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Kimi & Shaun - On Top of the World!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Unschooling - a view from the corporate office

I had the honor and privilege to speak at the Northeast Unschooling Conference (NEUC) in Wakefield, MA, last weekend. Below is a segment of the talk (it was 45 minutes, so it seems a little long to blog the whole talk). The talk was targeted at unschooling Dads; however, it's really relevant for the breadwinner in the family, regardless of gender. It speaks of my early experiences as unschooling Dad. In it, I speak of my wife, Christine, who led me into unschooling; my daughter, Kimi, 15, whose experience in school encouraged the decision; and my son Shaun, 13, who has grown and prospered as an unschooler despite my initial reaction that he should remain in school. The story focuses on the consequences of the fact that I've been in corporate jobs from the time Christine and I got married through today; this has remained constant from the time we sent the kids to school throughout our unschooling experience.


I am celebrating 6 years as a radical unschooling Dad. Christine and I had a few opportunities earlier this year to really speak out publicly about our thoughts and feelings towards unschooling, and I’m proud to say that I had no question in my conviction on the unschooling way of life. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past few years talking with many people outside of the unschooling community, explaining and, at some level, defending unschooling, which I think has helped me tremendously. I’ve been to at least a dozen different SSUDs sessions at conferences around the country listening to the questions and concerns of Dads, and hopefully contributing some answers. How did I get from that Dad who was struggling to one who is a strong proponent of unschooling? I think I can finally articulate the challenges that I faced in the first couple of years and how we as a family got around them. I think that these challenges are shared by other Dads who have come to unschooling in the same manner I did, and maybe our resolutions to them may help those Dads and their families.

One challenge was that while our family life changed, my life didn’t change very much. Another was that while Christine’s and the kids’ lives changed, some of their expectations about our financial situation didn’t change. Yet another was that for a while, our lives diverged – we grew further apart instead of closer together. And last – well, I’m a guy, and that means I have some challenges that are endemic to my gender. Let me explain these a little more.

My work days, and so much of my life, didn’t change drastically from when we had the kids in school. I do feel like I was enlightened by this unschooling path, but I couldn’t see the full picture. My life was still rooted in that corporate world, and I was doing pretty well. And while Christine and the kids were leading this unschooling life, they didn’t change their expectations around what we could do and afford. We had a pretty nice home in a nice town with some nice things, and now there were more opportunities to travel, take field trips, eat out, shop, and explore their passions. This included purchasing books, and craft materials, and toys, and video games, and iPods, and – well you get it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to point out a flaw; let’s face it, we were living in suburban Boston, and I had a nice job in a high tech company, and we had a house we liked in a town we liked, and we could afford to do some things we wanted. But when you put these together, you could see that the pressure on me as the breadwinner didn’t change. It didn’t really occur to me to ask them to change their expectations – the reality is that only a pretty drastic change was going to make a real difference, and none of us were in a frame of mind where we could just up and move, I don’t know, to somewhere like Asheville, NC, and start over again. Our lives were in Massachusetts, and we were quite happy with that.

I was still away from home up to 12 hours per day just as I was when the kids were in school, but now that Christine and the kids were together most of the time I was away, I was really the odd one out. When you’re together in the moment, you can see things happen – you can see the kids watching TV for a full day and appreciate how positive it was for them. But it was more difficult to hear about it and easily come to that same conclusion – not while your mind is clouded by the realities of your own life. It didn’t take long for the ‘inside jokes’ to appear – lines from movies, or TV shows, or from funny events of the day. I didn’t like not being on the inside. Then there were times when I would come home while they were in the middle of something, and they couldn’t tear themselves away. So I ended up eating dinner on my own, sometimes because they ate 3 hours ago when they were hungry and on their own schedule. I’m not on that schedule, but instead I’m still on the old schedule where I eat dinner when I get home.

