Reflections on a Nomadic Unschooling Life

Manish Jain
Families Learning Together Magazine
11 min readAug 2, 2018

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By Pashwa Jhala, Nomad

For the past 15 years, Jim and I have been living a somewhat slow and semi-nomadic life in India with our two boys, Daniel (17) and Ishan (15). The boys have never been to school, and, not having a permanent base, we have moved around the country, often living in different places for several months at a time. Although we have mostly chosen to spend time in more rural places (in small villages in the Himalayas, a farm community in the Kodaikanal Hills, quieter parts of Goa, Auroville or Gujarat), we have also spent stretches of time in the city of Mumbai. Travelling and moving around was not an explicit decision for us, but just something that emerged along the way. However, we have found that being exposed to so many diverse contexts, terrains, living conditions and people has had the effect of keeping the boys very flexible, able to adapt with ease and enjoy themselves everywhere.

Before becoming parents, Jim and I had lived/worked or studied in various alternative schools and contexts over several years. Through our reflections around the issues of education and parenting, we came across Jean Liedloff’s book, ‘The Continuum Concept’ and we were both very moved and inspired by its wisdom. It describes the deep respect and trust the Yequana tribe in South America has for its children…a clan that used neither praise nor blame as a means to encourage their children to behave or conform…that trusted their pace, their choices and their emotions. Adults and children alike had space to express their emotions simply and authentically…no attempt was made to either diminish feelings nor heighten or dramatize them. The Yequana’s way of life exhibited a clear faith in the inherent social and cooperative nature of people (who are not psychologically damaged by fear or rejection).

Much like the Yequana, we have, for the most part, trusted the boys to learn from life and make their own choices. Our approach is commonly termed ‘unschooling’, although I have heard people use some nicer phrases to describe it, like ‘life schooling, ‘whole being learning’ or ‘self-learning’. Essentially this means that we don’t use any formal curriculum, routine or methodology to educate our boys, but are mainly guided by their own questions and inclinations. Life provides the context (nature, household activities, people, relationships, travel etc.). It’s not that we don’t read or do some math or other activities sometimes…we do. But it occurs as an organic response to what is interesting and relevant to the boys, rather than being time, curricula or parent-dictated. The foundation of this approach is based on trust and respect. It sees children as intelligent, social and curious beings by nature…and recognizes that when their freedom is respected, and their emotional needs met, they are able to navigate their own lives, learning and explorations in a peaceful and joyous way. I feel our role as parents has simply been to provide a safe, loving and wholesome context, and offer support or information when asked.

Being a parent, one of the things that struck me was how many of our learned default patterns and responses often fall short of being loving or sane. So, we deliberately decided to avoid indoctrinating our children (as far as possible) with these unconsciously inherited ways of learning, seeing and doing that we’d grown up with. Instead we tried to look and listen a bit more. It was quite fascinating how much we discovered by simply observing them. One of the things that stood out for me was the way in which babies and infants expressed unhappy emotions. Holding my children quietly as they cried, I saw that they made no attempt to control or change their state, no attempt to distract themselves. I felt the beauty of this unrestrained expression, devoid of drama or shame. I saw then that repressing or re-directing one’s emotions was not an inherent response, but rather something we have been conditioned to do — something we have learned as a reaction to being made to feel bad/guilty/ashamed of certain feelings (like fear, sadness, anger). What I had understood from exploring the teachings of J Krishnamurti and vipassana meditation, was that only through being with one’s emotions fully, without resistance or distraction, can real understanding and healing occur. I was witnessing this in my children, and being with them through this felt very powerful and liberating for me too.

Another thing we realized was that, both, praise and blame, reward and punishment are detrimental. Of course, many would agree that punishment, shame and blame are destructive to a child. But praising and rewarding a child are often seen as kind and valuable. Yet, well-meaning as it is, when a child is praised for anything, the focus shifts away from being or doing a thing simply for the joy of it, or because it feels relevant or appropriate somehow, to an outward focus (and often dependence) on doing it for another’s approval or acceptance. External appraisal then, often becomes the guiding force for our actions and behaviours. I feel that this carrot & stick approach actually encourages a proclivity to selfish and mercenary ways of being and acting. It undermines compassionate, understanding, empathetic ways of perceiving and responding. How can it be otherwise when (through reward and punishment of some kind) we are encouraged to base our motives for action solely or primarily on whether they benefit or harm us as individuals in some way?

Another interesting thing we noticed was that, the boys never really attempt to learn anything merely for the sake of learning as such. They just play or participate in things that are fun, interesting, compelling for them…and learning happens as a by-product of that process. Perhaps the absence of praise or expectation has left them largely without an urge to impress or to highlight what they know. They sometimes share an ability or discovery because they find it interesting or exciting, but not to gain approval of who they are. There is an absence (at least until now) of a movement to strive for or ‘become’ something. In the conventional world perhaps this could be seen as a shortcoming in some way, as a lack of achievement or attaining excellence. However, for me, this has been refreshing and moving to witness. I sense that there is something in the conventional praise, approval and expectation model that often leaves us feeling that we are falling short, or that we only deserve love and acceptance by proving ourselves worthy of it in some way. Constantly looking outward for approval or recognition is not only unsatisfying and stressful, but it also prevents us from listening to, and living from, our inner radars…from living by that which truly inspires or resonates for us.

Both boys enjoy helping out in social contexts…whether it be cooking, farming a veggie patch or building something. I find there is something very immediate, bonding and reassuring about children being real and active members of a community. To cook a meal, for instance, which is then going to be enjoyed with family or friends is such a different sort of learning to a classroom-based activity which is often done mainly for the sake of learning a skill for future use.

