Having a different parenting style than your spouse is a common problem. It pops up a lot in the gentle parenting, unschooling, crunchy parenting type groups that I follow online. It amuses me the most when this question comes up in unschooling groups – “How can I make him see,” “how can I get him to,” “how can I convince him that unschooling is the best way.” I always want to say, come on, you guys are unschoolers! You know this! You can’t force anyone to learn anything, not kids, not adults. If you’re into unschooling your kids, you also have to unschool your spouse.
One of my favorite parts of Radical Unschooling by Dayna Martin was her chapter on Respectful Partnerships. She talks about how, when she moved from attachment parenting her babies to unschooling her kids, at first she criticized her husband’s authoritarian parenting and they experienced a downward spiral in their relationship. She realized that she had to apply the same principles of understanding and empathy to her marriage that she did to her children: if Joe was doing something she disagreed with, like yelling at the kids, she tried to understand his point of view and the unmet need that was causing him to yell, rather than accusing and criticizing him for doing parenting “wrong.”
When you read “unschooling your spouse” at the top of this post, maybe it sounded condescending. As if I were going to recommend treating your spouse like one of your children. But actually, it’s completely the opposite. Just as unschooling elevates your relationship with your child to one of mutual respect, unschooling your spouse elevates your marriage. In an unschooling parent-child relationship (some say “partnership parenting” which is even more analogous to a respectful marriage/partnership!) we don’t try to control children or teach them what WE think they should know in a didactic manner. When we are excited about something that WE are learning, we share it, but without trying to force it down their throats. We try to be good role models and talk about our values, but without punishing or scolding them for being wrong.
Unschooling your spouse obviously will look and feel different than unschooling your children in many ways, because he or she is an adult, but fundamentally it is the same. It’s about respecting your spouse’s autonomy, not trying to control him or her, accepting his or her feelings as legitimate whether or not you understand them or agree with them, and building up trust and empathy so that you can disagree without shaming, belittling, or shutting each other down. Of course that doesn’t mean you are not allowed to get upset or angry, but it means that you don’t let that anger roll into punishment, criticism, and other controlling behavior.
Everyone will have boundaries where they draw a line in the sand. I personally am not okay with spanking, so I would no more stand by and watch my husband spank one of our children than I would let one of our children hit each other or anyone else. Fortunately he agrees with me on spanking so we don’t argue about that, but if necessary I would intervene in a situation where I thought someone was going to get hurt.
As in unschooling your children, unschooling your spouse comes down to trust. A fundamental belief of unschooling is that children basically want to learn, do well, and get along with others. They mess up and take risks and fail sometimes and have a lot of emotions, some pleasant and some not so much. All of the above is true of your spouse – I hope! If you know that deep down your spouse is a good person who loves you and loves his/her child(ren), then your fundamental orientation is one of trust, respect, empathy, and forgiveness. That’s where you begin, and believe that the rest will fall into place if you stay focused.
When your spouse experiences what it’s like to be in an unschooling partnership with YOU, I honestly believe that he or she will want to have that kind of relationship with your kids as well.