Hi everyone! I’m really excited to be part of the 2021 Canadian Online Homeschool Conference. And I’m happy to welcome you to my session, Unschooling through the Teen Years.
We may have been unschooling pretty comfortably for years, connecting with our kids, having fun, actively supporting them as they pursue their interests, but then our eldest approaches the teen years and all of a sudden we start to feel a bit uncomfortable. We begin to worry. Is unschooling going to work through the teen years? It’s a pretty common scenario and I’m excited to dive into it with you!
First, we’re going to explore those voices in our head that start to bubble up when our child hits their teens. It’s not surprising because, until now, we’ve had no real reason to do the work and peel back the layers of goo that infuse the conventional wisdom surrounding teens. We’ll look at some of those messages we’ve likely absorbed about both the earlier and later teen years.
Then we’re going to talk about ways we can actively support our kids through the teen years. Unschooling with teens is often less hands-on day to day, but it’s not less time and effort on our part. It just looks different. And again, we’ll explore what our support and engagement might look like in both the earlier and later teen years.
Before we get started, I’ll just share a brief introduction. I’m Pam Laricchia and my three kids left school in 2002, at ages 9, 7, and 4. I soon discovered unschooling and we dove in with both feet. Over the years I’ve written five books about unschooling, from the introductory What is Unschooling? to my most recent, The Unschooling Journey: A Field Guide. I host the Exploring Unschooling podcast, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary and has more than 250 episodes in the archive. And last year I created the Living Joyfully Network, a supportive community for parents who want to connect with and learn more about unschooling alongside other like-minded parents.
So, that’s a bit about me. Now, let’s dive into unschooling through the teen years.
Exploring the Voices in Our Head
We’re going to start with exploring the voices in our head.
As I mentioned, our unschooling lives may be flowing along pretty smoothly. We’re enthusiastically helping our children explore their interests, holding space for them as they take whatever detours catch their eye, and tweaking our tools and patterns as we all grow and change. And then, usually when our eldest approaches the teen years, all of a sudden we start feel a bit off kilter. Worries start to bubble up. We wonder, “Maybe it’s time for them to stop playing so much. To buckle down and focus on something worthwhile. To be productive.” Or maybe it’s, “Shouldn’t they start to learn things more formally? They’re not kids any more.”
These worries aren’t a “bad” thing. We haven’t done anything wrong. What it does remind us is that we’ve not had a teen before so this is new to us! We haven’t had a reason to fully process the conventional messages and expectations about teens that we absorbed (and probably lived with!) growing up to see what they look like through the lens of unschooling.
It’s definitely time for some more deschooling!
So, let’s explore some of these conventional messages.
Earlier teen years …
(1) Time to stop playing and buckle down, to be productive.
In the earlier teen years, one of the messages we often find bubbling up is, “It’s time for them to stop playing so much, to be productive.”
Maybe that voice in our head says, “They’ve had this wonderful childhood filled with play and fun. Now it’s time to get serious, buckle down, and start preparing for adulthood.”
As always, it’s so helpful to look to our kids and see what’s really going on. Look back at the last year or two. See the threads that weave through their varying interests. What have they accomplished? What are they aspiring to do? Not through the lens of “schoolish” things, but through the lens of the things they value.
Because that focus on what is important to them doesn’t need to change. It was a great lens for childhood and it’s a great lens for our adult lives, so why would the teen years be any different? When we focus on doing things that we value, our intrinsic motivation is strong, as is our determination to keep going, even through challenges and frustration.
Question the value of “productivity.” Contrast that with “busy work.” Who do they need to prove they’re being productive to? Why? How do they feel about what they’re accomplishing? Those are much more valuable questions to be asking ourselves.
It’s also helpful to contemplate what we mean by “play” and “work.” Why do adults think of play as the reward we get once the work is done? They are practically opposites, yet really, that construct is all in our heads.
In The Practicing Mind, Thomas M. Sterner writes, “We make an activity into work or play by our judgments.” Explore that idea for yourself. When you approach your day through the lens of play, saying to yourself, “I’m going to play with this task,” does it feel a bit lighter? Are you more creative in your approach? Are you less judgmental of yourself? When you’re done, was it more fun? Were you satisfied?
