(Sorry for the crappy subject - should have said something like "Is your unschooler challenged?", would have made more sense!!)
Does your unschooler have things in their life that challenges them? In a good way, I mean - like skills or interests that they are excited about where they are working towards something or trying to achieve something? If not, do you think they should?
I would say my almost 10yo doesn't. The few things that could almost count he is mostly just doing the minimum these days to get by. I see kids in school have too many challenges in some ways imposed on them, but the nature of unschooling seems to be the complete opposite and that unless the kid chooses to be challenged by something, they aren't. I guess I'm wondering, is this a bad thing?
Just to say, I'm all for self directed learning and motivation and direction, but the absence of that... is that bad? Or will it come with age?
My older son (7) gives himself a lot of physical challenges, for the past couple months he's been working on handstands. That came from watching parkour and gymnastic videos on youtube and wanting to learn flips and handsprings. Also, knitting has been a challenge he's embraced too. And getting 100 on ixl.com math topics at 3rd grade level.
We aren't unschoolers but his seatwork is minimal and not too challenging, takes an hour or so and he's great at it, these are what he challenges himself to.
Yes, both my girls have challenges that they embrace. And one challenge that needs some big pushing from me--getting along with each other.
But I agree that school can have too many challenges, and more importantly, challenges that have little or no meaning for them. There is too strong an emphasis by parents for learning how to do what we hate for rewards not of our choosing because that is real life. That carries the attitude that most children will not challenge themselves if given the choice. I think the opposite is true-- that humans as a species embrace challenge. Some enjoy it more than others, for sure, but I have never met anyone who didn't challenge themselves in some way. If there is some question, usually it's because what they choose to challenge themselves with is not considered worthy.
"She is a mermaid, but approach her with caution. Her mind swims at a depth most would drown in."
Mine embrace challenges too. They are 7.5 and 5.5. Both tend to want to master things they want to do. For example, a week and half ago, it was all about snowflakes. My son wanted to make snowflakes and not a simple one. He tried and failed plenty of times before he finally figured out a particular kind. There were tears, frustration and conversations about the proper ways to handle these strong emotions but in the end the task at hand was conquered and he was pleased with his newly acquired mastery. He learned much more than paper snowflakes along the way. The younger one goes through projects where she perfects a particular skill that usually has to do with drawing. In October, she went through a strong phase where she wanted to learn to read too and made good progress before she put that on the back burner. It was all really hard work for her.
I think maybe, when kids are older like yours, around age 10 or so, there is a time gap between where all childhood skills are mastered but adult like projects seem intimidating and out of reach? I am saying this, not from experience with my own children, but from watching other people's kids at that age. I have noticed kids that age go through a rather prolonged boredom stage before they start to latch onto things again. I think, this is when they need help figuring out how to scale up their interests and put them to work/test in a wider area. Sharpening the skill to zoom out and look at the bigger picture becomes important while the skill to zoom into one particular area is probably pretty well developed by this age. Then the practice of connecting the big picture to the small details becomes essential... I think this is probably the time they quietly start to try to figure that out and some kids need more guidance than others.
Have you checked out diy.org? Your kiddo might be interested. Worth checking it out because it provides a bit of structure/a framework within which to work and experiment.
My kids have challenges, though they've gone through phases when there has been not so much challenge. Still, I've always tried to ensure that there's at least a little bit of long-term challenge. I have a bit of bias on this: I'm willing to admit that there are kids who don't get a lot of challenge who seem to grow up fine, but that's not the path I want for my kids. I think that we grow the most and are more engaged when we are optimally challenged. I think of our minds and spirits as being a little like muscles: they grow stronger when we really work them, pushing them close to their current limits. Not constantly, but regularly and diligently. I also think that when children overcome a challenge that increases their confidence in overcoming the next obstacle life throws their way. I want my kids to grow into adults who will be strong and confident if they encounter adversity.
