Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unschooling is Forever Part 2: The Teenage Years

Here is part 2 of a talk called Unschooling is Forever that I gave at the Toronto Unschooling Conference.   

Part 1 can be found here.

How did my parents support me?

Unlike with traditional homeschooling (where a school-like environment is set up at home, and the main tenets of schooling are still adhered to, just on a smaller and more personal scale) unschooling parents do not become teachers.   Instead, they become facilitators, supporting and helping their children when needed, and getting out of their way when that seems to be the best course of action!  But what does that support actually look and feel like during different stages, and how does the parental role change as a little one grows up?

During what would have been my elementary school years, my mother, always a stay-at-home-mom, was very hands on, often suggesting projects, experiments, and crafts, doing them happily alongside us; answering, or helping us to find the answers, to any questions we came up with; making at least one trip a week to the library, where my sister and I would find a multitude of books, tottering out of the double doors toward the car with as many bags of books as our small shoulders could carry.  She was always available when needed or wanted, always happy to participate in whatever my sister and I wanted to do, be that a science experiment or setting up a Playmobil village across the entirety of my sister’s bedroom floor.

What strikes me most about my mother and the role she played, though, besides the fact she’s always been a terrific mom in general, was how very enthusiastic and genuine she’s always been.  She loves learning, loves finding new things, and nothing she ever suggested or did (besides those brief stints of attempting to teach math) was forced or duty driven: it was always done in honesty and honest interest, excitement, or passion.

Changing parental roles & relationships in the teen years

That parental role definitely shifts and changes once you reach teenage-hood.  As a teenager, obviously you’re far more capable of finding the answers to your questions, organizing social outings, and similar things.  So throughout my teenage years, my mother has really become much more of a friend, and someone who is a great sounding board to boot.  Bouncing ideas off of both her and my sister Emilie has been immensely helpful to me for many years now, and the discussions the three of us have are truly amazing and mind-expanding.  When asked how I learn, I like throwing out a bunch of verbs to try and get my point across that learning is everywhere.  But a type of learning that I really love is that of respectful discussion, and I treasure the terrific conversations I’ve had with wonderful people that have really had and continue to have a real impact on my life, how I choose to live it, and how I treat others.

Before my teen years we were definitely not whole-life unschoolers.  As I’ve said, we weren’t even quite at the unschooling stage yet, though we were certainly close!  But during my teen years, things have definitely looked a lot more like not only unschooling, but whole life unschooling.  I’ve marvelled at the amount of control I see, and especially used to see in my younger teens, among my schooled peers.  Constantly grounded for minor infractions of a long list of rules, strict and ridiculously (in my mind) early curfews, personal food choices entirely disrespected, etc. etc.  I’ve also always observed that the parents who wield the most control are also the parents most likely to have the worst relationships with their offspring: the parents whose teenagers are most likely to go against all of their rules, by simply going behind their backs and/or lying to get away with it.

In stark contrast, my own family, with no curfews and having never been grounded or had “privileges revoked” (note the quotations there), no fighting over homework or bad grades, my sister and I have a MUCH better, more honest, genuine, and joyful relationship with our parents.  And not only do we consider our parents to be allies instead of enemies, but so do our friends, who will speak openly in front of and too my mother about sexuality, drug use, and other normally taboo subjects with no worries of recriminations.  They trust, as my sister and I trust, my parents to behave more like friends than so-called authority figures.

And this is not to say that life has never been hard for me: my family, though we were practicing it, still didn’t necessarily fully trust in unschooling during my early teens, which was a really hard time for me in many was.  In my very early teens, being a naturally shy and introverted person, I was a bit of a hermit, refusing to participate in any activities and not really wanting to do much of anything, while at the same time feeling rather lonely.  At age 14, I agreed to try out the Air Cadets, and was part of that program for three years.  I went by choice and stayed by choice, and to this day don’t regret doing so, but it really was a horrible environment.  I feel like I got a small taste of what many people experience in school, as I was spending time three days a week in a highly competitive, hierarchical structure, where an individual’s needs and wants were rarely if ever considered important.  People were demeaned and bullied, and I never felt like I belonged, always felt like an outsider.  During my early to mid-teen years I struggled a lot.  I was often depressed, had feelings of low self-worth, thought I was uncool and un-likable for a while.  I wondered if unschooling was really a good idea, and if all the naysayers were right and I really would be better off in school.  Things didn’t look or feel very good.

Letting go of fear

However, the spring I turned 17 I was really starting to rethink a lot of things.  I left cadets, started reading the Teenage Liberation Handbook, and dove headfirst into any information I could get on both unschooling and radical political philosophy.  And I started to find myself.  I started thinking deeply about a lot of things, questioning things I’d never thought to question, re-evaluating the way I’d been living and thinking about my life.  That’s when I decided that not only had unschooling given me an amazing opportunity to really figure out the world as best I could; not only had it allowed me to truly get to know my self, understand my needs, and where I fit in the world; but I also started really believing that unschooling would be a powerful way of “getting an education” for everybody, as well as an important tool in social transformation.  I started realizing that the way I’d grown up, as well as the way all the other unschoolers out there had grown up, wasn’t just one option among many, but something truly special and important.  That we, as unschoolers, were proving wrong the widely held beliefs of what exactly education was and how you get it, simply by our existence.  Creating another model to live by just by living. 

So I started blogging, writing lots about unschooling and working out my own thoughts and beliefs on the matter through that process.  In the early stages of my new-found love of unschooling, I found it really helpful connecting with unschoolers online.  Here was proof that unschoolers older than me, grown unschoolers, were doing just fine, were doing even better than fine!  And when I started going to various unschooling gatherings (Not Back to School Camp, Unschoolers Winter Waterpark Gathering, The Northeast Unschooling Conference), any lingering doubts I had simply disappeared.  The best way to convince anyone of the efficacy of unschooling, in my opinion, is to expose them to a bunch of unschoolers.  When faced with that, how can anyone not be convinced?

What my embracing of unschooling also signalled was my acceptance of being different, and my realization that fitting in shouldn’t be my goal, and wasn’t a goal that would ever bring me happiness.  Since that time, even though it’s only been a couple of years, I’ve grown immeasurably, most noticeably in confidence and outgoingness.  Really taking control of your own life and your own education is incredibly empowering.

Read part 3 and part 4.


  1. and thank goodness you did start blogging. You are a great inspiration, and not only to me, but to probably a lot of the unschoolers and home schoolers alike that has found their way onto here.

    I also have a very similar relationship with my mum. I consider her more of a friend than an actual parent sometimes.

  2. My goodness - what a fantastic post! Well done.

  3. I found your blog a few days ago when looking for information referencing unschooling. My granddaugher who is 16 has begun to take on her own homeschooling.
    What a great perspective you offer those of us who are in the "fear mode" and questioning the choice to UNSCHOOL a teenager! Thank you so much for your wonderful words of experience and deep thoughts on your life of learning. They are most helpful.

  4. I found this post very interesting. I have just one quibble I would say that Air Cadets as an organization are very different from you're average school environment. It is after all supposed to prepare for people joining the military one day if they so wish. All schools that I have attended have been in no way comparable to in terms of hierarchy and attitude towards personal needs.

  5. Thank you! So useful and so eloquently put!
    D x