On another day, flip it around and approach it as work. Did it feel more like a duty than a choice? Did you do the minimal amount to get it done? Did you judge your progress along the way, chiding yourself to do better or to go faster? Did you give yourself a reward for finishing?
Which approach left you feeling better about yourself and what you accomplished? Which got your creative juices flowing?
Consider leaning into the playful approach, for your teen and for yourself. And not with the aim of being productive but to accomplish what they aspire to do.
(2) We expect learning to start looking like school.
Another message or expectation we may find ourselves thinking is that, “Their learning should start to look more like school.”
That’s a great clue that we still seem to value school-like learning over other ways of learning. That’s a great one to dig into!
Be curious. Ask yourself, “Where does that expectation come from?”
Why can’t they continue to learn through pursuing their interests? Why does learning need to look different now? Does everyone learn better through a textbook, with a teacher? Why is that “better” than watching videos or hands-on exploration? Reading books or listening to podcasts. Asking questions on online forums. Finding a local group of enthusiasts and meeting up with them to pick their brains. How do I like to learn to things as an adult?
This is also a great time to ask yourself, are you still actively supporting them as they pursue the things they find interesting? Do you find yourself suggesting more schoolish-looking environments over other opportunities? Why?
Are you feeling the pull of “They need to be doing certain things at certain ages?” Hmm. Why would someone else’s typical timetable become important now?
Or are you feeling some pressure from others to “show off” your teen? Playing around was okay when they were “just” kids, but now they need to be doing cool things and have lofty goals that we can tell others about.
Peel back those layers.
Remember why you chose unschooling in the first place.
Why would the idea of choosing how they spend their time be different now that they are older? Unschooling principles are applicable no matter our age. On our unschooling journey we’ve discovered how valuable those principles are, not only for our children but also for us as adults, so again, why would they not also apply during the teen years? In fact, I think they can be even more helpful during these years of intense growth and transition because they encourage our teens to continue to understand and trust themselves—to check in with their own inner voice rather than looking outside for direction and validation.
Do you feel connected with your teen? In that connection, you will know more about them, about who they are as a person, what they’re interested in doing with their days, and why. You’ll see in more detail the choices they’re making: they’re not just “going out,” they’re having conversations with a close friend and helping them move through a challenging time. They’re not just “on YouTube,” they’re watching videos to learn the ins and outs of structuring a narrative for the short story they’re working on.
They really are always learning. As they get older, sometimes we just need to dig deeper to see it.
Later teen years …
Which leads nicely into the later teen years. Choices begin to have bigger implications and consequences and we might find ourselves becoming more fearful, wanting to protect them from making “mistakes.”
(3) We want to protect them from making “mistakes.”
Just because a choice they make is different than what we would have made in their shoes, that doesn’t mean it’s a mistake. Even if it doesn’t turn out the way they hoped, they learn from the experience as they process what happened. What went sideways? Why? Was I missing a piece of information when I initially made the choice? Did something change along the way? Would I still make the same choice next time, knowing what I know now?
Is it reasonable for us to expect nothing to ever go wrong? Did things go perfectly for you as a teen and young adult? As an older adult?
Adrian Peace-Williams grew up unschooling and shared this great insight with me in a conversation on my podcast:
“I think the things that I have valued the most from my experience of being unschooled was the tools that I have now. I think being an unschooler got me—and the parents that I have got me—those tools. Like how do I listen? How do I communicate my needs? How do I listen to other people’s needs? How do I know how to ask questions when I do not know the answers? How do I go into a new situation feeling okay and feeling that I can do this?
Even if I do not know how to do it, I know what next steps are; how to figure it out. Okay, this did not work where do I go from here? How to live and how to love too. How to love myself and how to love other people. How to figure my way around a city and how to take care of other kids. How to have a conversation with an adult when I am there. I think knowing how to learn is much more important than knowing math or knowing how to write an essay perfectly.
