The Guy on the Plane

Most people assume that if you enjoy being around people, if you are gregarious and charming and outgoing, that you must be an extrovert. However, by strict definition an extrovert gets their energy from being with people, while an introvert gets re-energized by being in relative solitude. While I am comfortable being with just about anyone in any situation, being an introvert means that I can't do it for long. I can get overwhelmed quickly, and need to escape just for a little while so I can charge my batteries.

When I was working in the business world and traveling frequently, this was a real struggle for me. When you travel for business, there is an expectation that you will basically jump right off the plane, drive to the office, and immediately engage. Because I'm an introvert, and because my business travel always involved being engaged with people, I developed a bit of an anti-social attitude while traveling. I don't make eye contact with the security people, I don't joke with cab drivers, I don't smile at pretty ladies (although I will usually smile at kids) and I never, ever, EVER, talk to strangers on a plane.

Except for one day in the fall of 2010, when I was traveling to Boston for the Northeast Unschooling Conference.

For some unknown reason, despite the fact that I was reading and under headphones, the gentleman next to me decided to strike up a conversation. I looked at him, and it was like looking in the mirror; he was obviously a business man of some type, dressed in khakis and a button down dress shirt, with his little blue blazer and briefcase and laptop and copy of Harvard Business Review highlighted and tabbed in all the right places. I could have just ignored him, I suppose, and perhaps I should have. But I also thought that if I made small talk for a few minutes and seemed unapproachable enough, he might leave me alone.

His questions started out gently and I survived the conversation fairly well until he asked me why I was traveling to Boston:

Jeff: "I'm speaking at a conference."

Random Business Guy, eyeballing my unshaven face, shorts and sweatshirt: "Umm, what kind of conference?"

J: "It's a parenting conference, focusing on education."

RBG, peering down the nose of his glasses and turning to face me: "What, like a public education conference, college prep or something like that?"

J: "No, it focuses on homeschooling actually."

RBG, apparently intrigued: "So, are you presenting curriculum or something?"

Uh oh. Tipping point. Here we go.

J: "No, actually it's about unschooling."

RBG, apparently repulsed: "What the hell is unschooling?!?!"

At this point, I was sincerely regretting my decision to respond to him, choose that seat, board that plane, and make that trip. Although I have had this discussion many, many times, I am usually smart enough to avoid having it when I am in a confined space 7 miles in the air - where I cannot escape. But I put that behind me, and gave him my best child-lead-learning-conscious-parenting-living-in-freedom-public-schools-are-failing-don't-you-love-your-children-won't-work-for-everyone-but-it-works-for-us speech. It was, in my humble opinion, brilliant.

RBG asked me a few questions about curricula, and college, and rules, and control, and then pronounced "There is no way I could ever even think about doing that."

J: "Really? Why not?"

RBG: "Well, because I want my kids to go to school."

J: "Why?"

RBG: "So they can learn what they need to learn so they can do well on the SATs."

J: "Why is that important?"

And on and on we went. RBG went through the chronology of his children's life: good grades, the right subjects, SATs, college, job, marriage, house, children, and retirement, sketching out all of the things that needed to happen in order for his children to be successful in the world. Under normal circumstances, I would have said "Good for you," gone to the bathroom and stayed away for a while hoping that he would forget about me. But there was something about this guy that was so familiar to me, something that lead me to believe that I had been in his shoes not very long ago, that lead me to a very different reaction. I asked him a question.

"You are defining success as monetary, and material, with college being necessary for success and good grades being necessary for college. Do you like that definition? If not, how would you define success in a perfect world?"

He paused for a long time. Several times he started to speak, then hesitated, looking out the window or down at his shoes. I could almost see his wheels turning as he struggled with a question which is critical to our happiness but rarely, if ever asked. Eventually he started to speak:

RBG: "I would want success to be measured on how happy I was, on how I spent my time, on my values and interests and passions. I would throw out this idea that we need the American dream, and probably redefine the dream entirely."

J, sensing an opening: "By that definition, are you successful?"

RBG, wistfully: "Of course not. I wasn't raised that way."

J: "Okay. And how are you raising your children?"

RBG: "Wow . . . the way I was raised, I guess."

J: "Why?"

RBG: "Well, I guess I never really thought about it."

I wanted to hug the poor guy. It was clear that he got a bit more than he bargained for, and that he had some things to go think about.

