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23rd of July 2018


Parenting Is an Inside Job: Beyond Safety, Demands, and Expectations - The Good Men Project

—I often say that raising a 16 year old son who I not only love, but also like, respect, and admire, is the greatest thing I’ve ever done.

It’s true.

While I can only take partial credit for raising my son, giving the lion’s share to his mother, I can say that the journey has been a tremendous walk of trust. One that has required me, again and again, to let go of trying to control my child and his outcomes, and to refocus on behaving consistently with my own values as a man and a father.

I’ve heard it sad that, “Trust is an inside job.”

It turns out, so is parenting.


Parenting has been a perennial journey of surrender—the Great Teaching in trust.

Trust in my principles. Trust in my vision for how the world can be. But, ultimately, trust in my son’s innate intelligence.

I grew up in a world that deeply mistrusts children. A world founded on the concept of “original sin,” where it is the job of parents to condition the wild animal out of their children so they can become kind, productive, orderly citizens.

Despite identifying strongly with Christianity when he was born, I was always more of a believer in “original innocence.” That my job as a parent was to live my values consistently, and respect and support the mysterious process of my child’s becoming who he is.

Empathy and Sovereignty

From this perspective, my first commitment was to embody the principles of NonViolent Communication with my son. I focused on empathy and listening instead of problem solving or behavior modification when he was upset, or “acting out,” trusting that there was something important at stake for him that we could better understand. I embraced his emotions and acknowledged his desires, even when I was unwilling to support his particular strategies. I did all this VERY imperfectly, with lots of moments of, “What the fuck am I doing?”

I deeply believed that until he got to really be a kid he could never be an adult. So I let him be a kid. But I always treated him as a sovereign being. We didn’t force him to hug people or apologize when it wasn’t sincere. We let him climb as high as he could while we spotted him. We let him play in the mud and pick his own clothes.

Even when other parents were appalled at how “bad mannered” or “rambunctious” my son was, I would empathize with their surprise and concern, and support his sovereignty and learning process (with due respect to safety and property, of course).

“I’d rather my kid be an asshole at 8 than an asshole at 18 or 28,” was a favorite phrase of mine. Everyone deserves the opportunity to be an asshole when the stakes are relatively low. That’s what makes for an authentic decision to be kind when it is developmentally appropriate.

Education: From Schooling to Unschooling

It’s because of this that his mother and I chose to put him in a Waldorf Kindergarten, where the children were never encouraged to read or write before age 8. They were instead supported to live in the dream world of their imaginations as vividly as possible through art, spoken stories, construction projects, gardening, and basic community chores. At a time when pre-schoolers were being encouraged/forced to read, we chose to preserve the innocence of his mind and imagination for as long as possible by de-emphasizing symbolic reasoning processes like reading and math. (Spoiler: he turned out to be a voracious and critical reader.)

Next came the homeschooling journey.

My son didn’t get along with his Waldorf 1st grade teacher (who would be his teacher for the next 7 years in that system). Neither did any of the other boys, it turns out. So we decided to homeschool. We joined a local homeschool charter, where he could take a few classes a week. At his request, we signed him up for theatre classes. He joined the Reikes Program, a wilderness education program that had him and other kids his age out in the woods all day once a week, rain or shine, learning about medicinal plants, animal tracks, fire-craft, and other primitive skills.

I had some serious resistance to “unschooling” at first. I thought he needed more structure and curriculum to keep up with other kids his age in math and reading and writing. But he wouldn’t have either me or his mother as his teacher. He knew what he was interested in and he would pursue that with undeterred passion: making things.

So, eventually we surrendered to trusting his desires as the most reliable compass for his development. We let him spend hours on end each day listening to greek mythology, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lloyd Alexander, and other modern classics on audiobook in his room, building with whatever medium he got excited about: legos, clay, cardboard and duct tape, fabric, film, etc…. We never worried about “socialization.” He would always want to go out and play with his friends in the neighborhood by the time they got home from school in the afternoon. One of our most consistent boundaries, though, was limited and well-chosen time in front of TV and computer screens.