Having said that I think it's important to appreciate that not all challenges are obvious to the casual observer. My 15yo dd (who is in school) is not getting much academic challenge and has given up studying the violin, but she has been challenged socially for the past three or four months. She's had to carve out a niche for herself in a high school that didn't really have a niche for her, and find her way through a complicated relationship with a boyfriend. She's done really well on both counts, made good choices and remained true to herself. Sometimes at other ages and stages I've seen little apparent evidence of challenge on the surface with my kids, only to discover a month or three down the road that they were quietly challenging themselves with something I couldn't see at the time: learning to read, figuring out computer coding, memorizing epic poems, writing short stories, various things.
But yeah, my kids all have challenges. I've engineered a certain amount of that, by encouraging them and supporting them in studying musical instruments over the long term and helping them really understand the pleasure and confidence that is the result of persistent work. Sometimes they weren't thrilled to do the day-to-day work, but I taught them little tricks and strategies for breaking things down and making them more palatable and more easily mastered. As a result they are pretty familiar with challenge and embrace it readily in other areas of their lives.
If you are concerned that your ds is missing something because he avoids challenges, you might like to play a bit of a facilitative role in teaching him how to work through challenges. Modelling the attitude you hope he will adopt may be helpful: train for a marathon, or build a window hydroponic garden, or learn French. Share your trials and triumphs with him as you go. It would probably also be helpful to try to find one interest that you can help him pursue in a way that requires long-term commitment and persistent work. For some kids that might be swim team, skateboarding, tae kwon do or XC running or some other physical pursuit. For other kids it might be an artistic pursuit like music lessons or theatre. For others it might be a robotics league, chess club, entrepreneurial project or second-language class.
Last winter my dd was involved in a cross-country skiing program for older beginners (9 to 11-year-olds). There were a three kids in the class who had never really done any sort of endurance activity, and when they were skiing with just moderate levels of sustained aerobic effort they'd complain "it hurts!" or "I'm too tired!" or "I can't!" and flop down in the snow. They were reaching the point where their bodies were being challenged, and they weren't used to the feeling. The coach kept reminding the snow-floppers "That's not a bad feeling: it's the feeling that teaches your body to get stronger. That's the feeling of training: get used to it, because it's your friend, not your enemy." And you know, two of those kids did make big strides as a result of his encouragement. I think that's a generalizable message: most things worth doing well will have some bumps along the way, and those challenges are normal, and part of the process of growth.
Some kids may need a fair bit of support or structure as they learn that life lesson. Group activities that require some form of commitment may be a good way to give that support and structure. There are many ways to learn it, though, and that's where parenting finesse is required: in finding the right venue, the right structure, the right age and the right sort of support and facilitation.
Mountain mama to two great kids and two great grown-ups
chocolove, I think what you're saying is really interesting. I'm seeing similar in my 10 year old.
My first instinct was to say, yes, my 10 year old challenges himself both a lot less than his siblings and a lot less than he has in the past, and in part that is simply because he has recently mastered a few things he's previously found hard.
But I've thought further about it and I think there's something more complex going on. My 10 year old is into things that aren't obviously so praise-inducing, iykwim. They don't look like challenges. Minecraft is big here, so is claymation. Actually what he mainly does is reading and thinking, those are the big things he is into right now. He is thinking big questions, lots of existential stuff coming from his fondness for robots.
The thing is, he doesn't really see stuff as challenges. And tbh, nor do I. I don't think to myself, "wow, how can I really challenge myself?". I think, "wow, I'd like to make a Waldorf doll for dd2 for Christmas." and I go and do that. And goodness that has been a challenge! But I didn't do it for the challange iyswim. I did it because I wanted a doll. I am studying chemistry-but not to challenge myself, but because I've always had an interest in it and saw that if I worked hard those years when my kids were small, I could get a good basic knowledge going on.
