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Unlearning Adultism

Great Grampa


Hello. My name is Sarah and I’m a recovering adultist. Before our children were born, my husband and I were the best backseat parents out there. We firmly believed that children should have a ‘healthy fear’ of their parents and intended to use the ‘wait till your dad gets home’ method of parenting. But our children kicked our intuitive selves into high gear with their births and their amazing and beautiful development and innate sense of themselves. We listened, learned, researched, talked, and acted according to this new awareness that our children were not an extension of ourselves but rather individuals who deserved and needed respect and nurturance of their independent growth. Our vision of our relationship with our children was one of mutual respect and joy. To maintain this, we knew we needed to shift our perspectives and act in a way that fostered this desire.

Teresa Brett wrote about this in our first issue of Rethinking Everything PARENT and her honest language really kicks me into gear. She’s not afraid to call a spade a spade, to point out that traditional discipline is, in fact, ‘abuse,’ and traditional parenting behaviors, well, ‘adultism.’ I love that she shares so openly about her journey from there to here… and beyond. Her awareness that she is a work in process makes her revelations and transformation feel accessible to her audience. Academically minded and clinically trained, Teresa provides a bridge for those needing to rationalize their parenting decisions and provides research-based validation for those worried about the future.

I am definitely on board with Teresa’s vision of providing children with a trusted mentor, friend, and confidante and debunking the top-down parenting mentality that is so pervasive in our society. It blends well with my ideal for parenting and supporting my children in their personal growth and development. The focus on continued rethinking and assessment of our personal baggage in times of inflammation or resistance is reassuring. An expert who is aware and supportive of infinite process is refreshing because there really is no end to rethinking!


I think what Teresa wrote for PARENT, Unlearning Adultism, may be just about the most important idea in radically alternative, connected parenting, that I have ever come across. There is so much that is important in the parent/child relationship but aldultism is the dysfunctional backbone to all the mistakes we make as parents.

As for me, when my first child was born at home 29 years ago, I was profoundly struck by my overwhelming, all consuming love for him. This powerful feeling of love had me questioning every book I’d read and every person I’d talked to on parenting. Everything I’d come across thusfar felt like managing a child, not loving a child. Within a few days I knew I had to metaphorically throw everything I thought I knew about children out the window and start from scratch. This meant consciously choosing to listen to my baby, every minute, every day, and respond with what love felt like. My children, even as infants, taught me how intelligent they were and how dumb I was. I am so grateful now that I had the courage then to humble myself to their intelligent guidance and not force them to succumb to what I thought was right and correct and necessary for their rich development. They are still teaching me so much, not only about how to live, but about what’s important in this lifetime. They’ve taught me by example how to tune into myself for guidance, and not others, not systems, not experts.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. mbh #

    Hmmmm… This one is tough.

    As someone brand new to unschooling and “rethinking,” I’ve come to learn at least two things:

    1) In a lot of ways, I started moving away from the traditional adultist method of parenting to a more creative and collaborative relationship with my children several years ago, before I was ever exposed to some of these ideas,


    2) I am absolutely still a work in progress!

    This is new and yet familiar territory to me. I have been VERY indoctrinated with the “best” ways to raise children. (Yes, I too was a better mother before I had children.) I read so many books and tried so many methods. Eventually, my husband and I settled down and figured out that our kids were the best teachers. (Credit goes to my oldest son who basically did a “sit-in” when he was 12. We finally gave in and figured out that we really should let him be in charge of him. Poor guy.)

    Still… still… we have those moments when we think we may need to teach them something really important, some great life lesson, that *surely* they will not figure out on their own, or that our wise words will prevent them from making some serious mistake (that we made). Haha.

    It IS a process of unlearning for me. It actively takes work to be aware of and hold back on those automatic reactions. I am thankful for my partner who is on this journey with my kids and me. We are constantly checking one another and asking ourselves what our real goals are.

    The thing about parenting this way is that it feels SO good and so right, even in the face of how “everyone else” is doing it.

    January 4, 2012
  2. I agree that it’s a process, of course it is. I am still amazed at how my children continue to teach me now, as grown adults, how remarkably fresh and different life and learning are, in contrast to my conditioned ideas about it all. As to your moments when you think you need to teach your child something important or some great life lesson, well – unless you’re saying something differently than the way I am taking this – this is just part of our rich communication with our children.

    I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we never offer up anything or share our ideas, opinions or experience with our kids. Shoot, all of this valuable. What I have learned to do is share with the knowledge and trust that they will make their own decision about how to proceed and then support them in that. I WANT them to be making their own decisions as a function of their own developing world view, not doing what I did or what they think I want them to do. There is no empowerment in this, no ownership and no resulting gratification, whether it turns out successfully or less than successful. Something else I have learned is that when one is making their own authentic decisions about action taken, there is no such thing as failure. Ownership feels so good that even “failures” feel good because they are groundwork for what comes next.

    January 5, 2012
  3. Bethany #

    If any of you have suggested reading lists and materials for “learning” this way of “unlearning” things I am super interested. My husband and I are trying to make a lot of changes with our kids and how they are taught and treated and how we all coexist as a family unit. We are starting, what we consider natural homeschool methods this fall. Our boys will be 8, 4, & baby. Our oldest is soooo smart and such a great kid, but just doesn’t fit into the cookie cutter child and is always gettin in trouble at school for rediculous things. So we are taking on homeschooling, but at the same time are taking on new family dynamics and changes. I am really interested in this way of thinking, teaching, and learning. Any advice would be greatly appreciated and helpful!!

    April 24, 2012
    • Well, I certainly invite you to attend my conference, Rethinking Everything, where we spend a long weekend dissecting all the big issues that present themselves in this way of life. for all info. As far as books, check out Teresa Brett’s book, Parenting for Social Change. Also John Holt’s How Children Learn and How Children Fail, and Pam Leo’s Connection Parenting and Naomi Aldort’s Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. These are all great starting places! Join the discussion group on the conference website too, and pose any question you like for a good, nurturing discussion!

      April 24, 2012

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