But the point of this post really isn't the long-term future of RBG. The point is that so many parents never "really think about" the parenting choices they make. They don't always pause to think about what success means, what is necessary and what is arbitrary. They think of restrictions and obstacles, instead of alternatives and possibilities. They focus on the way things were or the way things should be, not on the way things are or the way they could be. They let moments pass by, tipping points in which they could engage with their children but do not. The moments turn to minutes, hours, days . . . and you get the picture.

In short, they don't parent consciously, they parent on autopilot.

When you're single, living a life on autopilot may be unfortunate, but is not likely tragic. When you're married, living on autopilot will likely create some long-term problems that can be challenging to overcome. But living on autopilot when you are a parent can be downright destructive.

Parenting is, hands down, the most challenging thing you will ever do. It is scary, troubling, enthralling, and exciting. It requires long hours, Herculean patience, trust, and thousands of other skills and characteristics that our kids deserve and demand. As such, it absolutely requires – REQUIRES – us to do so much more than simply go through the motions, checking the block at each milestone and focusing on achievement. It requires us to think with our head, lead with our heart, question, learn, listen, and stay in the moment whenever possible.

Regardless of our philosophies on parenting or education – unschooler or not, attachment parenting or not, or anywhere in between - parenting really only requires one thing. It requires us to consider our choices and the impact those choices have on our relationship with our children as well as on their futures. It requires that we parent consciously, purposefully, thoughtfully. And regardless of what choices we make, parenting requires us to "really think about it."


  1. I am so grateful to have come across you and your blog on facebook. Your words and knowledge are so valuable to me as a unschooling mom surrounded by negative naysayers.

    Thank you for your writing, your courage, and your style.

    Kimberly Sharpe-Slage

  2. You're so, so right.

    I remember a decade ago, right after I was married, years before I had my first child - so years before I would even *think* about homeschooling - I had a talk with my SIL and was struck by how most of her life up to that point had been lived on autopilot - even up to who she married. I began looking at people around me - family, friends - and realized that this is how most people in my sphere at that time lived. It made me sad and determined to live my life aware.

  3. Jeff, I hope you gave him a card with your blog URL on it. Or I hope he'll remember the word "unschooling."

    You probably kind of messed him up, especially if his wife has a great job and their kids are in great schools. But still... you did the right thing. :-)

    You wrote "They think of restrictions and obstacles, instead of alternatives and possibilities." Not just people minding their own business. There are people who come to unschooling presentations at conferences, and to discussions online, and to the unschooling chats, and they think of restrictions and obstacles. People come to the Always Learning list which has a dozen warnings and reassurances on the front page, and they tell us why they can't unschool, why it can't work for them.

    I think your last few paragraphs up above are idealistic and it's great rhetoric for unschoolers, but it's not true. Parenting requires very little in this culture. Some of what you do would probably be disallowed by social workers and courts. You're so far out of the bounds of what is required as a father that it's like being on another plane of existence.

    I like that in a man. :-)

  4. Sometimes I look around at all of the Successful People here in Charlottesville and I think wow, my kid will probably never live in a house like that or go on fancy family vacations like some kids here, but my kids have a different kind of life, a life that is awesome in its own way. We never even TRIED to keep up with the joneses, but rather we just go along being our nutty, goofy, broke as a joke selves. Small house, not much money, but BIG freedom and big respect for each other, and big dreams. I married a jazz musician, I knew we were never going to be wealthy, but I found my kindred spirit whose faith in me and in unschooling and in our brilliant, quirky daughters has never wavered.

  5. I got a little teary when RBG gave you an honest, introspective answer. I hope it was exactly what he was looking for.

  6. Brilliant and beautifully written. Bravo!

  7. Like Lisa, I felt teary-eyed when RBG showed a chink in his armor. Your meeting was meant to be!

  8. Thank you for your offering to that man and to me and to the world. Unschooling is the most rigorous parenting move I have made. It is fun, dynamic, enlivening and requires so much of me as a mother. So much more than just sending them off to school. It requires a level of responsiveness and awareness and consciousness that I feel blessed to be able to offer to my girls. It is the best choice I could make for my kids and my family. Again thank you for the encouragement.

  9. This is brilliant! You are brilliant!

  10. What a beautiful post... and that poor guy.
    This is something I talk and think about a lot too, how come so little people ask themselves more questions about the way they live.
    You hear people sigh that life isn't fair, life sucks etc... but when you ask them what they're going to do about it, they just sigh again and say that's life... but it is not

    Why are they all hypnotized... maybe an even more urgent question: why are we not?

