Do You Really Want Your Kid to Be an Artist?

Me at 7, trying to be an artist.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist. Or a botanist, or a hair-dresser. My parents and grandparents gave me wonderful art supplies, and my father even made me a palette with a hole in it for my thumb, and positioned the kitchen stool in front of the wall of our trailer for me to use as a painting stool. That’s me in the photo, in the early nineteen-eighties, feeling wonderful and accomplished, but with absolutely no idea of what it meant to “be an artist”.

So What, Exactly, Is an Artist?

I'm an artist, now. Twenty-five years and two kids after I got my degree in visual arts, my career is built on helping people reach beyond societal expectations to un-silence themselves, and connect genuinely with the world we inhabit. I do paint, and I do have gallery exhibitions, but I also tromp in the forests, use materials I never imagined would one day be called “materials”, and make art I never imagined would be called “art.” The focus of my work is to connect people with our own deeply-held stories; as an explorative learning consultant I also encourage parents and teachers to do the same with their children. It turns out art was just a vehicle for something more important to me. And I’m still an artist.

The stereotype of the famous artist making masterpieces in his (he's almost always male, white and powerful) studio has almost nothing to do with a successful art career. I wish somebody had explained this to me when I was a kid. Picasso was an abusive, deceitful creep, and we don't have to appreciate his work to be artists. There’s SO much more wonderfulness in being an artist than I had imagined! So much more diversity!

Artists are responsible for not only the beauty we see in our human-made world, but also for the connection we make with neighbours, for the realizations we make about our own lives and feelings when we watch movies, listen to music, or read books. Artists determine how easy it is to use the devices we buy. Through media, artists determine which devices and foods and colours will be more popular. They understand the influence of shapes, colours, sound, movement and texture on our emotions, and... like it or not, our emotions govern much of what we do. Artists are powerful. A “career in the arts” is a massively open-ended term, but also, having a grounding in artistic practice and theory means a deeper foundation or influence in any career we choose. Moreover, having the ability to express ourselves is an important foundation of meaningful connection.

I like to imagine a world full of people who were encouraged in this way. How happy, satisfied, and valuable could we all be? How would our chosen paths be enhanced by a facility with self-expression and material, sound, or movement exploration? Do you really want your kid to be an artist? And if so, how can you support them?

What NOT to do: Unsolicited "Help"

It's incredibly easy to break kids' confidence in art (or anything) and less easy to build it. As with so much in life, the first thing we can do to "help" our kids succeed is to get out of their way. It's not easy, especially when we're watching them struggle with something we know there's an easy solution for. But we zip our mouths, find something else to occupy our attention, and trust that they'll get where they need to go. And never, ever critique.

Criticism is more likely to break our confidence than to teach us something, and a shattered confidence is a massive barrier to success. My daughter is a writer, and was recently working on her second novel. I edited her first novel for her, judiciously reporting back on only glaring typos and missing punctuation. It was an amazing realistic fiction coming-of-age story, written from the bold heart of a young girl whose grandfather had recently died. I love it so much I heartily recommend it to readers of all ages. Her next novel, though, was a departure from the world she knew and understood so well, and required a steep learning curve. It was an epic fantasy, full of people from different cultures and a massively complex magical world... all of which she dutifully researched and developed before writing. But then she was challenged by trying to fit this enormous complexity into a single story. And when it came time for me to edit her book, I didn't hold back with the criticisms and suggestions. Some chapters were confusing, some events seemed out of place, and mostly I was confused by the timeline. Sure, she was only fourteen, but I just knew she was capable, so I critiqued! Despite my attempts at being gentle with my criticism, it all seemed insurmountable to her, and after a few attempts at editing, she abandoned the book. To her credit, she's keeping an open mind about the possibility of writing it in the future, but unfortunately I feel I threw a hammer at a beautiful glass sculpture she was creating, that actually she just needed more time with, alone. Without my critiquing.

So that's how not to build confidence. Just think of all the ways we're doing that, in every part of our kids' lives, and even our own. So many of us have an overachieving inner critic. And a culturally-supported fear that that critic is what's keeping us on the straight-and-narrow. But you know what? It's not. What would happen if we just didn't correct our kids? Well I have some experience with that, now, both in teaching and parenting. It's ridiculously hard to shut up my inner critic sometimes, but when I do, the kids thrive.

My daughter is truly an excellent writer--so much so, that in her frantic enthusiasm she charges ahead, forgetting to put periods at the ends of sentences, capitals on names, or sometimes misspelling words. She edits herself, and (as we all are prone to doing) sees right through her mistakes to read what she intended to write. What if she asks me to edit and I just ignore those mistakes? I've experimented with that. Sometimes she looks over her work later and discovers her mistakes. Sometimes she puts it aside for a few months, grows and learns, and comes back to it to realize she would now write it differently. Sometimes, even, she submits or publishes something with mistakes. And you know what? That's just fine! I frequently go back to my own work from years earlier, and see how much I've learned and grown since my thirties--and yet my work was appreciated then, as well. Have you any idea how many typos I still find in my writing? Tons. I'm especially accomplished at missing words and totally redundant examples. Sometimes I don't even bother to correct them. Because they're part of my humanity. Our kids deserve that space to be human, too.

