Unschooling, Unparenting

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.


  1. I am thinking this would be a great opening briefing at Life is Good! :)

  2. Mr. Sabo I do believe I love you more and more each day. If that's possible.

  3. Jeff - you made me cry tears of joy and relief and acceptance and, and, and ... thank you!

  4. I appreciate all your posts. Some days I wonder if I am doing well in my roll as a mom. I appreciate that you are honest in letting us know that you are not always super dad :) Makes me feel better.

    Looking into the conference thing. Would like to attend one soon.

  5. Thank you for putting the thoughts into words.

  6. lovely. i agree about this being reading fodder for all conference attendees!

  7. I'll join the chorus in applauding this post.

    I do struggle with gray areas, though, especially in the "respect for others" and "safety" categories. Your examples don't seem gray to me, but there is so much "behavior" that the mainstream considers black-and-white issues but I absolutely don't. Profanity not at 3 a.m. Public displays of affection from teen couples. Teens hanging out, oh, just about anywhere really. Loud laughter. Running in hallways when it harms no one. Riding the elevator just for fun. And so on. Traditional parents look at these and scowl and KNOW that our kids are unparented. Unschoolers look at many of them and smile and see normal, happy play and exploration.

    It comes down to judgment calls, always, and unschooling parents tend to err on the side of allowing and accepting. I think it's inevitable that there are going to be times when we do in fact err. We get to live and learn, just like our kids, you know?

    I too want to see more parental involvement at unschooling conferences (and everywhere). But I wonder if there isn't a way we can extend unschooling philosophy to each other and do a little coaching when it seems like this parent or that isn't negotiating that thin line very well. I know it's tricky -- people turn porcupine-ish pretty quickly when they feel their parenting is being criticized. Worth a shot, though...

  8. Great post - hope you have a great time at the con. - myself I decided not to go this year - hopefully next year though :)

  9. Thank you for this post.

    We are an unschooling family (I have a son and daughter) in Madison, WI and we are thinking about moving to Portland this fall. I just joined a Portland yahoo group, and I was pleased to be led to your post.

    It's exciting to learn of people who think about and explore unschooling, but it can be challenging.

    This last year, my daughter decided to start high school. I looked at it as the ultimate homeschooling project--to allow her the experience of high school and see what she made of it.

    As a parent, high school has been everything that made me choose homeschooling to begin with. I saw my daughter exhausted by a ridiculous work load of mostly unimportant, stupid and mind crushing homework. I saw her natural ability to want to explore the world stultified. I saw her confidence in her singing ability eroded. She had hoped to make friends and ended up feeling isolated and strange.

    And yet, there is something about her experience which is driving her on. She insists that she wants to continue school and that she enjoys it.

    This is the Extreme-Unparenting sport. This is the grey area. This is where you dig deep and find strength where you thought you had none. This is where my desire to protect and guide my daughter in ways that *I* see fit as a parent collide against my deep trust of her, my respect for the process of growing up in her own way and my fundamental value of letting her chose her experiences in the world.

    I still have not navigated my way through this one. I trust her deeply and yet I witness her making choices that appear to not be in her interest.

    And on top of it all, I hate school. "Don't I get a vote?," I want to whine to the world??

    If we are true unschoolers, then we need to allow our kids all options including not to be an unschooler.

    This is a mind puzzle that I don't care to dive into.

    My whole point is that I'm glad to have these discussions in our new home.

    I look forward to connecting with the unschooling crowd in Portland.

    We will be touring Portland in 2 weeks. Maybe I'll be able to run into some of you while I'm there!

    Thank you,


  10. I just asked this question on the FaceBook page of a friend who linked to your blog, and then it occurred to me that I should just ask here.

    You says you like the definition of unparenting on UnParenting.com, which is a very positive definition. And then you go on to ask "what is unparenting?" and give examples of parents not helping their kids be safe, emotionally supported and respectful of others, which is very negative and which you do not advocate.

    So,for unschoolers, is "unparenting" a positive or negative term?

    I'm going to LiG for the first time this year, btw :-) And I loved this blog post; it helped me sort out some things in my thinking.


  11. Jeff, this is such a great post. Thanks so much for sharing all this.

    I used to think that we couldn't unschool because I'd confused it with unparenting (in the non-parenting sense of the word. I know better now. :) And I was so happy to pass this on to my husband, who read it, and said, "That is a good post."

  12. Thank you for posting this...it says a lot not only to unschooling families, but to everyone out there who thinks unschooling means unparenting too!

  13. I would put trust and respect right after Love and I'd put love unconditionally.
    Another little remark on controlling them: how would they learn to control themselves that way
    And keeping them away from the bad stuff so they survive the real world. The real world is filled with the bad stuff, shouldn't they learn about it and learn to deal with it?

    Love the post, am sharing it on my FB fanpage and you can count me in as your newest follower :)

  14. Oh thank you Jeff, off to print out the 'role of parents' statements and stick them to my wall to remind me! Love the one on Love...
    thank you again
    Mum to 3 in Australia where unschooling is just seen as weird...LOL