That said, my middle child will deliberately accept external challenges. She'll work for a music or taekwondo grade, and I've had to put serious limits on the quality of project that can be uploaded to DIY.org else I'd have been bankrupted by the badges. My oldest won't, as soon as someone tries to set him an external challenge he doesn't see a point to, he'll walk away, intellectually if not actually. It makes it less, not more interesting for him. Now he has never liked other people to set him challenges, he's never been the sort to enjoy doing well and getting good marks and praise at all, like my middle child. It just rolls off him, he doesn't seem to care either way. I can't remembered him ever excited about passing an exam, for instance. But I think this is getting more pronounced as he gets older. Yet he does do things that clearly challenge him. He has joined both a football class and a chess club recently, both of which have older, much better kids playing, and he's been happy to fail, fail better. TBH even learning to fail, to be the kid who is out of the game within the first hour and a half, is a great achievement for him because until very recently, he really struggled with losing, with getting anything wrong.
Posting again, additional philosophical thoughts pertaining to this.
Children are born centred entirely in "me and now." Infants are completely self-centred and concerned about their own immediate needs. That's normal and developmentally appropriate: they don't realize there are other people out there who have their own feelings and needs. They don't have object permanence, meaning they don't believe that if something goes away for a moment it still exists for them to get later. So they are wired for "me and now." Maturity is all about expanding that orientation. Obviously we don't want them to end up as adults who are still completely self-centred and focused on immediate gratification. I think that parenting boils down to two things: helping kids grow out of self-centredness (i.e. nurturing empathy) and move beyond concern with their immediate comfort (i.e. developing the ability to defer gratification).
For several generations the conventional model was that the best way to train babies out of their self-centredness was to refuse to cater to their demands and to teach them that someone else could be the boss of them. Feed them on a schedule, don't pick them up when they're crying, don't let them 'manipulate' you with their selfish needs. That's how you would teach them that they're not the centre of the universe. Now, thankfully, most of us know better and we're moving back to a more attachment-oriented parenting style. The idea being that if you can help a baby develop a strong emotional connection to others, that connectedness becomes a pathway to empathy. Rather than saying "you're not the centre of the universe: see me, over here, I'm separate!" you're saying "your universe includes me too ... and eventually others." You start at the centre of your child's world, and work outwards through strong and meaningful connections. That's the first parenting job.
I see a parallel in the realm of learning to defer gratification. The conventional approach is to impose short and medium-term challenge (eg. memorize the names of all fifty states for a 4th grade civics test) on the assumption that the long-term benefits (a successful school career that will lead to various attractive opportunities as an adult) will teach the connection between challenge and growth. I see unschooling's role in this as being similar to attachment parenting's role in nurturing empathy. Rather than imposing challenge (like imposing feedings on an infant), you work from the centre, from what is meaningful to your child, and you work outward by helping make connections. (You want to play violin concertos? Practicing scales will help develop your technique so that you can do that some day. You want to learn to bunny-hop on a bike? Maybe you should sign up for the kids' bike skills camp.) And to me, that's the other, the last, parenting job. Help your child learn the connection between things he dreams of being able to do, and the incremental work he can do which will help him along towards those goals.
I think that just as attachment parenting does not result in eternally self-centred children, unschooling does not result in lazy people concerned only with immediate gratification. It's a way of working from within your child's developmentally appropriate strong focus on "me and now" towards expanding his orientation as he matures towards including "others and later." Kids mature at different rates and learn these lessons with greater or lesser ease. It's a process.
Mountain mama to two great kids and two great grown-ups
Thanks everyone for all the wonderful responses. You've given me lots of think about!
I shouldn't say my son doesn't challenge himself at all - it's just very little, and he then does the minimal necessary to get by. It hasn't always been this way - I can think of things he's worked very hard on last year (piano, drawing, Mario Kart) - so maybe it's partly an age thing like has been suggested. But even when he has had interests and stuff he is working on, it's been few and far in-between with a lot of time with nothing obvious happening.
