Parent, Unschool Thyself

Like many parents, I was overwhelmed with well-meaning "advisers" throughout our pregnancies and infant/toddler years. Since most of our friends and family at the time were products of traditional parenting, most of the advice we received was in-line with the common views of the time. We were told all about the benefits of circumcision, and cribs, and the importance of babies crying it out, and how to choose a day care provider so Ginger could go back to work. It was easy to listen to that advice, nod politely, say "thank you", and then reject it out of hand. There were other tidbits of wisdom, however, which were a bit more difficult to simply dismiss, because I simply could not understand where they were coming from. These ideas were less about what to do and how to do it, and more about what to feel and how to feel it. I have always rejected the notion that someone else could tell me how to feel about something, and this was no exception.

Most of this type of advice had the same theme: "Now that you are a parent, the needs of your children are more important than your needs. The time for being selfish about what you want is over." I see where this comes from, I even see a certain nobility in it; after all, many parents exhibit behaviors throughout the lives of their children that make connecting as a family nearly impossible. For many years, getting married and having children have been portrayed in our society as "rites of passage", in which we are expected to put aside our old behaviors in order to grow up and become more mature. Many of the rituals we have adopted as a society enforce this concept; think about large graduation and bachelor parties, for example. It is easy to view marriage and having children as passages, when we move from a time of relative selfishness and irresponsibility to a time of maturity and growth. And because this move is "traumatic" for some people (which is often assumed, regardless of whether or not it's true), people feel free to offer advice on how best to adjust quickly and thoroughly. New parents are often told to stop thinking of themselves so they can focus on their children. Many try to do just that - and it's easy to do, given all of the demands of parenting, especially in the first few years.

But I think it is, ultimately, a bad thing for parent and child.
Whether you live in a traditional family or a more radical one, it is difficult to put your own needs behind the needs of your child all of the time without becoming a disconnected, embittered martyr. If you have decided to unschool, however, it is not only difficult to do - it makes unschooling significantly more challenging and less rewarding.

Over the past several years, I have given a lot of thought to what unschooling is, and what it requires of us as parents. Many parents decide to start unschooling because they see what it is or what it can be: amazing, freeing, flexible, provocative, enabling, interactive, solitary, expansive, focused, connective, learning, being, living, touching, easy, hard, scary, peaceful, loud, messy, and neat. They understand and believe that unschooling is the best choice for their child's present and future. They strive to set up an environment in which they model the pursuit of their own passions without expectations or conditions; in which they allow and encourage their child's passions and exploration without judgment; and in which they trust that their children will do what's right for themselves even if it's not what the parents would choose. They believe that doing this authentically and wholeheartedly helps our children understand that their views have value, that their passions have value, that their thoughts have value - that they have value. And they believe that living and learning in such an environment builds a confidence that enables children to try new things and explore their passions as well as their fears. Some parents get this quickly and fully, and for them unschooling is and has always been relatively easy.

But for the rest of us, the parents who were themselves raised under traditional parenting (read: controlling) methods, the move to unschooling requires paradigm shifts of Herculean proportions, at least for a period of time until the family finds a comfortable groove. Virtually everything we learned about how to "raise" children in an "orderly" way gets turned on its ear, and the magnitude of the change that many parents have to go through will strain and stretch them in ways that they never could have anticipated. Some of us are completely oblivious to the role our own upbringings have on setting our parenting paradigms, and the role those paradigms play in the change we have to go through to make unschooling work. Some of us are fighting to get past our own expectations so we can move toward unschooling more quickly or deeply. Think about some of the changes between traditional parenting and unschooling:
  • from perfect control to letting go
  • from parenting in fear to partnering with courage
  • from predefined success to redefined success
  • from parenting with timelines and milestones to having faith and trust
  • from rigidity to flexibility
  • from tidy to messy
  • from ready to waiting
  • from scheduled to spontaneous
This is hard. H-A-R-D. We want to be able to provide our children with all they need and deserve to grow and feel valued. And we try to provide as much of it as possible, every day, regardless of the toll it takes on us. But in our efforts to give so completely of ourselves to our children, as we break from our own upbringings and try to do things better, we often forget a critical step - we neglect to give completely to ourselves.

Think about some of the gifts we try to give our children: patience, love, curiosity, passion, and comfort, to name just a few. These are noble, critical things to grace our children with. Those of us who have been unschooling for a number of years have emphasized giving these freely to our children, and as the years have passed we have seen these qualities blossom in our children - and have seen them begin to share them freely with others, creating a world of compassion and appreciation. But even if we give these gifts to our children, freely and openly, we run the risk of falling short if we do not give them to ourselves as well - because children see far more than we think they do, and will model what they see just as readily as what they hear. Let's look at these gifts in turn.

The Gift of Patience
If we are impatient with ourselves - if we focus on our achievements and outcomes, and measure our feelings of self-worth against our success or failure at them - our children will learn to focus more on destinations than on journeys. Losing focus on the journey often prevents people from enjoying the ride and exploring new directions. If we are impatient with others - spouses, family members, store clerks - our children learn to set standards for other people and to judge that person's worth by their performance against that standard.

