Respectful Parenting And Unschooling: The Experience Of A Non-Primary Caregiver

Families come in a lot of shapes and sizes. It isn’t always this way, but I know for a lot of families, making decisions about education and parenting styles isn’t unilateral. These decisions are often made jointly between parents or caregivers.

Our family is pretty uncomplicated. My husband and I live together in a happy partnership and the three children we share this adventure with are all ours, so the decisions made about our family are not subject to the opinions of any other party. But along the way we have decided upon an unconventional education route in unschooling and respectful parenting and getting on the same page has involved a lot of listening, reflecting, reading and talking.

This blog is written solely by me and therefore represents my views on our journey getting to this point. I thought it would be interesting to add another perspective, especially that of a non-primary caregiver. I interviewed my husband about his views on our experience, and his views on his own role in our family. Some of the questions were submitted by my readers on Instagram, so thank you!

First, some background on our family situation and my husband. While I do a small amount of consulting work in my field, my husband is the primary earner in our family. He works in a senior corporate role that can be stressful and involves long hours, but it is typically a traditional working week of Monday to Friday. He chooses to start early so he can be home in the evenings with us. He leaves the house before we wake at around 7am and is home by 7pm most days, often a bit earlier. He also travels regularly for work, but he tries to organise his work trips so they are also during the working week.

My husband followed a very standard education path of twelve years of school education and then many years of university after that. In fact, he spent ten years at university, culminating in a PhD. Both of his parents were teachers and he grew up in a very traditional and authoritarian household.

So, let’s get into it. Here is the transcript from our little chat in the car on our recent family holiday.

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How do you feel about where our family is at right now?

I guess it’s hard to say where we might be if we had made different choices, because it is impossible to know that. However, I feel like our family is in a very positive place. Everyone has a voice, there is dialogue around all family decisions and everyone has an opinion that is heard. This isn’t how I grew up, but it feels naturally how it should be.

I have nothing but positive things to say about unschooling and our children learning in this way. They are engaged and constantly asking questions, they are curious and they have access to the experiences and resources they need to answer their questions.

I’m constantly surprised by what our kids know, understand and are able to articulate, as well as the level of critical thinking that supports their questions. They are not embarrassed, nervous or hesitant to ask a question about ANYTHING. For me this is really important, it is different to how I remember feeling as a kid.

We didn’t start off planning to homeschool and neither of us even knew that unschooling was a thing. Our eldest two started kindergarten in school. How did you feel about the decision to homeschool our eldest?

Very conflicted. It bucked the trend and moved away from the familiar. We suddenly lost that common ground with everyone – ‘how are the kids at school?’ But it was our own feelings and shortcomings we had to deal with, not his. We were the ones who were nervous. But he was more important than those uncomfortable feelings. We felt like it was the right thing to do, this was reinforced by seeing a near instant positive change in how he felt about himself after the shift away from school.

How about the other two?

It was a natural progression and it was a much easier step to take with our second. We could see how positive it was for our eldest, as well as realising that school was making less and less sense for number two. With the third there wasn’t even a discussion or question that it would happen this way.

Can you think of any defining moments that helped shift your thinking?

Gosh, there are a few!

Our second son’s first day of school where he just cried and cried and was screaming when it was time for us to leave. It felt so wrong and we felt so terrible for leaving him there.  Listening to the teachers instead of my child and walking out that day is a big regret. Over time we just couldn’t accept that version of normal anymore.

It didn’t matter how good the teacher was or how good and progressive their intentions were, there just wasn’t enough of them to go around for every child to get what they needed. Especially with our eldest, they wanted to help him, but they just couldn’t support him in the way he needed even when they wanted to. We saw the same with our second child who was happy to swing along with whatever was asked of him at school. We had a parent teacher interview the day before we decided to withdraw him where the teacher could have been reading off a script. She didn’t even know our child after almost a full school year. I felt like laughing at the absurdity of it all.

But the biggest one for me happens regularly. It is every time the kids come to me after making a mistake and ask for help without fear of punishment or discipline.  There is no fear of our reaction, we are seen as allies.  For me, this trust is the most telling and rewarding part of our relationship and where we are as a family. They can come and ask us anything without being embarrassed or nervous or afraid of our reaction or worried about not being taken seriously.