As the boys are largely self-directed, we have never encountered the issue of boredom with them either. Possibly when one is not regularly directed or entertained or stimulated from an external source, then children do not wait for or expect that. Moreover, as there is no emphasis on ‘doing’ something with one’s time (as children in a more routine or activity-based model are subject to), when the children find themselves sitting around, watching, listening, dreaming or simply staring out of a window, they do not regard this space as a state of boredom. I feel being quiet with oneself is so essential. So much can emerge from such a space… creativity, reflection, insight…deepening of understandings or emotional processing and integration, even if it is not outwardly visible or quantifiable in any way.

For these and many other reasons, we find that having chosen a slow and quiet life has felt very rich and enjoyable. Living and travelling simply, has allowed us the luxury of plenty of time to engage in things that are meaningful or compelling for us. And it is so much more possible to savour the simple things.

In early 2020, at the time when covid struck, we were visiting Auroville (an international intentional community in South India) and being locked down there for over a year, our boys became very involved in the community, made lots of close friendships and wanted to live there for longer periods. So since then we have spent the majority of our time there, while still spending the summer months up in the mountains, in a small village in Himachal Pradesh (in North India). Auroville allowed the boys a safe, free and diverse context to explore… to roam everywhere barefoot, cycle around, climb trees, swim in mud pools and wells, make friends of different ages, get involved in some farming, drawing, carpentry, theatre, music, craft fairs, sports and much else. This has been balanced by the much quieter, slower family time when we are in the mountains amidst a simpler pastoral culture and wilder natural environment.

As a family we have tried to nurture an atmosphere of kindness, and there is generally much openness, affection and playfulness in our relating and communications. The boys are able point out if they are not happy or comfortable with anything we say, do or request. Or indeed the way we might have done it. And we try to listen, acknowledge and address their inputs or criticisms as openly and authentically as we can.

There is not much rivalry between the brothers who are very close and love playing together most of the time. But yes, they certainly do have disagreements or times of friction. Often they work things out themselves, but they do also come and ask for help if they feel overwhelmed or in need of support.

One of the more valuable things I’ve learnt about dealing with situations that are challenging or fraught in any way, it is this: When we are able to meet our children and their emotions with understanding and empathy alone… when we do not judge, blame or offer a solution… when the children feel truly heard, loved, accepted… then they are able to relax… and consider, and come up with a solution themselves. They own their parts in the situation and are able to figure out what to do (because they are devoid of the need to defend or justify themselves). Naomi Aldort expresses this in such a beautifully insightful way in her writings. And I have seen this unfold time and again in our lives, and it is so powerful and moving to witness. Even if a disagreement arises between the two boys… by us simply listening and understanding each one’s position, they both regain some ease, and usually come up with a generous and friendly solution together… they find a way to willingly meet each other in some way. It is when I take sides, try to analyze or solve the situation (however kindly I feel I am doing it) that it causes more tension and resistance.

This is something I am often reflecting on, and trying to remember to be present to. Because I find it is just so easy to come in and try to ‘sort out’ a situation. It seems such a deeply ingrained response. Whether subtle or overt, some amount of judgement or impatience often creeps in.

Despite our best intentions to respond from a place of love and understanding, sometimes the old voices of authority and cultural convention — — those laced with fear and control — — jump in, especially when one is feeling less than spacious in oneself. Frustrating and humbling as it can be, it clearly shows us the work we still have to do!

When the boys were very young, it was much easier (especially as we often lived in remote, rural places) to raise them in a context which we felt was fairly healthy and nourishing for them. And for them to experience much freedom within that context. But as they got older they were inevitably exposed to more of the world with its different value systems, influences and choices. This led me to wonder about freedom, choice and where wisdom featured in this. It’s clear that dictating to, or controlling children to behave or act according to our demands comes at a price. It can undermine trust, closeness, respect, and a reliance on their own capacity for understanding and responsibility. However, seeing children (or anyone for that matter) being lured by influences that are strongly tempting, addictive or overstimulating doesn’t feel right either. We have tried to address this through having open conversations, introducing them to relevant information or other perspectives, and attempting to model by disciplining ourselves.

Then, about a year ago I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a course called ‘Jeevan Vidya’, a proposal for happy and harmonious living based on the insights of A. Nagaraj ji. For me so far, it has been the most comprehensive and coherent perspective on the whole of coexistence and the role and purpose of human life within it. The clarity of this proposal has impacted my explorations deeply. And a few months ago I was grateful for the chance to attend the course again, this time with Jim and our boys. It was powerful to share this together.

Jeevan Vidya clarified for me that we are only truly free when we are living rooted in our own understanding and in sync with the natural harmony and order of the universe. And what usually passes off as freedom (i.e. choosing for oneself based on one’s individual preferences, habits and urges alone) is not really freedom at all, and will not of itself lead to sustaining happiness or contentment. Understanding is an essential component of real freedom.

I find myself drawn to investigating this further, and feel the best gift I can give to our children (and to myself and the world) is to constantly work on refining and regulating myself, through exploring and living from this understanding.

With parenting, as with all of life, there is so much to learn and unlearn, so much to love and enjoy, so much to be challenged by. I think that if we as parents (and as people) can focus on living our own lives more consciously…with integrity, kindness, love and understanding, then hopefully we will inspire our children to live their own lives with joy, intelligence and sensitivity, too.

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