Well, it's almost time for the wonderful and enriching Life is Good Unschooling Conference. I love conferences; they give me an opportunity to reconnect with my family in an environment that is comfortable for all of us, great old and meet new friends, and celebrate the freedom of the lifestyle we have chosen. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - if you have never been to an unschooling conference, even if you're not an unschooler just yet, you should try to get to one and see how it can change your life and the lives of your children. The experience is truly awe-inspiring.
As conference time nears, there is usually some chatter regarding concerns about Unparenting. "What the hell is Unparenting?"you ask? Good question.
There are a few different ways to define Unparenting. I actually like the way it is defined on Unparenting.com, which is more of a "Un-traditional Parenting." Nothing at all wrong with that, in my mind.
When most people think of Unparenting, though, they think of parents who are choosing to turn their backs on some of the fundamental duties and roles of a parent. And what might those be?
Glad you asked.
First Things First. What is Parenting?
Before we talk too much about what Unparenting is, let's make sure we know what parenting is.
The recent hullaballoo (wonder what the etymology of that word is, BTW) about unschooling has been very interesting to me. To me, you can't really talk about unschooling without also talking about parenting, because the parent's ability to understand and embrace the principles of unschooling, either as an educational choice or as a lifestyle choice, is absolutely critical. So I was prompted once again to look at how mainstream, traditional America views the role of a parent. By listening carefully and fairly to the outspoken voices who came out against unschooling, and by combining them with my own experience, here's my synopsis of what most people seem to be saying a parent really is:
"A parent's whole purpose is to set up controls to prepare their children for the real world, a little bit at a time. They do this by controlling what their kids are exposed to; keeping the kids away from things that are bad for them; directing the child's energies into productive activities; and teaching them what they need to know and to ensure that they develop independence and can be productive members of society."
I grew up with this paradigm; I was taught it, raised in it, and started out my own journey as a parent embodying it. But as I grew, and learned, and changed, I began to disagree with these "parenting fundamentals" and refute, both within myself and with others:
"A parent's whole purpose is to set up controls . . ." A parent's whole purpose is to love, empower, explore, coach, aid, listen, learn, care about/for. Control is not part of the job description.
" . . . keep them away from things that are bad for them . . " Shouldn't a human being have a right to have a say in what's good or bad for them? Shouldn't a child be allowed to learn and explore their world so they can define it on their own terms? Doesn't most of our learning come from our experiences, through which we establish our own sense of boundaries?
" . . . direct their energies into productive activities . . ." Okay. Whose definition of productive do we get to use - yours or your child's?
" . . . to prepare them for the real world . . ." Yes, and we all know how flawless a place that is, right? Why wouldn't we want to prepare them to change the world for the better if they choose, rather than how to operate in a world that was defined by others? Couldn't the world use a little change?
" . . . to teach them what they need to know . . ." You mean like we were taught about World Civilizations and Trigonometry, even though they may not have had any relevance for what we wanted to do or were passionate about? Hell, I have an MBA and don't know the first thing about that stuff, because it's not important to me to know it. And when I did need to know it to pass the GMAT because I wanted to go to B-school, you know what I did - I learned it.
" . . . to ensure they develop independence." Umm, how do you ensure someone develops independence? By controlling them and teaching it to them? Or should they be allowed to see it modeled and experience it themselves?
So, over the years my understanding of the role of a parent has boiled down to a few simple concepts - love, empower, explore, coach, aid, listen, support, learn, care about, care for. Let's start there.
Okay, so what is Unparenting, then?
Usually, when people think of Unparenting (especially in the context of conferences or playgroups, where these issues are more visible to others) they think of situations in which a parent essentially ignores some of their basic responsibilities. Here's some examples; see if any of these sound familiar.
1.) A child is left alone in the game room and is getting overly territorial with the toys they are playing with - they won't allow others to play with anything they have, and react angrily or violently when other kids question them.
2.) Four young children are running up and down the hallway at 3:30am screaming "Fuck you!" at the top of their lungs.
3.) A group of ten teens is playing volleyball in the lobby, where expensive vases are on every table and chandeliers are hanging from the ceiling.