Because if you know how to learn then you can go into most any situation and figure it out. And know how to have the confidence that that is okay. You know, teach your kid that it is okay to not know something, it is okay to be wrong or make mistakes and it is okay to do these things. Those are the situations where you learn.
Because if you know how to learn and you know how to fail, then you can do anything, I think. Because if it is okay to keep failing, eventually you are going get it and you are going to learn.”Adrian Peace-Williams
That’s such a great point, isn’t it? If you know how to learn and you know how to fail, you can do anything. It’s okay to make mistakes. That’s often something that, as parents, we need to work through because growing up, making mistakes wasn’t okay—it meant a big red X, a lower grade, and feeling bad about ourselves. Moving through and beyond that perspective is the deschooling work we’re doing right here.
And how helpful is it for us to be there with them in the teen years? Loving and supporting them as they navigate challenging times? We’re helping them build resiliency, helping them gain experience and build confidence in their own ability to navigate these moments. And knowing, not just in words but through experience, that we have their backs.
(4) What about college? Are we closing doors? Do we need to prep them?
Another question that can creep up on us in the later teen years is, “What about college?”
It too is a great one to dig into! Do we expect our teen to go to college? Why? What is it about college itself that seems valuable? Is it the only path to a “good” job? An “easier” path? For whom? Why do we judge some work and careers as “better” than others? Is it about money? Success? What does that look like to us? Why would we get to define what success looks like for someone else? They can go to college at any age, why would “age” be a factor now? Is it more about me wanting to be able to say, “My kid is a college graduate?”
As we’ve experienced time and again with unschooling, the most powerful thing is it being their choice.
But those voices in our head aren’t done yet! As soon as we’re comfortable with it being their choice, the next question bubbles up: “Do I need to prepare them just in case they choose to go?” Especially when it comes to math, it’s such a big fear. “Won’t they be so far behind?”
The short answer is no, we don’t need to prep them. The real answer is, again, that it’s their choice and we’ll help them however they would like help along the way.
Here’s an example. Alec Traaseth was a guest on my podcast a couple of years ago. He left school in grade 3 and began unschooling, including through the teen years. He worked for a few years, and then at age 22 decided he wanted to go to college and pursue engineering. He shared his experience:
“The biggest transitions were definitely starting college and getting my math caught up, which I want to stress, anyone can do—if you want to. If you go to high school and you do all that math and then you take a five-year break—if you didn’t do any math in those five years—you would start in developmental math. Just as I was going to, had I not done any. It’s something that I see all the time as a tutor of two years now. And also, no matter what situation you’re in, you can go and catch up. There’s no reason that you can’t learn everything that was taught in high school faster and more efficiently for yourself because you can cater to your own learning style. You can cater to your schedule. You’re also doing it for your own interests. You have a goal you want to accomplish, you can do it so much more efficiently, and you are going to retain it better than someone who is told they have to learn it.”Alec Traaseth
Alec hadn’t done any formal math since he left school in grade 3. He knew he could just start by taking the developmental math class but he decided to see if he could test out of that. He chose to spend about four hours a day working his way through math videos online at Khan Academy and after about two months he wrote the placement test, passed, and was able to start in the precalculus class.
And it turns out, he fell in love with math, changed his major, and is now in grad school, working toward his doctorate in math.
See how important having agency, having choice, is to his story?
In fact, later in our conversation, Alec shared, “Honestly, the best thing that my parents did for me was give me the freedom to make my own decisions.”
Not only that, what’s so valuable to realize is that unschooling teens haven’t been doing nothing while their high school counterparts were busy with classes. They were busy learning other things. Things that mattered to them. Just because they weren’t things that could be used to check off these particular math boxes, doesn’t mean it was time wasted. With a lifelong view of learning there is no ahead or behind, there is stuff you know and stuff you want to learn. Regardless of age. When Alec wanted to learn math, he did. And as he explained, he did it so much more efficiently because it was something he wanted to do. His choice and the resulting intrinsic motivation was the key.
