A common Unschooling question, especially lately, is “What do I do when my child is having a hard time?” or “How do I respond when they’re melting down?”
It’s so hard to see our kids struggling. It helps me keep calm to remember some things when our kids are having a hard time:
A. They are kids. They are not supposed to know how to handle what life throws at them. They only do the best they can with whatever skills/tools they’ve learned so far. And that’s only if they remember them in a time of crisis (which even adults miss the mark on often enough).
B. Me freaking out/panicking/yelling/telling them to stop/calm down is NOT going to help anyone.
It depends on the kid, the situation, their own triggers, my triggers, etc. Here are some things that can help:
1. Asking them, “Do you want me to do anything – or do you just want to vent?”
If they opt to vent: Safety first. I only physically move them if it’s an immediate danger to themselves or someone nearby. (laying down in the middle of the road) In a case of self-harm I offer options of a physical outlet. “Your body looks like it needs to express frustration – would you like to punch this pillow, stomp your feet, walk around the block, do jumping jacks, etc.?”
“Would you like to sit in my lap/hold my hand/go someplace else?” (not a punishment or forced “banishment” way but in an escape from people/noise/light/surroundings kind of way – like to the car, their room or mine, a closet, etc.).
I may ask again later once they’ve had some time. “Would you like to look over what happened and brainstorm some ideas to perhaps prevent what happened or ways to try it differently or ???”
2. Remember, when they’re extremely stressed – it’s generally “Fight or Flight” that’s kicking in. Notice no part of “have respectful/meaningful conversation” fits under either the category of Fight or Flight. You can give soothing words, sounds, etc. However they are not always going to respond well to suggestions and it’s doubtful they’ll process them, remember them, or have them as tools next time. So brainstorming will need to wait for later. And probably be discussed more to be “available” for applying in the future.
3. It’s OK to be disappointed. It’s OK to be stressed. It’s OK to “fail”. It’s OK for things not to go our way. Acknowledging those emotions and giving them the space & time to have them is not a bad thing.
4. 2020 SUCKS. Big time. This has been the absolutely craziest year. Even if our kids don’t seem directly impacted by ALL. THE. THINGS. They are definitely picking up on the emotions and uncertainty of all those around them. As adults, we have a lot of life experience to draw from & freedom to try to cope (even so a LOT of us are also scrambling to pick up new skills during these unprecedented times). Grace for your kids. Grace for yourself.
This loops back to A. and number 3 – I acknowledge when things are crazy to the kids. “Hey, we’re encountering a new situation – even I don’t know how to handle it well. Let’s work together to find some ideas/solutions and try those out and see if they help.”
5. Sort of connects to A. We, as their parent/trusted adult are learning our kids as well. Each time something happens – we have more “parenting data” to work with. Now, I often know which kid is going to be impacted in what way by what situations. I’ve had 17 & 15 years to learn these things. That said, we STILL encounter new situations.
At 2, 3, 4, and when they hit new milestones or were out encountering lots of new things – there were definitely a LOT more instances of them struggling with life. Each situation, age, & stage is an opportunity to gather more data. My goal is to continually pass that data and those coping skills along to them so they can try to apply it in their own lives now and as adults.
It’s understood by our family and friends that there will be seasons where they will not see pictures of one or both of our children on social media. That’s because we have always asked our children if we can post their pictures. I show them the pictures that I have taken and they have the opportunity to select their preferred pictures, if they approve any at all. They also approve any conversations we post that they participated in (they both reviewed and consented to the contents of this post).
A conversation between our kids a few years ago (using their ages at the time):
11yo: Why don’t you want mom to post pictures of you to Facebook?
9yo: Because I said no.
11yo: I’m trying to understand *why* you said no. It doesn’t matter, you can say no for any reason and people have to listen to that – I was just wondering why.
This made my heart so happy. Not only that our children knew that their “no” will be respected, also that they don’t have to justify their “no” and that they aren’t entitled to demand others explain themselves. Seeking their permission in posting to social media is just a small part of how we protect their autonomy – physically & emotionally.
