Parents, Unschooling, and Emotional Healing

On sharing space with your parents, as an unschooling parent:

For many years, even into adulthood, I was consumed by the desire to escape, to run away. I didn’t want my kids to have a close relationship with my parents. I didn’t feel like my parents and unschooling “got along” – they valued obedience and control, not freedom.

My dad was “not nice”, while my mom would “nice you to death” in order to make sure you felt pressured enough to follow their lead. They shared their opinions as if they were facts. I have come to realize that my parents always had real trouble seeing and interacting with me, as opposed to the idea of me that they had fabricated in their minds.

When people say they have experienced abuse, I think we think that’s a clear-cut concept, but nothing could be more complex. Did they hit you with solid objects? Abuse. Did they scream at you and shame you and tell you what you were feeling wasn’t true or real? Abuse.

BUT–did they also read you bedtime stories every night, cook you healthy meals, and tuck you in with your favorite blanket, freshly warmed up from the dryer when you were sick? Did they go out of their way to bring you sour candies and fancy drink parasols from their work lunches? Did they sit down and dig through the Lego box with you, take an interest in your artwork, and remember that your favorite popsicles were the Blue Bell green ones?

See, it’s complicated.


When I was getting divorced, my parents were on my ex’s side and tried to bribe me financially to stay with him. They also said that I was bipolar and needed a diagnosis so I could get onto anti-psychotic medications, instead of getting a divorce. My dad even tried to force me to get abortions…for every single one of my pregnancies.

They were all for academically-based, rigorous bookwork at home, but not unschooling. Every time we spoke, my parents would bring up how I was ruining my kids’ futures with unschooling.

Eventually, my dad didn’t speak to me for over two years. He actively tried to prevent my mother from communicating with my children and me during that time. My father didn’t meet my husband or our new daughter until her 2nd birthday.

You could say we had a strained relationship.

After my mom had been in hospice care for over a year, my dad invited us to live with him. He was sickly and having trouble taking care of the house alone. I was repulsed and horrified when my husband suggested it was maybe not such a bad idea.

Two days later, after much soul-searching, we grudgingly agreed to move–and 12 hours after we told my mom about it, she passed from this life. I think she was waiting for us to decide to work together and sort out our problems. I even spent some time being mad at my mom for expecting me to “finish her project” in healing my dad.

Over the years, I’ve had to intervene in some pretty effed-up situations between my kids and my dad.

He’s been nasty and manipulative toward them. I’ve defended and protected them.

He’s said horrible, racist, sexist things around them. I’ve had to call him out in front of the kids to show them that what he’s saying is wrong and intolerable and I will not “just let it slide”…while also maintaining that fine balance of not making him feel like I’m berating him – which would then trigger anger and an even worse scene..

Keeping the peace while also not pussyfooting around or giving up my own power… Sigh.

It’s crazymaking, and many times I’ve felt defeated–felt like an idiot for living here. I’ve felt like I am damaging my children by letting them see how he treats us all as something to mitigate and mend, instead of something to burn up in flames.

However, I have come to finally consider: What if…WHAT IF…living here and navigating all these paths through my dad’s old-paradigm bullshittery is actually a *cosmic masterclass* in emotional resilience and strength?

In that way, I can shift into thankfulness and gratitude, even for the lessons in how to deal with being treated rudely, how to diffuse bullying behavior, how to shut down an angry person, how to recognize and redirect condescending treatment, etc.

What if the work I do is actually, maybe, helping my dad to heal by showing him that we have not yet run away or given up on him? He is continually surprised as we continue to not hold grudges – but do tend to the boundaries we’ve set.

My 15yr old and I were talking the other day, as we were reflecting on something my dad said that was appalling, but also run-of-the-mill for him. She said that she’s actually glad we’ve lived with my dad for so long because it’s taught her how to deal with bullies, how to diffuse tense situations, how to stand up for herself and not back down when challenged, etc.

It’s kind of bittersweet that that’s the role he’s inadvertently chosen to play for my kids – but at the same time, they are becoming capable of reading between the lines, and can see that he’s trying to love them in the only clumsy and complicated ways he knows.

As my kids grow, they are increasingly capable of having compassion for the things he himself has endured, and they recognize that he’s human, too. They are also more aware of how very different their own lives are from his – and how they are encouraged to embody their own truth, instead of cowering in fear or shame.

Sharing space with my dad is like living with a giant, walking, talking caricature of all the older generation’s worst stereotypes.

My dad has inadvertently contributed to my kids’ cultural and emotional awareness in very profound ways that he himself isn’t even aware of.


The image in this post is a photo of my dad, around age 7 or 8. He lived on a farm with his grandparents in Germany then, in what seems to have been a peaceful interlude in his life, between the two World Wars.