Katie Patterson is another grown unschooler who spent her teen years deeply involved in other things that mattered to her. Her mom, Sue Patterson, and I talked about the teen years on the podcast and here’s how she described Katie’s experience when she chose to go to college:
“One of the things that Katie said, when she went and she did what she considered really poorly on the placement exams, because this was a kid who had jobs, she was making money and out in the world, but she also spent a lot of time on acting and dance and voice and theatre, and so she was doing nothing as far as that kind of prep that people would do for college, and so when she went to take the placement exam, she did not score that well.
And at first, she really felt bad and I was trying to figure out how to handle this, so we went back the next year, and the counselor said, “You know, you can just take the classes, you do not even have to retake the test, and she said, “Well, that is what I will do” and she did. And she said, “Mom, I traded three semesters of developmental classes for 12 years of school, and I sat in a classroom filled with people who never got to be in a theatre production because they were so busy in school. And there they are, sitting in the same place that I am sitting.””Sue Patterson
Absolutely. The only timetable that’s important is the one THEY choose.
And here’s another story. Phoebe Wahl also grew up unschooling, and passionate about drawing. Really passionate, as in, she chose to try school in grade five but only lasted about a week because she didn’t have enough time to draw. In our podcast conversation, I love how she described her college experience, attending the Rhode Island School of Design:
“There is something about being part of an institution that is deeply invested in challenging students to create better and better work that is really magical. I think part of that is because my entire art experience before college had been self-guided that it was challenging and also really amazing to step into an environment where other people were holding a bar for me rather than holding it for myself.
I think the fact that I was used to holding it for myself really helped me. Like I was talking about earlier: the choice to be there. I was there because I wanted to be there. I was working hard because I wanted to work hard. It helps to be in an environment where you are surrounded by people you have a massive amount of respect for and where the bar is incredibly high because you’re going to be challenged, your work is going to be critiqued and that is going to lead to a lot of growth.
I chose to go to college to improve my work and to grow and to just go even deeper. I didn’t go because I felt like it was some kind of obligation. You know, like: college is what you do after you finish high school. I’d never been on that track. In a way, I feel like my entire childhood was training for art school and then adulthood as an artist.”Phoebe Wahl
The value of it being her choice just shines through so brightly, doesn’t it?
I have a series of Growing Up Unschooling conversations on the podcast and you’ll find the link to them in my session notes if you’d like to listen—or read, there are transcripts too. Some chose to go to college, at various ages, and some didn’t—their interests and passions took them in other directions. The point is, college is just one of many possibilities, no more or less valuable than any other possibility—except to the individual. Which brings us back to the immense value of real choice.
And to peel back yet another layer around choice, Phoebe shared this wonderful insight: “I think, for me, one of the most valuable things with unschooling is the time to be and explore yourself and the things that you enjoy.”
It’s that deep level of self-awareness that so beautifully informs their choices. As does knowing it’s okay to make mistakes. To change direction. With unschooling, they gain so much experience with making choices for themselves during childhood and the teen years that they are really quite skilled at the process as they enter their young adult years and beyond.
(5) Society’s independence agenda when they hit age 18.
And just when you think you’ve licked this deschooling thing, as they approach the age of 18, more fears often bubble up. Society, definitely in Canada and the US but in many other countries as well, really does have this independence agenda that tells that we’re not “successful” as parents until our kid moves out, and the earlier the better. Not only that, we look down on people who need help, blaming and shaming them because we’ve absorbed the message growing up that we’re supposed to value independence above all else.
Why? Why do we value independence over relationship and connection?
Choosing unschooling for our family, we chose to value relationship and connection over the independence agenda in the childhood years: that babies should sleep by themselves at night, that they should feed themselves by a certain age, that they should tie their own shoes by another age. I’m sure you can think of more examples! And now we confront it again as they near age 18 and everyone seems to be asking us—or them—what they’re going to do now. College? Move out and get a job? That tired metaphor of “leaving the nest.”
Anna Brown and I dove into this idea on the podcast and I love what she shared:
“Basically, there is no scenario where [the independence agenda] is making better relationships. Not a better family, not a better community. I mean, it just isn’t. So instead, if we can hold people up when they need it and delight in working together and helping each other, that fosters that sense of connection. That again, lays part of this foundation that we’re talking about, because honestly, we cannot do it completely alone and expecting kids to do it completely alone doesn’t make sense.
