The Parent TraPS

Almost 20 years ago, at the age of 24, I decided that being unemployed and living on my Dad's couch was not exactly what I had planned on doing with my life. So I took what was, for many of my friends and family, a very risky and illogical step and joined the Army. Fortunately, my nearly eight years of service occurred between the first and second Gulf wars, so I never had to experience being shot at or shooting at others. In fact, for the most part my service was relatively easy - at least, as easy as jumping out of helicopters, spending weeks in the woods, and routine 18-hour days can be. The bulk of my service was spent in Honolulu; I used to joke that I carried my rifle on my right shoulder and my golf bag and surfboard on my left. It wasn't quite that easy, but you get the point.

While in Hawaii, I decided to do something really crazy and start taking college classes. Oh, I had tried college before (seven times before, as a matter of fact- practice makes perfect) but never had the discipline or interest to follow through much. But somehow, I got it into my mind that I would pursue a career in politics when I was out of the Army, and figured that a degree in Poli Sci would help me. So, one class at a time, I started knocking out the credits whenever and wherever I could. For some reason, my classes - all of them - captured my interest from the beginning. I absorbed virtually everything, reading and studying like I never thought I could. Maybe it was because I hadn't ever really had to exert much effort at school, as evidenced by my sterling 1.7 high school GPA. Maybe it was because I was eager to find a way to get out of the house and away from my first wife. But I think the most likely reason that I found school so interesting was because I was learning new concepts that helped change the way I think; my schemas were changing, and my paradigms were shifting.

Over the years, I had developed my own set of schemas that helped me make sense of the world. Schemas are very interesting things; if you're not familiar with the word or the history of the study of schemas, check out the schema page on Wikipedia for a quick introduction. At their simplest, schemas are our views of the world which we develop over time and with experience, and which help us to make sense of complex issues. They help us take that which we have already "learned" and store away how we feel about it, so that we do not have to rethink every aspect of a problem each time we encounter it. This is, as you might guess, extremely useful. For example, many of us have behavioral schemas based on the Biblical Ten Commandments. These tell us, among other things, that murder, stealing, and lying are wrong. We absorb these ideas, and they become part of our own "world view" so we don't have to rethink whether or not we should kill the driver that cut in front of us, or steal that dress we see in the window. We already know that we can not; our schemas tell us so, and we can move on to consider other solutions that help us get what we want (such as flipping the driver off, and paying for the dress with our AMEX.) These schemas help to give us a sense of purchase on a life of slippery slopes, enabling us to hold ground as our world changes around us. As such, they can be extremely comforting.

But holding ground in a changing world can also be dangerous. Schemas can offer us a false sense of security because they can lead us to blindly follow that which leaves us comfortable as opposed to allowing us to question the validity of that comfort in the face of growth and change. In order to change, to adapt, and to grow, we have to look beyond our schemas, sometimes letting go and sliding down the mountain a bit in order to get a different view and engage in our lives in a different manner. And few changes in our lives have the potential to challenge and change us, and therefore to require us to give a bit on some of our schemas, than when we become a parent.

Breaking our parenting schemas is obviously difficult, for a variety of reasons. Many schemas are developed over time, as we learn and experience more about politics, social mores, education, and love. Some of these come in our youth, as parents and teachers tell us what they want from us and help define our sense of right and wrong. Some come in our teen years, as we begin to develop response mechanisms in response to hurt and joy. And some come in our adult years, as we learn more of the world and the influence we choose to have in it. Of all of the schemas we rely on, only one affects us from Day One of our lives; the parenting schema. We grow up with that schema all around us. That schema is different person to person, as it is passed on directly from parents. But as we grew, exposed (perhaps indoctrinated) to the parenting schemas of our own mother and father, many of us came to a relatively common world view of what a parent is and what a parent should be - and therefore how a child should be raised and treated. In the Western world, these schemas were reinforced not only by our own parents, but by virtually all that we could hear or see about parenting: commercials and television programs, the medical and insurance industries, and Child Psychology educational curricula, for example. A brief sampling:

  • Children should be born in hospitals, with an OB-GYN, whose word should be trusted.
  • Birthing mothers should be medicated to minimize the pain.
  • Babies should sleep in cribs, in the "Baby's Room."
  • Babies should be left to "cry it out" so they can learn independence.
  • Babies need to be trained to sleep through the night so the parents can, too.
  • Pampers instead of cloth diapers; formula instead of mother's milk.
  • Playpens, mega-strollers, and SUVs are all necessary.
  • Daycare is critical for social interaction and parental independence.
  • Discipline, control, obedience are critical; failure will be punished by spanking.
  • Television should be limited, and internet usage and videos should be controlled, so the child can be protected from turning into a mindless zombie.
These behaviors, and many other examples, comprise a schema that I call the TraPS (Traditional Parenting Schema; I love it when words can be tortured into a helpful acronym.) The TraPS enables parents to approach this amazing, life-altering change with a sense of security and stability because it helps them understand exactly what actions they need to take to deal with the change, removing uncertainty. But the very fact that so many new parents approach this amazing blessing without really taking the time to consider whether or not their parenting schemas feel right to them is just downright frightening. Instead, they simply apply the parenting schema that they were raised with and apply it to their own children. They have an inherent assumption that following this paradigm through 18+ years will guarantee a healthy and happy life for their children. Is that comfortable? Certainly. Efficient? Of course.