Honouring Growth

Rhiannon, age 5, experimenting with paints.
As a visual artist, I love to look back and see all my mistakes. I look at portraits I painted years ago, and wonder why I did them the way I did; sometimes I also notice things I thought were problems at the time, that now inform new directions in my work. Growth is where it's at, people! Otherwise what are we living for? In some deep place, children know this, as from the moment they're born they challenge themselves to grow by exploring different tastes, movements, and expressions.

Children, like my daughter in the photo, above, want to represent their world. But it isn't always as we might expect! As parents, we have a choice about whether to show our children how to draw things the way we think it should be done, or to allow them to discover their own ways, through experimentation. My son was once drawing a whole page full of lines, and I asked him what he was drawing (something I've since learned not to do), and he told me it was a drum. I was totally perplexed, and asked him where the parts of the drum were. This was a boy who had no problem drawing a circle--why would he choose to represent a drum with a whole lot of unconnected lines? "It's the sound of the drum." He said. Boom.

He didn't need my assumptions. He needed my appreciation, and the freedom to keep exploring. As long as we respond to our kids' experiments with curiosity and loving encouragement, they'll continue to know that where they are on their journey of growth is perfect. And that will be the impetus they need to keep growing with enthusiasm. I have no idea how my son's drawings of sound influenced his life, but considering he now is employed as a visual artist and makes music to accompany his personal visual projects, I'm relieved I didn't get in the way of that particular growth pattern by showing him "how to draw a drum."

Asking Helpful Questions

I realized during my children's earliest years that questions like "what are you drawing?" are extremely limiting. In that question I have determined that my child must be trying to represent a specific thing, and the assumption is usually that it's a visual representation of something we know. But what if it's not? What if it's our children's experimentation with colours, shapes or lines? Or sound, as in the drum example? That kind of experimentation--without intent to satisfy outside demands--is essential for learning to use materials. Professional artists actually bill for material experimentation; it's called "research". We even sometimes mount gallery exhibitions composed entirely of experimental output--often to great acclaim. So why would I limit the possibilities of my own child's artistic output?

But we want to ask questions! We know it's important to engage and encourage! So how can we ask questions that promote growth-dialogue about art (or anything), without limiting our children's growth or expression?

Think about the words in the question "What are you drawing?" The word 'what' carries the assumption they're trying to represent an object. The word 'drawing' means we assume they're focused on the output of the material in their hands, as opposed to the feeling, taste, smell, or movement of it. How are these assumptions limiting the range of acceptable answers?

Drawing by Taliesin, age 3.

Maybe we have a kid who is happy to contradict us, and says, "I'm not drawing anything. I'm dancing the pen," or, as in my son’s drawing, above, “Nothing. I didn’t tell you.” (I learned a lot about parenting from that bold rejection.) But more likely, our kid wants to please us; to learn from our example, and will find a suitable answer, like, "some lines," or as my daughter used to do, look at a bunch of lines she was experimenting with and come up with a wild explanation like, "it's a dog on a house with the family having dinner." It's tragically very common that kids learn to minimize themselves to match what they perceive coming from adults. I've seen plenty of kids who were making successful attempts at depicting what might have been people or animals declare that they were “just scribbling.” Why? Because maybe they feared hearing our criticisms, or maybe we've previously defined their drawings of animals as 'scribbling', or maybe, because their own inner critic is already developed enough to silence their voice.

Adults are notoriously bad at asking kids questions, and kids generally have rote answers ready to respond to each of them: How old are you? How is school? What are you making? What is your favourite colour/subject/sport/etc.? How are we so uninspired?! These questions aren't about engaging with kids or developing rapport; they're expected. What if, instead of asking what they're drawing, we invite them to tell about what they're doing? This is an open invitation to consider what they're doing and talk about it. It's up to us to be open to hearing their response, no matter how long, unexpected, or confusing it may be. Not all questions will be helpful for all kids in all situations, but through practice we can become better at asking good questions. Here's a list of interesting open-ended questions to use in engaging kids to talk about their art:
  • Interesting! Can you tell me about this?
  • Does this have a story or feeling?
  • How do you feel about what you're doing?
  • Show me how you like to use [material]...
  • What do you think about the materials you're using?
  • Are there any other materials you'd like to use?

Materials

Ah how I love shopping for materials!! And hoarding them!! Don't we all?! How much of our parenting waste is comprised of once-used adorable kits that were soon replaced by something newer and more exciting? I won't go on at length about this, because I've previously written a whole article about Materials for Open-Ended Art Exploration. But suffice it to say that well-chosen art materials are the foundation of good artistic experience. And I don't mean the expensive stuff. I mean well-chosen. Materials can be anything from kitchen supplies to mud and sticks outside, to a mish-mash of mark-making, gluing, cutting and melting tools. The important feature of all of these things is that they do not come with instructions or intended uses. How we present and use materials is much more important than what they are.

