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The UnCollege Blog

A Letter to Parents and Hackademics

By Lisa Nalbone

Lisa Nalbone loves helping people take control of their learning and take action to reach their potential. She shares her experience from teaching, community organizing, unschooling and raising Dale by offering tips, resources and consulting to support hackademics and parents at LisaNalbone.comHer book LifeSPARKS:Ask hard questions, Try new things Do what matters provides a three- step framework and A-Z strategies for getting started with self-directed learning. 

Dear Parents and Hackademics:

I often hear from children, of all ages, frustrated about not getting parental support for a gap year, trying self-directed learning, or what I like to call learning beyond school. I hear from parents who are unsure or upset about their child wanting to diverge from the path the parent thinks is right.

I see two issues getting in the way of Hackademics getting what they need and want.

One is an issue with how parents and kids communicate and interact around volatile topics. The second issue is with how we approach the decision making process. Just by virtue of being human, whether kid or parent, we have to fight the tendency to limit our options before we even start addressing what the right decision is.

So, if you need some secret sauce to help you communicate with your parents, understand each other better and “get to yes”, you’re in the right place. And if you have some thorny decisions ahead, read on.

Here is a bit of advice along with a few tips that can help you, parents and kids, have better interactions and make better decisions. These tips work for just about any topic. Do yourself and favor and use them.

On Interactions:

Your children are not YOU.

Listen to each other. Respect that you each have different opinions, styles and dreams. That is ok. Ditto for kids. You can disagree respectfully. Start with trust.

Practice empathy. Open your mind, eyes, and heart. The world has changed and the future is shifting. Paths that made sense for us don’t necessarily make sense for them. Parents often expect kids to put themselves in the parent’s shoes yet forget to try the same exercise. Put yourself in your kid’s shoes. Ditto, kids. We love you. We want the best for you, even though you might not see it that way.

Let them be themselves. Let them be different from YOU. Let them be different from the neighbors, cousins, and the kids of your co-workers. Don’t let fear of what other people will think govern your relationship with and the future of your child. Just like we want kids to resist peer pressure, we parents need to resist peer pressure, too.

Discuss: How do you each define success? What is it you want for your child? What do they want for themselves? Try to have an unheated discussion. Don’t attempt to convince or persuade, but try to understand each other better, as equals. Share your self and your why, your hopes and fears.

Caution: Don’t push your fears on to your child. Make sure you relate your fears to your life experience. Make sure they know you are dealing with your own baggage, not your lack of belief in their abilities.

Do not use money to control your kids. Finances are a sticking point for lots of families. Invisible financial ties can be insidious if used to control, and are harmful to all.

It’s tricky to balance giving financial support with encouraging financial independence. You want to support kids learning and launching, but not undermine your kids by never letting them learn to wait and work for things they want.

Kids, don’t take money for granted. An entitled attitude is just as harmful as controlling one. Figure out how to earn a living, pay bills, take care of yourself and live within your means. If parents can support you, use that money wisely. Spending life in a job that makes one miserable in return for a “ solid secure income” isn’t worth it. Holding a less desirable job as you work toward your dream can be a great learning experience. You ultimately have to figure out how to make ends meet The sooner you start working on that the better.

On Decision Making:

“Decisions are commas, not periods.”

Thank you Chip and Dan Heath for my new mantra. Decisions are another big sticking point for people. Especially when emotions are high, we fall into traps when making decisions. In their book, Decisive, the Heath brothers have outlined a sweet system, the WRAP technique, with examples and exercises to help us outwit our tendencies for self-sabotage when we make decisions. They have a fantastic, detailed workbook on their site for making your own decisions or helping someone else. Here is just a very brief overview to get you thinking.

Widen your options.

Let me shout that one. WIDEN YOUR OPTIONS! UnCollege is essentially all about finding more options. One of the ways life has dramatically changed is in how many more avenues there are to access information, education, training, networks, and the world. There are myriad ways to skin this education cat. In Decisive they list 7 ways to help you get past a narrow frame of mind.

Reality-test your assumptions.

Find ways to fight your tendency for confirmation bias and obtain trustworthy information. I especially loved two of their suggestions. One is to brainstorm how to make the best of a situation if what you want to do was just not possible. Another is to “ooch”, that is, get started trying something small in the direction you want to go. They have 6 more ways to help you with reality testing.

Attain distance.

Find ways to get out of the agonizing influence of short-term emotions and make sure you are using your core values and priorities to make decisions. Figuring out your core priorities is the first step. They have several tools to help you shift your perspective and avoid our tendency to get derailed by a focus on loss aversion and less important obstructions.

Prepare to be wrong.

This is not negative thinking, rather it is smart planning. I thought these were really useful strategies to help anticipate issues but not be defeatist. It helps us all when we have specific goals, deadlines and a Plan B. Determine a “trip wire”, a clear signal that it’s time to try a different path. You want to build in some reevaluation points and identify some objective criteria to help you make new decisions. They explain 5 more tools to help you prepare to be wrong.

I highly recommend that you read Decisive and then download the worksheets to use as you work through the WRAP technique. The resources are at their site. 


There’s a lot we can do to build our relationships and make better decisions. I’ll leave you with a few final questions.

What is the worst case scenario with trying a new path? What if they decide to go back to school and it takes longer?

What do you wish you had done when you weren’t tied down with kids, mortgage, daily obligations?

Can we give our children the freedom to try? To fail? To experiment?

Isn’t it better to build a strong, honest relationship and talk about how they might tackle pursuing their dreams, even when their dream don’t match ours?

Can you say: “Why not? How? Okay, let’s figure it out.”

Good luck with your decisions!