Unparenting is Not Nature’s Intent: Revisiting the Earth Wisdom of Attachment Parenting and Unschooling

17 May 2013 Categories: Attachment parenting, unschooling

Our children need our guidance, otherwise they would be born adults.

Our children need our guidance, otherwise they would be born as adults.

Readers of my book, Instead of Medicating and Punishing: Healing the Causes of Our Children’s Acting-Out Behavior by Parenting and Educating the Way Nature Intended know that natural, need-focused parenting and child-led organic learning are not new fads. Although growing in popularity under trendy terms like, Attachment Parenting (AP), holistic parenting, self-directed learning, education hacking, unschooling or Radical Unschooling (RU), these ways of growing children are simply a revival of the ancient wisdom of the Earth; the way parents parented and guided learning for millennia, before the dawn of agriculture. However, as these nature-based principles have gained in popularity, we may be losing some of their deeper intentions.

Centuries of agriculture, civilization and industrialization have perverted nature’s intent for humans, perpetuating a tragic cycle of child abuse, neglect, community and cultural violence, slavery, genocide, war, planetary destruction and endless other forms of human-inflicted suffering. Readers of my book understand that the origins of human violence are a result of unmet holistic needs and trauma beginning in childhood, leading to holistic suffering that was systematically projected onto and inflicted upon family, friends, tribes, communities, cultures, nations, regions… and then the globe. Here we stand in 2013, with nearly the entire human family enslaved by a daily grind of systematic forced schooling, working, buying and paying just to live and survive. Most people cannot see any way out, and thus just resign themselves to the fact that this is life, even as they walk in the woods and wade into the ocean and see that the rest of nature runs wild and free.

The first people to revive the modern Attachment Parenting, organic learning and unschooling movements of the late 60’s and early 70’s were some of the first child advocates and parents to say, “No more. Our children are far too precious for this! We want to raise our children to be free, joyful, healthy, happy and natural!” Pioneers of natural family living began to question industrialized, corporate, processed living and they began to observe, explore and return to unfolding nature’s intent for children and families.

Now that Generation X has grown up and become the parents, Attachment Parenting and unschooling have broken out of the “hippie” fringe and have become a growing trend that has even received some mainstream attention.

Since the turn of the 2000’s, at the very point in history when ubiquitous technology, processed food, cradle-to-grave busywork, cradle-to-grave consumerism and monstrous corporations are taking over every aspect of life, there has been an explosion of information about how to return to the wisdom of the Earth. Organic primal diets, natural remedies for medical and mental health issues, holistic treatments, energy healing, ancient spiritual practices such as meditation, intentional communities, compassionate volunteer work, living off the land, self employment and of course, Attachment Parenting, democratic schools and unschooling have sprouted out of the chaos like a plant that rises through pavement. The premise of all of these ways of reviving the Earth’s wisdom is nature’s intent: These ways of living are holistically healthy because they are in line with nature’s intent for humans.

The foundation of Attachment Parenting (and therefore unschooling) is based on meeting a child’s holistic needs to the best of our ability. Readers of my book are well aware of the secure attachment cycle and the four steps involved:

  1. Child has a need
  2. Child expresses the need
  3. Parent meets child’s need ASAP
  4. Child feel homeostasis

This secure attachment cycle is the same for all mammals and is based on the conditions each individual species requires in order to grow, thrive and meet their full holistic potential. When parents meet the needs of their children at all developmental stages, from pre-birth through late adolescence, children will naturally thrive and grow to be holistically healthy. Humans are all born wired to be loved and to love; the natural state of the human being is to holistically thrive. When childhood needs are met, humans can live up to their potential.

My readers also know the flip-side of the secure attachment cycle, or, what happens to children when their needs are unmet. When parents or the environment fails to meet the needs of children, children are no longer in a state of homeostasis, but in a state of distress. This distress leads to attachment disruption in the parent-child dynamic, or, in modern terms, ambivalent, distant, conflicted or anxious parent-child relationships. Such relationships are not a “normal stage” at any time in child development, they are an alarm signal of distress in the parent-child relationship.

When a child’s needs are chronically unmet, their distress builds and begins to cause emotional and holistic injury, or trauma. In severe cases, trauma can result from just one serious incident of distress. Evidence of distress, unmet needs and trauma are easy to identify in children– Children act-out, shut down, or develop emotional, behavioral, learning, social or even sexual problems. Sometimes, the evidence of unmet needs does not manifest in children for a decade or two. Other children manifest their distress immediately.

