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Living and Learning In a Multigenerational Home
By Christina Nichols

With communication and understanding, life learning can enrich relationships in a family of different generations, opinions, and experiences.

multigenerational unschooling
Image © Aletia/Shutterstock Images

As more families embrace the idea of multigenerational living, people may wonder how to make life learning work within a family of differing generations, opinions, and experiences.

Though not homeschooled, I was raised in a multigenerational family and greatly valued the experience of growing up with my grandmother living in our home. Three years ago, my own mother began living with our then family of four. We have since grown to six, with three adults and three life learning children ages nine, four, and two. These last years have not been without challenges, but our journey has been an incredible learning experience for our whole family.

Challenges to unschooling in a multigenerational family

Sharing your home with someone who is at minimally familiar with life learning, and has not pondered and researched it as you have, presents a number of challenges. However, when that individual is someone you and your family love and wish to share your lives with, it can be a wonderful opportunity for growth and learning together.

The first hurdle we encountered was what homeschooling should “look” like. To my mom, who had never before been exposed to the idea of unschooling, it should look an awful lot like school at home. She had visions of watching the younger children for me, while I sat at the table with my oldest son doing lessons and worksheets. However, it looks a lot different in our family. It looks like field trips, games, science experiments, park days, crafting, journaling, baking, exploring Nature, karate class, library trips, and lots and lots of free play time. It looks like following the interests of my three boys, be it geology, ancient Egypt, the Titanic, tractors and farming, or sharks and ocean life. Sometimes, it does look like lessons and worksheets, but that is quite rare and only when initiated by one of the children.

So, understandably, my mom had concerns. This concept of interest-driven learning through life experiences was completely new to her. So we talked about our differences of opinion...a lot. However, we discussed these differences respectfully and tried to be understanding of each other’s valid opinions. During this time, we went right along living and learning as we normally would. My mom accompanied us on a museum trip to study mummies, as my oldest was greatly interested in ancient Egypt. She played a lot of Chess, Clue, and Zingo. She took my farm-loving son to a tractor show. In between, she read countless books on many different subjects to them, and provided help on computer games when they asked for it. She was unknowingly unschooling just by being a nurturing grandmother!

We life learners often talk of having to “deschool” ourselves or our children after pulling them out of public schools. It’s a time of letting go of the preconceived notions about what education and learning should be. I like to call this time in our lives “deschool- ing Nanny.” It didn’t happen overnight. It’s an ongoing process of letting go of that school frame of mind. However, being around my children each and every day, it’s impossible not to see how much they are learning. Seeing this, and experiencing firsthand how much learning happens without force or coercion, was really what made the difference. I am happy to say that my mom is planning to attend her first unschooling conference with us this year.

As we progressed on our life learning journey, the philosophy began to work its way into other aspects of our lives. Consensual living became the natural next step. My husband and I wanted to change the balance of power in our home to where we became our children's trusted guides and allies rather than their adversaries. We wanted to create an environment of love, trust, and mutual respect. This shift in our parenting created some of the greatest challenges in our multigenerational household.

Initially, my mom viewed the philosophy as permissive, and believed that the adults in a home rightly held all of the power over the children. This led to some fairly heated discussions that were not tremendously productive in moving forward. Interestingly, change occurred only when I tried to be more understanding of her perspective. Most of our parents were themselves raised in very authoritarian homes. The notion that the adult always knows best is so heavily ingrained in our society. The idea of working with rather than against children is a fairly radical one. I realized that we did not have to be in complete agreement on the issue, but that it was my job to create that environment of mutual respect. I had to extend the very same respect, empathy, and love to my mom that I show my children. It meant that we would continue having discussions about my parenting philosophy without it erupting into an argument because we could respectfully disagree with each other. You may be wondering how exactly this works out in real life? Here is one example of creating an environment of mutual respect from our daily life.