Modelling

From the moment they were born, and possibly earlier, our kids have looked to us to lead them. The important thing to remember about modelling to our children is that it's happening all the time; not just when we do it intentionally. Our kids see our hesitation and fear with art as much as they see our enthusiasm. They see us avoid trying new things, and they see us when we courageously do them, and when we have small successes and failures. They emulate not only our actions but also the way we emotionally deal with these things.

With this in mind, the absolute best thing we can do for our children is to use any and all materials available to us to explore creatively, for our own happiness. That last bit is important. Kids can smell a fraud from a mile away, so we have to be creative in the way that we want to be. Otherwise we're just teaching our kids to put on a show for someone else's benefit, and that's nothing about authenticity.

And we should stretch ourselves. If we're accustomed to buying craft kits and following the instructions, we should absolutely try to break that habit (more on why in the materials article, above) and try experimenting with new materials. We can also stretch our definition of art-making. Try experimental baking! Try sewing or crocheting! Try putting on your favourite music, getting dressed up in fancy dress or costumes and dancing your heart out! Try painting your whole self and rolling around on an old sheet, outside. In the rain! It doesn't matter what or how you engage in art, just as long as you do it. And if your output isn't what you expect? Even better. Keep experimenting. You're modelling growth to your children.

Living a life full of joyful exploration and learning, ourselves, is the best way we can teach our children.
 

Nurturing Important Skills

Me, age 4, being an artist.
We’re culturally trained to associate specific skills and attributes with art: dancers should be thin and flexible, visual artists should be able to draw realistic depictions with technical skills like shading, perspective, and colour theory; musicians should first learn to read music and do scales. Unless we’re born talented, of course.

Oh hell, I hate the word ‘talent’! It's such a harmful concept. I wasn't born talented; I developed some skills in accurate rendering of my observations by having a keen interest in observing how things are put together; how the light plays on them, and being given room to experiment with materials throughout my life. It was easy for me because I loved it, just like my daughter loves telling stories, so writing is easy for her to learn. We develop the skills we need when we realize we need them, and as long as we're not discouraged from exploring them.

As parents and teachers, we need to help build foundational skills for life, and trust that those material skills will come when needed. As an artist, I owe a huge amount of my career satisfaction to some less-concrete skills and passions:

  • seeing the big picture in life, art, etc.
  • a keen interest in social phenomena
  • a passion for exploration and discovery


We really can't know what skills will be foundational for each of the unique kids we work with. Neither can we know the cultural landscape our kids will grow into, nor what careers will be common, when they’re grown. Who knew, when I was in art school twenty-five years ago that people would be making virtual and even invisible art to sell online, one day? Who knew I’d raise a son who gets paid to make thousands of geographically plausible planet renderings by using procedural generation techniques? His art process looks like a bunch of visual programming. I could never have predicted this, never mind taught him these skills. So when trying to support kids I parent and teach, I try to encourage growth of all sorts of skills. Life is not divided by subject. Careers are not determined by skill-acquisition. It's all interconnected. The more we learn, the more we can learn.

So Do You? Really?

Yes. I guess I really do want my kids to be artists--however that looks for them, and however it looks in the future we can only dream of. I want them to explore all the materials and develop all the skills I can’t even fathom right now. I want them to change the definition of the word “artist” to mean new and wonderful things, and I want them to keep on growing as the world grows, around them.




Parenting and Gardening with Climate Change: The Aesthetic of Allowing Diversity

This morning we put the tomato and pepper seedlings out on the porch again. They've been waiting for the ground to warm up enough to be transplanted, for weeks. It was nearly freezing last night, just above ground, in early May. And now weather forecasters are predicting that La NiƱa might stick around all summer. Bad news for the Atlantic hurricane season, great news for our Pacific fire season, and... sad prospects for my warmer-weather food crops. Climate change is one thing for sure: unpredictable. And along with the weather, our food, finances, and children's futures are all unpredictable, too.

Diversity in the Garden
Our strategy for dealing with this unpredictability has been to become more independent. I guess psychologically it's about keeping control of our own actions, when so much else is now reeling out of control. But practically speaking, it's also very helpful: The more we learn about the way we and our needs work, the more capable we are of supporting ourselves, of creatively solving problems that arise, and of adapting to our rapidly-changing world. So we're growing many of our own foods now, unschooling our kids, and diversifying our own skillsets. Put simply, we're diversifying how we live, just like financial investors diversify assets. Thrivent says "the idea is to avoid putting all of your eggs in one basket—because something bad could happen to that basket."  We don't have any financial investments, but the same strategy applies to living, eating, educating ourselves, and planning our future, in general. So we grow warm weather crops, cool weather crops, fruit trees of various types, summer crops and winter crops, and root, leaf, flower and fruit crops. It looks like this year we'll have a lot of potatoes, celery, spinach, kale, broccoli and cauliflower... and apples, if the bees do well, which is still in question.

