Is Strewing Manipulative?

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I was recently helping my daughter purchase some Lego on Ebay. At the conclusion of the sale, she commented, “I love it when they show suggestions at the bottom of the page of other things you might like. I often find lots of cool stuff!” She didn’t feel any pressure to investigate the suggested options, but she appreciated knowing about them.

It occurred to me that things like “Suggested Groups” on Facebook, or “See what other people are watching” on Ebay, or “Customers who bought this item also bought…..” on Amazon, are similar to the Unschooling concept of strewing. It is presenting ideas of other things we might like, based on our interests. Sometimes, with strewing, we introduce things to our children that are similar to a current interest, expanding upon something they already love. Other times, we introduce something completely new.

I often hear unschooling parents say they don’t like strewing, because it is manipulative. Yes, it can be done that way! Picture this, for instance: a parent sneakily places items (“educational” ones, if you please!) around the house in strategic places, and then sits back passively as though with a spy camera, waiting expectantly for their child to stumble upon it, notice it, pick it up and learn something. The parent then pounces upon the child, seizing the moment to teach them something they think their child should know. Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea!

Strewing becomes manipulative when it has strings attached, when it is done for the purpose of teaching rather than delighted discovery, when we don’t let go of our expectation that our child will pick up the item, read the book, look at the web link, listen to the song or say yes to the activity. I know how badly it can be done, because I have done it that way! Having shared previously about my own early attempts at strewing, I thought I’d share today about some principles of strewing that ensure it is not done in a manipulative, sneaky way, but rather in a way that enhances and expands the environment in which our children are living.

Strewing is the other third of the unschooling triangle, the parent-initiated part of the Unschooling Dance. A triangle is considered one of the strongest shapes, and the same is true with unschooling. All three elements are necessary for unschooling to thrive:

  1. Child-initiated learning, where the child freely explores their own interests, with our attentive support and interest
  2. Incidental, accidental learning that is stumbled upon inadvertently from unexpected sources
  3. Strewing, where we introduce ideas, resources and possibilities that the child is free to pursue – or not

Without that third element, unschooling is not as successful and children are at times left to flounder in a vacuum of just “doing their own thing”.

Strewing is the act of scattering morsels of mental yumminess across the paths of our children for them to discover, use and enjoy – or not. It has no strings attached. It is simply a scattering of possibilities. Unlike planting the seed of a tree, or rows of equally spaced vegetables, which implies expectation of a particular, measurable outcome, the idea of scattering seeds is more open ended.

I saw a packet of seeds once that included the seeds of a variety of annual flowers, all different shapes, sizes and colours in one packet. The instructions were so simple: to simply scatter the seeds over a prepared bed, scatter some seed raising mix on top, and then apply water. Those that land in an environment conducive to that flower, and receive the appropriate growing conditions of sunlight and water, will tend to thrive. Others won’t, but that’s okay because there isn’t an expectation that every seed will produce a flower and those that do grow will be surprising and varied. The gardener doesn’t have a lot of control over the specific outcomes. Some seeds may lie dormant for an extended period, only to burst forth with life at a later date when the conditions are favourable. Some seeds will blow away with the wind, and pop up in surprising places, much like the parachute seeds of a dandelion plant. When strewing is done with an open hand and a positive, relaxed mindset, it is a natural and important part of successful unschooling.

Strewing requires that we let go of assumptions, expectations, judgments and attachment to particular outcomes. Once we have shared an idea, opportunity, link or product with our kids, we let it go. Imagine someone sprinkling icing sugar over a cake and trying to hold on to the powdered sugar, or pick it back up. What a mess! Once you’ve strewn an item that you think might be interesting to your kids, don’t try to “make it happen”, don’t attach an agenda or expected outcome to it. Simply let it go. Trust that your child will pick it up, try it, read it or do it if they are interested, and if they are not, they will feel completely free to ignore it, put it down or simply say, “No thanks”. If you sense that they sense that they should…… it’s time to analyse your true motives for strewing.

Strewing works best when we know our children well, what they like, what they are interested in, what they haven’t yet been exposed to, what might enrich their life. It requires that we have a heart of kindness with a desire to share good things with our children that we think they might happily benefit from.