Let’s not forget that the kids are ‘deschooling’ at this time – and the right thing to do is to let them handle things in the way that was best for them at their own pace. This was all new to us – we had never seen deschooling that up close and personal. Here are some of the natural consequences for me to all this – I’m staying close to my comfort zone to make things simpler; I’m struggling with this huge change in one part of my life, but not the rest of my life; I don’t have the same common ground with the kids, where previously at least I had the common experience of having gone to school, and I could remember some of the math or history or other facts that they were learning at the time. So, for a while, we started growing apart, living our separate lives, each ‘side’ not fully understanding what was going on in the other side’s life. Now, add to this fact that I’m a guy – and I’m generalizing here, so no offense intended – so I’m not searching out support groups, I’m not reading the message boards, I’m not getting books and magazines, and I’m not always sharing my feelings. At this point, I can only attend one conference per year – I can’t take as much time off work as I want to, after all – so my opportunities for outside guidance and help are limited. At the same time I’m trying to have a life. There are football games on Sunday, and racquetball matches on Saturday, and lots to do around the house and yard.

Oh, and add to this one other little fact – as I mentioned earlier, it was Christine who discovered and researched unschooling, and who was passionate about it. So I’m starting out a year behind her, and she’s moving faster than I am. So every day I’m falling just a little further behind.

As radical unschoolers, we had the extra effect of the changes in our lives being not only around the educational philosophy for the kids, but also for the way we lived our lives.

As an new unschooling Dad, based on where I came from, and where I was spending most of my time, and where the rest of the family was at this time, I hope you can see that this can be a little overwhelming. Dual lifestyles, conflicting priorities, unanswered questions, and general upheaval in my life – these can all cause a bit of stress in one’s life.

Some of you who have been at this for a while now are probably thinking, hey, there are solutions for these issues you bring up. Get out of the corporate life! Get more involved in the kids’ lives! Change your financial lifestyle – downsize! Get involved in the Yahoo! groups and learn! Yep – I know that now. And so does the family. But to go from where we were at the start and to do all those things – wow! Huge changes! And we didn’t consider all of them at the time, and we weren’t ready for them either. Some of you got my comment about Asheville earlier – we’re planning to make the move down there sometime really soon now, and it’s been more than a year in the making, with a final decision made a month or two ago. I’m ready to dive headfirst into the unschooling lifestyle for myself – I want to find something that I’m passionate about, something that doesn’t require me to work 50-60 hours per week and travel enough to achieve Gold status on an airline and a hotel chain, along with enough miles for a free ticket on 3 other airlines. But that has not been an easy decision for the whole family, as we all need to make different sacrifices.

I ended up doing a bit of soul searching during this time. I ended up taking a couple different approaches to find answers. One approach was reaching out to others in the unschooling community, especially the Dads. It was powerful to talk to someone who was able to say, “I’m in a situation similar to yours; I had the same concerns and questions; here’s what I’ve learned and realized over the years to see how unschooling works.” Additionally, talking to a variety of Moms, kids, and young adults, and getting their viewpoints and sharing their experiences, helped a lot. There were a lot of one-on-one conversations where I could share my concerns. There were also talks with others who were just starting out, and trying to assuage their concerns about unschooling helped me to realize the ways in which it was working for us.

Let me highlight some of the help that I received from my unschooling friends. During a couple of the early conferences, I was bugged by answers I heard from other parents to a couple of the questions that I think many Dads share. The first question was about the change in the lifestyle. In its simplest form, the issue was around cleaning the house – it used to get cleaned, and now it doesn’t. So I get home, after a long day at work, and the kids have been doing “whatever” and there’s a mess on the kitchen table and the living room looks like a toy box exploded, and the dishes are piled up in the sink. What to do? The answer I often heard from the other radical unschooling parents at conferences, and hated, was “You just need to get over it, and move on. If having a clean house is important to you, then you clean it.” Sometimes, the answer was “Let go of your pre-conceived notions of what family life is supposed to be – change your priorities.” Huh? What does that mean? I felt that was a brush off answer, and when I heard that answer in Dad-oriented gatherings (especially the SSUDs sessions) I could see the eyes rolling back in the heads of the newer Dads, or the ones who really had that question. It took me a couple of years to really get to the bottom of this one. You see, what I was really feeling was a couple of things – first, I was being left out of the amazing new lifestyle; second, I felt that I was now not a full member of the family. My needs were not being respected or met! So, as we were trying to follow this new lifestyle, allowing everyone to follow their passions, and not forcing any unnecessary rules on people, we needed to do this as a full family. I needed to find ways to participate in the lives of my family, and just as importantly – I can’t stress that enough – my family had to count me in as an equal, and my needs had to be just as important as theirs. Once this became clear to us all, we were able to get past it – because, you see, if it *is* important to me that there be some cleanliness to the house, then this need should be respected just as any other need. Just because it seems to cling to the ‘old’ way of life doesn’t make it less valid; after all, my life, by mutual choice of the entire family, is still dominated by this ‘old’ way of life. It took a little bit of time, but we got together as a family and talked. We gained a greater understanding of respect for each other. We focused on what was important to the others in the family – not questioning why, but acknowledging the identification - and then we worked to honor those needs. This helped all of us – not only did I find more of my needs being met, but we were all able to better meet the needs of the others in the family. It allowed us to be open and honest with each other. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re really good, and no one is ashamed to tell the others what their needs are and we expect that the others will do what they can to accommodate. This has allowed me to stop feeling left out (although I still don’t get all the inside jokes), and enjoy my time with the family more when we’re together.

