How Unschoolers (and all of us) Build Careers

High priority interest for my kids right now: experimental cooking!

My unschooled kids moved out recently, and now I'm processing all the choices we made! It's not so much the unschooling; there is no doubt in my mind that it served us all well. But the smaller choices we made on our twenty-one-year (so far) parenting journey have had huge impacts on our kids' career options; their confidence and courage, and even the way their interests have filtered into their careers. How DO people follow their interests into satisfying lives and careers, and what if they don't? I'm watching my kids' changing lives with fascination, remembering my own early adulthood, and discovering so much about how we grow and build our lives. So I thought I'd write a bit about this, from what is now my contemplation couch in my newly-empty, way-too-quiet nest.


Unschooling in the First Place: Why It Serves Us Well

The root premise of unschooling is freedom to grow along one's own path, following ones own interests. It means not being confined by the needs of classrooms, social expectations, or parents' expectations. Of course, unschooling parents raised in a schooled society (which is most of us) struggle very hard not to reproduce those constraints, so our kids rarely have pure freedom, but with our eyes on the unschooling prize we're supposedly holding that freedom of mind and growth in our hearts, and working towards it. I titled this section in the present tense and with 'us' very intentionally: It doesn't just serve our children well, and it didn't just do so while they lived at home. The freedom and responsibility of making and following all of our own expectations has served each of us well, and it continues to do so, now that the kids have moved out.

Unschooling isn't easy for anybody. That's because it's all about taking life at face value and being responsible for our own actions. It's actually what everyone everywhere is doing every day, but unschoolers do it intentionally--and life is just not ever easy. But it's good. It's good to have to make hard decisions. It's good to be disappointed or hurt and have to become resilient. It's good to learn to honour one's own needs; to put them before conformity, while always keeping the needs of others in mind as well. It's good to learn balance and responsibility and independence. All of these things are values that my various schools attempted to teach me, but I didn't learn them there. I learned them after I left, lived on my own, and began (slowly) taking responsibility for my own life. This is what unschooling does for children (and the caregivers who raise them): It gives them the responsibility as soon as they want it, so they can learn to handle and navigate life as it comes to them, instead of after they get out of school. 

The schooled mindset relies on following a plan laid out by staff and administrators--or by parents and curriculum writers, in the case of homeschooling. The point of unschooling is to step out of that mindset, set our own paths, and fumble along until we meet our own expectations. Or not, as the case may be.

Confidence and Courage

Fumbling and failing is a huge part of unschooling--and life, of course. My partner went to all the schools his parents chose for him, took some courses he liked and some he didn't, had lots of great experiences, and then went to university to study engineering. The first thing he did when he got there was to leave his religion behind. He was called to the university chapel after they got news of his arrival from his parents' church, and he gently told them he wasn't interested. I believe this, and a permanent change from short to long hair were some of the first steps he took towards making his own life-choices. Then he meandered over to a focus on physics and astronomy. It was around this time that I became Wiccan, and started dating conventionally-unacceptable people. Lots of them. I had to find my path! By the time I met my partner, I was no longer Wiccan, having re-embraced my atheist roots, and he was working in a Chinese convenience store and studying computer science. He was deeply interested in philosophy, which he processed muchly through conversations with the people who sat drinking concealed bottles-of-something at his corner-store-coffee-bar during his night-shifts. None of this was where we thought we'd end up when we left high school. It's just the fumbling that adults do, once we are handed the reins to our life and have no actual idea where we're going!
Back to my own (adult) kids: Right now they're experimenting a lot with food. Having moved out of our rural home and into the city, they've discovered all kinds of options for foods that didn't exist when I was doing the shopping. They've already had Door-Dash deliveries, signed up for a local Too-Good-to-Go discount grocery program (through which they've had some successes and some --ew-- failures), and explored all kinds of local grocery stores for the best deals on new and interesting and familiar foods. They sometimes tell us about the meals they invent, or send photos. The biggest deal of the photo up above, for me, is those beautiful smiles. My kids are quite obviously proud of themselves, and what more could I possibly want, as a parent? That pride will buoy them over all the fumbles and tumbles of life.

This fumbling--and the chunks of pride that carry our resilience--is how we build confidence. We experiment and meet failure after disappointment after unexpected adventure, and at every turn in the path we find a little more resilience; a little more determination and courage to make the next decision. To experiment more and learn more. Unschooling is all about facilitating that growth throughout childhood instead of afterwards. (Not that the growth ends with adulthood, as we and my kids are demonstrating!)

How We Follow Interests

As parents, caregivers and educators, we're often focused on identifying our kids' interests so we can support them. Oh--you like circus? Let's find a circus program! and Oh, you're interested in science? Here's a microscope. Sometimes these 'supports' are just the ticket our kids needed to the railroad of their dreams. Sometimes they couldn't care less, and even worse, sometimes our enthusiasm tethers them to fleeting interests that weren't empowered by or even embodied in the supports we offered. 

As a parent I've often felt disappointed when my kids didn't use the fancy tools we got for their supposed interests. I know I passed that disappointment onto them, and it turned into self-doubt, shame, and confusion about the paths they were on. How could my music-loving daughter possibly not want to play the Appalachian dulcimer that my mother bought for her? It's a tradition among the women of our family, for goodness sake, and she already plays guitar! It took me quite a while to leave my disappointment behind and accept that her journey might not include dulcimer. Or even music. She's now nannying and working as an assistant dog-trainer, while studying to become a certified positive reinforcement trainer. None of this was what I expected when she was ten and dressing up as Melanie Martinez. But she's happy. Likely happier, in fact, than she might have been trying to climb the ladder to pop stardom. And in the end, isn't that all we actually wanted for our children? 
Oh, and the dulcimer? She took it with her to the city, where it's hanging on her wall, and enjoys being played there by her and her friends. What looks like rejection to us parents is sometimes actually just reinvention.

Having an interest-driven career isn't even necessarily important. Or a single career. I often think my partner may have gotten more personal growth out of his needs-based night-shift convenience store job than he's ever gotten since out of his programming career. Now he follows his personal interests on YouTube, raising his children, building his home, and down at the docks talking to some boat guys. He likes his job as a software developer because it's stable, the people he works with are generally friendly, and he doesn't have to take it home with him. I guess for some people that's what matters in a career!

I'm not like that. I can only concentrate on an absolute passion. Too bad for math class and social studies in high school. I became an artist and then an art teacher, and then as I passionately unschooled my kids I drifted on to become a wilderness and explorative learning educator. Now they've moved out and I'm taking my art career more seriously. And it doesn't seem odd at all to me that all my installations are about social change. I guess what didn't interest me in high school does now. (What looks like rejection might just be reinvention...) Because I found out through fumbling how social science matters in my world. But most of my time is spent gardening or raising chickens. And I like that too.

What About Skill-Building?

What if my kid actually wants to become a concert violinist, and I allowed him to skip out on lessons just because his heart felt like digging a "mine" beside our driveway?? Sure. It could happen. (That was my son.) And what if we destroyed their passion for violin by pushing lessons when they just weren't into that? (Speaking from experience, here...) What if we destroyed their confidence in making choices for themselves by telling them we knew better, and that one day they would WANT to have learned to play violin? (Also us...) So my son never did pick up his violin again. He taught himself piano, instead, and digital music, and now sometimes he uses his music in videos. His career focus at the moment is digital art, but self-taught music makes him happy. We can't know what skills our kids will need, and we certainly can't know when or why they'll need them.

The amazing thing is, they WILL build them when they need them, if we can keep our fears and convictions out of their way. Once I finally stepped out of my kids' way, they taught themselves all kinds of skills they really needed: Math, piano, cooking, social skills, and even job-seeking and career-building. Once in a while they came to me for help, like when they wanted me to read over their resumes, and it felt like all the sparkles of joy got dumped on my head!!! Sometimes our kids do need us, but they need to be on their own for both skill-building AND deciding what skills to build. No matter how painful the process is for us parents to watch.

Building Careers

What career? What goal? What if "having an interest" is not the goal? What if instead we spend our kids' lives encouraging flexible navigation of any and all interests? We don't all have a single interest, and in fact most of us are always navigating a few. And they change. Maybe our kids were going to be concert pianists yesterday and today they're going to be magicians or farmers. Tomorrow they just want to bake cookies. Not for a career. Just because YUM. Maybe we work at our dream job, and focus all life around it. Or maybe we volunteer at what we're passionate about, and work to make ends meet. Or maybe we just work at a place where our friends work because it makes us happy; maybe friends are the current passion. Or cooking new foods each night, or reading, or parenting...
I have no clue who my children will be in another ten or twenty years. I have no clue who I'll be! But we keep on unschooling through life--reminding ourselves of the importance of recognising and following our hearts' needs--and we trust that we'll build the courage and resilience we need to stay upright around the unexpected turns. Or to right ourselves after we fall. We don't know where we're going, and we're learning to love the journey.

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