Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Unschooling and Trust in the Adolescent Years: Teenage Rebellion Revisited

Over three years ago, at age 20, I wrote a post about unschooling and teen rebellion. It remains one of the most popular and most controversial posts I've ever written, yet when I read it now, I wince a bit. Not because I no longer believe much of what I wrote in it, because that isn't the case, but because I would approach the topic so differently now. In that post, I sound so much more, well, rebellious and confrontational than I want to now, I sound like I'm trying to shock people. I don't think I was, for the most part, and because I'm in a different place now doesn't mean that there was anything wrong with where my head was at at age 20. But what it does mean is that I find myself wanting to revisit the topic now, with the perspective I have currently in my life.

I look back on my teenage years now with such a deep gratitude to my parents. As I said on Facebook recently:
My mother has always been the one most into unschooling and respectful parenting, but even if my father had periods of doubt about the whole unschooling thing, both of my parents have always, without fail, trusted me and my sister's judgement. Teen rebellion has long been something we joke about in my family, because it just didn't exist, and both my parents never had a problem with me or Emilie staying out late or going over to the houses of friends my parents didn't know, or going to parties, or anything really. They trusted us. It just wasn't an issue. And looking back I just appreciate that so much.
Probably in large part because we were trusted, we were also trustworthy. Sure, we made mistakes sometimes, but we never did anything horribly reckless or dangerous. We made good choices.

Trust goes both ways. We didn't have a curfew, but we did tell my parents where we were going and when we planned to be back, and if my sister or I were going to be home later than planned, we called. Similarly, my parents also told us where they were going and when they planned to be back, and would call with any changes of plans. I've shared this many times, because to me it perfectly illustrates how parenting in the teen years can work without top-down rules being enforced. This way we were all in touch, my parents were looking out for me and my sister, and they were doing so without placing strict limits. It was just a matter of mutual respect between family members.

Things didn't always go perfectly. Sometimes the "I'm going to be late" calls were forgotten, leading to stress and arguments. But what they didn't lead to was "grounding" or punishments, just discussions once the initial argument had passed, recognition that people make mistakes, and moving on with things. There were problems in the teen years, for sure. It's hard to be a teenager. But the problems were struggling with how to help friends who were suicidal or using dangerous drugs or being abused by their parents; personal struggles with anxiety and depression; friendships falling apart; figuring out personal identities and other things. The difficulties weren't between me and my parents, or caused by us doing things my parents disapproved of. For the most part we got along well, with only the usual arguments and tension found in a house where four very different people are trying to co-exist, two of whom are going through a difficult life stage. Communication channels remained open, and there was always a lot of honest conversations happening in our house.

I developed my own political and social views in my teens. Discovering and developing your beliefs, values, and identity is a big part of being a teen, yet is also sadly often a point of contention when teenagers' beliefs differ from those of their parents. I argued with my father sometimes about politics--real arguments where I was genuinely upset--yet neither he nor my mother ever tried to forbid or stifle my explorations. My father certainly wasn't (and isn't) an anarchist, but he never tried to stop me from going to the anarchist bookfair, or reading anarchist literature. In my teens there were a lot of people who were very condescending towards my views, who were convinced it was just a rebellious phase, and I'd get over it and find more sensible opinions soon enough. This was pretty insulting and upsetting to me at the time, and has certainly not proven true so far. Though I've shifted approaches and views quite a bit in some ways, the core values and politics I discovered in my teens are still the ones I hold today. This is because I didn't decide to be an anarchist because I wanted to rebel, but because I found value in ideals of social equality, cooperative and collective decision making, breaking down hierarchies and re-imaging how to organize and live in this world. None of that has changed, because it was always based on what resonated with me on a deep level, not an attempt to horrify the adults around me.

"Resistance of the heart against business as usual." Prints from Bread and Puppet
in Glover, VT.

Alcohol and drugs were never a big deal, or a big part of my life. I'd like to first mention, because the majority of my readers are from the USA, that here in Quebec (where I grew up and still live) the culture around alcohol is quite different. The legal drinking age is 18, but parents frequently start offering their children a sip of their wine at dinner when children are as young as 10. Yes, teens still sometimes steal alcohol from their parents' liquor cabinet, or drink without their parents' permission, but overall teens drinking isn't considered nearly as big a deal as it is in the US. In my own family, I could taste anything I wanted, and I think my parents were happy that I was discovering what alcohol was like and how it made me feel in the safety of my own house and with my family, so I was better equipped to make choices about what and how much I drank when outside the house in situations which were less safe. Different families will handle things differently, and for people with alcohol or other substance abuse in the immediate family, they'll probably have a very different approach. I don't want to hold up my family's experience as the only good idea, but I do think it worked well for us. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times in my life I've been drunk (and even then never very drunk), and now enjoy alcohol very much in my life, but always in moderation. Drugs being used by friends caused some problems when I was in my teens, as there were times I feared for friends using scarier drugs, and some friends social lives came to revolve way too much around drug use for me to want to spend as much time with them. At this point in my life, I have friends who don't use any substances, and friends who will hand around a joint sometimes, but drugs aren't a large or defining part of my life in any way (and the same holds true for my sister).

I share all of this about my personal experience with mind altering substances because so many people seem convinced that teenagers, without rigid control, will quickly become addicted to every substance imaginable and party constantly, and I want to put that idea to rest. Developing addictions can have many contributing factors, from genetics and family history to unhappiness and rebellion, and there is no magical fix or set of steps that can guarantee someone will never abuse alcohol or drugs. What I can say though is that in general, the vast majority of unschoolers I know are far less likely to be very into drinking or drug use than the schooled young adults I know, and are also more likely to be responsible when they do use alcohol or drugs. This leads me to believe that raising teens with respect and open communication helps teens to make healthy choices about what substances they use and how they use them.