I feel like it can be damaging and I think it’s something that they unpack for decades to come. And it turns up in ways like not being able to ask for help when you need it because you feel ashamed by that. It comes in ways of pushing through messages that something doesn’t feel right. But instead of asking for feedback or ideas, I’m just going to push forward even past your own messages. And so, then you’re carrying this shame and blame.
This is something we can stop right now. We can create a different narrative for our children and for our families. And fostering that connection and interdependence creates an environment where we can all thrive and in my opinion just leads to our best life because I’ve just seen how valuable, how much I enjoy being that for someone else and how it feels wonderful when someone else can be that for me.”Anna Brown
I love the word she used: interdependence. Even as adults, we aren’t good at all the things. No matter our ages, we can work together and support each other. With our spouse or partner, with our extended family, with our good friends, and with our teens and young adults and beyond. As human beings, we can help each other out as needed, without blame or shame, at any age.
And again, choice lies at the foundation. When they get to choose when they want to move out, it’s an amazing adventure they are excited to embark on. My daughter moved to another country soon after turning 18—as a photographer, she found her tribe in New York City. My sons live in our family home. My dad lives with us too. It’s what’s working well for each of us right now. And, without age-based expectations, that’s the measure we use: what’s working well in our lives. It takes into account our personalities. Our interests and passions. Our needs. Nobody needs to move out to “prove” anything. And we all help each other out as we can, no matter where we happen to be living.
My daughter, now 26, also loves to travel and she recently shared on Instagram a series of images she called Other People’s Homes. Here’s how she described it:
“I can’t stop making strangers apartments my home. After a week I know how I like to arrange the pillows on their couches. I make a routine around their neighborhood. I hang my coats next to theirs and feel a little larger, expanded, like I’ve always belonged here. This body of work is of friends, of collaborators, or total strangers that have let me into their homes to document this feeling of wholeness. Bringing what equipment I can fit on my back I’m working to depict artists in their own clothes in their own homes and the places they make their art, their curated spaces that most reflect them as individuals, and juxtaposing these monuments with surreal and unnaturally vivid lighting and color palettes.”Lissy Laricchia
I thought that was beautiful. The idea of home and family is SO much bigger than “This is our house and you have to move out when you’re 18.”
Actively Helping Our Teens
Okay, now that we’ve explored some of the conventional messages that can throw us for a loop and re-grounded ourselves in the principles of unschooling—which apply at every age, child, teen, and adult alike—let’s look at some ways we can actively help our teens.
Earlier teen years …
(1) The transition of interests takes time, cocooning, lean into it, it’s okay.
Having spoken with many unschooling parents over the years, it seems pretty common for kids to experience a cocooning period as they head into the teen years. They feel a little at loose ends, I think, because they can be losing interest in the things that they loved when they were younger, but they haven’t quite found what’s new. They may well mention feeling bored or restless.
Leo Tolstoy’s definition of boredom as “the desire for desires” fits quite well here, doesn’t it?
So how might we support them through this season?
It definitely helps to understand that this is normal, to not get caught up in a swirl of worry that this needs to be “fixed” as soon as possible. Some of us like to go right into “problem-solver” mode but this isn’t a problem. It’s the flow of life. And it’ll take as long as it takes to move through.
That said, we can lean into making their cocooning time as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Bring their favourite foods to their room. Make them a comfy spot on the couch. Make a spot for you too if they’d like some quiet company. Make sure they have lots of music to listen to. When they want to chat, drop what you’re doing and have a conversation with them, about anything and everything. And let them know it’s totally okay to watch comfort shows for hours, or just stare at the ceiling.
That the time and space to just be, to hang out with no particular “goal” in mind, really is okay. Let them know you get it, that there’s nothing wrong with them. Maybe explain that things are bubbling away in their subconscious right now and that eventually something will bubble up.
