I've Walked Many Miles in Your Shoes

Back when I was firing people for a living, I received some expert advice on how to approach these "final meetings" with compassion. The advice was pretty simple, actually: "Never forget that you have had weeks or months to get comfortable with this decision. You've talked about it, tried to help them improve, and made a very thoughtful determination. But it will come as a shock to them. Where you had weeks to prepare for the finality, they have had seconds. Respect the fact that people rarely respond well to new ideas, especially ones that seem crazy to them."

I loved that advice when I received it, and I appreciated it every time I sat across from someone and let them know that they had to leave. I was able to speak with compassion, not anger, and give them time to collect themselves in a very human way before we had to move on to reviewing their final paperwork and collecting their badge. It helped me, to be sure, but I think it also helped them a little bit as well, as they got just a little bit of time to collect themselves.

Over the past few years, I have tried to adopt the same approach with people outside the workplace who disagree with my viewpoints. Let's face it, my ideas about raising children, connected parenting, and unschooling are markedly different from the those of the majority of parents in the Western world. I know that, and I accept it. I have had many years over which to develop my views, starting long before I became a parent. Some of my ideas are relatively new to me, but they have all been grounded in an overall philosophy and approach to life that has been a quarter century in the making.

The point is, I did not just simply read about unschooling and connected parenting one day and suddenly become blindly evangelical about it.
I read about it, considered it, discussed it, observed it, tried it, cried about it, had ups and downs, learned more, committed to it, and tried again. I approached the small educational pieces first, then the whole life pieces such as TV and bedtimes. I spent weeks, months, and years agonizing about whether or not I was doing the right thing. I gave my ear to the naysayers of my choice as well as the supporters. Living this way was a careful, deliberate decision made after a substantial amount of reflection, study, and trial.

However, I do try to keep in mind that my approach to parenting is "radical" when compared to what the vast majority of parents in our society believe. Like the people that I have fired in my career, I have had many years to be at peace with my decision, while they have simply read a few snippets over a few days. Is it any wonder that they disagree and think I've lost it? Is it any wonder that they feel the need to educate me on how very wrong I am?

Of course not; it is completely natural, and frankly expected. When people don't know what you have gone through to get where you are - or when they don't care to learn about it - it is only natural that they will make judgments or assumptions, particularly if your viewpoints are quite different from theirs. Since parenting and education choices are important to most every parent (even the parents who make ones that I disagree with), there is likely to be significant tension between parents with vastly different perspectives. I get that, I deal with it daily, and I don't mind it a bit.

But I think that most truly reasonable people attempt to do something pretty simple when encountered with new ideas: they seek first to understand, then to be understood.

"Seek first to understand, then to be understood" is a very powerful concept; it originally came from management guru Stephen Covey, if memory serves me. When practiced well, it emphasizes the importance of compromise and of learning vs teaching. It is also quite disarming; some people just expect to argue, and when you ask them questions about their point instead of driving your own point home, they don't know how to react. But because it is unthreatening, it is a great way to start a dialog, a free exchange of ideas in which even new and threatening concepts are given voice and consideration.

I love it when people actually ask me questions - when they seek to understand - about my viewpoints on parenting and unschooling, because it indicates to me a certain respect for my views. It says to me "I may think you're crazy, but you have devoted more time to thinking about this than I have. How did you ever come to such a perspective?" I periodically receive comments or emails calling me crazy, and to the senders I say "bring it." I've seen crazy up close, and I know the difference. As long as you're calling me crazy in the spirit of wanting to learn more, I am fine with it.

Somewhat less palatable are the emails and comments I periodically receive that seem to want to "teach" me about why my viewpoints are wrong. These notes would hold much greater weight if the sender had devoted as much time to considering the philosophies behind my views as I had, or even if they had indicated a willingness to learn about them. While I recognize how "threatening" my views are to the mainstream, I don't think I am attacking mainstream parents at all; I am questioning them. But I am questioning them from place of knowledge. I have been that parent who works 60+ hours a week. I have sent my kids to school. I have tried ignoring their needs so they could "learn" to be independent. I have tried judging the quality of their learning experiences, and I have tried instilling my own values into them. I have forced bedtimes and food and TV. I have yelled. Everything a traditional parent does, I have done. Once I became cognizant of it, I did not like it.

So I learned about different approaches. When I first encountered unschooling, especially whole life unschooling, I came away amazed at how irresponsible and insane these people were; I mean, educational choices are one thing, but no bedtimes? Treating Sccoby Doo as the equivalent of history books in terms of educational value? Didn't these parents know that they were setting their kids up for failure in the real world?

But instead of attacking them, I asked questions; I sought, very hard, to understand their decision. I came to realize that I did not necessarily want my kids to prepare for the "real world", because the real world is far from a flawless place. Instead, 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? I came to understand that the subjects I "learned" in school, while customary and certainly nothing at all like Scooby Doo, taught me virtually nothing. I was taught about World Civilizations and Trigonometry, even though they may not have had any relevance for what I wanted to do or was 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. All it does is make me a hit at Trivial Pursuit, and it's called "trivial" for a reason.