There are a lot of questions, these days. Among them, how to save seeds. I received a newsletter from our local seed supplier recently, in which he explained the importance of diversity in seed-saving: 

        "We’ve all experienced accelerated climate change and it’s important to prepare for more of the same if we are to have successful harvests. The best strategy can be summed up in one word: Diversify!
        "We can be hit by extreme cold, heat, wind or rain at anytime during the growing season. If we can, we should not trust all our seeds to one sowing. We should stagger and expand our plantings as well as planting our crops in both shade and sun. We can also think about working with friends and neighbours to mutually maximize our locations."
                            ~ Dan Jason, Saltspring Seeds

See that? This is a seed supplier encouraging his customers to grow and save our own seeds, to share with neighbours, and basically to evolve away from supporting his seed-growing business. Why? Because obviously, he and his business will do better if we all do. He's diversifying his own network of seed-growers and customers, as well as his output. He also wrote a small book about seed saving, and frequently writes blogs, articles, newsletters and other things about how to grow plants and seeds in these changeable times. A greedier businessperson might not encourage seed-saving, when they can make more money upfront if their customers remain ignorant about this practice. Dan Jason is looking at our mutual future, and diversifying all of our prospects, in community. There will always be a place for that.

Diversity in Life and Education
Which brings me to the human side of this picture: How do we diversify our own human community; our own skill-sets, to ensure our adaptability as the world changes around us? I threw out the word unschooling back there, like it was nothing, and for our family it really is nothing these days, but I know it's rather out-of-left-field for some people. Here's what I'm going on about: Unschooling is the practice of allowing our kids (and ourselves) to explore any and all of their interests, on their own time, in their own ways, and just seeing what comes out of it all! Without going too far into our own experiences (read more about our unschooled young adult children at our blog, if you like), our family is now reassured that unschooling was an excellent choice for our kids' future. After many years of determining and following their own interests, they have become agile thinkers, able to check in with their own needs, fulfill those needs successfully, and change course when the need arises. What more can one ask for, in a future where no career choice is guaranteed, nor even the ground we stand upon?

But that's our kids--what about us? We're a couple of middle-aged adults, one dependent on a satisfactory job that doesn't meet our evolving ethical standards, and the other now disabled by long-covid. Can we still unschool? The answer is yes, and we've been doing it with our kids these past many years. Our skill-sets have grown as our needs changed, and we find ourselves becoming reasonably adept at growing food, raising and processing chickens, building needed devices, implements and home-improvements, and also learning to live together, twenty-four-seven, peacefully. We're also becoming very good at living more simply, and finding joy in a life far less cluttered by activities and must-haves than it once was. Life is always about unending personal growth--it's just that climate change and related social change have caused us to appreciate that more.

The Aesthetic of Natural Diversity
What I sometimes struggle to appreciate is the absolute chaos of natural diversity. I mean when you just let things grow however they're going to. It's a mess. Truly. My garden, my kids' educational careers, my own career and even my living room is just truly an absolute mess. But I've learned to see its beauty.

See this lovely mess of a garden bed? We had an open garden here a week ago, and I heard a few people comment on the number of "weeds" we have. And they're not wrong! But the tone of their comments was. Now that I am coming to understand the importance of diversity in my regenerative garden, this picture is pure joy, to me! 

one of the diverse salad-green beds in our garden

What you're looking at here is a few indoor-started heads of lettuce, now ravaged by our salad-needs, along with some dark green kale on the right, flowering out as it does every spring and fall. On the left there's a tiny pink flower--that's a Robert Geranium, considered a weed by most people, but it's antiviral and edible, so I put it in salads and smoothies. Along with this there is a whole plethora of edible asters: dandelions, wild lettuces (and some seeded from our previous years' crops), lambs' quarters, and others. There are teeny tiny bittercress plants everywhere, their leaves and tiny white flowers delicious in salads and sandwiches. There's some chickweed coming up, which will brighten my summer smoothies and delight our chickens, and in the woodchip-covered pathway at my feet, there's a lively mat of winecap mycelium, that pushes up big tasty mushrooms at totally unpredictable times. This garden feeds us. And when I see the diversity of flavours and promise, it's absolutely gorgeous to me.

Parenting can be like that, too. When my kids were young, I used to feel irritated by the drifts of toys, costumes, and craft materials that seemed to cover everything. But I also saw how it mirrored the creative mess of my own art studio, and how my kids dug in their mess, explored and improvised, and eventually also desired to tidy it themselves. Now they're older, their social lives are also somewhat of a primordial stew. I look at my own young-adult memories and how different my social life is now than what I thought I was building, at twenty. I have a few of the same friends, but our interests and priorities have changed many times. My children, of course, are no different, even though right now it's hard for them to imagine how life will change them. Their activities are an eclectic chaos of experimental successes and left-behinds. At twenty, our son is paid as a 3D modeller, but also practices music, concept design, drawing, and is a life-long physics and engineering enthusiast. Our seventeen-year-old daughter runs programs for kids, organizes an alternative education festival, publishes a magazine by and for kids, and has recently also begun a side-career as a dog-trainer. Three or four years ago I could not have predicted many of these directions, but our kids found them and followed them with enthusiasm, and that has set them up for success in our unpredictable world. They're accustomed to wrangling interests and commitments in multiple different directions. They're accustomed to changing course when needs demand it. Our kids' comfort and ease with this chaotic, changeable lifestyle is the gift that unschooling gave them. As our social climate becomes more chaotic, they will fit right in.

