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The Guy On The Plane

By Jeff Sabo

Most people assume that if you enjoy being around people, if you are gregarious and charming and outgoing, that you must be an extrovert. However, by strict definition an extrovert gets his energy from being with people, while an introvert gets re-energized by being in relative solitude. While I am comfortable being with just about anyone in any situation, being an introvert means that I can’t do it for long. I can get overwhelmed quickly, and need to escape just for a little while so I can charge my batteries.

When I was working in the business world and traveling frequently, this was a real struggle for me. When you travel for business, there is an expectation that you will basically jump right off the plane, drive to the office, and immediately engage. Because I’m an introvert, and because my business travel always involved engaging with people, I developed a bit of an anti-social attitude while traveling. I don’t make eye contact with the security people, I don’t joke with cab drivers, I don’t smile at pretty ladies (although I will usually smile at kids) and I never, ever, ever, talk to strangers on a plane.

Except for one day in the fall of 2010, when I was traveling to Boston for the Northeast Unschooling Conference.

For some reason, despite the fact that I was reading and under headphones, the gentleman next to me decided to strike up a conversation. He was obviously a businessman of some type, dressed in khakis and a button-down dress shirt, with his blue blazer and briefcase and laptop and copy of Harvard Business Review highlighted and tabbed in all the right places. I could have just ignored him, I suppose, and perhaps I should have. But I also thought that if I made small talk for a few minutes and seemed unapproachable enough, he might leave me alone.

His questions started out gently and I survived the conversation fairly well until he asked me why I was traveling to Boston:

Jeff: “I’m speaking at a conference.” Random Business Guy, eyeballing my unshaven face, shorts, and sweatshirt: “Umm, what kind of conference?”

J: “It’s a parenting conference, focusing on education.”

RBG, peering down the nose of his glasses and turning to face me: “What, like a public education conference? College prep or something like that?”

J: “No, it focuses on homeschooling, actually.”

RBG, apparently intrigued: “So, are you presenting curriculum or something?”

Uh oh. Tipping point. Here we go.

J: “No. Actually it’s about unschooling.”

RBG, apparently repulsed: “What the hell is unschooling?”

At this point, I was sincerely regretting all my decisions: to respond to him, to choose that seat, to board that plane, and to make that trip. Although I have had this discussion many, many times, I am usually smart enough to avoid having it when I am in a confined space seven miles in the air, where I cannot escape. But I put that behind me, and gave him my best child-led-learning, conscious-parenting, living-in-freedom, public-schools-are-failing, don’t-youlove- your-children, won’t-work-for-everyone-but-it-worksfor- us speech. It was, in my humble opinion, brilliant. RBG asked me a few questions about curricula, and college, and rules, and control, and then pronounced:

“There’s no way I could ever even think about doing that.”

J: “Really? Why not?”

RBG: “Well, because I want my kids to go to school.”

J: “Why?”

RBG: “So they can learn what they need to learn so they can do well on the SATs.”

J: “Why is that important?”

And on and on we went. RBG went through the chronology of his children’s life: good grades, the right subjects, SATs, college, job, marriage, house, children, and retirement, sketching out all of the things that needed to happen in order for his children to be successful in the world. Under normal circumstances, I would’ve said “Good for you,” excused myself to the bathroom, and stayed away for a while, hoping that he would forget about me. But there was something about this guy that was so familiar to me—something about him that made me think I had been in his shoes not so long ago—that led me to a very different reaction. I asked him a question.

“You are defining success as monetary, and material, with college being necessary for success and good grades being necessary for college. Do you like that definition? If not, how would you define success in a perfect world?”

He paused for a long time. Several times he started to speak, then hesitated, looking out the window or down at his shoes. I could almost see his wheels turning as he struggled with a question which is critical to our happiness but rarely, if ever asked. Eventually he started to speak.

RBG: “I would want success to be measured by how happy I was, by how I spent my time, by my values and interests and passions. I would throw out this idea that we need the American dream, and probably redefine the dream entirely.”

J, sensing an opening: “By that definition, are you successful?”

RBG, wistfully: “Of course not. I wasn’t raised that way.”

J: “Okay. And how are you raising your children?”

RBG: “Wow…the way I was raised, I guess.”

J: “Why?”

RBG: “Well, I guess I never really thought about it.” I wanted to hug the poor guy. It was clear that he got a bit more than he bargained for, and that he had some things to go think about.

But the point of this story really isn’t the long-term future of RBG. The point is that so many parents never really think about the parenting choices they make. They don’t always pause to think about what success means, what is necessary and what is arbitrary. They think of restrictions and obstacles instead of alternatives and possibilities. They focus on the way things were or the way things should be, not on the way things are or the way they could be. They let moments pass by, tipping points in which they could engage with their children but do not. The moments turn to minutes, hours, days…and you get the picture.

In short, they don’t parent consciously. They parent on autopilot.

When you’re single, living a life on autopilot may be unfortunate, but is not likely tragic. When you’re married, living on autopilot will likely create some long-term problems that can be challenging to overcome. But living on autopilot when you are a parent can be downright destructive.

Parenting is, hands down, the most challenging thing you will ever do. It is scary, troubling, enthralling, and exciting. It requires long hours, Herculean patience, trust, and thousands of other skills and characteristics that our kids deserve and demand. As such, it absolutely requires—requires—us to do so much more than simply go through the motions, checking the block at each milestone and focusing on achievement. It requires us to think with our heads, lead with our hearts, question, learn, listen, and stay in the moment whenever possible.

Regardless of our philosophies on parenting or education—unschooler or not, attachment parenting or not, or whatever your child-rearing ideology—parenting really only requires one thing. It requires us to consider our choices and the impact those choices have on our relationship with our children as well as on their futures. It requires that we parent consciously, purposefully, thoughtfully. And regardless of the choices we make, parenting requires us to “really think about it.”