Most parents in the AP/RU communities support natural parenting practices such as natural birthing, genital integrity, extended breastfeeding, natural immunity, cosleeping, gentle parenting, relaxed homeschooling or unschooling, nonviolent communication, natural healing, close parent-child relationships and children having freedom in following passions and interests. Most parents in the AP/RU communities understand that disrespecting children by punishing, shaming, controlling, yelling at or hitting them is harmful to every level of their holistic development. Most parents in the AP/RU communities understand that traditional school environments, with all of the human rights violations that occur therein, are also harmful to children on every level of their holistic development. In these ways, AP/RU parents are in line with nature’s intent for children’s healthy holistic development.

While the original AP/RU movement as a whole has been on board with nature in so many important ways, there has been a concerning trend that has developed in the movement that seems to fly in the face of the entire foundation of AP/RU: Unparenting.

Unparenting appears to be a well-intentioned effort to ensure that children are not in any way being stifled by adult intervention. However, the practice borders on (and in some cases exceeds the definition of) child neglect.

I have been dismayed to hear that some parents in the RU community advocate for children wasting days, weeks and even years staring at screens all day, addicted to a constant stream of console and online video games, TV shows, texting and social media. Such parents claim they are allowing children to “make the choice”; however, is it really a “choice” if it is a dopamine addiction?

I have been shocked to hear some in the RU community justify allowing children to gorge themselves on candy, soda, pizza, fast food and other mainstream foods, despite that it is well known in the natural living communities that refined sugar, gluten, dairy and processed foods are toxic and contribute to chronic inflammation, emotional distress, obesity and even cancer. Again, these parents claim they are allowing children to “make the choice”; however, is it really a “choice” if it is a dopamine addiction?

I have been appalled to learn that in the name of “choice”, some parents in the RU community allow their children to be exposed to dangers such as lack of supervision, abusive adults, alcohol, drugs, premature sex and adult media- even porn! (It is sexually abusive for adults to knowingly expose children under 18 to pornography.)

Some RU parents even advocate for allowing children to use extremely vulgar language in public or for parents not to expect basic hygiene from their children.

It shocks me to my foundations that any parent who claims to parent for attachment, who puts the time and energy into AP/RU principles, would then constantly expose their children to addictive, dangerous and toxic lifestyle choices and situations that can cause physical harm or long term psychological trauma to children. I wonder why they don’t just send their children to school and parent in all of the other harmful mainstream ways? While the confinement of schooling and the control of mainstream parenting are at one end of the spectrum of harm to children, some parents in the AP/RU communities have rushed to the other extreme- total hands off, “let’s watch and see” parenting.

Our children need us to guide them on their journey to adulthood.

Our children need us to guide them on their journey to adulthood.

Unparenting goes against nature’s intent and doubles as neglect. It also flies in the face of common sense: If children did not need our intervention, then they would be born as adults, not as children. It should go without saying that children need us to guide them on their journey to adulthood, not for us to stand by and watch them get hurt or lost.

When we observe how Hunter-Gatherer people once lived in nature, we find the opposite of punitive, controlling parenting AND the opposite of unparenting. In peaceful nonviolent tribal cultures, children enjoyed respect and freedom. Parents guided children largely through very strong, constant community modeling. Parents did not stand by idly when children acted in not-yet-mature ways; adults guided and lead the way without demands, control or punishment, but with firm expectation (i.e.: “This is just the way we live”). In no mentally healthy tribal culture did parents expect youth to negotiate childhood alone, without guidance.

How do children get to a place of having rude social skills, poor hygiene or being exposed to toxic food, excessive media usage, dangerous people or adult-themed entertainment? By parents accepting, modeling or offering those conditions. How do children get to a place of not “choosing” such conditions? By parents being heavily involved in guiding children’s choices, asking questions, modeling, expressing parental feelings and thoughts, having some basic, loose family routines, having a schedule of activities, providing information, purchasing only healthy foods, refraining from purchasing cable or electronic gadgets, working together as a team and facilitating exciting alternatives and opportunities that children would find irresistible.

In any growing movement that attempts to heal a social problem, past histories, anecdotal information, personal interpretation and dogma will eventually creep in and dilute the original principles. When many of us detoxed from mainstream parenting, educating, eating, living and healing, we probably asked ourselves some variation of the question, “What does nature say about this?” When it comes to our continued journey in the natural family living lifestyle, when we have doubts, questions and concerns we can also look to nature’s intent for answers. Nature’s intent is the only parenting advice we really need!

What does nature tell us about parenting our children?

What does nature tell us about parenting our children?