Another grown unschooler, Xander MacSwan, who left school in grade 5 and experienced a cocooning period, put it beautifully in our podcast conversation:
“To me, one of the most valuable parts of unschooling is the unconditional positive regard and acceptance that a parent can give to a kid. Just that sense of trusting, that it’s okay to be myself and it’s okay to do what feels good and take care of myself. I think that’s such a huge thing to be able give a young and developing mind. It’s a precious thing and it’s hard to do that as a parent, wanting to contribute to your kid as best you can but it seems like a really impactful way to contribute is to trust a kid’s process and give that unconditional love and support.”Xander MacSwan
All this quiet time is not wasted time. If you ask them, “What are you doing?” they are likely going to answer, “Nothing.” But their brain is not doing nothing. Even when they are watching the same old show or playing the same old games, they are processing. Connections are being made subconsciously. They are learning so much about themselves, it’s crazy! Even when we can’t see any of it on the outside.
They are also gaining valuable life experience. They are going through this transition of interests and they don’t know where it’s going to end up and it’s uncomfortable. But eventually they get through it. They are going to be able to look back and see, “Oh yeah, there was a time when I was feeling off, kind of adrift and not quite sure what I was going to do, and I made it through!” That helps them trust the process a bit more the next time it happens. And the next. Because it still happens to us, doesn’t it?
So, if they ask for ideas, feel free to share them, but don’t take it personally if none of them click. They probably won’t. If they mention something that seems interesting to them, help them try it out without the third degree and without any expectations that it hold their attention longer than that moment. Encourage their exploration when they want to explore, not before.
Because if we add our expectations to the mix, we can end up extending this time. If we keep trying to test the waters, doing things like asking, “You sure you don’t want to go outside? You sure you don’t want to help me make dinner?” They can tell that we’re not very comfortable with the choice they’re making. At that point, they’ll need to work through those feelings of judgment on top of their own unease. That’ll take longer.
And before we move on, it’s also helpful to check that we haven’t jumped to the wrong conclusion in the first place. If we’re thinking “they’ve been in their room for days” but really they’ve been out to karate, they came down to get some food, and they met up with some friends, maybe it’s just that they’re busy with their things and we haven’t connected with them in a while. That’s different than cocooning. So, connect with them! Ask them what they’re up to with genuine curiosity. Make their favourite food and offer it to them with a smile. Share something you’ve come across recently that you think they’ll enjoy. And see what unfolds.
(2) Often there’s less hands-on engagement, more conversation.
As I mentioned earlier, unschooling with teens is often less hands-on, but it still takes consistent time and effort.
Of course, we’re driving them places as needed and picking up things they want, but we can find we are less engaged with them around the day to day aspects of learning. They know how to find answers to many of their “how do you do this?” questions so they aren’t coming to us. Unschooling with teens looks different because the way we connect changes. From answering more factual questions and engaging in hands-on play to more in-depth and wide-ranging conversations as they suss out the kind of person they want to be. We’re someone they can bounce thoughts and ideas off of. We’re happy to share our thoughts and perspective with them, which they’ve come to trust over the years. We help them as they process things happening in their lives and chose what direction they want to go. We love to brainstorm creative ways to pursue their aspirations. Without judgment, of course.
This means that more of their learning is happening on the inside than when they were younger, less on display, so it’s important to pay attention to the things they’re saying and the choices they’re making—that’s how we continue to see the amazing learning and personal growth that’s happening in the teen years.
Of course, they’re still learning lots of skills and expanding their knowledge around their interests and passions, but because we’re not right there beside them, we often find out about their progress through conversations. And, chances are, unless it’s a shared interest, they’ve soon blown past our level of knowledge and have found other sources of information. Lissy’s understanding of photography and art, Michael’s understanding of body physics and music, Joseph’s understanding of history and philosophy, all easily surpassed mine during their teen years. I was still so curious about the things they were learning, but I was listening to them, marveling at their in-depth knowledge and joyful passion, rather than adding any direct value to their learning around their interests and passions. Continue to be curious and connect with them, even if you don’t understand all the details.
One of the really fun things that grew in the teen years and has continued to this day is sharing cool things we come across with each other. As I find things I think they’ll like it share it with them, and they do the same for me. They know my interests and when they come across something they think I’ll find interesting, they send it along. We delight in bringing interesting things to each other. It’s so much fun.