Respect your children, their feelings, and their boundaries so they will know how wrong it is when someone else doesn’t. We have done this to the best of our ability since they were born. In ways that seem to be “no big deal” like choosing their own clothes, a favorite toy, and what activities they want to participate in. As well as backing their right to refuse affection and declining to stay with someone or somewhere they aren’t comfortable with. This may seem inconvenient at times but pays off in both the solid parent/child connection as well has how your children treats and expects to be treated by others.
Forward to this article: I wrote this article on my personal blog back in 2012. It has by far been the most popular blog post on my personal site. I thought it might be beneficial to some to share it here. I’ve learned since I wrote this article that everything in this post can be applied to just about every video game, tv show, movie, pop culture and everything in between. It just requires for the parent or guardian to step out of what they’ve been told about visual media and watch what is actually going on with the individual child.~ Michelle Conaway
Who would have ever thought I would have been okay with my kids making a full time job out of playing a video game? I sure never thought I would get there. But I have. My boys spend most of their waking hours on a computer game called Minecraft.
Over the years, after I decided to homeschool, I found myself migrating more towards a philosophy of life called Unschooling. Yes, we pulled out the text books and “educational” websites at the beginning of our homeschooling journey, but my kids got bored with it. I saw them resisting the work I was providing for them and not retaining much of what I was teaching. They would even pretend to be sleeping in the mornings, trying to avoid my “school” work.
For the last couple of years, I’ve let go of doing anything that looked schoolish. Of course, if they want to do worksheets, they are welcome to explore that, but gone are the days that I force them to sit and do anything. Instead, I’ve started asking them what they would like to do and let them do it. What I’ve observed as they play video games, watch cartoons, make their own cartoons on Zimmertwins and read Garfield books is a huge improvement in their reading, math, vocabulary and social skills. In essence, I’ve fully embraced the unschooling philosophy that everyone learns differently and learns best when given the opportunity to pursue things that they enjoy doing. I know I always have. Why would that be different for my kids?
In March we were introduced to the computer game called Minecraft. My boys took to it like nobody’s business! This game is so much fun and the fun and depth with which they play never ends. You can create worlds from scratch, build your own towns, tools, weapons and avatars. You can play on multi servers where you plan communities with other people playing the game. I have observed my kids developing many new skills playing Minecraft and wanted to write about them here.
Problem Solving Skills
When you spawn in Minecraft you are in the middle of nowhere with only trees, caves and animals roaming around. If you are playing in survival mode, you will also see creepers, skeletons, zombies, spiders or enderman that will attack you starting at sundown. You must try to survive by cutting down trees and building yourself some type of primitive shelter to protect yourself from the monsters that come out at night. You also have a hunger bar and if you don’t find food, you will die.
Sounds easy, but trust me it’s not. You must come up with a statagy for surviving that first night and be quick about it lest you die at the hands of the monsters in the dark or a hungry belly. I have seen the kids come up with elaborate plans for surviving that first night. They’ve learned to hunt for food, build shelter, mine coal for torches and make tools from natural resources all within the span of a 10 minute Minecraft “day”.
After that, they have to think quickly about how to continue to survive and build up a world in which they can live more easily. They plan gardens, set up farms with pigs, cows and chickens, build crafting tables and furnaces. They figure out how deep they must mine in a cave to find diamonds, gold and other precious metals. They must learn which weapons or tools work best for hunting, defending themselves against monsters and mining. The stakes get higher the more you survive. If you die you are at risk of losing all of the accumulated materials you have collected in your inventory.
Minecraft provides a continuous arena in which to flex those problem solving muscles and continue down the path to further development in the game.