What does nature say about children eating a toxic diet? What does nature say about children chronically staring at screens for hours on end, day after day? What does nature say about failing to protect children from people, dynamics, situations, substances and choices that are not developmentally appropriate for them? All we need to do is observe or imagine what (did) would happen if peaceful tribal children, wild animals, trees, plants or the land were exposed to such conditions contrary to their natural development. I believe parents who have discovered the AP/RU lifestyle already know the answers to those questions deep in their hearts and in their primal mothering and fathering instincts.

With a little guidance from nature, Moms and Dads can each tune into their Earth-given instincts and follow their hearts- and their common sense- and know just what their individual children need to thrive holistically.

12 Responses to “Unparenting is Not Nature’s Intent: Revisiting the Earth Wisdom of Attachment Parenting and Unschooling”

  1. Monika 19 May 2013 at 4:04 am (PERMALINK)

    I love this article, but what do you think about non-coercion in peaceful tribes (I have read a book on such a tribe in Robert Wolff’s Original Wisdom) that basically do allow children to learn from their own mistakes, even things like learning about fire? They will allow their young ones to touch fire to learn about fire danger: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/12/16/best-practices-for-raising-kids-look-to-hunter-gatherers.html

    • Laurie A. Couture 19 May 2013 at 9:07 am (PERMALINK)


      Thanks for your comment- Many peaceful tribal cultures allowed children to experiment with knives, fire and even cliffs. Children went on hunting trips, canoeing trips and lived an exciting, exhilarating life in nature, learning about its elements and about a life-or-death tribal life. However, learning to use tools and learning to respect and negotiate the natural world around them is very different than Western parents feeding children toxic food and having children spend the majority of each day sedentary, staring at screens, which both excite dopamine receptors, cause depressive symptoms and can lead to longer term degenerative health problems. If more of our children were exposed to the adventurous living that children had in peaceful tribal cultures, there would be little interest in video games and TV.


  2. Tina Pabon 19 May 2013 at 8:49 am (PERMALINK)


    This was a wonderful piece and a piece that needed written, so thank you. Becoming a parent does not come with an instruction manual. It can be a scary time and you are grasping at straws to help you with this new life. When your self esteem is low and you are doubting yourself the Gurus sound like they have all the answers. Plugging in to one dogma for another is not freeing, it really becomes your new prison and a prison for your child.

    • Laurie A. Couture 19 May 2013 at 9:14 am (PERMALINK)


      Thanks for your thoughts. Peaceful tribal parents of past millennia would probably tell us Western parents that the parenting manual we seek is imbedded in every parent- it is our natural parenting instinct. I believe that trauma and unmet needs in childhood cause mothers and fathers to lose their parenting instincts even before they become parents. That is why it can be helpful to learn about the nonviolent cultures of the past (before colonization) and look at how other primates such as bonobos guide their young, in a way that is right for their species. My rule of thumb is, the more natural, the better; dipping into Western wares is fine occasionally, but I have a little saying I used to use as a teenager and my son also spontaneously came up with it one day when he was 12 (regarding treating nature with care): “When you mess with nature, nature messes with you”! My son and I laugh at that our mutual invention now, but really, it is true! Also, it might be helpful to ask, “Whose needs are we supposed to be meeting? Our childrens’? Or the RU community’s?”


  3. Wendy Priesnitz 19 May 2013 at 10:57 am (PERMALINK)

    Well done, Laurie! Thank you for this insight.

  4. Laurette Lynn 19 May 2013 at 3:36 pm (PERMALINK)

    Once again you’ve hit the nail on the head Laurie. I’m very saddened that so many folks had to walk through the unfortunate fire to come out with this realization, but it is what it is and the good news is that most folks come through the other side… albeit nursing burns, but smarter and ironically more in touch with their family than during the flame.

    I have been very skeptical of the Unschool paradigm for, oh I think about 4 years now since I first turned down the invite to speak at RE circa ’09. After my recent conversation with Pat Farenga, he agrees that something very strange has happened since Holt coined the term 40 years ago. While I agree that perhaps it would behoove us to remember what the true meaning is, I also know that it doesn’t matter. It has evolved and now it is what it is and that is a dogmatic religion. The magnificent irony however, is that THAT is a natural progression of many ideas. First it’s an idea, then an ideology, then the ideology collects a following, and then it becomes a belief system, the belief system demands standards and… viola`! This is how dogma is born.

    So what’s my point? Huh. Same as it has been for several years now. UNPLUG.

    ;) Love you Laurie, and I would be honored to share this post, with your permission and refer to it in our next podcast on the topic.

    Thanks so much for writing this. Many Moms NEED to hear it.