In the hours following dinner, my mom (known to my children as “Nanny”) craves quiet time. She has been this way since my own childhood, and this is not something that is going to change. My three boys, on the other hand, are energized during this time of day. They like to run, jump, and play rather than sit down and read or play quietly. Obviously, this created some tension. In order to work through it, I had to realize that both sides had equally valid needs, and work with everyone to find a way to meet both needs. Most importantly, my husband or I needed to be present – this was not the time to ask my mom to watch the boys for us. During the warm months, the solution was that they simply played outdoors after dinner and everyone was happy. However, that is not always possible. So, we talked…we talked to my mom about the kids’ need to play and be kids. We talk to the boys in an age appropriate manner about Nanny’s need for quiet. We came up with solutions to meet both needs. Having space is important in a multigenerational home. We consciously chose not to live in a big house, but we also try to ensure that everyone has personal space. When the boys are too loud and energetic for my mom, she can retreat to her own space. I have talked extensively with the boys about boundaries, respecting Nanny’s space, and understanding that she needs time to be quiet, listen to audiobooks, and spend time alone. This solution works beautifully and is mutually respectful of both my mom and my children. At the moment, our two-year-old is the only one who barges into Nanny’s space at all times calling “Na Na!” but he is always greeted with a smile and hugs, and I retrieve him after a few minutes so she can continue to have quiet time.

As time goes on, I notice my mom becoming more and more accepting and in favor of this parenting philosophy. A few of the most important tools we have used as a family to get to this point have been empathy, open-mindedness, and respect for each other. Communication is also vital. The book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg has been very helpful to me in discovering new ways of problem solving and meeting the needs of all family members. Surprisingly, Facebook has also been a useful tool for sharing articles and information about life learning with my mom. I post many articles, and she can read them in her own time. We have ongoing conversations both about life learning in our family and about articles I have found on the topic.

Benefits of a Multigenerational Unschooling Home

There are so very many benefits to living this way, and it is certainly worth working through some of the challenges that present themselves along the way.

Some of the greatest benefits are simply relationships. Through living with my mom, we have been able to build a better relationship as adults than we have ever had. I also have the pleasure of seeing my children’s relationship with their grandmother grow and flourish. I watch as they keep her young, active, and healthy. I smile as their eyes light up when she tells them stories of her own life and of my childhood. Having my mom with us is a living link to our family’s history. During a recent move, we spent many hours together looking at old photos and remembering times past. My mom gives the boys a tangible connection to our very large extended family that is spread across the country.

Another, more practical, benefit is having extra help at home. This is so important, especially in a life learning family with multiple children. There are some days when all of my children are either engaged in the same activity or happily independent. However, those days are not often the norm. The boys range in age from two to nine, so they have varied interests. Having another adult in the house to help with projects, answer questions, read stories, or play games is invaluable! She also can provide unique insights outside what my husband or I have experienced. When my youngest son was an infant and my husband was back at work, I never had to worry that the older boys were not getting attention when they needed it or how I was going to get them a much needed snack while the new baby was nursing. These are such simple things, yet it makes the house so much more balanced and peaceful.

Finally, as my mom and I worked our way through the challenges of living and learning together, the boys were able to see us modeling conflict resolution skills. Conversations about unschooling have always been a part of our family life, especially in the beginning. They were able to see us work through problems in a peaceful and respectful way. I believe this is far more important than simply telling them that this is the best way to solve problems.

There is no end point or destination in our family’s life learning journey. We are always learning together and learning how to make life work together. Each member of our family contributes their own unique thoughts and feelings. We do our best every day to make sure that all of those thoughts and feelings are heard and valued. Multigenerational living certainly may not be right for every homeschooling family. It is so important to have an open and honest relationship with your parents before even considering sharing a home and life. However, if you are considering it, I will tell you it is not always easy but it is worth working through the challenges. Building a relationship with your parents and growing your children’s relationship with their grandparents allows the love and joy that surrounds life learning families to grow exponentially.

Christina Nichols is building her small homesteading dream in northeastern Pennsylvania, along with her husband Jason, mother Ruth, and three children Josh, Orion, and Aspen.

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