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Why Boredom Is an Important Part of Learning

why boredom is an important part of learning

I read a post today suggesting parents create a “bored jar,” filled with chips with both “fun” activities and chores for any child who dares to complain about boredom. “At our house, boredom is not allowed” begins the first sentence, and I found myself thinking how incredibly sad and limiting a view that is.

Boredom tends to get a really bad rap, and it inspires a lot of worry in parents. In our productivity obsessed culture, where the common view is that learning is only happening when it’s easily seen and measured, and the only useful activity is one that looks busy, boredom is seen as something that should be corrected quickly by the nearest adult.

The fear and distrust of boredom is unwarranted.

I believe how someone experiences boredom comes down in large part to personality. My sister and I have the same parents and grew up in the same household, yet while she has always been able to entertain herself for hours at a time—playing and pretending as a child and lost in thought as an adult—I’ve always been more likely to pace the hallways, restless, complaining about boredom.

While persistent, hard to fix boredom—the kind that weighs you down and impacts your life in a negative way—can definitely be a sign that something is wrong (frustration with the way your life is going, feeling a lack of control or a lack of direction, etc.), it is just one of many human emotions, and it is part of the learning process. It is not something to be feared or corrected.

It’s through boredom, that restless frustration of having nothing immediately obvious to do, that I’ve ended up breaking routine and doing something I wouldn’t have otherwise done. Picking up my neglected guitar to try and learn a new song; pulling out a book from my shelf that I’ve been wanting to read for a while but just haven’t gotten to; opening up a biology course on Khan Academy; sitting down to do some journalling; thinking about the next post or article I want to write, and starting to construct it in my head…

“Boredom is just the time and space between ideas… And sometimes the wellspring of genius,” said Janet Lansbury, and though for most of us, “genius” might feel like too much to aspire to, I do know that boredom has always lead to a lot of creativity and exploration in my life. Boredom acts as a gateway, as the beginning of something new or different, or the introduction (or reintroduction) to a new hobby or passion, something that will go on to be an important part of our days.

Or not. As important as the productivity that boredom can lead to, equally important is simply the space of boredom itself. The time for us to get past the initial restlessness or discomfort of not being busy, not doing, and settle into reflection, observation, stillness. We need the time to process and digest our learning, our experiences, and sometimes boredom can be a part of that.

When attempts are made to outlaw boredom, not only are children being told that experiencing that emotion is “bad,” they are also being discouraged from sharing what they’re feeling with the adults around them, lest they be chided for their idleness and assigned chores or busywork, anything to avoid a dreaded lack of productivity.

One of the things I value in my upbringing is the freedom I had to work through boredom. My mother often made suggestions and helped me figure out something to do. It’s not that I was left on my own to deal with it. But it wasn’t treated as something horrible, even sinful: boredom was just accepted as part of life. As life learners, my family was able to relax, let things unfold, and not worry so much that every moment should be devoted to education, or productivity, or doing “something useful.” I could be bored sometimes. And I could figure out what to do with that boredom.

For any creativity to occur in my life, I need boredom. It’s part of my process. I might complain melodramatically, flop on the couch, feel frustrated… But then I’ll get an idea, or a spark of inspiration, or settle on a course of action, and the next thing I know, I’m contentedly making something in the kitchen, or writing with deep concentration, or lost in thought…

Making friends with boredom has enriched my life. I think everyone, parents and children, could benefit from learning to embrace boredom and see where it leads them!


Education for a Different Version of Success

education for a different version of success

“How will they ever learn to listen to their boss if they don’t have to listen to teachers?”

“They’ll never make it in the workforce, you have to do things you don’t like to do and deal with jerks.”

“In the real world you don’t get to do what you want.”

There are a lot of ways that many people seem convinced unschoolers will fail, and most of those reasons lead back to the belief that unschoolers just have it too good. They get to be too happy, too playful, too independent, too creative. If they’re used to living such full and interesting lives, how will they ever manage to knuckle down, obey their superiors, and resign themselves to a job that’s unfulfilling at best, and nearly intolerable at worst?

I think this attitude is an indictment of the current education system (as well as the typical workplace environment and maybe even the current economic system). Unknowingly, people who express concern that unschoolers won’t be able to function in such unpleasant situations are saying just what they think schools are good at: namely, teaching people to function in unpleasant situations.

I should hope that school free learners aren’t holding up, as their greatest vision of success, that their children become good at resigning themselves to unhappiness. I’d hope, instead, that life learners are raising children who will seek to build lives that make them happy.

Is it important to be able to deal with unpleasant people and situations at times? Of course. Sometimes you’re going to have to take a job you don’t like so that you can put food on the table. Sometimes you’ll have to deal with a bully to get something you need.

I’ve always thought unschooling was a good way to help individuals develop a strong sense of what is and isn’t right for them, and to make choices that support the type of life they want to be leading.