Strewing is natural. It is as natural and normal as a wife mentioning to her husband that there is a cool band playing at the local pub this weekend, or someone grabbing something at a shop that they think their friend might like or be interested in, or a someone sharing an interesting post on their friend’s Facebook wall, or a husband calling out to his wife, “Hey, check out this new show, honey! I think you’d love it!”

Strewing is kind. It is not manipulative, but kind, for an unschooling parent to share interesting things with their kids, or leave them lying about on the off chance that it piques their child’s interest. If you see something you think your child might be interested in, but withhold it because you think it is too directive or controlling to share it with them, you are keeping something from your child that they might really enjoy. Strewing something you think they may like is, well, thoughtful! And kind.

Strewing doesn’t need to be silent or subtle. It is about intentionally introducing things, ideas, opportunities and experiences into their world that they might not otherwise have stumbled upon by themselves. It sometimes sounds like, “Hey, check out what I found! How cool is this!” or “I found out about a play that’s on. Are you interested in going?”

Strewing can be experiential. It doesn’t have to be tangible items strewn about the house. It can be presenting our children with the opportunity to go somewhere, do something, try a new hobby or activity, and so on, but again, it needs to be an opportunity that is presented with an open hand, not an expectation that the child will say yes.  

Strewing can be electronic. It can simply be emailing cool links to them, or setting up a Pinterest board for them, where we post links to cool things they might like, or sharing links with them on Facebook, and so on.

The strewing, sprinkling, scattering and sharing of ideas, things and opportunities enrich our child’s life and learning, and might include any of the following, and more:

Playing a new genre of music on the stereo
Celebrating International “Days of the Year” – today is apparently Belly Laugh Day, which sounds fun. But there is also Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, Backward Day, Talk Like A Grizzled Prospector Day and so on!
Adding DVDs to a Netflix/Quickflix queue
Adding new apps to a device for them to discover
Buying a foreign, unusual food to try
Bringing home a new craft item, cool gadget or game
Leaving a new recipe book open on the kitchen bench
Cooking international food for people to try
Leaving a half-completed jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table
Starting an “art squiggle” and leaving it for someone to finish
Pulling out something that hasn’t been seen or used in awhile
Buying a magazine about their hobby or something random
Driving a different route to a regular place
Driving to a new place to explore
Brochures from travel agents
Setting up a board game on the table
Bringing home unusual artefacts from a second hand store
Taking the kids exploring at a second hand or antique store
Visiting restaurants from other cultures
Inviting interesting people to your home
Starting a new hobby yourself (it can be contagious and lead to all sorts of conversations, too!)

Here is a small sampling of some fun strewing from our life, recently:

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What about you? Do you think strewing is manipulative? Have you found ways to do it that are relaxed, natural and non-coercive? I’d love to hear your stories and examples!

How I Screwed Up Strewing

During my years (yes, years!) of deschooling, as I journeyed towards really getting unschooling, I struggled with one main question:

HOW MUCH SHOULD I DO? HOW MUCH SHOULD I SUGGEST AND OFFER IDEAS AND ACTIVITIES?

I couldn’t get my head around it. I was learning to trust that my children would learn from living life, I was learning to set them free…. but I wasn’t sure how much to “let them be”, and how much to suggest ideas for activities and outings, etc. How active should my role be? When I heard about the concept of “strewing” I realised I had found my answer! The problem was how I went about doing it.

UNSUCCESSFUL STREWING

I would take them to the library … and get frustrated if they only wanted to borrow DVDs instead of “all those interesting books.”

We would end up coming home with piles of borrowed material anyway. Lots of it would not be looked at … and I would comment on what a waste it was.

I would leave an interesting (to me) library book opened on the coffee table and it would often stay untouched … and I would sigh.

I would suggest an outing or activity and the response would often be, “Ah, no, I’m not really interested,” or “Maybe” … and my heart would sink. I had been hoping for something more like, “Yeah, Mum, that’s an AWESOME idea!”

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For ages I was completely unaware that when they responded without the enthusiasm I’d hoped for, I would subconsciously do my “magical manoeuvre”: a super-subtle eyeroll that was invisible to me, but very visible to them. They could sense it somehow, and hear the almost-silent sigh. They knew.

They knew I was not happy with their response. That what I was offering was something I really wanted them to want to do. If they didn’t respond with boundless enthusiasm, I took it personally. I judged their choice as “less than.” I really thought they should do it, or at least want to do it.

