Reflections on a Nomadic Unschooling Life

Manish Jain
Aug 2, 2018 · 10 min read

By Pashwa Jhala, Nomad

For the past 12 years, Jim and I have been living a somewhat slow and semi-nomadic life in India with our two boys, Daniel (13) and Ishan (11). 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 and loving 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 also 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, watering 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. They carry on doing whatever it is they are moved to do at any time. 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 can be so nourishing. 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. There is just so much more time to savour the simple things.

People often ask how we can afford to live in this way, physically as well as financially. The truth is that we actually live on a very minimal budget. Jim works online for a small eco-goods company. He used to work with this friendly family-run business when we lived in Devon (UK) over 12 years ago, and we are very grateful that he has been able to continue working with them in a small way for so many years. It is very part time work but it funds our very simple life… renting modest places, cooking for ourselves, travelling by train. We feel that having lots of free time to be with our children, each other and friends, and have time to engage in whatever is compelling for us, is a luxury that hugely outweighs any pleasure we might get from more expensive choices. Eating out, going shopping or attending events is not of much interest to any of us anyway, and they rarely feature in our current lifestyle. Instead we opt for (and prefer) a swim in the sea, wading in rivers, or walks and picnics in the mountains. In terms of accommodation, we are usually able to find simply furnished places to rent (unless we are staying at my family home in Bombay or Gujarat). We also do not acquire much as it is not possible to travel with too many things.

Our travelling luggage consists of some clothes, a laptop and a kitchen box with some metal plates, tumblers, our favourite chopping knives, a small peeler and grater. The biggest bulk comes from our two beloved pressure cookers which save so much time and fuel when cooking rice and pulses, and a recent addition is the blender, which allows us to make smoothies, dosa batter and such things. Carrying lots of books and toys is not feasible either, so we each have a kindle (we are all avid readers), a chess set (which the boys use a lot), a pack of cards, perhaps a bit of stationery, a couple of rackets and a ball or two.

As a family we aim 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.

If I had to share one of the most 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 relax 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 analyse 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, the journey goes on. 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 and love, then hopefully we will inspire our children to live their own lives with joy, freedom and sensitivity too.

Families Learning Together Magazine

Inspiring stories of South Asian homeschoolers, unschoolers, and creative families who are transforming the family learning environment with new experiments and weaving a new joint family system. Hosted by Shikshantar Andolan

Manish Jain

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Families Learning Together Magazine

Inspiring stories of South Asian homeschoolers, unschoolers, and creative families who are transforming the family learning environment with new experiments and weaving a new joint family system. Hosted by Shikshantar Andolan