  5. Name 19 May 2013 at 5:29 pm (PERMALINK)

    I don’t agree with you about tv. Tv can be very educational and like everything else the child will not watch it everyday endlessly. Food is not a problem either because children will not like how the bad food makes them feel. I do however agree that children should not be allowed to be abused

    • Laurie A. Couture 20 May 2013 at 9:47 pm (PERMALINK)


      Yes, TV can be educational when used occasionally and sparingly. It educates children in negative ways, too, as I pointed out in my blog post last year entitled, “Unschooling Without TV and Video Games: A Freeing Experience”. In most families, TV is an everyday expectation, taking sometimes hours of a child’s day. Your statements are not backed up by evidence that “the child will not watch it (TV) everyday endlessly” and “Food is a not a problem either because children will not like how the bad food makes them feel.” In fact, the opposite is most often true, that children become addicted to TV, video games and refined sugar and often are not motivated to stop themselves. If parents believe that TV and “bad food” is such a risk and that children have to learn to NOT want it, why expose them to such dangers in the first place?


      • claire 15 July 2013 at 8:47 pm (PERMALINK)

        This has indeed been my experience – I grew up with no TV and good healthy food, raised my first children with no TV and a high raw diet, along with full term nursing, cosleeping, unschooling etc. Sadly, following a relationship breakdown and major problems with my foray into a 9-5 job, I suffered some health probs (largely emotional), entered an unhealthy relationship, struggled, had 2 more beautiful girls, partners unhealthy patterns seeped in, we got TV and sweets! . It has been a mess and I watched the steady addiction to TV (the tantrums when I attempted negotiating turn off) and sweets (demanding them on every trip out) – I’d explain what the stuff does and offer strawberries etc but Papa would give in to them.. until I became so far from who I am and what I passionately believe in that I was literally crying myself to sleep. NO MORE. The screen went as did the ‘treat’ drawer (why are they called TREATS??) and the relationship. I feel as though life is starting to work for all of us again, and we are recovering. Thank you Laurie for your great posts which speak so to me. xx

  6. Christeil 20 May 2013 at 12:42 pm (PERMALINK)

    Thank you so much for writing this Laurie! You are the voice of reason in the sea of unschooling that I sometimes find myself swimming upstream in. I recently received some venom from the RU community for regulating games and internet with my sons. It’s not disrespectful to children to shield them from nudity on youTube or prevent them from experiencing first person shooting games at the tender age of 8.

    Hygiene is another issue where I sometimes grate on the nerves of unschoolers. My 4 year old doesn’t like to get his hair cut or washed. However, because I have made deep connections with him, I am able to see that there is a subtle difference between cutting and washing. I won’t cut his hair against his will, but I will take the TIME and EFFORT to negotiate getting his hair washed. Sometimes it will take hours and eventually end up with me singing to him while he is half in and half out of the tub with just his hair wet and soapy. (He has no problem washing his body as long as we don’t get the water near his hair.) Relatives who have witness this just shake their heads at me.

    The point is that he eventually AGREES to hair washing, but on his terms. It involves respect and love and deep connection. Yes, it is much more time consuming than just letting him walk around with dirty hair or holding him down for a good scrubbing. It’s not tiger parenting and it’s not the ideal to which some of the AP/RIE parenting prescribe. It’s something in-between, and although it doesn’t “look” like mainstream parenting, it’s something that feels right and natural.

  7. Sue Wagner 20 May 2013 at 10:37 pm (PERMALINK)

    Thank you so much for sharing this Laurie! I have been really turned off from some in the unschooling community because of these same issues! Not just that, but the hostility I have witnessed towards parents who question it. It truly saddens me :(

  8. Andi 14 February 2014 at 7:25 pm (PERMALINK)

    Wow, fantastic post, Laurie!

    I just found your blog after doing a search on unschooling, which is quite new to me. I have a three year-old and have been looking at options for homeschooling her. I stumbled upon unschooling in the process and have devouring anything and everything related to it, but the concept you bring up in this post had been troubling me as I thought about unschooling and how it would mesh with my parenting style.

    Much of the unschooling info I’ve read so far has a large element of unparenting to it, but it really didn’t sit well with me. Yes, I want my child to have choices and options, but letting her gorge on candy, junk, TV, screens in the name of choice and free will? No. Also, certain things are not going to be choices for her right now. I will teach manners. She will take a bath. She will wear shoes when we go out. And others.

    I felt like I couldn’t do unschooling “properly” with these two seemingly opposite poles (which seems a little silly now), but your post has helped me so much. Thank you, thank you! :-)


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