  11. This is an amazing read. WOW! I wish more people would actually ponder what "success" really is.

  12. Love this, as always. And while I realize that this isn't the thrust of the article, you do bring it up, so I just want to put it out there that the opposite can be true of extroverts. I'm a fairly quiet, often shy person who gets my energy from others, from being around others. Just as misunderstood as those of you who are gregarious introverts!

  13. Gorgeous and timely for me, as my employer seems to be gently testing my commitment, not to the job or company, but to success and advancement. I'll be needing my wits about me in the weeks to come, and to keep my focus on what's important to me, even when that's Not the best career choice I can make.

  14. I'm thankful for your blog :)

    For me the pursuit of happiness is another extroverted guise that introverts are forced to succumb to. As an introvert I enjoy neutrality - the pressure to be happy actually reduces happiness and takes me out of the moment. Ranking my experiences as happy and such is only distracting.

  15. Mind sharing your brilliant explanation you gave him.......? I regurgitate well.

  16. As parents, we need to be comfortable that our children's measure of success may also be different to our own.

    And we need to still equip our children to grow their own wings, to follow their own flight path and be there to wave at them when they land or hug them when they crash.

    Parenting should ultimately be about giving children the freedoms that we -- as (hopefully) mature adults -- see as important -- not the goals that we see as important.

  17. This sentence is deep and profound and represents SO MUCH of what my peers and friends have for worldviews:

    "They think of restrictions and obstacles, instead of alternatives and possibilities."

    "Parenting is, hands down, the most challenging thing you will ever do. "

    If you spoke in first person this would make sense, but by saying the prescriptive "you" it seem soff (or perhaps I am misreading). By definition, those on "autopilot" find parenting less personally challenging and life-alteraing and more frustrating and confusing. They don't actually feel it as the mountain-climbing undertaking you (and I) might describe it as (for which I am grateful to writers such as yourself).

    Also, there are those for which parenting is a not a priority over other struggles they have. There are other things that occupy their minds and hearts much more and they simply do the best they can as parents/carers. I experience the following as more true: "If we are open to the opportunity and we have the resources, parenting is the most challenging thing we will ever do." Or something.

    I am not trying to nit-pick you because I, like many here, find you BRILLIANT. It's just: give yourself credit. You are a stellar parent who's conquered so much that so many can't yet dream of. But I think not everyone can nor will aspire to this, or maybe their "mountain" will not look the same as ours, or maybe they're suffering too much to perform as well as you have.

    Thank you, as always. I think this might be my favorite post of yours I've read yet.

  18. I think unschooling can be a great part of a child's education, even the majority of a child's education; but if it is the entire education, it is not sufficient.

    First let me note some areas of agreement though. I am a self-professed slacker and attachment parent who believes, as you and RBG do, that we should redefine the American dream, that we should spend our time seeking happiness (and, I'd add, trying to make others happy) rather than conventionally defined success. And I agree that most parents (most people, really) operate on autopilot.

    However, as I said above I don't approve of your flight plan if it doesn't involve any curriculum, guidance, or even (gasp) requirements. Some of the most important things we all need to learn to make us well-rounded individuals (note that I'm not talking about financial success or anything to qualify for a job, just what makes us well-rounded intellectual beings) are things we would not voluntarily seek out.

    Sandra Dodd said: "Some of what you do would probably be disallowed by social workers and courts." To which I say, some of it perhaps should be disallowed by social workers and courts. If you're letting any of your kids blow off math, for instance, because they don't like it--that should not be allowed (just as it shouldn't be allowed to teach kids "intelligent design" in place of evolution). Homeschooled kids should have to take standardised tests at regular intervals to make sure they are covering important subjects.

    Now, does that mean I support the standard curricula found in many public schools? No. Does it mean the standardised tests that are currently being used are adequate? No, they could be better. But we need some kind of societal standard of what minimum level of proficiency kids must have, or else the state will take over their education.

  19. Loved it. THANK YOU for telling your stories, Jeff.

  20. Real depth in conversation builds bridges between the separate worlds we construct for ourselves. So glad you took the time.

  21. Alan, your comment shows that you don't really understand unschooling so please don't be so sure that you've judged it and found it lacking. I don't mean that as an insult: the points you've raised are commonly-heard refrains from the general public and would be legitimate concerns if they actually played out the way you assume they do. They are based on assumptions made by observing schooled children (who are coerced into learning from day 1 and therefore do need to be "forced" to learn certain things that others deem "good for them" because they've given up thinking they are capable of doing so otherwise).