The Gift of Love
Many therapists have made many millions of dollars advising people on how to love themselves more. I am no psychologist, but I think it all starts with something relatively simple - believe that you are worthy of having good things in your life, and give yourself a break. If you do not have love for yourself, it is virtually impossible to give complete and unconditional love to others. Your love for them, while seemingly all-consuming and whole to you, will be difficult for other people to accept as unconditional because they know that you are incapable of loving unconditionally - they see that your own love for yourself carries conditions, and assume that the same is true for them. When it comes to love, actions speak louder than words. You cannot focus on your own "negative" qualities while simultaneously expecting others to think that their negative qualities are okay in your eyes.

The Gift of Curiosity
What a precious gift this can be. Most children are born with a natural curiosity which, while beautiful when viewed objectively, can be enervating when experienced firsthand - ask any parent who has gone through the "20 Whys" during a long drive. Kids love to learn, they want to know why things are the way they are - which means that they have a marvelous ability to view things with an open mind, and apply creative ideas, thoughts, and solutions to things that adults take for granted. But are you curious? Do you see things every day, things that most people take for granted, and ask "why", or "how"? Do you want to learn, and like to learn, not for any specific purpose or end goal, but because learning is fun? If the answer is "no", then your children may be "learning" that the status quo is okay and not worth questioning. If you don't like to find creative ways to solve problems, they are unlikely to enjoy that as well. And even if they are able to maintain their own curiosity despite your lack of it, you are likely missing a wonderful opportunity to journey and explore in partnership with your children, creating a gap where none needs exist.

The Gift of Passion
Last year, I wrote a piece on passions that captures my feelings pretty well. The bottom line here for me is that unschooling is not about sitting back and telling your kids what to do; it's about stepping up and showing them what can be done - not what they should do, but what you do do. If you do not find the time or energy to identify and pursue your own passions - while simultaneously encouraging your children to identify and pursue their own - you are robbing them of the joy of observing how happy people can be when they are passionate about something. Now, I am not suggesting that you pursue you passions to the point where you become consumed by them and ignore your kids or your partner. But passions need permission; watching someone explore their passions is inspiring and contagious, and our children need to see the pursuit of passions modeled so they can come to understand that pursuing passions is an essential key to happiness and self-worth.

The Gift of Comfort
Most parents innately want to comfort their children though sad times or sickness. To do so requires a parent who is willing to give that gift, and a child who is willing to receive it. Yet so many adults are unable to be comforted themselves; they often subjugate their own needs and problems in an effort to offer themselves as a comforter to children, partners, family and friends. When a parent puts their own need for comfort at the bottom of the list, they are portraying themselves as superhuman or as martyrs, whose comfort is either unimportant or undeserved. When parents do that, their children learn to subjugate the importance of their own comfort in order to comfort others. While this is noble in some respects, it can also lead to the child questioning their own value as they get older, as they lose the ability to seek and accept comfort when they need it. This can lead to feelings of isolation or uncertainty in times of need.

This sounds a bit more like a pop psychology sermon than it does an unschooling blog. Of course, unschooling is, at its most basic, an educational philosophy. Many people apply the principles of unschooling to other aspects of their lives such as bedtimes, media access, and food choices, taking unschooling from a purely educational choice to a lifestyle choice. For me, however, unschooling at its deepest is less an educational or lifestyle philosophy and more an approach to life which focuses on respect, love, freedom, and learning. As such, I cannot - or choose not to - simply apply the principles of unschooling to our approach to education while ignoring the amazingly positive influence they have had on our lives when fully embraced in all we do. I'm an all or nothing guy, I guess. So when I talk about "unschooling yourself", I am not talking about staying out of a classroom. I am talking about working with your family to create a life in which relationships are authentic and mutually respectful.

These gifts of patience, love, curiosity, passion, comfort - there are many, many others - are fundamental to authentic and respectful parenting. Giving freely of these to your children, without freely giving them to yourself, can have long term consequences that can make it difficult for your family to live in respect, love, freedom, and learning - and therefore make it difficult to fully experience unschooling at its best.

Parent, unschool thyself first. Treating yourself with unconditional respect and love is freeing for you, and contagious and inspirational for others.


  1. Thank you so much, Jeff. I have read too much unschooling information that basically denies the needs and feelings of the parents. Thank you for the "permission" to find creative solutions to meet our own needs as we meet the needs of our children.

  2. thank you, Jeff, especially for the reminder about patience and love for ourselves. Those have been difficult things for me to really live sometimes.

  3. Kimberly Sharpe-SlageJune 17, 2010 at 5:39 PM

    Thank you, Jeff. You always have the best post. I love them!

  4. Fantastic! Thanks so much, I really enjoyed reading that.

  5. Jeff - really first class - both very challenging and encouraging at just the right time!

  6. Wow did I need to read this today!! Thank you thank you for saying exactly what I needed to hear!!

  7. We've just decided to set off along the unschooling path, and your blog is a great help. And our friends think we can do it..............
    Best wishes, Andrew (just another bald man)

  8. I believe this. I *really* do. But there are a couple of important areas of my life that I still haven't managed to allow to thrive again since I've had kids. Thanks for reminding me that I need to kick my own butt back into gear.

  9. thanks for the good information for parents of the schooled and unschooled! i was working with some homeschool parents today who mentioned that the one thing they miss is a few hours a week to themselves for self-reflection, personal development, etc. this made me wonder if unschooled parents need their own recess time:) i'd be happy to hear from other parents about this, as it has got me wondering if this is true in more parents than we know.