Teenagers. What’s the first thing that pops to mind? Something reminiscent of the MCR song? “Teenagers scare the living shit out of me.” A quick web search reveals that the conventional wisdom surrounding the teenage years is mainly focused on helping parents survive this inevitably challenging stage. Mainstream society treats it as a forgone conclusion—a belief as strong as tomorrow they’ll be a day older. This stage of parent-child relationship discord is practically seen as a rite of passage.
But what if it’s the conventional wisdom surrounding raising children that is specifically setting teens up for this additional turmoil beyond the physical and emotional changes that adolescence brings? What if we take a different tack? What if parents work to support rather than control their teens? What if we don’t try to keep them away from adult society as long as possible? And from their perspective, what if a teen’s desire for more independence and responsibility wasn’t met by a wall of resistance?
Unschooling families are giving it a shot. In essence, they choose to avoid the power and authority dynamic that many families set up at home. Without the “us versus them” mentality, unschooling teens don’t have a “parental authority” they have to challenge to get permission to do many things. Instead, they know their parents will help them as they pursue their independence and journey into adulthood. What a thoroughly divergent perspective from which to enter your teen years!
Teens Growing Independence
In more conventional families, where teens are less supported and more controlled, many teens are compelled to pursue their growing independence out from under the watchful and judgmental eyes of parents. Adults know this, but instead of reciprocating with real life opportunities, many towns and cities actively resist: some are raising the compulsory school age so they remain housed in schools (my province did this a few years ago, from sixteen to eighteen); some have instituted youth curfews so the police can keep them out of the community-at-large; public places like malls have created additional security measures and regulations designed to keep teens either spending or out the door. It seems we are doing our best to shut teens out of, instead of welcoming them into, adult society.
How does this look different in unschooling families? Instead of creating an uncomfortable environment at home which teens are eager to escape, they cultivate a loving and supportive one (supportive of the teen’s goals). On top of that, unschooling parents support their child’s wishes to get together with other teens. They’ll open up their home and provide a fun environment for the teens to hang out. Movies? Snacks? Sleeping bags? A cozy and welcoming room in which to relax and chat late into the night? Unschooling parents have developed strong and connected relationships with their teens and talk openly with them, figuring out what they want to do, and working together to help them accomplish it. What if their teen wants to visit others? They help out by driving (maybe hours away), or making other arrangements like bus tickets, or even flights. Instead of fearing teens gathering, unschooling parents help make it happen and create accommodating environments in which the teens can enjoy themselves. And in that enjoyment, they are learning so much.
Joining Adult Society
The conventional educational paradigm says that children go to school to learn what they need to know so they can graduate into adult society. For its part, society seems to be doing its best to shut teens out of the “real world” until that magical graduation day. And then we expect them to smoothly jump right in to this new world and navigate it successfully.
What are unschooling parents doing instead? Creating a learning environment for their children that is based in the real world from the get go. They support their teenager’s interest in engaging with society-at-large—whatever it looks like and at whatever age it develops. They help them find opportunities to volunteer in areas of interest; seek mentors to help them pursue their passions even more deeply; drive them to jobs; support them if they want to learn to drive themselves. In other words, they help their teens find opportunities to participate in adult society now, as much and as deeply as they are interested in.
The Family Atmosphere Parents Choose to Sow
When conventional parents choose to create a relationship with their children that is adversarial in nature that’s probably what they’ll get in return as their children become teens and begin to exercise their growing autonomy. It shouldn’t be surprising that if it’s tools of control they see from their parents, those are they tools they’ll reach for in conflict. You can only harvest what is planted.
Unschoolers choose to plant different seeds. Instead of seeing themselves as directing their teens with an attitude of “I always know better”, unschooling parents see themselves as supporting their child along the road that the teen is choosing. Supporting them means sharing our experiences, knowledge, and thoughts, but not directing their path. We’re available for conversations whenever our teen strikes one up; we initiate them as moments arise; and let them end naturally, instead of forcing them to continue to “make a point”. We treat them as the intelligent beings they are.
I have found that my involvement in my teens’ lives has not become fraught with conflict; but it does look different as they get older. I’m less involved with their direct learning—helping them find answers to their questions, helping them get their day-to-day needs met—and more involved with helping them navigate their journey into adulthood: we chat about longer term goals and the various ways to meet them; relationships and the motivations and needs of others; and figure out plans as they explore the world farther afield. I treasure our relationships.
In unschooling families the teenage years, though still full of the twists and turns and angst of life, are not further complicated by the conventional assumption that teens are troublesome and rebellious and need to be controlled. Unschooled teens have been living in and observing the real world for years and, with the loving support of their parents, know when they are ready to move more directly into adult society, whatever their age.