And now? He is involved in long-term activities like you suggest, Miranda - piano and soccer, both his own decision to start. He loves his piano class but no longer has much interest in practicing at home. Part of the problem is the songs are too easy for him -not challenging enough, hah! He's in a group Music for Young Children program and LOVES the class and all last year played at home all the time. Both the teacher and he have said the songs are not challenging enough, though the theory is, and the teacher has started giving him harder songs to play but even those he is not that interested in. He just does enough to get by (and he's still the best in his class - sorry, brag!). So she's trying to challenge him, and he's just not interested. With soccer, he's good and loves to play but doesn't get many opportunities other than the organized team stuff. When he first started playing he was constantly with a ball at his feet but it isn't like that any more. He goes twice a week and plays his heart out but that's it until next practice. He's been asked a couple of times to join a more competitive level, and he's subbed in a couple of times, but he hasn't really wanted to do it more than that - though I suspect that is mostly to do with fear of not being good enough and his anxious and perfectionist tendencies.
So I don't know if he's just truly satisfied with his piano and soccer experiences, to use these as examples, and geniunely isn't interested in more, or if it's something else and something I should be trying to help him with.
And then academically... not much obviously academic stuff happening here because he's just not interested. Part of me is like, that's cool, he's got plenty of time and I don't think there's much point in learning about stuff you aren't really interested in, but another part of me worries that he's not interested *because* he's not being challenged. But then in the past when he has shown interest in academics, say math, he's gotten discouraged and upset when he's hit an obstacle, so he's not navigated being challenged successfully, I guess. He hasn't worked through it and been able to see from the other side that it was all worth it. Hmmm. The other thing that happens is I scare him off by noticing when he's good at something... like writing, and now of course he doesn't write anything any more! Must remember to keep mouth SHUT. :)
OK that's enough babbling for now... am thinking I had other thoughts but of course I can't think of what those thoughts might be right now, and I should probably go pay some attention to my kids! :)
yes I've thought further on this. Don't want to go meta on this but I think I'm struggling here because I think its very hard to identify when someone else is challenged. TBH I think it is quite hard to identify even when we ourselves are challenged. In terms of my own personal growth and character development, if I were to write a chronology of my life-which has included published writing, teaching in other countries, getting various degrees, gaining self sufficiency/gardening skills etc etc-the summer that actually was probably the biggest challenge for me was one when i was about 16 and living in a shared squat and deeply skint, and so I had to do what I could and that meant delivering pizza and takeaway leaflets door to door to some of the most expensive houses in London. It was pretty much my entire summer, because leaflet delivery does not have a good hourly rate. Aside from generating some sort of an income for me, and getting me through not the best time of my life emotionally, it also taught me a really simple lesson, which is that if you put one foot in front of the other again and again, the job, generally, will get done. I probably think back to that lesson and that summer most days of my life at some point. It was challenging as hell, to most parts of me, but I doubt anyone watching me at work would have said "wow, that kid is stretching herself".
That's a great story, Fillyjonk - thanks for sharing! You make a good point that it's hard to know for someone else what is challenging. I think in some cases it can be quite obvious, but even then, other things may be at work that we don't realize right away. With my son with Mario Kart -at first when he got the game, it was a challenge for him - in learning to play well, or being 'a pro' as he put it, and he is indeed a whizz at it. But during the time of learning to master it there was a lot of big emotions, often NOT dealt with well - so it was a challenge on that level for him too, learning how to deal with frustration, disappointment, injustice (yes, in a game, heh), etc. Now he's mastered those issues too. Then he started playing online and going on a Mario Kart forum, which has meant lots of social stuff for him to figure out - does that count as challenging? I don't know, but it's certainly stuff he's had to work through. Now though he seems to often play just because it is there and as a distraction from the challenge of having to find something interesting to do. He does truly love it though, so I don't think it's *just* that, and maybe there are still aspects to it that he's trying to figure out, stuff that is still challenging... I don't know. But I'm mostly thinking there isn't, heh. :)
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