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“Unorthodox” Parenting: Some Semi-Random Thoughts

Posted by on Mar 10, 2012 | 16 Comments

Warning- if you don’t have children or aren’t actively planning to have children, it’s probably best to skip this post.  Also, if you’re the kind of person that insists a blog should only cover one single topic, best to skip this one.  It has nothing to do with barefoot running.  😉

As if it is not obvious, Shelly and I are fans of the unorthodox.  We don’t necessarily seek to break the “rules” of society.  We just look for the most effective means of doing anything and everything.  That often puts our actions at odds with the conventions of society.

For example- the very decision to quit our “secure” teaching jobs and travel full time when our peers are busily building their careers and paying their mortgages flies in the face of how people are supposed to act.  Hell, even barefoot running can be used as an example of using unorthodox means to a more effective end.

This acceptance of the unorthodox extends to our children and our parenting style, too.  Parenting is an interesting concept for a variety of reasons.

First, it’s hard.  Non-parents really can’t appreciate this, but the things you experience as a parent make all your pre-children worries and concerns seem trivial.  I’m sure all parents get a chuckle when their childless friends complain about having to go into work early or being stressed about the color of paint for their dining room ceiling.

Second, everyone has an opinion about parenting.  In fact, this entire post is essentially a culmination of our opinions about parenting.  Almost every parent I know has an opinion about some aspect of parenting.  They also have a often-times unspoken fear that their opinions are wrong. After all, most parents’ greatest fear is they’re somehow screwing their kids up.

Third, we commit the fundamental attribution error ALL THE TIME.  We dismiss the role of individual kids’ internal makeup when assessing their observable behaviors.  Essentially, we blame other parents’ kids’ behavior on bad parenting.  Parenting is a little bit like herding cats.  If you’re lucky, you can guide the herd in one general direction.  Controlling the herd is an act in futility, though.  Unless you have really fat, lazy cats.

So… about our parenting.  A few general ideas shape our parenting decisions.  Think of these as our “guiding principles.”  When we encounter a new situation, we use these principles to help make decisions.  The principles are not etched in stone and are sometimes overridden, but they provide an adequate framework.

Principle One: We’re not raising kids.  We’re raising adults.  This profound idea came from Dr. Phil, which is somehow embarrassing to admit.  Still, it’s profound.  The goal of parenting is to raise an independent member of society, not create a person that will forever depend on us.  Both of us see large numbers of people that have a “need to be needed”, and intentionally or unintentionally thwart their child’s development as an independent being.  Note- this is sometimes confused with the idea of treating kids as miniature adults, which is not the case.

Principle Two: We let our kids make decisions.  As long as the decision won’t result it irreparable harm, we tend to let our kids make age-appropriate decisions.  The ability to critically examine a situation and weigh possible outcomes is critical.  We foster these skills as soon as possible.  A good example is clothing.  Once our kids reach about four years of age, we let them pick out the clothes they wear.  If you ever see our kids in horribly mismatched outfits, it’s safe to assume they dressed themselves.  Or I dressed them.  🙂

Principle Three: We want to prepare our kids for tomorrow, not yesterday.  The world is an ever-changing place.  It’s impossible to predict the skills people will need to survive tomorrow.  As such, we favor teaching broad skills like social interactions with culturally-diverse people, the ability to solve unique problems, and how to lead others.  We tend to reject ideas like the necessity of the classroom atmosphere (sit still for long periods of time, always be subservient to authority, etc.) and the need to memorize a large number of facts.

Principle Four: We model love and affection.  Shelly and I often place our relationship a priority above the occasional needs of our children.  We have date nights (which usually involve running… we’re dorks), we have a dedicated “alone time” at night, we hug and kiss in from of our kids.  In short, we value our relationship and want to model that for our children.  We see too many “martyr moms” that spend all of their time and energy looking doting on their kids to the detriment of their relationship, which always results in a bitter, resentful spouse.  We want to avoid that at all costs.

Principle Five: We’re honest.  Kids ask a lot of questions.  We go to great lengths to provide as accurate of answers as we can.  If we don’t know the answer, we admit it and use it as an opportunity to teach them how to find answers.  We see many parents giving their kids dumb answers.  For example, if a kid asks where thunder comes from,

Principle Six: We let kids experience life and actively inhibit sheltering behaviors.  As time passes, society is slowly embracing the idea of the need to protect and shelter kids from anything that could be even remotely dangerous.  The result- kids never learn to discriminate between dangerous and safe situations, never learn to regulate behavior, and never learn about the nuances of social life.  For example, we let our kids watch pretty much anything on TV.  The lone exception is anything horror-related as it gives them nightmares.  One of their favorite shows is ‘Family Guy.’  The show is filled with adult references.  Our kids ask about those references.  We give honest answers.  The show contains adult language.  We teach our kids why people swear (it’s fun) and when and where it is appropriate.  We don’t unnecessarily shelter them from nudity, sex, or violence.  There are no taboo topics.