The Struggle of Allowing
Then there's the concept of allowing. I'm not really as comfortable with all this as I make it sound. Excited by the prospects; reassured by preliminary observations--yes! But I fight change like the devil, and I am not good at just going with the flow. I'm a child of the eighties. I thought I would pick a career and stick to it forever; have kids who went to school, grew up through birthday parties and grocery shopping and family holidays, and I'd always live a typical low-to-middle-class family life. I also thought Caesar salad would always be easy to buy. Now lettuce is too expensive, eggs for the dressing are even more expensive, chickens are dying by the hundreds of thousands in their barns from flooding and bird flu, and I'm allergic to croutons. Damn. I had to allow my palate to change with the times. 

Sometimes allowing my kids to make choices I don't understand or necessarily agree with feels like gluing my back to the wall; peeling my eyes from the view and willing my voice to fall back into my throat. I pound down my own fears to let my kids thrive or fall flat on their faces. It's like letting the weeds and lettuce seedlings stay under the dominating squash leaves, knowing they'll just die there, but that their failed lives will feed the squash. And then discovering that one of them grew and fed my family, anyway. Allowing is when I know for sure I could make things better in the short term if I just take control, but I also know that I can't see all the variables, so any control I think I have is just a sham, anyway. As our world becomes ever less predictable, I can't predict how my controlling actions will play out in my garden, my life, my kids' education, or even this article. So I force myself to quit trying.

Luckily I've diversified my needs and the seeds I plant, and am learning to cooperate with the changing climate.

We Like Field Mice in January: Returning to a Healthy Seasonal Rhythm


If you watch a meadow for a year, at least in places with our temperate climate, there are two down-times: When it's too cold, and when it's too hot. Those are vital down-times that we use to prepare and rest up for the up-times of spring and autumn.

Spring is, of course, vibrantly busy with new growth. Everything seems alive; everything is green, or flowered or bustling! It's like a great shout! for the sun and the great moving sky! Summer begins with the busy growth of berries, and the setting of seeds. Mammals, insects, birds and fish all rejoice in the excitement, fill their bellies with plants and each other, raise their babies, and build their homes and communities. But by the end of summer, the grasses have bent under the scorching sun; many of the animals shelter under them from the overbearing heat. Seeds dry and cure in the hot, persistent drought. Everything waits. Even the wind. It's just way too hot. What a huge relief when autumn comes to the meadow! The wind picks up, leaves and nuts and seeds fall to the ground and everybody gets busy packing in for winter; lining burrows and fattening up. Leaves of evergreens that folded up to protect themselves in the summer heat are now open again, washing and renewing themselves in the autumn rain. The rain and wind goes on for so long that by winter, grasses have died back, their old stalks brown and limp under the flood or snow. Rodents and insects still live, making and tending their pathways under the flattened grass of the meadow, and hungry prey birds sit still, hoping to catch one out of its shelter. Hungry. Everything is hungry. Trees and shrubs around the edges of the meadow stand naked without their leaves, just bending in the wind, cracking as their bodies swell with ice, and waiting. For spring. 

When my kids were young, our life was like the meadow. We, like field mice under grasses, nested in our house, in winter. We traipsed out in the meadow, sure, hungry like those field mice for a little adventure, but then we left our wet clothes at the door, and cocooned. Inside, we built cardboard box forts, did drawing and crafts by the fire, baked and sang and nestled in blankets with books. They call this hygge, now. Somehow in the post-Christmas lull, and without the demands of school and work (I was an intentionally stay-at-home-mom and unschooling my kids all year), we had freedom to just be. But it wasn't a pointless existence. In that quiet winter, like grasses, we were putting our roots down, deep, and by early spring we were ready to thrive.

Spring is when the whole world wakes up. And HOLY we partied!!! Everybody, like cherry blossoms, is out celebrating right through spring and into early summer. Everything has exclamation marks!!! For kids there are field-trips aplenty. There are festivals and conferences. Everybody is dancing their life out in the sunshine and flaunting the choices we made. This is when we were proudest to live our chosen lives.

As summer dragged on, though, the heat became oppressive, and we hid indoors, or in the cool shelter of our beloved forest. Drought meant even our well was close to dry, and we had to be careful about how much we used. No sprinklers; no water balloons. It was even too hot to go to the beach during the day, so we went there in the dark evenings, singing at campfires by the ocean with friends, watching the sun set again and again on the season of growth, as the grasses dried and we waited, again. We prepared our bodies for the autumn.