However, I believe that people are best prepared for challenges such as these when they have a core of self confidence and self respect instead of just being accustomed to putting up with discouraging situations on a daily basis. I’ve always thought unschooling was a good way to help individuals develop a strong sense of what is and isn’t right for them, and to make choices that support the type of life they want to be leading.

There are certain qualities in myself that I try to cultivate and encourage.

  • A lifelong fascination and excitement about whatever catches my interest at any given time. In other words, a passion for learning that never ends.

  • A strong ethic of self care and firm boundaries, skills and practices that help me to stay healthy and grounded in a world that can often feel overwhelming.

  • Caring and empathy for other people, and a focus on educating myself about important issues, seeking with my words and actions to make the world at least a little bit better.

  • Trust in my own instincts.

  • Confidence and a feeling of self worth, no matter how much I’m struggling at any given time.

  • Striving always to keep my passions, dreams, and plans at the forefront, working to build my life based on what I truly want and think is right for me.

I share this because, when I think about my own future children and what I’d want for them, I don’t think about college acceptance or an ability to conform to the values and pressures of the dominant culture. Instead, I think about what I want for myself, and I hope that my someday children will have those qualities in even greater abundance than I’ve managed so far for myself.

Figuring out how to live a life in line with your ideals and values is hard no matter what your educational background. But I like to think that unschooling helps. It’s certainly helped me to trust myself because as I child I was never taught that I was untrustworthy. It’s taught me to value the perfection of flow in learning because having experienced it, I know I need to always seek that out in my adult life as well. It’s taught me to question the supposed “common sense” of the dominant culture, and to develop my own thoughts on various issues for myself. And it’s taught me to always follow my passions because doing so will almost always lead me in the direction of the greatest happiness in my life and the greatest contribution to the world.

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
— Howard Thurman

Let’s cultivate in our life learning journey a version of success based on what makes you come alive.


How Unschooling Shaped My Social Life

How Unschooling Shaped My Social Life

We’re all familiar with the tired old myth of the “unsocialized” homeschoolers, spending their days locked inside, interacting only with their family members. I’ve certainly spent my fair share of time disputing these myths (earlier this year I even wrote a post addressing every possible misplaced socialization criticism I’ve ever heard). Yet while there are plenty of wrong ideas on home education and socialization, I find myself pondering how unschooling has impacted the friendships I make and the communities that I’m a part of now, as a 20-something adult.

Like many homeschooled families, when I was young my family participated in a range of activities, from homeschool coops to French classes, group hikes to choirs. What set us apart from many other home educating families in my area at the time was just how much input my sister and I had in the activities and outings we were involved in, and on whether we stuck with those activities. I knew that my mother would step in when asked (and occasionally when not asked!) to help solve a problem—such as when the musical director of a production I was involved in was trying to use me, a “good” kid, as a human buffer between the two most disruptive children in the group—and that if there wasn’t a good solution that I was free to quit. If I didn’t like a group of kids, or found that certain adults treated me and other children unfairly, I was never forced to spend time around those groups or individuals.

That doesn’t mean I never had to deal with bullies or other unpleasant people, or that I didn’t on occasion feel trapped by commitment into continuing to participate in something that made me unhappy. What it does mean, though, is that I was never subjected to the type of forced association faced by children in school, who often have little to no recourse when faced with regular harassment and even physical violence from other students, or teachers who treat their students badly. It seems to me that too often children learn early on that they just have to suck it up, no matter how toxic an environment is or how frightened they are about seeing people who have harmed them in some way. They learn that they can’t act on their own feelings or judgement about a person or situation in order to protect their emotional or even physical safety. My feelings were treated as important by my parents, and my judgement was trusted (with plenty of discussion and guidance from them). As a consequence, I feel like I never had to learn, as an adult, to trust myself and my instincts. I already knew how to do that.

In my teen years, and now as a young adult, I often marvel at those who are dating people they don’t like very much just because they don’t want to be single, or hanging out with groups of people who make them feel bad because they just don’t want to spend time alone. I’ve grown up in such a way that, barring the occasional bad decision, I generally surround myself only with people who I genuinely like, care about, and who make me feel good about myself. And when I’m not spending time with people, my introverted self is mostly okay with being alone or with family. It’s not that I don’t sometimes feel lonely, or experience the struggle of meeting new people at an age where it’s  no longer easy to find “peer groups,” or that I don’t sometimes find it hard to join new groups because of plain old shyness. But I do feel that I’m good about setting strong boundaries with less pleasant people, being choosy about the communities I become a part of, and surrounding myself with people who make me happy.

I feel like I never had to learn, as an adult, to trust myself and my instincts. I already knew how to do that.

