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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