The hardest thing about homeschooling for me is not what you would expect. It isn't that my kids won't listen or don't care some days; it isn't because we are judged by a myopic culture as being suspect (or at very least weirdos); it isn't the challenges of learning math or science or reading, and it certainly isn't "socialization" (don't even get me started on that last one.) No…none of these are really that big a deal frankly. However, for me, my main source of frustration within our unschooling journey is finding mentors and adults to guide and advocate for my burgeoning teens in their self-directed interests.
One by one, our homeschooling friends have given up, closed up shop, and sent their young family members to school. When my children were young, we had it good. Fourteen families in our little town were planning to unschool their children, and we were friends with them all. Fourteen! It seemed like a bonanza of adult resources and and endless opportunity for our littles to develop social skills and friendships. This lovely alternative route to education seemed bright and well-paved for us. We were all idealistic and could pepper our grown-up dinner conversations with child-led learning theories from John Taylor Gatto, Ivan Illich, and John Holt. We made bold plans to create an unschooling based eco-village. Life seemed dreamy, child-and planet-focused, and, most importantly, mutually supportive.
Flash forward ten years… all but three other families of the original fourteen have decided at some point to send their kids to school. Most of us aren't really even friends any more, because schooling schedules trump social time and we just don't have that much in common any more. No time for playdates or game night…homework wins every time. Needless to say, we aren't living in an idealistic bubble of an eco-village cum CSA cum unschooling co-op that we had all envisioned. Frankly, this attrition has been more than a little disheartening for every member of our family. Every time another family gives up, a little part of my unschooling idealism shrivels up and dies.
There appears to be two phases to this exodus from homeschooling to school, and even the most dire-hard, zealous, and articulate advocates are not immune. (Homeschooling is hard! Not all the time, but hard at times nonetheless.) The first phase comes at the point in a family's homeschooling life when reading and math start becoming challenging for the oldest child (or maybe a middle child), usually around the age eight or so. Life just gets too complicated, especially if the family is spaced out in ages. It is hard to cater to the capriciousness of a two year old and simultaneously meet the very different learning-needs of a six year old and ten year old. The parents become overwhelmed with all the differing developmental needs of their children, and it is just easier to realign the family to cultural and family pressure and send their kids to school. If there are reading challenges -- especially if there are reading challenges -- family pressure (and "school culture" pressure) to conform is relentless. Parents get worried that they aren't doing the best for their children, that they will get behind. This is where parents get mired in their own schooling expectations … about grade level, and conformity to outside norms and why de-schooling ourselves becomes an imperative if we are going to move through this phase successfully. Also having a solid homeschooling community and a supportive family really helps.
The second phase is when their older child enters the teen phase of learning, which is -- as far as I can tell -- universal. I call this phase "mentor seeking." This is when a young person, usually in the 11-13 year old range (aka the onset of puberty) begins to find focus in their understanding of the world, is seeking a higher purpose to learning, and is no longer interested in play-based activities. They actively wish to find mentors outside the family for their particular learning aspirations. I've tutored home schooled high school students for years, all of whom were "mentor seeking." (I also now have a full-fledge "mentor seeking" teen, and one in the green-room of teen-dom at the age of ten.) Homeschooling co-ops, camps, and gatherings that do not fulfill this need in their teen population risk becoming irrelevant to young people in this phase. I've seen it happen over and over again. Every homeschooling/unschooling parent I've talked to who has made it through this particular phase still homeschooling says that it is a profound challenge; the most serious challenge that they've encountered in fact. And this is why so many parents "give up" at this stage and just send their kids to school. Or, inversely, it is at least one of the reasons why teens ask for their parents to send them to school for high school.
But wait. It should be easy for a homeschooling parent to find mentors for their teens… to help them find employment or apprenticeships… right? Wrong. It should be easy, but it most certainly isn't. I'm finding out that identifying these potential mentors for my teen and soon-to-be-teen is much harder than I originally thought, and it isn't for a lack of skilled adults out there. No one, or almost no one, takes teens seriously. (But there are exceptions -- see here…and here…and here.)
