This month we’ve been traversing the kid years, from attachment parenting to transitioning to school age, from not losing yourself while mothering to what unschooling days might look like. This week, let’s look at the transition into the teen years. The timing of this transition is not the same for all children, though typically it’s somewhere in the range of eight to twelve years old. There are lots of factors that can influence this, from their own personality and emotional growth patterns, to having older siblings (introducing teen topics into the family earlier), to the age of those whose company the child naturally enjoys, to the physical onset of puberty.
Regardless of their age, it’s a time when an unschooling child may be feeling unsettled and introspective as they ponder the transition from child to teen. They may find their enthusiasm for childhood loves waning, while at the same time still be casting about for new passions to catch their interest. A time of flux. It’s also a time when the child’s perspective grows to encompass more of the world and they begin to contemplate their place in it, often with broadening social interests and needs.
This transition can be a bit unsettling for parents too. They have watched their child devour information over the past few years, their seemingly insatiable learning pretty transparent: as I described last week, the evidence is often all over the house! Even if they aren’t learning the same things as conventionally schooled children, the learning is obvious and parents have probably developed a pretty comfortable routine of support: they’re quite adept at finding supplies to support their child’s ongoing interests; they have sources for finding new things they might enjoy; and the family has favourite places to visit regularly, like parks or museums or the store at the science centre. Yet now they’re discovering that this routine is losing its lustre for their child.
The conventional description of this transition time, nowadays called “tween” (an amalgamation of “in-between” and “teen”, because humans like to label things), is that they are too old for kids stuff and too young for teen stuff. But with unschooling we don’t really make age-related declarations. We don’t define things as “too young” or “too old”, instead we support our child’s exploration—they are where they are. I’m also not a big fan of the way the term “tween” is bandied about in relation to stuff, what they’ll like and not like, because it seems to diminish the real work they are doing. They are honing their sense of self, contemplating the kind of person they want to be, nurturing dreams of the future and wondering how they might find their niche in the adult world. It’s no longer mostly about the facts of the world and clear distinctions—right/wrong, yes/no—but increasingly about their emotional development and growth. They begin to explore moral questions, develop empathy; in general, seeing a bigger picture of the world.
It’s also a time when they may become interested in exploring that world more on their own. If that’s the case, help them find ways they can test the edges of their comfort zone while still having a backup plan that gives you both a measure of reassurance. Going to a movie on their own or with friends. Hanging on their own in town for a couple hours. A hike in the park. Visiting out-of-town friends for a few days. Help them find ways to explore their budding independence, maybe with a cell phone in tow, just in case plans change on the fly. And don’t be surprised if this skirts your comfort zones as well. Your child is growing up! But remember, you’re also growing and learning alongside them. Work through it together.
You can take the same tack if their interest in exploring social relationships or group activities grows: help them find good matches and support their drive for more independence. Another striking development is that conversations will become even more interesting as their analysis of situations expands and they incorporate more of the perspective of others. Their ideas will be more all-encompassing, branching out in new and fascinating directions.
What if they become drawn to quieter activities during this time? In my experience, ages eight to nine stand out as a time when some unschooling parents notice boys become more withdrawn and contemplative. That’s cool too! Everyone will have their own ways of processing and learning and growing. In this case, I would remind you to check in with them regularly—find time to sit with them while they are doing their thing, maybe sharing their shows, or their game, or their books, leaving a relaxed and easy opening for conversation if they’re interested. It can be tempting to just leave them be, especially if you are busy meeting the needs of younger siblings, but it’s important to keep your connection with them strong, even as it begins to look different.
And really, what’s important no matter which path they take through this time, nor how often they choose to switch it up, is to keep your relationship connected and strong. Be sure to listen to them whenever they want to talk, or bat ideas around with them if that’s what they like. Or even just be with them, in the stillness and quiet. It lets them truly know you are there whenever they need you. It gives them the time and space to choose to open up conversations, or to sink into the comfort of your company. Remember, you’re supporting them as they explore their expanding world, and their expanding selves—as they live their life.