And in the teen years, free time continues to be essential for natural learning to thrive. Broad swathes of time to listen to what their minds and bodies are telling them, for new possibilities to bubble up, and to contemplate what they’d like to do. Time to fully engage in the moment and get into the flow of their activity. Time to process experiences and see how they connect to and expand what they understand about people and relationships and the world.
As I mentioned earlier, unschooling asks us to consider valuing downtime over busyness, which is especially relevant in the teen years. Our culture places a lot of value on active social calendars and constantly producing measurable outputs. Yet time for daydreaming—for letting your mind wander, free to connect seemingly disparate things in a flash of insight—lies at the heart of creativity.
In Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, authors Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire write:
“Science has confirmed that time for solitary reflection truly feeds the creative mind. The capacity for solitude is a quality that unites successful creators, who are able to turn away from the distractions of daily life and social interactions to reconnect with themselves.
But solitude isn’t just about avoiding distractions; it’s about giving the mind the space it needs to reflect, make new connections, and find meaning.”Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire
“We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two.
We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.”Maria Popova
Being comfortable with our teens taking however much time they want for processing—for reflection and contemplation—even as it looks like “doing nothing” from the outside, is so valuable. It enhances their creativity and enriches their understanding of the world.
So, even though we’re less hands-on in the teen years, don’t let our connections with them fade. Again, when they want to chat, don’t put it off. Have a conversation with them. Start a conversation with them. Ask them what they’re having fun with, what they’re learning about. Share your ideas and perspective without the expectation that they’ll think the same way you do. Share what interesting things you’re having fun exploring. Make their world bigger, not smaller.
Later teen years …
(3) They too may be feeling judged by conventional messages that “they need to go to college or they’ll never get a good job.”
As they hit the later teen years, they too may be grappling with the ubiquitous college question and conventional messages like, “You need to go to college or you’ll never get a good job.” Hopefully you’ve now unpacked all the stuff wound up in there and you can share your thoughts with them.
In fact, it may well be helpful in this time to notice opportunities in conversation to share more about your family’s unschooling lifestyle choices so they understand them in context of the conventional messages they’re hearing. Remember, they’ve been living unschooling, not understanding the why behind it and how it works. They may be wondering how they’ll get into college if they want to go. If they’ll be able to get a good job without college. Not to mention, what does a “good job” mean to them? Has unschooling closed doors to them?
We know that yes, they can go to college if they chose. That there are lots of good jobs they don’t require a college degree. Doors aren’t closed. Rather, there are many more paths to places besides the treadmill of high school to college to job. Now we get to have those conversations with our teen so they understand all that too! We can talk about their aspirations and explore various paths in that direction. We can share our observations and experience around the idea of lifelong learning, that they can choose to pursue and learn things at any age: it’s never “too late.” It’d be great to share a couple examples from our own life.
What we are doing is different than much of society if your teen hasn’t already started asking questions to understand those differences, now is a great time to start mentioning them. If they aren’t interested in having in-depth conversations about it, that’s okay, you’ve planted seeds. They know that you’re comfortable with unschooling and don’t think it’s limited their possibilities, and that you’re up for talking about it, if and when they’re curious to learn more or they have an encounter with someone that leaves them wondering.
(4) They are actively growing and changing as people during this season.
Another way we can help our teens is to continue to wholeheartedly support them as they explore themselves and what makes them tick; as they find the things that make their eyes light up and their heart sing. In the teen years they are actively growing and changing as people. It’s beautiful and it’s challenging at times.
My son Michael was on the podcast last year and he shared this nugget of insight:
“When you’re exploring a passion, it’s not just discovering the pieces of who you are, but also discovering how you fit into the world.”Michael Laricchia
In the teen years, the things they’re thinking about are bigger in scale. The choices they’re making can have bigger impacts. What’s important to remember is the thread that has woven its way throughout this talk: these are THEIR choices to make. The choice we’d make in a situation might be the best one for us, but our teens are different people and their best choice might be very different. It’s important for us not come into conversations with an agenda. Instead, we can come with the energy of wanting to help them accomplish what they’d like to do.