Was respectful parenting something that came naturally to you? What helped you?

No and in a lot of ways it still isn’t. I still have hang ups from my own upbringing and breaking these ideas about what kids ‘should’ look like or what parenting ‘should’ be.

You can read and know a lot of things, but it always comes down to how you react in the moment. You can have every good intention, but what they take away is your reaction. I need to take a breath, pause and consider my response. I think I need to say that again because it is the number one thing for me. Give yourself a moment, pause and breathe. Ask yourself, what’s the context here? Why is this important to them? Why is saying no important to me? Why is this making me feel frustrated? This small window of time is enough to change direction if you need to.

And you, my wife. Can I say that? I model my behaviour off you. Something you said one time really stuck with me. ‘You wouldn’t talk to your coworkers and friends like that, so why would you speak to your kids like that?’ I want my kids to feel respected and know their self-worth. Why wouldn’t I want to change my own behaviour towards them to show that?

One aspect I really struggled with was confronting the idea that what I understood about education and the adult/child relationship wasn’t compatible with how I felt like it should look. There has been a lot of thinking about my own childhood, which has been challenging. Seeing how happy and confident our kids are has given me a lot to reflect on. I can see that what we are doing is good for everyone in the family. How accepting they are of themselves. How they are not afraid to feel, and feel big. How they trust us with those feelings. I spent a large part of my life bottling things up and that takes its toll.

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And what about unschooling?

Because I miss out on a lot of the day to day stuff it was a longer learning curve to understanding how it all works. For me it was really on our weekend trips when we were out and about and discovering together that I could really see that they were learning. Forcing something that was happening naturally suddenly seemed strange. We loosely tried homeschooling our eldest and he resisted learning in this way. We started waking up to how much he was learning on his own when he was interested.

The more I thought about it, the more I could relate to it! I hadn’t ever thought of it like this before. I did ok at school, not great, but ok. I didn’t fall into something I loved until university. The area I loved wasn’t even an option to study at school. I ended up continuing into research based degrees and it wasn’t until I had this free reign to do what I wanted and to take it in the direction I was interested in that I really hit my stride. I can see now how amazing it is that my kids can do this from the beginning. They are excelling at something because they enjoy it not because someone told them they should do it.

What difficulties have you faced with spending a lot of time away from the family for work and what do you do to feel involved in the day to day when you can’t be physically present?

Obviously I feel the pressure to be able to provide the resources. It isn’t something I think of a lot. I love my job and it feels secure, but making sure that it continues in that way is something that is in the back of my mind. I guess there is pressure to make sure you are ‘performing’ in two different spheres. It means I have to work on my headspace when I walk through the door to make sure I have made the shift. If I walk in in a bad mood or preoccupied with something that has happened at work, it is easy for that to transfer into my interactions with the kids. And because my time with them is short, I need to make sure that time is positive. If you approach something in a negative way, and then leave for work for example, you don’t have the hours in the day after that to make it right. And it can end up defining the entire day. It’s funny though, I can’t really remember the last time that happened. The further we go down the respectful parenting path, the less thought it requires and the more natural it feels.

I try and be as involved as I can be during the day. The kids have skype on their devices and they can always call me if they need to. I love it when they call! I call and check in around lunch time every day to see how everyone is going and what everyone is up to. You send me photos during the day and we message back and forth if something else is going on. It isn’t perfect and my working days are pretty long but doing these little things means I don’t feel out of the loop.

How have you found other people react when you tell them we unschool? Do you tell people we unschool?

I don’t use the word unschooling. I usually just say we are homeschooling. At this point you can usually tell if people are genuinely interested and if they ask more questions I go into more detail. We haven’t had anyone be openly hostile and most people are really supportive and curious. Most people say ‘I don’t think I could do that.’ That makes me feel sad. But everyone has their own story. I feel very fortunate that financially and emotionally and physically it is an option for us. I realise that it is incredibly privileged.

And that’s a wrap! My husband, Dave, will be happy to answer any other questions you have about his experience.

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