If you read what I write or hear what I say and disagree, welcome to the debate; I hope you find it enriching. If you have questions about my choices and what has worked for us, I'm happy to offer anything I can. I've had many years to get used to what I'm doing, and you've had perhaps only a few minutes. I have virtually limitless compassion if your questions are coming from a place of curiosity and peace. But if you're coming just to call me crazy, please seek first to understand. If you are inclined to attack my thinking, just know that I have walked many miles in your shoes; I have lived the life you're living, learned about it, fully experienced it, and made a different choice. Have you walked even a step or two in my shoes? Do you even know where I keep my shoes? If you want to try them on to see if they fit, I'll hand them to you. But if you just want to trample on them, please move along.


  1. i've had similar discussions about vaccinations - i'm at the point now when meeting a new dr. for the kids that when it comes up i simply state something like 'this is not open for discussion' - i am soooo done w/ having folks decide that it was an easy, simple, and quickly made decision on my point and all i'm needing is for them to correct my misunderstanding and i'll ever so grateful vaccinate my kids - ugh! the arrogance is simply amazing!

  2. As usual, Jeff, your thoughts are impeccable :) Of course the rest of you is full of sin, lol :)

  3. Love this one. <3. I am sharing it all over the place!

  4. <3 Covey <3
    Your approach is a great one, especially when dealing with such a hot button topic like unschooling. It really riles people up! So if I can deal with already riled up people without being riled up, the discussion usually goes better for all involved. Easier said than done ;)

  5. Thank you so much for writing this. I was thinking something along the lines of this yesterday, and the best I could come up with was 'We know what they know, but do they know what we know?' You said it much better than that :-)

  6. Another view point that I couldn't have expressed until I read your words. You have such a nice way of explaining how I feel..

    Kimberly Sharpe-Slage

  7. Loved this post, Jeff!

    I first heard that phrase "seek first to understand" when I was in recovery; it was in the NA Basic Text. A few years later, I read the Prayer of St. Francis, and it's in there:


  8. Yeah, I was going to come say "St. Francis of Assissi."

    I hope this piece will be in your book! (With credit to St. Francis, though.)

  9. Jeff, so nicely said. I love the bit at the beginning about giving people time to get used to something (or however you put it). That's valuable advice for so many life situations.

    And... Covey did borrow this. I once upon a time had a tape of someone who had set the prayer of St. Francis to song and I still love it - when I read your words, it popped into my head.

    "O, Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned..."

  10. Thank you Grasshopper. I have the shoes, I have them on, and I have taken a few steps. As I read once, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. clomp, clomp, clomp. . . . . . .

  11. What an excellent response!
    I too have put on the shoes, and they are starting to feel comfortable, but reading from others further along the path is invaluable to me right now. I look forward to your book.

  12. well said!
    but my problem comes with the idea of walking around in shoes.
    shoes are the 'real world'.
    i use shoes when i enter the 'real world' for i need rubber sole [false soul] to enter it.
    when i am in my world [whole living] i am barefooted, without shoes, feeling the connection with the ground which is the REAL WORLD, so
    toss those shoes, allow your bareness [soul, soul, soul] to caress the REAL WORLD!
    do no harm

  13. thank you jeff! so well said and such a great reminder to continue to use that compassion outside of my bubble.

  14. Oftentimes, Jeff, people do NOT think through their viewpoint, let alone investigate or establish a philosophy behind it. I think that's why people naturally attack; something just 'feels wrong' and so they have at it. By the same token, those defending 'stolen concepts' often don't understand them -- they just 'sound good'. They will become defensive when questioned and use typical defense mechanisms such as appeal to authority, mysticism, etc.

    I admire a person who has taken this time and would naturally respect the effort and take the time to understand. Granted, I know nothing about you or your philosophy on life, but it's a heck of an intro! :)

  15. Very nicely written! Tweeting it now. :)

  16. When we first began unschooling I found myself becoming defensive when people attacked. Now that I am comfortable with our decision I tell them to read up on the philosophy and to get back to me. I have done so much research that it doesn't make sense to debate with someone who knows nothing about unschooling. I am fine with people who are genuinely curious but to battle...no. I know what I know. I even now feel lucky to be living unschooling and feel that others who don't are somehow missing out.
    Good post!

  17. I really needed to hear this today. The realization that they are "hearing it for the first time" when I have had so long to let it percolate...yes, that does explain some of the reactions I get (so hostile, so defensive and critical, in ways you just wouldn't expect from otherwise "polite company"). I'm going to repeat that mantra to myself so next time I can be better prepared to stay calm and understand, appreciate, where they are coming from.

  18. Thank you for another stellar piece. Well-said, every bit of it.