Moving forward with their choice and experiencing how it unfolds holds so much learning for them. Learning that connects most directly to what they’re thinking, so it in turn has the greatest impact on their understanding as they contemplate how things went, what they learned, and how they would tweak things next time a similar situation arises. Real, powerful, learning.
And remember, if you have two or more kids, you’ve already seen that they really are different people. That’s going to continue to be true through the teen years. They each have their own personality, their own learning style, their own processing style. So our ways of connecting with them, of navigating conversations and so on, are likely going to look different even as the underlying goal of cultivating a strong and trusting relationship is the same.
(5) Beware of power struggles, they’re a clue our relationship is getting off track.
And finally, beware of power struggles. They are definitely a clue that our relationship with our teen is getting off track. When we’re helping them do what they aspire to do, we don’t have things to struggle with them about, and the ubiquitous “teen rebellion” aspect just doesn’t emerge.
It is not inevitable!
When you’re connected and engaged with your teen, you better understand the choices they’re making—for the most part, they make sense. Even if you wouldn’t make the same choice, you get why that choice makes sense for them. And the better you know them, the better you can help them accomplish what they aspire to do. When we’re both pulling in the same direction, the energy is positive and powerful. There’s nothing to rebel against.
Summer Jean, another grown unschooler I spoke with on the podcast, put it this way:
“There was no manipulation of how we would be someday. And I think that is like a huge key that a lot of people miss. Is that there’s this pressure on yourself and there’s this pressure on your children, and when there’s that kind of pressure, and it’s fear-driven, because you’re afraid that they’re going to somehow fail in life or not be successful. And you’re doing things based on fear of someday. And then you’re not here with your kids.
And then if you have that pressure in your relationship with your children, there is going to be rebellion, whether it’s from them or from you. There is going to be push back against that, because kids can feel that from you. And I feel like that was like one of the biggest things—there was so much freedom and space in my relationship with my mom because she wasn’t afraid for me. And she wasn’t pushing me. She wasn’t trying to get me to be a certain way. She wasn’t trying to fix me or change me or train me, or make me something that she wanted me to be.
So there was all this space and freedom for my own self-expression to unfold. And for me to learn and get to know myself without pushing against anything.”Summer Jean
So beautiful! The space to learn and get to know herself without having to rebel against artificial boundaries placed by someone else. The tumultuous and rebellious teen years are not a foregone conclusion.
I hope you’ve found our exploration of unschooling in the teen years helpful!
Even if we’ve done the bulk of our deschooling years ago, so often the voices in our head get louder as our children approach the teen years and we find pockets of unexplored conventional messages about parenting teens that we’ve absorbed and need to dig into.
Don’t be lazy. Be productive. Go to college.
So don’t be surprised or put off when it happens! It’s normal.
With younger kids, a lot of our unschooling days are hands-on, helping them get to the place, helping them learn about the thing. They want to play soccer then they want to learn about robots. It is a lot of supporting of the doing. And then when they hit the teen years, it is so much more about the being. About who they want to be, about making wider-ranging choices, about developing a deeper level of self-awareness and compassion.
What kind of person do they want to be? What is it that they aspire to do? How can you help them?
Always focus on the relationship, the connection. Everything else grows from that foundation.
- Have conversations, without an agenda.
- Be open and curious to learn more about them.
- Help them learn more about themselves as they grow and change with experience.
- Give them loads of time and space to ponder and daydream. To just be without having to do.
- Be responsive and helpful. Not judgmental.
- Share interesting things.
- And most of all, have fun!
You’ll be amazed where the beacon of fun and joy will take you both. Unschooling with teens is an amazing experience!
If you’d like to dive deeper into unschooling, you can visit my website at livingjoyfully.ca, where you’ll find links to:
- my books, including The Unschooling Journey: A Field Guide
- my weekly podcast, Exploring Unschooling, with over 250 episodes in the archive, and
- my community, The Living Joyfully Network.
And thanks to Lisa for her amazing work in bringing the Canadian Online Homeschool Conference together!