In Pursuit of Better

My friend Jean Dorsey was looking for guest posts on her blog, and I offered her this one. I'm publishing it here as well in case she decides it's crap and takes it down. Thanks, Jean, for letting me drop a few opinions on your site!

A couple of days ago, there was a thread going around on Facebook that asked about the differences between parenting in an unschooling family vs parenting in a traditional family. This is a very insightful question, I think, because it gets to the heart of what "radical" unschoolers have been saying for years: unschooling can be far more than just an educational alternative. It is, for many people, an outlook on life that emphasizes freedom and choice, not just in terms of learning but in virtually every aspect of our lives: access to information and experiences, behavior, food selection, and bedtimes, among many others. There are few rules or "have to"s in this way of life; instead, we lead lives of principle and choice. That's not to say that parenting in this environment is hands off; in fact, it requires a level of introspection and engagement that can be challenging and, periodically, maddening. It demands much of the parent: time, passion, understanding, patience, letting go, and true deep connection.

What it does not demand is perfection. But some parents still try to be perfect, despite the fact that perfection is unattainable. We love our children, we connect with our children, we respect our children, and we support our children. But to do so in a manner which is both authentic and true means that we have to start from wherever we actually are, not from where we wish to be.

Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and I just do not feel it. I still want to be a Dad, and a good one; but it just seems so elusive. Perhaps I am afraid, or disappointed, or even depressed. Perhaps I want a day just for me, free of the wants and needs of other people. Perhaps I have so many things on my "to do" list that I feel I need to devote some dedicated time to getting things done. Or perhaps I am just tired and a bit burned out. Regardless of the reasons, when I get this way I am much less likely to meet the needs of my family, let alone myself. Because my reactions get shorter and my patience wanes, my children can sense that something is wrong often before I am ready to acknowledge it myself. And when I finally do recognize my mood, and the impact it has on those around me, it usually leads to one overarching thought.

I am living a lie.

I write about being a good dad, I talk about being a good dad, and I speak at conferences about being a good dad. And sometimes, I'm just not that good. Why should anyone listen to what I have to say if I'm not walking the talk?

If you have ever felt this way, I encourage you to please give yourself a break.

Inherently, we know that there is no such thing as perfect. We accept that in our professional lives, in our athletic pursuits, and in our relationships with our friends, family, and partners. But when it comes to parenting, we serve under the illusion that perfection is attainable. We learn techniques designed to help us relax so that every response can be perfect; we arrange our schedules so that we can put off our own interests until our kids are drained or asleep; we run from need to need and from question to question, demanding of ourselves that we be fully engaged and responsive. We try to earn the title of "Super Mom" or "Super Dad" all the time. Now, most of that is okay, of course; if the antithesis of trying to be perfect is not caring about our children's needs at all, then I'll continue to try and be perfect. But being imperfect is only half the battle.

The real hard part is dealing with being imperfect. When we make a mistake, be it raising our voice, making a cutting comment, or making a judgment about our children's needs or wants, we let it consume us. We beat ourselves up, questioning not only our performance in the moment but our fitness as a parent altogether. We lose our ability to be objective about all of the amazing things we do each day, all of the things that create an environment of peace and harmony. We imagine nightmare scenarios about all of the ways we are damaging our children, and we place the blame squarely on our own shoulders, leading to remarkable bouts of self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness. But in doing so, we are forgetting two critical things.

First, parenting a child in joy and freedom is, quite simply, one of the most challenging jobs in the world. For many of us, it is different from the way we ourselves were raised. We may be trying to do it in the face of resistance from partners, family members, and other parents. Our children may have needs which are challenging to meet - needs which, in some cases, are precisely the reason why we didn't turn their education over the strangers in the first place. And we do this while facing many of the same pressures faced by traditional parents: financial hardships, physical limitations and disabilities, and multiple children with competing interests. Parenting is hard, and unschooling is advanced parenting. Our path was not the one of least resistance, it was the road less traveled - and many of us are on that path in relative solitude, with only our wits and our hearts to guide us.

Second, we get caught up in the "pursuit of perfection" instead of in the "pursuit of better." "Perfection" requires that we make no mistakes, that we have no bad moments, that we have no off days. "Better", however, allows for growth. It requires introspection. It enables us to live in the moment of each experience, unencumbered by expectation of our own performance, and to learn from that experience. It enables us to be connected to the changes that occur in our own lives and in the lives of our children.

If we try to be the best parents we can be - connected and peaceful and thoughtful and supportive - while being able to learn from our mistakes, our children will gain a marvelous insight into the world the way it truly is. Few things are perfect, and many people have destroyed themselves and others in the pursuit of perfection in various forms. But ultimately, as both people and parents, we are judged less for our imperfections than for the ways in which we respond to them. If we can learn from our mistakes; if we can humbly and truthfully apologize for the hurt and misunderstandings that our mistakes have caused; and if we can provide understanding and forgiveness for the mistakes of others, we can set an amazing example of real-world authenticity for our children. This will help them see us a being more human, which is beneficial for them and for us. But more critically, it will help them realize that they themselves do not need to be perfect either, and that it is okay to have bad days and make mistakes. And if we as parents can demonstrate how to respond to our imperfections with humility, sincerity and commitment, our children will be able to learn it too. They will learn that it is okay to give themselves a break and accept themselves for their successes as well as for their warts.

So, Super Mom and Super Dad, give yourselves a break, too. Recognize the challenge of what you're doing and commit to the pursuit of better, for you and your children.


  1. This is really great Jeff and reflects so much of what I love to talk about!! As Stephanie said, you totally ROCK dude! :)

  2. This was well timed for my life. Thank you.

  3. I agree, and would like to add one other perspective: Don't beat yourself up for needing some time to yourself.

    "Me" time allows you to recharge your emotional energy. That's good for you and your kids.

    Part of the beauty of unschooling is that it gives your children a more real social environment. Government schools pack them in a bland cinder block room with thirty other kids the same age and one authoritarian figure at the front of the class, and people call this "socialization."

    In any real social environment, we learn that it is respectful to give other people their quiet space and time when they require it.

  4. Thanks for writing this Jeff. I needed this :) Do you think you could share it on Facebook as well so I can add it as a link on my profile. Thanks !!

  5. This is an incredible piece. I relate strongly to being both a Perfectionist, an "advanced parent", and someone who makes a lot of mistaks. One reason I write about these mistakes on my online journal is because I want to bust-up that Perfectionist myth. But sometimes like you I find myself thinking, "Why would anyone want to listen to me?"

    Thanks for the reminder a commitment to unschooling, radical unschooling, and the larger lifestyle implications do not then require we be Super-human.

    Wonderful post, Jeff.

  6. I just found this blog thanks to OrganicSister. It is great and thank you for this post. We just celebrated our oldest "childs" 30th birthday and I have to reflect about all the times I was not "perfect".
    On the other hand we are dealing with our six year old being forced to attend public school right now, and I flip back to the perfectionist parent.
    Not beating ourselves up is much easier said than done :)

  7. road less traveled? i totally agree and now on this path can't imagine ever wanting to get back on that super highway of 'normal' again!

  8. i remember reading this blog post when it first came out. "pursuit of better" has come to my mind many times, and has been something i've brought up w/ many other parents.
    thanks jeff.

  9. I needed this. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this with us.

  10. I had been thinking about writing about this exact topic. So true. We are too hard on ourselves so often about being less than perfect.