EXPECTATIONS AND “SHOULD-NESS” 

But “should-ness” is soul sapping. Maybe their lacklustre enthusiasm was because of the attachment I unknowingly had to the activity, or perhaps they honestly just weren’t interested.

Either way, my subtle response was not so subtle in its damaging effect on their deschooling journey. It was also damaging to me: my trust would decrease and my frustration would increase. I had this picture in my head of what our life outside of school should look like, and their responses to my occasional suggestions weren’t in keeping with my idea!

I was WAY too attached to my desired outcome; to their enthusiastic response. So when it wasn’t forthcoming, I was disappointed. And they knew it.

What I was doing wasn’t really strewing at all: it was PRODUCT PLACEMENT! with a very clear expectation that they should “purchase” what I was selling.

Image credit: marigranula / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: marigranula / 123RF Stock Photo

Their responses to my early strewing attempts became my teacher. I realised:

  • The things I was placing around the house, or suggesting we do, had big ugly strings attached.
  • They were also often too “schooly,” especially for those early deschooling days. I was still thinking in school subjects, so was mostly offering things that would tick an imaginary educational box for me and a glassy-eyed box for them: perhaps a history documentary or a science experiment etc. The evidence that I overdid that kind of strewing is that my two oldest children who are now almost sixteen and nineteen still mention “history docos” and “science experiments” from time to time with a not-so-subtle rolling of THEIR eyes!
Dreamstime Stock Photos
Dreamstime Stock Photos

BEYOND SCHOOL SUBJECTS

My “strewing” during our deschooling years looked more like stuffing things down their throats, expecting them to lick their lips and ask for more! To their credit, they knew that they needed more freedom than that and so they did not lap up my lashings of schooly strewing. Their resistance drove me crazy, but when I look back I can see they were still deschooling, needing to detox from everything “school,” and find their happy joyful place.

It took conscious effort to let go of my attachments and expectations, and to learn to love and honour what mattered to THEM, not me. Instead of suggesting that we read a historical novel together, or subscribe to an “educational” magazine, I would probably have been better off playing the video game they loved – with them, going to the beach and exploring the rockpools – without an agenda, cooking delicious food – without the “lesson”

I needed to learn that life is bigger than school; bigger than school subjects.

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© Geraktv | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

And life is richest and most wonderful when there is no expectation or agenda attached to suggestions or scattered objects.

Finally I learned that bringing more of what the children love into their lives is better than trying to “balance” it out by suggesting something different. By being interested in what interests them, and being interesting myself, our life becomes more … INTERESTING!

When I want to suggest something that they are unlikely to stumble upon themselves, it can and should be as natural as the way I might call my husband over to see something cool, or email him a link to something I think he might like, or buy something I know he has been wanting to get.

FROM PRODUCT PLACEMENT TO NATURAL STREWING

We lived in a Christian community once, whose slogan was to let your spiritual life be natural, and your natural life be spiritual. It should be the same with strewing: it moves from “product placement” to “strewing” when our suggestions or scatterings are totally relaxed and natural, when there is no hidden agenda that they should “learn something,” no expectation that they should say yes to our suggestion.

So I finally realised that strewing works best when I:

  • Offer without expectation of an enthusiastic YES!
  • Bring things into our world without strings attached.

And if the children say no thanks, then that’s because they want to do something that to them, in that moment, is even more wonderful than what I am offering.

When I bring wonderful, new, different and intriguing things into our lives without any pressure or expectation, our wonder and enjoyment increases. When I tickle our senses with new smells, tastes, sounds and objects, we engage more fully with our world. When I spontaneously point something out rather than pre-plan it, they are far more likely to respond with a “Wow, that’s cool Mum!” than a feeling of being manipulated. When I offer a swirling smorgasbord of opportunities and objects because they’re wonderful, not because they tick a school box, life is more delicious!

Surprised by the unexpected treasure of wildflowers growing in the bush on the side of the road, we stopped to explore and delight in them. The next day they were gone.
Surprised by the unexpected treasure of wildflowers growing in the bush on the side of the road, we stopped to explore and delight in them. The next day they were gone.

I eventually realised that I had been looking at my initial question the wrong way entirely. The issue wasn’t about finding a balance between activity and passivity on the part of parent and child; we should both be activate participants in this wonderful unschooling life!