4.) Kids are dunking each other at the pool, against each others wishes. Their parents sit poolside chatting away with each other and doing nothing.
5.) A 4-year old girl brings a broken glass bottle to park day and waves around in people's faces. The parent doesn't notice, and when questioned responds by saying "Unschooling means she can do whatever she wants."
6.) A child, perhaps frustrated and overwhelmed, sits alone on the floor crying with no parent in sight.
Unrealistic, you say? Bullshit, I retort. I have witnessed all of these firsthand. They do happen, and they are brilliant examples of unparenting in action.
Unschooling does indeed help provide an atmosphere of freedom in which children can explore their world and define for themselves what is good, what is bad, and what is wanted. These are noble, even exceptional goals that I sincerely wish all children had the power and freedom to pursue. But regardless of the underlying philosophy, there are still foundational parenting responsibilities - safety, security, emotional support, respect for others - that are non-negotiable for any parent. These principles not in conflict with unschooling; in fact, they represent the bare minimum starting points - between parent and child or between the parents themselves - required for unschooling to work.
So if you are unable to provide your child, and others, with these basics - safety, security, emotional support, and respect for others - do me a favor and don't call yourself an unschooler, and avoid the conferences, and keep the hell away from me and my family. Thanks :-)!
A Deeper Perspective
As sad as some of the above examples are, though, I'd like to propose that there's a deeper definition of Unparenting - one that can help us see how our day-to-day parenting choices are contributing to our children's well being. Perhaps it is not really Unparenting in the strictest sense of the word, as you are generally engaged with your children and their lives. But are you fulfilling your potential as a parent? Are you fully embracing the role, with all of its challenges and rewards?
Let's go back to my statements above on the role of a parent:
...over the years my understanding of the role of a parent has boiled down to a few simple concepts - love, empower, explore, coach, aid, listen, support, learn, care about, care for. Let's start there.
Yes, let's start there.
Love. We all get stressed from time to time, and life moves quickly. When speaking to, interacting with, or helping your children, do you first take a brief pause and think about how deeply you love them? You should . . . it's amazing.
Empower. It has been proven over the years that 90% of what adults learn and apply is related to what they have experienced. Do you hand over as many decisions as you can to your children, so they can experience the learning and growing that goes along with that responsibility? Do you give them a sense of true choice in how they conduct their day, what they eat, what they experience?
Explore. Do your children have the freedom to explore their interests, even if their interests are different form yours? Do you embrace their interests fully, not because you share them, but because your child has them? Most critically, do you role model that behavior by exploring your own interests?
Coach. Good coaches do not punish, they help people acquire and apply new skills and methods. Have you set up your relationship with your kids so they come to you with an expectation that they will receive guidance instead of criticism?
Aid. Simply put, all kids get stuck - with problems, with questions, with concerns. It seems that the older they get, the more serious these concerns are to them. And sometimes they want and need our help, but are unable to voice that directly, regardless of the relationship we have with them. Do you ask your kids, out of the blue and at least periodically, if there is anything they need your help with?
Listen. Many parents believe that it is their role to teach their children, and that every no experience is complete unless something is "learned" in an "Ah HA!" moment. But in their focus on teaching, it is easy to enter conversations with an agenda instead of with an open heart and open mind. So when you talk with your kids, are you waiting for your turn to speak, or are you listening?
Support. There are so many simple words that equals use with each other in difficult times - "I'm sorry that happened", "Of course you can", "Wouldn't that be great", "Do you want to try again?" - that many parents do not use because they view the parent role as one of authority. Do you offer support for your child as an individual, perhaps less experienced than yourself but amazing in their unique abilities and perspectives?
Learn. Kids often learn best when they are learning with someone, rather than from someone. Do you see what you have yet to learn, and what you may want to learn, and demonstrate to your children that learning is exciting and liberating?
I believe that being a parent is the most amazing privilege that I could possibly hope to be granted. Some days I am Superdad, other days I simply suck. Some days I am a great father, but a so-so partner - and some days I am neither.
But every day, I try to think about what my role as a parent is, what my children need from me, and how I can provide it in the best way possible. Regardless of how you define what Unparenting is, it is safe to say that we all have an opportunity to improve so we can give our children the best part of ourselves.