The boys have learned how to research by playing Minecraft. When they want to learn a new trick or how to build an intricate lighting system for a mansion they have built they head to WikiHow, Youtube and other internet sources. There they find tutorials on how to build elaborate systems for their cities- how to run recessed lighting, how to build irrigation systems, how to plant and maintain gardens and how to build extravagant things like showers for the bathrooms or fireplaces for the living rooms. They have learned to bookmark their favorite tutorial sites, share them with friends, and even explain to others how to do certain things. They are even considering doing their own tutorial videos for youtube.
The boys have learned to communicate very well playing Minecraft. They have met friends through our Shine with Unschooling group and also through the Unschooling Gamers Yahoo Group and Facebook Group. Through these groups they have learned to set up and use Skype. It’s not uncommon to have several kids from all over the world playing Minecraft on our family server while skyping with each other.
They are learning to work together to gather food for the community, build stores to sell armor, weapons and food, build amusement parks and engineer new cities. They are learning to maneuver through different personality types and problem solve disputes between the players. They are learning to respect the wishes of others and communicate their own wishes and come to agreements on what is going to happen within the world.
If they don’t learn to communicate well on Minecraft, the game doesn’t go as well. Working with others on the Multiplayer servers is key to building and maintaining a world that works for everyone. Kind of like real life, huh?
With no keyboard or formal typing lessons, the boys have become very fast keyboarders. There is a chat section on Minecraft which has motivated them to learn to type faster and more accurately.
Cameron told me the other day that he is so glad I didn’t force him to do the typing program I tried to get him to do. Through his love of working on the computer he has gotten to be a master typist.
Spelling has improved immensely for the boys as they learn to navigate through the internet and chat with friends on Minecraft. It is essential that they are able to communicate with their friends on the chat section of Minecraft or in forums where they are trying to get answers to their questions. This has motivated them to learn to spell well so that they are understood by their friends.
I have seen the boys vocabulary expand a lot as they learn new words through friends or on the internet in articles they are reading about Minecraft. Many times they use words that me and their Dad are amazed by. Their new vocabulary spills out into their every day conversations. I can’t imagine that my forced vocabulary lists would have yielded boys who use language as well as they do.
Both Cameron and Caleb have asked to go to the library to get books about diamonds, obsidian, gold, silver and other gemstones. They have learned a lot about the layers of the earth. They have learned about all types of stone, wood, gemstones, caves and mining. Their love of Minecraft has peeked their interest in all sorts of geological study.
They have also become interested in Bioms. There are deserts, jungles, forests and oceans on Minecraft. Many different creatures live within the different biomes and the kids have loved learning about them all and often jump over to the internet to explore one biome or another.
I have seen a surge of creativity in the boys since they started playing Minecraft. Cameron’s love of drawing has expanded to drawing worlds of Minecraft scenery. Caleb has come up with stories about Minecraft characters. They have learned to invent tools and other things that help them problem solve in their game. Caleb and I even built a real stone pickax out of sticks and stones at the family farm recently.
I see them being more creative about problem solving in real life as well. They are more likely now to work out a problem for themselves, rather than ask me for a solution. They seem to be getting more creative in everything they do.
Math and Spacial Reasoning Skills
In order to build a structure that is functional as well as visually pleasing, you must develop math and spacial reasoning skills. I have seen the boys figure out in their heads how many blocks will be necessary for a foundation – doubling, tripling and even quadrupling that number in their heads and then apply that to a building in Minecraft. I have witnessed them taking an idea in their minds and building complete cities with recessed lighting and fountains and statues and stores using spacial reasoning and math skills. They are figuring it out on their own without any “formal” training in engineering. It really is remarkable to see some of the things they’re building. I also have Minecraft installed on my computer and haven’t had near the success that these kids do. Obviously, spacial reasoning and I don’t get along very well.
If you’re worried that your child is playing too many video games or that they seem to spend a lifetime on Minecraft, just know and trust that they ARE learning. Play the game yourself to get an idea of the difficulties that must be endured just to survive much less build elaborate cities. Talk to your kids and listen to what they are doing and how they are figuring out HOW to do it.