Principle Seven: We always assume our kids understand everything.  Most people seem to assume kids are idiots that are incapable of understanding even rudimentary ideas and concepts.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Kids are frequently aware of the world that surrounds them.  Depending on age, their understanding varies… but they’re still aware.  When talking to other adults, we always assume our eavesdropping kids understand exactly what we’re talking about.

Principle Eight: We give our kids ample solitude and time to play.  “Play time’ for kids is really practice.  It’s their opportunity to use their imagination to apply the lessons they’ve learned from the world around them.  If you pay close attention to the dialogue they create when playing, this becomes obvious.  As a society, we’re obsessed with teaching kids a ton of stuff, but we never give them the opportunity to apply that which they learn.  Play time, whether alone or with others, is that missing opportunity.

Using these principles, we’re able to navigate the vast majority of parenting-related situations that arise.  Obviously these principles won’t work for everyone for logistical, moral, or philosophical reasons… but they work very well for us.  I know enough about my virtual friends to know many of you have somewhat similar parenting ideas.

What are your thoughts?  If you were to boil your parenting down to a few principles, what would they be?



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  1. karen
    March 19, 2012

    wow! so glad I found this site. My husband and I are planning to homeschool our 4 yr old, she’s our only child. I am constantly amazed at how people are so ready to shove their opinions down our throats about our educational choices, diet (vegan), and lately my “excessive”(not excessive) running . We’ve never felt comfortable inside the box,but always try to be respectful of others. For us it’s all about doing the best we can to set her on a positive, loving path-this world can be so crazy and unpredictable.Financially it’s going to be difficult,but I feel so lucky to have all this time with her-they grow up so fast.

  2. Brigitte Sumner
    March 18, 2012

    very refreshing. I came to the blog via the barefoot running as my eldest son and I are about to order some Huaraches, a result of raising our sons virtually exactly the way you described. Although I would rephrase that, we did not raise them, they grew up alongside us. they are now men -20 and 23- with their own lives, which they choose to share with Rex and myself at times. They have always known that whatever choices you make, you are responsible for the consequences. They have not been treated as mini-adults but with respect and as equals, in turn they treat us in the same way.

  3. oggy
    March 18, 2012

    Thanks for sharing! Television is ok? Aside from PBS it’s clear network television has become a conservative shill service with no nutritional value. Especially Fox! I am scratching my head that an intentional parenting rulebook would include the mind-numbing idiocy of Family Guy. Kids like McDonalds fries and Kool-Aid too but that doesn’t mean you get a happy meal for them. I guess if you treat Fox as Parental Guidance viewing then they might filter through the poison but the propagandists are working at such a high level right now that they are fooling most adults so I’d err on the side of safety and tell them they can watch it on the computer when they are much older.

  4. krista
    March 12, 2012

    I’m not sure where I heard this but it really stuck with me and made a lot of sense as a parent.

    The idea was that your kids are not yours to keep. They are on loan to you for 18 years. As a parent this means that you have 18 years to guide them into adulthood at which point they should be 100% capable of handling everything that life throws their way.

    So, the biggest part of preparing them is allowing them to make their own decisions. If they are 3 years old, they should be making 3/18 of their own decisions. At 5 years old, 5/18… at 13 years 13/18 etc… Not that decision making is super quantifiable, but I look at how many decisions I allow my children to make and I can see how far they’ve come.

    I’m a huge fan of relevant parenting. For instance, my kid loves money. Why not use that as a learning opportunity. Yeah, he may have been trying to swindle the other kids in the court out of their toys so he could have cash in his pocket, but is that necessarily a bad thing? He learned a lot about supply and demand and perceived value trying to sell those same toys back to the kids for a profit.

    I say as long as no one is getting their eye poked out let kids be kids and let them learn valuable lessons from their experiences.

    Ok… I could go on and on and on, but I won’t. Ha!

  5. Aaron
    March 12, 2012

    Wow, good timing. We just came off a semi- tough weekend with our kids. Our 4 (almost 5) year-old is going through in which he is really mouthy and gets frustrated easily. When he is with one of us one-on-one, he’s great and we have a lot of fun. But, when the whole family is together, he suddenly becomes needy and wants one of us to play only with him. Then, when we tell him no, he gets mad and things sometimes go downhill from there (sometimes not).

    You made some good points and observations. I listen to all the parenting advice I can get and then process it and use what I think is valuable information to help shape my parenting style. For me, it is a process of constant learning, adapting, and growing. There are failures for sure. But, in general, I feel my wife and I are doing a pretty good job of raising our kids.

