up on the “proper” formation of letters. i mean does it matter if her “e” starts at the bottom and goes up or does it the “proper” way of the little “-” first then the “c” part? still looks like an “e” to me at the end so WHO CARES? my sister, but ya know what? my homeschooled k-1-er is about at the same level as her public schooled 1st grader and our “year” just started! *shrug* she is a little sponge so, i’m sure mine will be all over everything she can get her hands on in a few years. and #2 will be reading before 4 i’m sure, based on his own progress so far. #3, is a monkey and is enjoying seeing how far she can climb and extend her physical prowess. #4 is still cooking, and i’m looking forward to seeing what kind of little person she turns out to be as well. (5g, 3b, 18mo g, and a pink bun in the oven)

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