    Unschooling works because children are biologically programmed to acquire the skills and knowledge of their unique culture. All social mammals learn this way, because cultures vary through time and geographical space and there is no point wasting energy to learn that which is useless in the context of your life. If you are a child growing up in the Arctic, the knowledge and skills you need are quite different from those of a child being raised in an agrarian culture in the tropics. Nature has therefore designed children to become curious about anything that has relevance for them. Sadly, schooling stomps out this instinct early on in life, to the extent where few adults believe it exists (having never seen it beyond toddlerhood) and the children no longer believe that what THEY are interested in is "good for them" so they simply give up. On the other hand, I have never met an unschooled child who doesn't encounter the need to read, do basic math, or write as a TOOL to achieve some goal they have set for themselves (if not because they simply find the subject interesting, which many do). In that context they learn what they need to know, and quite willingly. In fact, the whole process of goal-setting is where they learn and experience the delayed gratification of doing something unpleasant or uninteresting for a greater good down the line. So no, they don't miss out on that concept, either.

    (btw, great post as usual Jeff!)

  22. This is an awesome piece-Thankful that you decided to answer the question and follow up with a thoughtful never knows how the seeds they plant will grow! I say "ditto" to Sandra's comment, as well I teared up a bit too! Emotive response in a way because we choose not to follow the check the box life, but homeschool/unschooled for 17 years. I miss it and I would do it again. My dk are still reaping the benefits as are we :) (p.s. this is being passed along on fb hope you don't mind :)

  23. I clicked on this from FB as well, via an 'unschooling' friend..I will be adding it on my page now!
    SO well-said, well-written, what a BLESSING to be able to share that info with others who initially disagree w/homeschooling in general. I pray that I will have the opportunity to so eloquently pass along your message :)

  24. I agree with much of what has been said here, but a key problem remains for me. I firmly believe that a child needs to go to college today to be successful. I am not defining successful as "rich." Money can't buy happiness and all that. However, in today's society, money is necessary. Repeated research shows that people who are unemployed, or people who struggle to keep housing or food, are MUCH less happy than those without those problems.

    In the modern workforce, college is simply becoming expected. The currently unemployment rate for people with less than a high school diploma is nearly 15%, where is it 5.4% for those with a Bachelor's degree. Note also this includes the entire workforce. In the past, a college degree was not as necessary, and there are many people now with good experience that are well employed. But today, that norm has simply changed. If you look at people today age 18-24 without experience, the difference in unemployment is much greater.

    I want my kids to be happy. Part of that means I want them to be independent, and thus not worrying at night if they will be evicted or not have food next week. And, for good or bad, this means they need a job. A good job. One with health care, where they can take a day off if they have a 103 degree fever, and one where they can choose to have children of their own and feel they can support another mouth. And, perhaps unfortunately, while there are no guarantees, you are far more likely to have this potential with a college degree than with not. In 10 or so more years, this effect is only going to be stronger.

    So, while I truly want to embrace homeschooling, my kids need to know what they "have" to eventually do to get into some sort of college. I feel some of my children understand this, and so accept that at some point they will need help (and, in some way, requirements to force them) to study topics that don't really interest them. They'll need to memorize some dumb facts, and learn how to take a multiple choice exam, because these hurdles have been placed in front of them. I don't think that would make them "better" educated, but it gives them a chance at a better future.

    Unfortunately, and what worries me, is that some of my children don't seem to understand this new unfortunate reality. Unschooling may not work for these kids. I may have to "force" them to take a curriculum. At some point, I may have to give up unschooling for some of my kids, and then not only force a curriculum on them, but push so they can "catch up."

    I'm not the RBG on the plane. But I do know business, and in particular how businesses design jobs and hire people. And I see the trends. While I may disagree with some of the tests and hurdles that colleges put in place, I cannot change them. And so, I hope I can convince my kids to see they need to take certain steps to satisfy requirements we don't like or agree with. But if they don't see this on their own, I fear I must fall back onto the "traditional" mode of modern education, and force them into that mold (as repulsive as that process might be) so that they have the potential to be happy as adults.

  25. Thanks for sharing! I loved it! Especially the part about 'my best child-lead-learning-conscious-parenting-living-in-freedom-public-schools-are-failing-don't-you-love-your-children-won't-work-for-everyone-but-it-works-for-us speech'; it made me laugh out loud, for as a fellow unschooler, I have also spoke that speech many times!