    I agree with Maura about helping kids learn that they are not the center of the universe; however, like every other thing we teach our kids, it can only be taught/learned when they are capable of understanding the concept.

    Thanks again.

  6. Aaron
    March 12, 2012

    Wow, good timing. We just came off a semi- tough weekend with our kids. Our 4 (almost 5) year-old is going through in which he is really mouthy and gets frustrated easily. When he is with one of us one-on-one, he’s great and we have a lot of fun. But, when the whole family is together, he suddenly becomes needy and wants one of us to play only with him. Then, when we tell him no, he gets mad and things sometimes go downhill from there (sometimes not). Anyway, thanks for the great post. You made some good points and observations. I listen to all the parenting advice I can get and then process it and use what I think is valuable information to help shape my parenting style. For me, it is a process of constant learning, adapting, and growing. There are failures for sure. But, in general, I feel my wife and I are doing a pretty good job of raising our kids.

    Thanks again.

  7. EdH
    March 11, 2012

    Jason, this might interest you.

    I don’t see anything in your principles that go against that article. In fact, your point#4 is spot on with the article.

    Point#1 bothers me a bit, but it could be semantics. You are raising kids, to be adults. When training adults to do something, you have to reason with them. When training kids, you just have to lead. They don’t have to understand why do do something (the younger they are, the more this is key), they just have to know to do it.

  8. Andy
    March 11, 2012

    How are your kids doing with moving away from their friends? I’ve thought about this a bit since you all started your rambling life. My 10 year old would shit if we moved him away from his chums.
    Great post.

  9. Lee Parker
    March 11, 2012

    Great post – A couple weeks ago, we were showing some slides to out 4 years old grandson…had pictures of his dad…one of them was of my 3 kids in the bottom of a hole I was digging for a water line. Three kids, ages 3, 4, and 5 knee deep in muddy water with shovels and buckets and the biggest smiles ever. And they weren’t necessarily clean 🙂

  10. Erik
    March 11, 2012

    I don’t care if they don’t want to learn tap, if they’re going to learn ballet, they have to learn tap too, and that’s all there is to it.

  11. Mike
    March 11, 2012

    My wife and I were talking today about how children cause parents to do things they never dreamed of. A perfect example is our three year old loves to poop on hiking trails. It’s his thing I guess but I find myself having to bury toddler poo on our hikes. The first time was kind of annoying but now I just smile and kiss his little head. Being a Dad is amazing. Your principles seem to be right on point, nicely done.

  12. Terral
    March 11, 2012

    We have a 14 month old who chooses his own clothes. He was giving us grief about getting dressed before he was even a year old so we decided to try letting him choose. At first we gave him a choice between option A or option B but now he gets it enough that we can just open his drawer and he’ll grap a top and bottom. Some parents can’t stand to let go of that control but we think it’s great to watch him get excited about something he can choose.

  13. Shane D.
    March 10, 2012

    Keep doing what your doing Jason, and it sounds like your children will grow up to become wonderful adults-something the world seems to be short of.

  14. Maura
    March 10, 2012


    My additions would be modeling for our children that we are not the center of the universe. There are repercussions to decisions and choices we make that reach outside ourselves and that matters. Things we want don’t just come to us because we want them and feel we “need” then or because someone else we know has them – we work to earn what we want or need and sometimes the earning isn’t fun, so be sure you want what you’re paying the price for.

    Also that we need to be kind and compassionate to others – people and animals. There’s a great amount of joy in being able to give to others and contribute to causes we believe in, even when we don’t directly benefit other than feeling good.

  15. Cliff
    March 10, 2012

    Awesome! I could just use principle one and leave it there… another great post Jason, and who cares if there’s no barefoot running in it 😉

    My wife and I often question ourselves on how best to raise our two little ones. And the constants that keep coming up are:
    1. That they need to be confident enough to find their own path.
    2. Loved enough to share their own love…

    I think if we have achieved that, then we will have done an OK job as parents.

  16. Christine
    March 10, 2012

    I would add…question “traditional” parenting techniques, whether they come from your own parents or society. We, as this generation’s parents, have the opportunity to break harmful patterns. It is definitely unorthodox, to question vaccines, put kids in alternative schools, question the nutrition they are being marketed at school and on TV, throw out the TV or limit exposure, let them walk or run barefoot. I question things out loud around my kids, so they see it is ok to question and think about alternatives and there is not a “one size fits all”.
    Not to mention examining our own upbringing and what didn’t work. I recently discovered how harmful the “original sin” story was to me. I then discussed it with my kids because they’ve heard it. I also try not to live vicariously through them. I encourage any interest they may have, no matter how unlikely they will be at becoming rich doing it, and try not to encourage activities that are traditionally “paths to success” if they find no joy in it.