They ARE learning from these games. Many times it’s obvious that they are gaining valuable skills and sometimes it looks just like play. Gaming is truly an amazing way to explore the world if we can just let go of our preconceived ideas about it and let our children (and ourselves) thrive at it.
“All she wants to do is…” The first time I heard this phrase a friend was lamenting about how she wanted her then 15 year old daughter to get a summer job or do something similarly “productive”. That was to be the first of many times I’ve heard a parent of a 12/13 year old or 15/16 year old say, “All she/he wants to do is…”
Parenting and homeschooling, no matter the style, changes around 12/13 and again around 15/16. The relationship between parent and child, particularly if you are coming from more conventional philosophies, changes. Our children are more independent, exploring ideas and activities that interests them. And that doesn’t always match up with our own expectations.
When how our vision for our children’s path is different than what our kids’ are actually doing, fear creeps in and we get statements like:
“All she wants to do is sit in her room reading and writing in her journal.”
“All she wants to do is draw.”
“All he wants to do is hang out with his friends and skateboard.”
“All she wants to do is hang out with her friends and party.”
“All he wants to do is work.”
“All he wants to do is play basketball and hang out at church”
“All he wants to do is play games with his friends on the computer.”
But in reality, what our children are pursuing is actually building a foundation for their future. We just don’t yet know what that future looks like, and that can be scary.
For us as parents, this is a time to let go of our agenda for our kids and embrace their journey in becoming the unique individuals they are. It’s a time to learn how to support our children differently than we have done before, to see them as their own person and support them where they are at. It’s not an easy parental transition, especially if you have had compliant kids or come from an authoritarian background.
For our teens, this is a time of learning who they are as people, experimenting, developing relationships, and testing ideas, forming and discussing ideas and opinions with others outside the family. Unschooling at this age level is fabulous because it is all about trusting the process, building relationships, and supporting the kids where they are at.
My kids have deep dived into interests from 12 and up. We’ve gone through periods of intense focus into manga, anime, robotics, blacksmithing, cake decorating, working, Minecraft, archery, gaming of all types, survival skills, art, writing, digital drawing, herbal medicine, horses, chinese light novels, theater, the list goes on. Weeks, months, and even years of a focus and then it shifts or fine tunes further.
I’ve seen their friends do the same. And their parents, across all styles of education, struggle with the change – that their kids are no longer malleable to what they want them to do – and then have to figure out how to support their kids where they are.
Early on this journey of being a mom of teens, I remember literally sitting on my hands and biting my lip, as I watched my son, then 13, working through a difficult task, approaching it differently than I would. But instead of telling him what and how to it, I restrained myself and honored that he wanted – and needed – to go through the process of figuring it out himself. He knew that he could ask for input, instead he asked me to bring him food and to sit with him as a companion and listen to his thought process, and be there for support. I needed to respect that. Now, at nearly 17, he still often asks me to bring him food, and to be there to listen to him share his ideas, stories, and thought processes.
One of the big differences between unschooling, especially radical unschooling, and other styles of education and parenting is that word RESPECT. With unschooling, especially in the teen years, it’s not about our kids respect for us and their showing respect to us or other adults. Instead, it’s about us showing respect to them — to their ideas, interests, and needs. It’s another level of giving, of pouring into. It’s about respecting their needs and supporting them.
For a social kid who wants to hang with their friends, it’s about providing an environment to do so. For a kid with an online community, it’s about respecting that’s where their friends are and treating them with dignity and respect, and supporting their collaborations and time together. For a kid who likes to spend hours by themselves (often in the middle of the night), it’s about letting them and making sure they have the resources they need. And when they want to talk and share, to be there for them – to listen, encourage, support, and help them find the resources they are looking for.
For an unschooler, “All he/she wants to do is…” becomes an opportunity – an opportunity to engage and connect, to encourage and support, and to facilitate your child’s interest – no matter how obscure. And it becomes an opportunity to grow yourself, as a parent and as a individual. At the end of the day, it’s all about trusting the process, embracing the learning as it happens, and, most importantly, building wonderful relationships with your teens.