And there it was. Just like leaves fell in the meadow, summer friends went off to school, and we, like field mice, made our burrows under the grass. We prepared for winter by going over our goals, enrolling kids in programs, taking stock of our finances and plans for the coming year, and busying ourselves with all the considerations of raising children. My mother used to buy me a new outfit along with my school supplies, each year, and it felt SO GOOD. As an unschooling parent, how could I resist the displays of just-so school supplies, happy little felt pen packs and blank books just waiting for the glorious productions of the year ahead?! My kids got them too! More exclamation marks, because the giddy anticipation of this time of year is just infectious!!! Field mice are running with abandon along their grass paths, shoving their burrows full of treats for the coming winter!!!

Winter, again. December is a great distraction of bright-lights and colourful wildness, but then it's over and, again, here we are in the January lull. My family spent a few of our kids' teen years in schools of various forms. We abandoned much of our winter downtime for the routine of classes and general graduation preparedness. But when covid hit in 2020, we took it as an opportunity to drop all that, and returned to unschooling. It's very different, now that my kids are almost grown, one graduated and the other with no intention of graduating; both working their way to careers. But because of the increasing uncertainty in the world, we decided to grow our own food. Or at least, as much as we can, given the small bit of land that we rent. 

In the past year and a half we have begun keeping chickens for eggs, meat, and garden-maintenance (they eat bugs and till some of the soil), and we're growing about half the vegetables we consume each year (and none of the grain), through regenerative farming practices. It's certainly not full-fledged farming, but it has brought us closer to feeding ourselves, and also to the healthy seasonal rhythm we used to know, when the kids were young. Right now, in January, last year's veggie stalks are poking half-rotten from the melting snow. Seeds fallen last autumn are lying in wait--some in my seed box, and some in the ground. Chickens keep a low-key routine of scratching for bugs under the rotting leaves, and are beginning to discover (and eat) the first spring shoots. Spring is just around the corner and, like all the plants in the meadow, we've been putting down our roots for a strong spring start. Like field mice, we're watching for new shoots.

Regenerative farming (that is, growing food in harmony with the ecology of the land it's growing on) has brought us much closer to that easy seasonal flow we had when the kids were little. It's a satisfying way to live, in our climate: rooting in winter, blossoming in spring, resting in the hottest part of summer, and nesting in the fall. There's something to be said for living in tune with our bodies and the ecology of the world around us. 

And there's something deeply harmful about fighting it. In our urban culture, even our daily rhythms are governed more by the needs of the economy (whether personal or societal) than by our physiological needs. How many of us get up before dawn and trudge to work in the dark, dependent on a host of chemical and physical methods of preparing an un-rested and un-ready body for the work day? This lifestyle came close to eliminating my husband, before the pandemic saved him. How many kids do the same, for school? How many of us carry on our routines despite failing health, when the winters are too dark and cold; when the summers are beating the life out of us? We need to change.