The second question that still nagged me, and as I observed, nagged other Dads, was around the issue of our kids’ future employment. How do I know that my kid is going to be able to support himself as an adult? How would my child support her family? And how would I not have to work through my retirement years to support them? Again, the answer was unsatisfactory – “trust your kids; by pursuing their passion they’ll make a living.” Sorry, but as someone who followed the school-college-corporate job path that isn’t very comforting. I’m thinking that no one is going to hire my son to play video games or hire my daughter to read Harry Potter books. Trust them? I trust them! What does that have to do with them being able to support themselves and their families? I continued searching for answers and I learned several things. A wise unschooling Dad shared some of his wisdom. The first nugget – most unschoolers would not be looking for a corporate job, but would be looking to become entrepreneurs. For that, they needed most importantly to find a passion, and then find a way, through an apprenticeship, or an internship, or a partnership, or self-education, to learn all they can about that passion. Then, they can start their own business, or join an existing small business, to get to do what they want. The second nugget is that out of the respect and love that unschooled young adults share with their parents, they don’t want their parents to have to support them their whole lives – & in fact, they want to be self sufficient. Wow! These were breakthrough ideas for me! On these issues and others like them, the unschooling community really came through for me.

The other approach I took to finding answers to the bigger questions was to make a series of observations of my life. I’ve shared some of the situations I experienced at work – especially as a manager. I started to see significant parallels between unschooling and successful management. I considered how I was treating my staff, and how I was making decisions and providing advice about their advancement, and I saw a huge convergence between my management principles and unschooling principles. Encourage people to follow their passions; provide different ways for people to learn; provide guidance, not lessons; treat people with respect; allow for different perspectives on how someone got right here, right now. All of these principles guided my work life, so how could I not see how they should guide my personal life? I’m not saying that I should treat my family as if they are my staff, but I am saying that I shouldn’t treat my work staff better than I treat my children. I am able to see the different context – I am looking to increase performance at work, but I’m looking to increase happiness at home. Still, the parallels are there.

During the six years we’ve been unschooling, I have seen the development of my children into happy, engaging, respectful, bright young adults. I have the pleasure of being with other unschooled kids, and we have a number of friends and family members who are not unschoolers, and I have seen the development of both sets of kids over the same period of time. I have, in front of my eyes, indisputable proof that unschooling works. I didn’t see all those concerns that I had in the early years materialize. Unschooled kids are just as ready for the adult working world as their schooled peers; in many ways, they are more prepared.


  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to reflect and write here! Everyone in the family deserves to be heard from and respected. So much of what you talked about resonated with me. I will show my husband this post and and I am sure it will enlighten and reassure him. I wish you all the best in your transition and hope to read all about it!

  2. Phil, this is beautifully told. We went through those stages with Keith and his job at Honeywell, and our fun-and-games life. When Keith did fully grok the philosophy, he was stronger in it than I was, and would remind me when I was too close to the controlling edge. ("He's not a performing monkey," he said, when I was trying to press five-year-old Marty to rollerblade for his grandparents.)

    I've linked it here and would be glad to host the full, long version if you want it "out there." Also, if and when you know of a way people can order the sound file, I'd be glad to put that link there too.