It’s always hard to know how much to attribute to unschooling, since by the very nature of such a personalized education, my life and my experience is pretty unique to me, my family, and my geographic location. Perhaps no matter what education I’d experienced, I’d have reached the same conclusions that I have now. I think that being able to grow as I did with so much freedom in my interactions, so much trust in my choices, and so strong a message of how well I (and others) deserved to be treated, definitely had a positive impact on how I build (or find) my social life now.

I guess what I’m saying is that, contrary to what many people seem to believe, I think unschooling actually helped me to develop healthy social skills. I genuinely enjoy meeting new people, but I’m very grateful for also having good boundaries, strong feelings about mutual respect, and the strength to walk away from individuals or groups that are causing harm in my life.

That’s the type of socialization I want, and the type of socialization I hope many other life learners can develop through our marvelously self directed, trust-filled, and respectful upbringings!


How to Talk About Homeschooling (So That People Will Listen)

Photo: Death to Stock Photos

Photo: Death to Stock Photos

I left kindergarten for a life of school-free self directed learning, so I’ve had many years to get used to talking about home education. Some people are curious or excited, some angry or defensive, but what remains a constant is that almost everyone has an opinion on the topic and some questions to ask. I still freeze up sometimes when asked an unexpected question, or stumble over a simple explanation, but for the most part I feel that I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with the range of questions and reactions that come from different people.

The approach I take hinges on a couple of key questions: who is it I’m talking to? And, what’s my goal for this conversation? It all depends on the answers to those questions.

Interested strangers or acquaintances

When I’m talking to someone I’ve just met or don’t know well, I often pull out my “elevator speech” and talk a bit more about the unique education I had, since I want to share these ideas with people. “I was unschooled,” I say, “which is basically a self directed form of homeschooling where parents act as facilitators instead of teachers.” I answer questions (again without getting defensive), while keeping a firm stance on what I will and won’t talk about. I recognize that no one is entitled to my time spent explaining my life and education, so as much or as little as I feel happy sharing is enough. If the people I’m talking to react negatively and confrontationally, I just try and change the subject, remove myself from the conversation, or firmly tell people when their questions or reactions aren’t appropriate (when people try and quiz me, as they have even in my adult years, I tell them that it’s rude and I decided long ago not to answer when people ask such questions).

I think what’s best to remember is that you never have to be an advocate if you don’t want to, and to not get dragged into arguments, keep your cool, and set boundaries around what type of conversations you will and won’t engage in. Each person you talk to will have different questions and concerns and will be curious about different aspects of homeschooling, so I find it’s best to follow their lead and answer the questions they’re interested in, or respond to their biggest concerns. I’ve found that conversations with interested strangers and acquaintances can be really rewarding, and help people think about education in a new light.

Health care providers, bureaucrats, and other professionals from whom I need some service or assistance

If my goal is getting something I need, I’m not going to delve into the intricacies of unschooling or get into any long explanations. In these instances, if it comes up I simply say I was homeschooled, and when their eyebrows raise and their mouth forms an “oh,” I just smile, say it was a good experience for me, and succinctly answer any questions they have. Several things I’ve found important in these types of conversations is to make the upbringing I had sound as normal and as similar to school as possible; to answer only the questions that are asked and not get into any long explanations; and to make sure I remain calm and non-defensive, whether the person I’m dealing with is polite in their questioning or not. My priority isn’t to educate them, it’s to get the services I need, so I try and keep things as light, non-confrontational, and brief as possible. I’ve now got this down to a science, and can reassure concerned doctors and other people in a remarkably short amount of time!

What it really comes down to is respecting yourself, staying calm and collected, and sharing what you feel is most important about your learning lifestyle, when and if you feel happy to do so.

Friends, family, and loved ones

These are the people who you most want to support your choices, so naturally these are often the most difficult discussions to have. One thing I’ve personally found important is staying away from comparing my education to a school education. Instead of trying to show how baking helped me get better at math, or talking about how my reading comprehension was on grade level, I think things worked best when we just shared the richness of our lives and learning, without making comparisons to to a schooled life. Talk about all you’re learning and doing, what each individual is passionate about and engaged in, without couching it in school terms or trying to make things sound more like school. We’ve chosen to live and learn differently because we think it’s a better option for us, so share why you feel that way instead of trying to show how similar your life is to school.

Of course it’s also important to remember that even if someone is family, you’re not obliged to share every detail of your lives or allow relatives to quiz you or your kids. Share the aspects of your life that you feel are the most important and exciting, and as politely as possible set limits on what you will and will not talk about.

What it really comes down to is respecting yourself, staying calm and collected, and sharing what you feel is most important about your learning lifestyle, when and if you feel happy to do so.

Everyones’ experiences will be different, and to a large extent I think each of us needs to develop our own strategies. I just hope that, by sharing some of what I’ve learned over the years, others can gain inspiration in their own journeys of living school free and sharing their educational journeys with others!