I'm not saying we should be a solely agrarian society, but perhaps we can take the natural cycles of the year into consideration, in how we work, play, and parent our children. Some agrarian populations shift industry and school schedules to accommodate the needs of planting and harvesting. Maybe we could shift ours, similarly, or even determine some of the specific activities done at certain times of year to correspond with our natural energy levels and physiological needs. Maybe, like field mice, we can run in the pathways of our communities to spend this winter tidying, eating our stored grains, and watching excitedly for the sprouts of spring.

~~~

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Why and How to Unschool Teens

They're basically adults with jobs and dreams and full-grown bodies, but they still climb the walls. Or posts, in my house. In many ways, they're capable of conventionally adult activities and often hold much wisdom, but their prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational thought, won't finish developing until about age twenty-five. You know what part is guiding many of their decisions? The amygdala. That's right. The emotional centre of the brain. The one that makes us fall to pieces for seemingly small reasons, make decisions without regard for the future, and quite possibly is also responsible for their open minds, and daring escapades of emotional wisdom. That doesn't mean that we should shield them from hazards, of course. It means this is the time for them to experiment--to learn exploratively how life works for them, and thus to support that big development of their brains. Just like we learn to walk by taking steps, falling, getting up and trying again, we develop our thinking capacity in the same way. As our kids' prefrontal cortex continues developing, they will make mistakes and learn from them. They will be hurt and heal. They will grow. It's our job, as parents, to support our kids while they do that.

So, let's throw a massive social non-compliance on top of that whole mess of amygdala-guided growth: Unschooling! Maybe you started unschooling because of the pandemic; maybe because you found the school system or even homeschooling to be problematic for your teen. Maybe you, like me, have been unschooling all the way along, but just carry a lot of anxiety about what might go wrong, and how to do right. Maybe you're just considering starting.

Really, the answer to "How to Unschool Teens" is the same as the answer to "How to Parent Teens", but for unschoolers the challenges and solutions can be somewhat unique. Without school, and especially during a pandemic, supporting our kids through loneliness and associated mental health issues is a huge challenge. Supporting their confidence in a world that equates graduation and competition with success can be difficult, too. Luckily, unschooling also offers benefits: greater connection with our kids, more time and growth, together, and more opportunity for consciously supporting our kids through this time.

Social Challenges

Unschooling is all about exploration, experimentation, trial, error, and growth. But as parents, we're so worried that our kids will experiment themselves into harm's way! Most of us have held our raw-with-feeling teens as they've bawled their eyes out over social situations that neither they nor we (nor sometimes the others involved) had any control over at all. We're not different from school families, that way. We hold onto them helplessly, just willing our love to be enough to heal the wounds. Or worse, we've sat outside their bedroom doors, knowing they suffered alone, and didn't feel able to come to us for support. 

The feeling of impotence for parents of teens can be pervasive. When they were little we thought we knew and understood their experiences and feelings. We were often wrong, but they didn't make it so damn obvious as they do, now they stand at eye-level. Now we just step back in blurred astonishment, delighting and flailing and trudging through the tidbits of feeling they cast our way. 

I have two very different children; one talks to me openly about their feelings, all very rationally considered, while the other says "everything's fine" until they explode with little-to-no warning and sometimes no association with known events. All I can do in both cases is accept the flow. And it's hard!! Because I'm an emotional human being too, and my feelings matter! I'm scared for them, I'm thrilled for them, I'm excited about their social interactions and terrified of anything going wrong. But they don't need that. I imagine my poking in their emotional lives feels to them like trying to learn to walk while a hovering parent pushes and prods them from every angle. Maybe that's actually a pretty accurate comparison. My meddling makes them fall, and makes it harder for them to find their footing. 

Unschooling is about giving kids freedom to find their footing--academically, socially, and emotionally. It's that freedom that allows them to make the mistakes they will learn from, and it's the hardest thing in the world, as a parent, to stand back and watch them fall. Sometimes the fallout is a cake with too much baking soda; sometimes it's a catastrophically broken heart, or deep, deep depression. It's a constant assessment of risk and being honest with ourselves: most risks are not such a big deal. And even the big ones, we have to learn to deal with. And so do our children, through trial, error, and growth. We want to raise kids who are resilient, courageous, and unafraid. We can't always be there to pick them up, but we can be the foundation that helped them develop the skills to pick themselves up.

Academic Challenges

Again, there isn't actually a whole lot of difference between schooled kids and unschooled kids, here. It's entirely possible for unschooled kids to set up and jump through the hoops of high school graduation, college, and university, as it is possible for them (or anybody) to build a career without any of those things. The difference is, schooled kids are often led to believe that without the diplomas they cannot succeed, and unschooled kids (hopefully) have been raised without that fear. I say 'hopefully', because fear of academic failure is probably one of the greatest shackles we parents have carried forward from our own lives within the system, and most probably, we've passed it on to our kids. I certainly have.

If you follow my blog, Rickshaw Unschooling, you may know that my first-born was uninterested in high school graduation, until struck by a crushing belief that his interest in science could only be served by entering university with a high school diploma. (I know a high school diploma isn't actually necessary for university entrance, but... we unschoolers let our kids make their decisions and hold them when they fall, right?!) So he suddenly worked his butt off and graduated high school with honours. However, the process of taking so many high school science courses led him to lose his lifelong ambition for studying science. Graduation is not always the highway to our dreams. My son changed course and developed a career for himself as a digital artist. Maybe unschooling failed him, or maybe the school system he tried to compete in did. Definitely my own often-spoken ideas that university would be the path for someone interested in physics did. Maybe, though, unschooling gave him the resilience needed to bravely change course, without sacrificing his interests or values. In his work as a digital artist, he is becoming known for his skill in rendering physically plausible spaceships and planets.

