An Interview with Scott Noelle
Recently I learned of a daily email, The Daily Groove, that is sent out by unschooling dad Scott Noelle from his website, EnjoyParenting.com. Support often comes in surprising packages and Scott’s positive missive was a pleasant one.
As I found out when my first child was born, parenting doesn’t come with a guidebook, but a daily note from Scott would have been appreciated in those early days when I was finding my way as a new parent.
At EnjoyParenting.com, I read: “The greatest gift you can give your children is to enjoy parenting them!” I asked Scott to explain that simple philosophy and how it affects one’s parenting skills...
Scott: Well, to enjoy something means to derive joy from it, or to bring out its goodness. It’s active, not passive. It’s what you make of it, not what it does to you. So when you set the intention to enjoy parenting, you’re doing two powerful things. The first is that you’re taking responsibility; you’re saying, “Parenthood is what I make of it, regardless of what my children do.” That’s self-empowering, which is the second thing: you’re modeling self-empowerment to your children; they’re learning by your example that they, too, can learn to create joy unconditionally.
Mary: I’m a big fan of unconditional love, but I never thought about unconditional joy until I read about it at your site. Can you explain how the two are connected?
They’re both products of “unconditionality,” which I define as the state of mind in which you’re willing to allow Well-Being into your experience no matter what the conditions. To me, Well-Being is an ever-present, always available resource. You don’t need to earn it, you just have to let it in! Children are naturally allowing in this way, but over time they learn to disallow the experience of Well-Being under certain conditions. Our cultural values are conditional: we grew up learning that happiness has to be earned. Conventional schooling is a major factor in the formation of the conditional worldview and the habit of disallowing Well-Being.
In my work as a writer and a life coach for progressive parents, I teach unconditionality as an inner skill which you can use to allow any desirable experience — be it love, joy, peace, appreciation, or whatever — regardless of your children’s behavior. Not surprisingly, a majority of my clients are homeschoolers or plan to home/unschool their kids. They don’t want to expose their children to the conditionality training of schools — the rewards and punishments, all the hoops you have to jump through in school to “make the grade” and be deemed a “good” student. But even without the trappings of schools, most of us need help making the shift from conditionality to unconditionality. My Daily Groove messages are intended to help in that way, too.
Initially, you caught my attention with The Wild Child. You pointed out that a wild animal would be furious at being caged, yet children are also born free and wild and sometimes protest as we attempt to domesticate them. How do we help our children learn to survive in our world without squelching their autonomy?
Well, conventional parents assume that children must be tamed or domesticated to function in modern society, and that assumption is based on a negative view of human nature — that we are savage by nature and need to be taught to suppress our brutal impulses, to be broken like horses. Progressive parents are more optimistic about human nature but often don’t know how to foster children’s goodness without resorting to the tactics handed down by our control-oriented culture. It’s no coincidence that the words domesticate and dominate sound similar. It’s all about control, which is what you’d expect of a conditional culture. If your happiness depends on the conditions surrounding you, then you’ve got to devote your energies to controlling the conditions, including others’ behavior.
I often write about partnership as the alternative to domination. It’s a distinction made famous by sociologist Riane Eisler in The Chalice and the Blade. Domination is exerting power over others and squelching their autonomy; partnership is sharing power with others to enhance each other’s autonomy.
What’s fascinating about the partnership/dominator duality is that it parallels the pleasure/pain duality. Domination systems are upheld by the threat of pain infliction, but a healthy partnership is held together by pleasure — especially the authentic pleasure of unconditional love. So partnership parenting is pleasure-oriented parenting, and the defining quality in both cases is creativity. In other words, conventional parenting and schooling model that the way to survive in our world is by getting really good at controlling people and conditions, whereas partnership/pleasure-oriented parenting models that the way to thrive in our world is by using our creativity to maximize our joy and deepen our loving connections.
You mentioned that as children are given the freedom to be themselves, you expect them to uplift the next generation of humanity. How do you envision them doing so?
I don’t have to imagine it, I’ve seen it in groups of homeschoolers and unschoolers. Children who’ve been raised with a higher degree of freedom, respect, and trust tend to be more creative and compassionate than their conventionally raised peers. Being nurtured and educated in an environment of partnership, they will be less likely to tolerate domination systems in the adult world. They’ll bring more partnership dynamics into their workplaces and other social institutions. And they won’t have to force change; they’ll just “be the change,” and the obvious pleasure of creative partnership will make it irresistible to those who are ready to abandon the dominator model.
In your post, The Oxygen Mask Rule, you point out that when flying, attendants always remind parents that if the airplane cabin loses pressure, the parents should apply their mask first and then the child’s. Can you explain why and how this applies to stressful situations with our children?
When you’re stressed out, you’re disconnected from that Well-Being we were talking about, and you can’t inspire connection in your children when you yourself are feeling disconnected. The cultural habit of conditionality leads us to focus outwardly instead of looking first to ourselves. So following the oxygen mask rule is a move towards unconditionality....
It’s a kind of healthy selfishness that’s good for your children in two ways: One, connecting with your inner resources makes you better able to serve your kids; two, you’re modeling good self-care, and you want your kids to learn to take good care of themselves rather than being doormats that others can walk all over. But for selfishness to be truly healthy for your whole family, you have to be thinking in a partnership mode — creatively. Dominator-style selfishness is self-care at the expense of others. Partnership-style selfishness is self-care that makes you a better partner.
Can you share a bit about yourself and your unschooling family?
I’ve always loved learning and did very well in school as a child, but the competitive orientation of the public schools I attended really put a damper on my enthusiasm. I had to downplay my successes to avoid the disdain of my peers. As I got into high school, I began to see how dysfunctional the educational system was, and by my first year of college I’d had enough of it. I dropped out and decided that life itself would be my classroom. I was determined that I could learn whatever I wanted and needed to learn, when I needed it. I’d never heard of unschooling, but I became an unschooler that year, at age 19!
Fast-forward to age 36, about eight years ago, when my wife and I were wondering what educational path to choose for our then two-year-old child. Thanks to the Internet, we learned about homeschooling and the work of John Holt from other unconventional parents. When we read Holt’s How Children Fail, it was an epiphany for both of us, putting words to what had always felt wrong to us about our school experiences. We’ve called ourselves unschoolers ever since.
Now we have two daughters, age ten and six, who’ve never set foot in a conventional classroom. What we love most about being unschoolers is the freedom to “go with the flow” in many ways that conventional schooling precludes. Not only are the kids free to learn according to their natural inclinations and timing, but we don’t have to plan our lives around the “needs” of the school system. The kids can stay up late if they’re in a flow. We can travel and do fun things on “school days” if it suits us. The unschooling family lifestyle is a good match to the kind of pleasure-oriented values we’ve been talking about. And it’s a total joy to see how our children’s intelligence unfolds naturally, with no one telling them what to learn or when. For us, unschooling is “the good life.”
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights with us.