His mom stayed home to support him and his (9 years) older half-sister, while I made barely enough to keep our family housed and fed working a couple jobs at a time. We did our imperfect, human best to uphold our principles as parents. To replace shaming and punishment with connection and natural consequences. To scaffold his interests and use them as teaching opportunities.

A Father’s Sacrifice

There were definitely times when I let my anger get the best of me and grabbed him with more force than was needed, or raised my giant voice at my little son. I always did my best to restore connection with him by admitting my own imperfections and acknowledging the impact on him. I vividly remember, when he was in a particularly petulant phase of his development, telling a dear friend, riddled with agony and shame, “I really just don’t like my son…”

There are a lot of things that I gave up as a young parent. Nights out. Vacations with friends. Certain kinds of adventure. But some of the most important ones were certain dreams of mine…

The Perfect Son vs. The Real Son

I had a dream of my son being an awesome soccer player, like me. I had a dream of him being a surfer, like me. I had a dream of him being a mountaineer and rock climber, like me.

Pop… pop… pop… went those dreams as I gave him ample opportunities to fall in love with my passions and he just didn’t. One of the hardest of those was climbing. I really wanted to climb big walls in Yosemite and other glorious places with him as he got older. It turned out he loved to climb but HATED being on-belay and lowering down with a passion.

As heartbreaking as it was, I was faced again and again with the opportunity to let go of who I wanted him to be and embrace who he really was.

A Return to “Normal” School

Toward the end of his 8th grade year he decided that after 7 years of “unchooling,” he wanted to go to a “normal” high school. As usual we supported his decision, and let him know that he could always return to that thug homeschool life if he didn’t like it.

“I’m nervous about math. I’m so behind! And I’ve never really had to do homework before,” he fretted, as we were chatting a few days in advance of his first day on campus. And, truth be told, he did start the year behind most of the other freshmen. And then something beautiful happened…

He took the excitement and passion for learning–innate to all children before we bombard them with standardized tests and cookie-cutter curriculums in overcrowded classrooms–into his high school education!

By two months into the year he was among an elite group of mathletes that his teacher had to create extra work for to keep them busy. He decided to take honors and AP classes starting the second semester. “People just sit there in class and don’t even participate in the discussions. I don’t understand why they don’t seem to want to learn,” he said to me as I was getting his perspective on “normal school.” He is carrying a 4+ GPA, vying in (mostly) friendly competition for valedictorian, and playing volleyball and soccer on the school’s teams.

What’s more, he went to the local indoor climbing gym with his Outdoor Education elective class during his freshman year. And he totally GOT HOOKED on climbing! Since then we have spent many days in Red Rock Canyon and Yosemite National Parks climbing epic, multi-pitch gems high off the valley floors, in the rare vertical air of this young father’s surrendered dreams.

I could weep just writing this now, with the joy and appreciation I feel for who my son is and the relationship we have. And I am sure we have some challenges to come. But I don’t write this as an elaborate brag.

A Celebration and a Warning

I write in celebration and warning, both.

Because we live in a world where teenagers are killing themselves at a staggering and unprecedented rate. A world where many feel they don’t belong or can’t go on. I just led a memorial for a fifteen year old in my community last week who shocked us all with his sudden suicide.

All humans have a deep, inborn need for sovereignty. Many of us, as parents, believe that our labors to keep them safe and send them into the world, entitle us to decide to some degree who they are going to be, based on our own preferences. This is a dangerous illusion. The need to differentiate will take hold sooner or later. And the later it does, the more dire the rebellious proving ground can be. I’m often surprised I survived my teens.

Thankfully, it turns out that I didn’t need to give up on my dreams for who my son might be some day. I just had to surrender my demands and expectations that he be that while he was growing and experimenting.

And the sooner you can embrace who your child actually is at any given developmental stage, while modeling the values you hold most dear as consistently as you can, the more fun everyone is going to have along the way.

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Photo credit: Pixabay—

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