Just like kids who attend high school, unschooled kids can fail to meet expectations, too, but for radically unschooled kids, those expectations are only their own. My son knew I didn't care whether he graduated or not. He knows he faces no disappointment from his parents when he changes course, fails to reach a goal, or spends all night watching movies. Because his parents' disappointment doesn't come into play, he has more time to consider his own personal values. And actually, facing disappointment with oneself can be extremely challenging, and we'll all do it sooner or later, if we live a full and independent life. Luckily, my kids have been expected to make and meet their own personal expectations since they were very young, so they're accustomed to it. They both frequently come to talk to me about goals not met, or when they're considering changing course; when they're afraid of failure. That--the fact that they come to me at all, is our enormous privilege, as parents.

Unschooling Takes Sacrifice, but Also Affords Privilege

Of course the choice to fully unschool our kids comes with some sacrifice. During early years, especially, it generally requires one parent to stay at home, or both parents, tag-teaming to share the burden of earning income and parenting. That almost always means financial sacrifice, and therefore necessitates less-than adequate housing for many, and refraining from many of the activities and purchases that families in this culture expect: travel, vehicle ownership, new clothes, eating out, and participating in sports or other expensive activities. Single parents, shift-workers, parents with low-paying jobs, and those with disabilities have an even steeper hill to climb. It's not impossible, especially within a supportive community or family, but requires quite a lot of flexibility, and flexible thinking, in terms of what sacrifices (time with kids, ability to do more affordable adventures like camping, hiking, swimming and visiting free festivals) we're willing to accept in our lives. We also often sacrifice our belonging in community, as we're shunned from local social events and sometimes even our families. And our teens--our teens are going to tell us, surely, that we sacrificed all the opportunities every other teen has, like prom, and sports and climbing the social and academic ladders, just to blindly follow our hippie ideals!! Or... they might. Just remember: That's their amygdala speaking. Just like we hope they will follow their own hearts, we followed ours in raising them the absolute best we could. And the privileges our sacrifices afforded us were probably worth it: A 2013 survey by Peter Gray and Gina Riley documents "improved learning, better attitudes about learning, and improved psychological and social wellbeing for the children; and increased closeness, harmony, and freedom for the whole family."

Unschooling our kids meant that we spent much more time together than we could have if they had attended school. It meant we were thrown together as a family, day in and day out, through thick and thin, when we wanted to be and when we didn't--and we had to work through our differences, because there was no escape. Now we know each other more than we could have if they had attended school.

Unschooling meant that we parents had to question our preconceptions and fears, again and again and again, and we not only became less fearful (and passed less fear on to our kids), but also demonstrated to our kids how to question their preconceptions and fears. Now we're a family who easily engages in serious conversation about Life, the Universe, and EVERYTHING. My kids know I got pregnant when I was sixteen. They know my fears and challenges, and they share their own with me, when they want to. We have a kind of connection that is not unavailable to school-attending kids, but is more difficult to develop, without sharing so very much of our lives.

Unschooling teens is in some ways similar to spousal or close-friend relationships: Ideally, we're equals. We all have friends who make a lot of decisions with their amygdalas, too (in my life, I'm that friend...) If we can survive road-trip arguments with our spouses or best friends, we can get through them with our fourteen or nineteen-year-olds, too. It's really no different when your partner thinks he knows where to turn off the highway (and he's wrong) than when your kid thinks he knows what's the best camping spot (and he's wrong). In either case, we're going to have to question our own convictions, and find ways to peacefully navigate a solution so that everybody feels heard. And in both cases someone is going to be wrong, and we all learn. And our prefrontal cortexes develop a little more.

One thing I ask myself, when faced with conflict with my teens, is whether the topic in question is mine to consider. If it's the place we're stopping to camp for the night, then yes! It sure is! And we're going to have to debate it, and grow, relationship-wise. If it's my kid's choice to spend hundreds of her own hard-earned dollars on a video game? Nope. Even though I cringe when she plays it. None of my business. Do I have to "just try the game--it's fun!!" No I don't. That's my business. I didn't play dolls, either. 

Unschooling means learning with our kids to know and hold our own values with confidence. Sometimes, like with a decision not to graduate, we feel at odds with the whole rest of our culture. But in the circle of our parent-child relationships (or our greater unschooling community, if we're lucky), we are held all the way into adulthood. Both parents and children can develop an innate self-knowledge and self-worth, as well as an independence made stronger by a secure foundation. And that is why to unschool teens: it's the privilege of a healthy, secure adulthood that makes unschooling worth all the sacrifice.

So You're Committed (or Recommitted) to Unschooling Your Teen--But How?

This is something I've been asked often, even before my kids were teens, and long before I began consulting for unschooling parents. The answer is so simple, yet so enigmatic. 

The answer is to just quit school, and the whole school mentality.
Hand the kids the reins.

If they've been in school, recently or anytime, let them deschool. For months or years--as long as it takes. And deschool yourself. Learn from them, and don't expect them to learn anything at all. They have enough of their own expectations to deconstruct without adding yours to the heap. During this deschooling time, question all your motivations and never question theirs. Become your best self, as a parent, and independently. They are watching you and learning how to be from every breath, word and action they see.

Let them make their own decisions; let them make wrong choices and scary choices, and totally unimaginable choices. Let them do all the research and development for all their choices. Don't help them research--especially if they're prone to asking for help. You've got your own stuff to do. Let them handle the consequences of their choices. I didn't mention academics or careers here, because that's not your concern. Ignore it.

Love them. Be there to commiserate, to celebrate, to listen to their stories and to share your own. Be their best friend and also the person who will fight the hard fights with them and for them and with your own fears and prejudices, when they arise. 

Be the one your kids can come home to, anytime, for the rest of their lives, and also be the one they're not afraid to leave behind. Be strong enough in your own values and goals and confidence that they know you'll be OK without them. This will give them permission to grow. 

Be their equal. Rise to meet their amazingness, and when they fall, sit down in the pits with them. If you're lucky, they'll be so confident in your love and support that they'll love and support themselves. 

That's how to unschool your teen, yourself, and also your adult children. It's not easy, but it's life. I'm still working on it, every day.

 

*Regarding that photo of my son, Taliesin, climbing a post: He declares that climbing has nothing to do with his amygdala. He will not stop climbing things when he's twenty-five, and I suspect that's correct, since when I met his father (then, aged twenty-six), he had a tagline on his treehouse webpage that read, "some people still have a bit of monkey in them". Maybe the wall-climbing is a perfectly natural part of life, and unschooling can support it. :-)

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