But authentic parenting is not about the parent's comfort, or the efficiency with which the household is run. It is about attuning yourself to the needs of your children, not about training your children to adapt to your preferences. It is about connecting with babies in ways that comfort and sooth and foster love and compassion, not about attempting to teach them to be independent so you can get some sleep. It is about unconditional support and unconditional love, not about unconditional obedience because you are the parent and prefer things to be done your way. And it is about trusting your child to develop their own world views in their own time because it works best for them, not about molding them to trust your world view which you may not have even examined or thought through.

If you want to parent authentically or unschool and you still adhere to some elements of the TraPS, I'd encourage you to really give some thought as to whether or not you're ready to take some serious leaps and question your schemas. Doing so is hard, and definitely not for the faint of heart. It is, at times, maddening and gut wrenching, and requires so much trust; after all, parenting holds no guarantees regardless of the style in which we parent, it merely holds our hopes and dreams that our kids will turn out to be good adults who fit well in society.

But like most things,letting go of these schemas starts with an understanding of some principles about being parents (as opposed to about raising children) to which we can attempt to align our feelings and actions. For unschooling and authentic parenting, I think these principles are actually pretty simple; I captured them in a mantra that I repeat to myself every so often when things get hard:

“I want you to be happy. I want you to see the world for all it can be. I want you to find the things you love to do and do them as much as you want. I want you to develop your own definition of success, and then pursue it like a dog on a bone. I want you to know that I will support and love you, even if you're down. And I have only one real expectation and hope - that you believe what I just said, and that you call bullshit on me when I deviate."

Developing this sense of what kind of parent I want to be required me to break a variety of TraPS, and it is far from a finished product. It requires constant introspection, a deeply honest relationship with my partner, and a focus on allowing my children to lead me on their journeys, rather than me trying to lead them to the destination of my choosing. In our home, the only way we know how to do that is to break away from our own TaPS, by setting up an environment in which we model the pursuit of our own passions without expectations or conditions; by allowing and encouraging our children's passions and exploration without judgment; by trusting that our children will do what's right for them even if it's not what we would choose for them or for ourselves. 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 that builds a confidence that enables them to try new things and explore their passions as well as their fears. But most critically, it enables them to see the world through their own eyes and to define success on their own terms.


  1. There's a populist conceit that a wolf will gnaw its own foot off to escape a trap. This, of course, leaves the wolf minus one foot (paw) but still alive, as opposed to other animals which simply die because they're attached to that form of trap. I want to belive that I've avoided the forms of TraPS you're talking about; but if I haven't compeltely done so, I hope I'm willing enough and mentally strong enough to gnaw off my old appendages (beliefs, schemata) which keep me TraPSed. No human should ever be TraPSed.

  2. Great article. Too bad because I am immature and warped seeing the word "schema" translates to "smegma".

    May I post this article on the RUN network? And... are you a member? If not, why not?

    I'm going to read and digest more and offer a better comment in a minute.

  3. OK, I finally made time to read.

    I'm having a small freak-out because this article is amazing and I feel it would benefit any reader - parents, children, those who plan to have children and those who never will by choice or design.

    I am deeply grateful for the factors that led me to begin questioning this Western schema (which is very much mainstream parenting). I have doubts and setbacks and I make errors, but applying critical thinking - my mind, my gut, my heart - to parenting has been the most wonderful thing for myself, my children, my partner, and our family life as a whole.

    What is interesting to me is the "convenience" this schema affords means that if you question it you will be met with resistance and often very dire predictions of how rotten, spoiled, overindulged etc. your kids will become... People who raise this objection rarely take into account the actual resultant family life and children from households who employ what you're calling authentic parenting.

    Thank you for a wonderful article.

  4. Whoops, I meant to say "those who never will by choice or not". My point is all adults - not just parents/carers - could benefit from pondering these approaches and their potential destructive elements.

  5. "Authentic" is a problem concept. It suggests that people were being false or scripted before, and that's rarely the case. But other than that, I really like it.

  6. I think of "authentic" as being true to oneself. So often we act out in ways that betray the true feelings that underlie our actions. Eg. someone who is insecure acts arrogant on the outside. And I think most people do this unconsciously. So I equate "authenticity" with conscious, deliberate action. That's why I think it applies so well to parenting. You need to really stop and think about the TraPS schema...and question everything, as the bumper sticker says!

  7. @freelearners
    I like your definition of "authentic". Ha, my mother and I have a running argument about arrogance. I think those we perceive as arrogant are either 1. not really arrogant, just outspoken and many want to police them into shining less bright, or 2. "arrogant" in the way you describe - making up for insecurity. She thinks those she perceives as arrogant really do think they're better than anyone else, all the way through and through.

    I'm sure we'll never get to the bottom of our little dispute.