Our First Unschooling Conference

It looks like the Sabo family will be able to get to two unschooling conferences this year. We're still decompressing from Life is Good, and are beginning to start gearing up (yes, that's three qualifiers in one sentence) for Wide Sky Days in San Diego in September. Every time we go to a conference (WSD will be my 11th) we are happy to bask in the warmth of old friendships and revel in the possibilities of new ones. But our comfort at conferences does not negate the fact that the first one we went to, Live and Learn '06, almost scared the crap out of me.

Have you ever been to a conference? Are you uncertain about going? Is your husband or partner resistant? I know what that's like, and it can be scary as hell - but so incredibly rewarding. Read on.

Every time another conference approaches, it reminds me of how I felt in the months leading up to my first one, Live and Learn in Albuquerque in 2006. When Ginger told me she wanted to go, I was pretty unsure - a conference? I mean REALLY? I've been to a ton of conferences in my professional life, and they are so, well, boring and formal. I mean, Conferences are places where we all wear name badges, and sit around at tables forcing conversation with people we don't know. Conferences are where we pick up 37 pounds of printed flyers and brochures that we'll never read again. They're places where we fight to stay awake all day so we can earn the right to go back to our rooms and watch TV. I mean, unschooling sounded okay, and I was even kinda enjoying it. Why the hell did I need to fly across the country to bore myself?

As the conference got closer, my concerns took a new turn. No longer was I worried about being bored; I was worried about being overwhelmed and rejected by the establishment. What if everyone there already knew each other? What if I wasn't cool enough, or funny enough, or smart enough, or - God forbid - unschooly enough? I had serious visions that someone would approach Ginger a few days into the conference, point at me, and say "He doesn't belong here - - I think you should reconsider this unschooling thing."

When we were flying there, I began to feel better, but still had one nagging concern: All of these Dads were probably so cool, and they probably had neat non-traditional careers that allowed them to stay home and be with their kids all of the time. How could I possibly compete with that? Did I even deserve to be here? What the hell would I do when I got to the hotel and the whole thing started?

And then we got there, and the rest of my life began.

The entire weekend was a dream: I learned, I laughed, I cried, I relaxed, I played, I created, I asked, I answered, I dug deep, I slept, I stayed up all night, I followed my kids around everywhere they wanted me to and left them alone when they wanted that, I was challenged, I challenged, I made amazing friends from 6 months old to 70, and I came to one essential understanding of my life: happiness is king and rules all. My happiness, Ginger's, Kai's, Kade's, and everyone else that we had a chance to interact with.

So here's what I did at my first conference, and how it helped me feel better about the experience:

I went to main presentations: the ones from Ren Allen and Ben Lovejoy stood out, primarily because they made me think about the love I have for my children and how much it can still deepen.

I went to circle chats and smaller meetings. My first circle chat was with Barbara Chase, and while way too many brain cells have left the building to remember the exact topic, I do recall feeling energized and excited by one critical thing: not everyone there was an "expert" or "radical", and they were all learning and growing, just like me - even the folks who have been doing it for years.

I went to SSUDS meetings. The Secret Society of Unschooling Dads is really just a cool acronym; there's nothing secret about it. My first SSUDS meeting was just dads and grandads and such, with lots of no-holds barred Q&A about being a Dad and unschooling. I asked tons of questions, and was challenged all along the way. It was rough for me, because many of the answers I got were strange and new - but the people who answered me did it from the heart, with no other goal than to make me a better unschooling dad. And then after the meeting and all through the weekend, they each sought me out to talk one-on-one.

I hsoted a fun shop. What a great way to meet people! Fun shops are just that: fun, fun, fun. We decided to make tissue paper kites ,and brought tissue paper, string, decorations, markers, glue sticks, etc. Kids and their parents just flowed in for the whole hour, and we found ourselves scrambling just to catch up and keep them all supplied! But we met so many cool people and cool kids, and that helped us make connections that led to deeper conversations over that weekend - and over the years since.

I participated in the raffle and instant gratification table. I got a chance to buy raffle tickets and bid on all sorts of exciting gift baskets and other cool stuff. The kids got to participate, too. Another fantastic way to meet people and experience new things.

I actually got on stage during the talent show. A bunch of the younger set got on stage and sang "Another Brick in the Wall", and I just couldn't resist! Subsequent years have seen me up dancing to "The Time Warp" and "Thriller", among other silly stuff.

I walked to a coffee shop every day; just to escape for a little while and get some "me" time.

I watched Cartoon Network for the first time. Before the conference, we didn't have cable at all; never had! But since that very first episode of "Courage the Cowardly Dog" I realized that TV is not an instrument of the Devil; it is another wonderful way to connect with my kids.

I let go. I let go of almost everything: bed times, TV control, the need to be right, the need to be on-time, the need to know where my kids were and with whom, the need to be in control - and most of all, my precon ceived notions that had defined unschooling ina rigid, formulaic fashion.

And most importantly, I learned. Without even trying, or wanting to, or planning to, or even knowing it was happening. While I learned things about unschooling, to be sure, I mostly learned about myself, my life, my family, my goals, my fears, and my passions.

A conference can be all of this, and more. All it takes for you to have a similar, wonderful, life-changing experience is to come and let it happen. Look for the people who look peaceful and are smiling; they're the ones who know and are there to help you make the same journey.

Hope to see you in September!


  1. Jeff, I think you hit it all in this post.

    UWWG in Ohio was fun, but I wished even more people we now know were there - you, Beth Fuller, and so on.

    On one point, I like the conferences where everyone is more along the path to unschooling than us - then we can learn more! Being the role model is fine, but you can learn more when you're the newbie.

  2. My family just went to our first conference, the unschoolers winter waterpark gathering, and now we've decided that we have to to to more of them! Unschooling conferences are marvelous. :-)

  3. *And now we've decided that we have to go to more of them. Woops. :-P

  4. Well said, Jeff! For our first conference, I warned Ronnie that I would probably spend the entire time hiding in our room. As it turned out, I felt so welcome, so warmly embraced, that I spent the time at the conference in a whirlwind of connection. Looking forward to Life Is Good soon!

  5. Your post should be required reading for all homeschool Dads. It would also make a great handout at conferences, or in the literature that goes out with conference announcements -- because if you read carefully, part of the reason you had such a good time and learned so much is because you found ways to be involved without being overwhelemed.

    I'd always heard that you need to be invovled to get the max benefit out of any group, but your post really shows how, exactly, to do so.