“What? No Bedtimes?!”
“What? No Bedtimes?!”
This is one of the classic questions often asked by people as they start reading unschooling information around the internet. It’s also a common source of misinterpretation and the cause of chaotic energy in families as they move to unschooling.
The idea behind this often-seen axiom is not that “As unschoolers we don’t force our kids to do things so we don’t have bedtimes.” Sure, that’s a pretty easy interpretation to jump to, especially when first learning about unschooling and it all seems rather foreign – it makes some sense on the surface. But the real reason behind the idea is so much more, and different, than “Leave your child to their own devices until they drop, exhausted.”
Unschoolers understand that the best learning happens when people are engaged and interested, when it has direct meaning in their lives. As they gain experience seeing real learning in action in regards to the more “academic” subjects, many unschoolers begin to perceive the contradictory juxtaposition of that natural learning versus the more directed way they may be expecting their children to learn about living and about themselves: “Go get dressed, I laid your clothes out on your bed.”; “Finish the food on your plate and you can have dessert.”; “It’s 9pm, time for bed.”
They begin to question what they are trying to get their child to learn by enforcing these directives. Do I want my child to eat because it’s 6pm and that’s our arbitrary dinner-time, or do I want them to learn the signs that they are hungry and eat according to their body’s cues? And similarly, do I want my child to learn to look to the clock for direction on when it’s time to go to bed, or to realize when they are tired and meet their body’s need for sleep?
“No bedtimes” is not about not telling them what to do, it’s about giving them a safe and comfortable environment in which they can learn to feel their body’s cues and respond to them accordingly; it’s about helping them learn about themselves.
So you may not have a literal bedtime, a specific time on the clock that tells your child it’s time to go to bed, but maybe your child likes an evening routine to settle down. This unique routine would likely start when your child shows signs of being tired and it would help her shift to quiet activities and eventually to sleep. These routines can be important, especially with younger children. When you see her yawn or start to slow down you can mention it. Help her observe her body’s signs. You can ask if she’d like to take a bath, or put on her pyjamas and you’ll read her stories in bed. Or maybe she has a favourite movie and she’d like you both to put on your pyjamas and cuddle under a blanket to quietly watch together until she drifts off to sleep.
What if you notice your son is getting tired but he doesn’t want to stop what he’s doing? That’s okay too. He’s learning what it feels like to push himself. Maybe he’s so excited and engaged that his tiredness doesn’t phase him, he pushes through, finishes his activity and falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow. Maybe he gets cranky and the next day you mention it to him, helping him link the tiredness and the crankiness as his body’s reaction. It may take a while before he fully understands the connection, and he sometimes may choose to live with the crankiness anyway. But he’s learning about himself. And that’s knowledge that he’ll take with him into his adult life.
I recall my first year away from home at university, the kids who often stayed up very late at night just because they could, and missed morning classes sleeping in. They were acting, or more rightly, reacting, against their parents’ controls as they experienced their first taste of freedom. The consequences of learning about themselves when they are older can be more dramatic – there were definitely those kids whose exploration of their newfound freedom led to their dropping out by Christmas Break.
Exploring and learning about their sleep needs (or food etc.) while they are younger and at home means any consequences are likely to be less serious. And having supportive parents around to provide feedback and act as a sounding board is also an advantage of exploring their personal needs while growing up.
As unschoolers we give our children the freedom to learn about “academic subjects” through living. With experience we often extend that idea, giving them the freedom to learn about themselves through living, by not expecting them to follow their parents’ standards or the clock, but by giving them the time and support to discover, understand, and follow their own unique needs. That’s what I mean when I say my kids have “no bedtimes.”