Teens are interested in real work and depth-learning. They deeply desire to be held as an adult in their real-life community and learn from adult-oriented interactions and experiences, but are thwarted at almost every turn. There are very few volunteer or job opportunities for those under the age of sixteen (insurance and state regulations, you know…) Classes for artistic endeavors almost universally lump teens with younger children (or with each other) in "beginner classes" or "after-school activities" that cater to the "we-want-adult-supervision-or-something-bad-might-happen" crowd rather than to the unique needs of the individual teen seeking depth and immersion. Adult classes are often held during the work-day during the week (for retired and semi-retired learners), but many of these potential mentors don't have their child-abuse and other required clearances (again insurance and state regulations)… it is too costly and onerous a burden to obtain, so these classes are just closed off to anyone under eighteen. I've also been told, as an aside, that no one really wants to converse with teens in an adult class. They want it to just be adults so that the topics don't have to be censored. And since no one really takes the teens seriously and they don't want to have to deal with the responsibility, "state regulation" is an easy excuse to make to parents like me asking for more. Even community-college classes can't accommodate younger learners, and anyway…for unschoolers…that is school, not mentorship. It sort of misses the point, unless the teen's goal is academics and college.
It makes me furious with frustration, because this is emblematic of much larger and deeper issues in our fear-and-control based culture, a culture of conformity that has made it almost impossible to treat teens like learning adults-to-be.
We miss so very much by falling into this cultural trap. Having teens mixed with adults in a learning environment helps reinforce very positive ideas about life and learning for everyone, like a) learning is a life-long endeavor; b) older teens and adults model adult behavioral expectations -- professionalism, mature conversation, concentration, c) intergenerational friendships provide spice and richness to life, no matter what age, and d) teens have a lot to teach their elders. Learning isn't a uni-directional activity, although most adults seem to think this is a deep Truth (with a capital "T"). Teens want more than almost anything to learn from and with adults, and to deny them these opportunities in the early years of their life (while simultaneously demanding that they spend their whole day, every day with same-age or younger peers) hinders and demeans our young people profoundly. I would argue that it damages natural maturation and falsely reinforces this self-fulfilling cycle: Phase 1: adults treat teens like children, demand that they stay in their age-range-based activities. Phase 2: Teens then learn social behavior from other children their same age, act poorly, and then Phase 3: adults treat the teens like children, because "See, they can't do better!" Wash, rinse, repeat.
Of course, teens still have the confusing and often maddening mixture of hormonal changes and lack of frontal lobe development, but this is not an excuse for adults to hold teens to low expectations and infantilize them. It is actually a reason for teens to be held close by their wider adult community and given real work to do to make themselves and their communities better, to focus their idealism, energy, and unique gifts on something worthwhile, to them and to us. They then grow into these expectations and are held when they falter.
There are so many ways we could assist, as a culture, our "mentor-seeking" tweens and teens. Rights of passage, (other than our age-based "rights" like drinking age, driving, and voting) rooted in our communities, would go a long way toward ushering young people into this new stage of learning. Programs focusing on rites of passage are becoming more and more common, but are far from being a part of every local community. Adults might want to consider creating locally-based rites of passage groups or supporting others when they do.
Other ways to be of service as a mentor -- Offer your skills through alternative systems like timebanks, homeschooling co-ops, or advertise your availability through Meet-Up, Craigslist, or local FB groups. One of the most enriching experiences of my adult life was mentoring a group of eight teens in studying the ancient world during their high school years (I have an advanced degree in the topic). They were each interested in the subject, and each in their own way, sought mentorship in our relationship. Now, several years later, I have eight young adult friends who have taught ME a tremendous amount as well. There is no reason why you can't do the same with your professional skills, whether they be art, programming, architecture, cooking, gardening, green-energy, woodworking, blacksmithing, or any number of different topics that might interest young people.
We might also assist this kind of learning if we made all high-school non-compulsory and brought mentorships into the building during the day/night, every day and every night, for all teen and adults to learn with/from. Simultaneously, we should allow for internships and employment for young people willing to work and learn. I'm not envisioning child-labor here…but spending years of your life learning a skill, say graphic design, if you want to do industrial art as an adult is not time misspent. Spending time learning calculus might, however, be time misspent for this person. Allowing flexibility and self-determination in learning, and supporting it fully, would help our young people thrive. Teens could explore many paths to a successful adult life by trying on many hats in their teen years.
Such changes in the way we learn would, however, have to be met with changes in ourselves and in our cultural expectations of young people, such as the myth of the "well-rounded student" or the myth that "everyone must go to college" or the myth that "success is defined solely by making money." We must all seek to re-align our values by prioritizing and supporting in everyone (teen or adult) the values of life-long learning, curiosity, happiness, empathy, care of the earth, and strong friendships over our go-go-go, strive-strive-strive, money-money-money cultural norms. A hard task, for sure, but not an impossible one.