To rebel you have to have something to rebel against. Teenage rebellion and "bad" behaviour became a running joke in my family. When me and my sister were left alone in the house for a few days, my father would mock sternly tell us not to have any wild parties, with the full realization that having a friend over for a tea party was a much more likely scenario. Even now when I'm going out to a party my father, with all the gravity he can muster, will tell me not to do anything he wouldn't do. Similarly, I remember a story told told to me by a friend and unschooling mother, who was relating a conversation she'd had with her young teenage daughter, where her daughter kept suggesting increasingly outrageous things she could do to rebel, only to have her mother shrug at each suggestion (until the daughter got to "well, what if I date a corporate lawyer?" at which point her mother finally reacted with horror "no, not that!").

When life isn't filled with strict rules and lists of things you're forbidden to do, when for the most part you actually like and get along with your parents, there isn't really much to push back against. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion often involves a lot of really unsafe teenage behavior, and a lot of adults have come to think of teens as being somehow naturally irresponsible and risky. Though taking risks and pushing the envelope are to some extent a natural part of being a teen, many truly unsafe behaviours are not born purely out of a desire to take risks, but as a direct reaction to control. Basically? Many teens with poor parental relationships deliberately do things to piss them off or that they know would cause disapproval. Rebellion in direct opposition to the controlling forces in their lives. Many unschoolers I know, myself included, never experienced that, simply because the relationships we had, how respected we felt, caused us not to feel a need to do unsafe things merely for the sake of doing them.

For many teenagers, their parents are a large source of stress in their lives. When you remove rigid control and replace it with communication and mutually respectful parent-teen relationships, parents are no longer likely to be a major source of stress. Instead, parents can become the people that a teen feels safe going to when they need help or advice, teens can feel comfortable sharing the big things going on in their life without fear of parental reprisal. This also means that parents have a lot more influence in the lives of their teens, and are in a much better position to help their children make good choices than the parents who rely on a rigid set of rules that their teens may or may not follow once their parents are out of sight.

Control doesn't equal caring. I've heard it argued on more than one occasion that teens having strict rules enforced by punishments makes teenagers feel loved. I'm not sure the people who say this actually know any teens. But I do realize that it comes from the mistaken idea that control is the only way to be involved and show concern as a parent. As the call-if-you're-going-to-be-late rule in my house shows, parents can show that they care about their children, that they're concerned about them, by knowing where their children are and when they'll be home, by picking them up if plans to get home go wrong, by listening when they need someone to talk to, and a thousand other ways. Teens feel loved if their parents show caring, but it's even better if teens can feel both loved and respected, treated as if they're capable of making good choices. People having faith in your abilities makes you feel, and thus be more capable.

There are no guarantees in life. Following steps X, Y, and Z won't absolutely assure that "teen rebellion" will be non-existent. However, respect and trust between parents and teens can make a really big difference in the lives of respectfully parented unschooling teens and their families. It's thanks to the relationships we had and the way my parents treated me and my sister that, while we may have "rebelled" against certain aspects of the world we live in (rebellion that we're both still engaged in), there was never anything to rebel against in our family. We were all busy trying to figure out the messy, emotional, difficult, and change-filled teen years together as a family, not fighting about curfews or grades. One of the best arguments I can think of for treating teens like they can make important decisions in their lives is the relative ease it can bring to the teen years.

It's thanks to the relationships we had that I look back on my teen years with such gratitude for my parents and the way they raised me and my sister. Being a teenager might have been hard, but being treated like I was a capable and trustworthy person made all the difference to me. I've spent my whole life feeling like I was trustworthy, so I didn't have to learn to trust my judgement as an adult: I already knew how to do that. This is one of the reasons I feel strongly that trusting teens is such a positive and important thing not just in the teen years, but in helping young people transition to adulthood. Spending your whole life being treated as if you weren't capable or trustworthy, as if you needed constant supervision, rules, and curriculum to keep you in line and guide you in the right directions, then suddenly being told "you're an adult now, take care of yourself and make sure you make good decisions!" seems ludicrous. If teens are instead given the freedom and opportunity to make important choices and take on real responsibilities while they're still in a supportive family environment, then they'll have been practicing the art of being a capable person for years before they're on their own. That doesn't mean there won't be any floundering in adulthood (my own experience certainly says otherwise), but having that confidence in your own abilities has to be a good start.

I just hope more people can extend a bit (or a lot) more trust to teens, and watch how wonderfully it all unfolds.


  1. As a mama to an 8 year old looking forward I wonder if an important part to the equation of trust is one that has been built over time. I know you can only speak from your own experience but it would seem to me that the relationship you have with your parents comes from a life time of connection, not just a sudden change when you became a teenager. We do a lot of trusting with our son who has been unschooled and now goes to a free school, and I can see our relationship heading this direction. What would you say to a parent who is coming to these ideas with a twelve or thirteen year old?

  2. Hi!

    I want to write to share a resource that I think would be incredibly valuable to teen unschoolers reading your post: The Peer Unschooling Network, or "PUN". PUN is a digital community for teen unschoolers from around the world. Whether you're already a young unschooler or you're thinking about it and want to speak with some people who are already living the life, it's a great way to make friends. Please spread the word: