24 October 2011
unschool monday :: praise
This may shock you. Then again, maybe it won't... The owlets are not good girls. They are just children. Awesome, fantastic, lovely, friendly, grumpy, messy, ordinary children. They are not naughty. Occasionally they do things that exasperate me. Say things or do things I'd rather they didn't. But naughty isn't a word we use to describe them or their actions. And they are never good girls.
It seems that from birth we are keen to create 'good' children. Good adults. As babies, we are expected to sleep all night, feed four hourly and play happily on the floor in between times. "Is she a good baby?" My neighbour asks me that often. We reward children by telling them how good they are and so they learn that we are happiest when they do what we want them to. They may even learn to feel happiest when we show them our approval too. To expect that love comes from doing what others want. Things do not operate in this way in our nest, as you probably already know if you've been following this blog for a while, or you know us in real life. Our babies do not sleep all night, feed four hourly or play happily between times. They feed on cue, sleep in snippets or in arms and play when they are in the mood. A fact the lateness of this post is testament to. But they are happy and loved and they know it.
It wasn't always this way in our nest. When Big Owlet was about two years old, I was at the doctors, in the loo, trying to produce a urine sample. I produced said sample and Big Owlet exclaimed "Good girl Mama! You did a wee! That's good weeing!" Oh. Dear. The whole waiting room heard, I'm sure of it... I felt embarrassed. A little silly. Ok, a lot silly. I've been called a good girl at other times in my adult life (by a dentist, doctor, midwife...), and felt similarly silly. But this was different, because I'd taught her that. I'd taught her that by doing what was expected of me I should receive the approval and praise of those around me. And that wasn't my motivation for the initial action, obviously, so to receive praise felt unnecessary.
So we started to think about it. We read a little and changed tack. We no longer lavish praise upon our owlets. We most certainly celebrate their victories and achievements with them. But it comes from a place of being pleased for them that they've achieved what they wanted to, rather than pleased with them because they achieved what we wanted them to. We're not owning their experience. It didn't take long for Big Owlet to shift from "Was I good, Mama?" to "I'm did it!!" when she was so small. And it was so good to celebrate with her. As it continues to be with her sisters. We grin and laugh and clap alongside them and let them know how we're feeling, while honouring their feelings first. Just as we do for each other and other adults around us.
Also part of this is that we offer no rewards. There is no reward chart for jobs done well, dinners eaten or teeth brushed. Pocket money is not given based on contribution to family chores. It cannot be taken away if jobs are not done, but is shared among family members in an age appropriate way, after all bills are paid. Surprisingly, little resistance occurs when the owlets are asked to contribute. They do it, like everything else, because they can see the benefit for themselves and their family. They are not motivated by our approval, although our happiness and wellbeing may be a consideration.
So how does this relate to unschooling? Well, our choice to unschool initially centered around the fact that all the schools available to us are heavily focussed on praise and rewards. Program Achieve! Gold stars, rewards charts, certificates... Perhaps it's one of the reasons we seek praise in the workplace or elsewhere in our lives. Or why we find ourselves doing a university degree we didn't want, or working in a job we hate, with no idea how we got there. Our inherent need to do the right thing and be good girls and boys steers the way. It can lead us down a path that doesn't necessarily suit our own needs so much as meet the expectations of others...
Anyhow, we opted out because we didn't want that for our owlets. They've encountered friends who are so praised up they believe the hype and it's become damaging to friendships (and gosh it's hard work responding to that need for praise when they're around!). They've felt uninspired by stickers and rewards systems and competitive coaxing in various activities and we've breathed easy, knowing we made the right choice for them. We also know that for unschooling to work, the child needs a large amount of self motivation and if they're doing everything for me, they're not learning what they need to for their particular learning journey. So that question "how do you get them to do what you want them to?" doesn't apply. They need to do what they want to and find their own place.
Nowadays, if someone calls Big Owlet a good girl, she'll look at me sideways and say "why did they talk to me like I'm a dog, Mama?" And I'm glad she can see the difference. We do talk to our dog in a conditional, rewards and praise based way. Because we don't want her to be a free thinking individual, able to make her own decisions, motivated by her own passions. We need her to be obedient. To fit in with the group and to feel comfortable within her role and know her place, as defined by us. As family pet. Furry owlet. Not Big, Little or Tiny Owlet, who are growing and learning in their own ways, doing what makes them happy, and who we love no matter what.