Unschooling Teens

So……. the big t.t.t.t.teenager question!! Many people feel confident to homeschool or unschool the primary years, but when it comes to the high school age group their legs turn to jelly! I guess I can understand this in a way. I mean, we all dropped out of school before the high school years didn’t we? So we wouldn’t have a clue, of course! But the truth is, most of us (if not all of us) went to high school and even graduated from high school, but somehow we don’t feel confident to walk through these years alongside our teenagers. We can so easily sit in a place of fear, biting our nails, and looking anxiously over our shoulder to see how everyone else is performing, and looking at our own child, wondering if they’ll “turn out okay”.

The truth is, though, that if they know how to find out answers to their questions, and they have curious minds, and a good relationship with their family, THEY. WILL. BE. OKAY!! In fact, they will be more than okay, they will thrive!!

But here is the disclaimer: it might not look anything like you expect it to, or like you hoped it would! My husband had expected that our kids would grow up to be academic types, following the traditional university route, but at this point in time, that doesn’t seem to be the case. And you know what? It really doesn’t matter! The world needs a huge variety of people to make it interesting, and to make it function well. I don’t see any of us telling the garbage truck driver to leave the bin on the side of the road thanks, we’re happy to take it to the tip ourselves every week! My teens aren’t planning to drive a garbage truck for a living, but you know what? Someone has to have that job, or we’re all going to bemoan the day we thought “everyone should go to uni”. Of course, we all want our children to be “successful”; but it’s helpful to think about what success really means!

So what about my teenagers?? Well it’s a long time since we’ve done any kind of traditional “school work”. My oldest just turned 18 (how did THAT happen!!) and he left school when he was in Year 5. My second oldest is 15 and he left school when he was in Year 3. Since then (after about one week of grade level, schoolish workbooks), our life has really been totally free-form, free-ranging, come-what-may….. We’ve done what we wanted to do, when we wanted to do it. We’ve been to interesting places, done interesting things, met interesting people, and also done a whole lot of ……. NOTHING!

And you know what? I think teenagers really need the opportunity to do that! Or NOT to do it, as the case may be! 🙂  Time to daydream, sleep in, stay up late, eat lots of food, read books & magazines (or not), sleep in, play games of all types (yes, including the electrical kind), sleep in, hang out with friends, eat lots of food, spend long days at the beach, sleep in, go to the skate park, kick a football around, eat lots of food, join a gym, sleep in, watch movies, eat lots of food, explore their interests, go on family holidays, sleep in, ….. Oh did I mention food?? And sleeping???

Seriously, sometimes it feels like teenagers (well, boys at least, I haven’t had a girl teen yet) go to sleep as boys one day, and wake up about 2 years later all hairy and with deep voices. (And sometimes the hair is a bit on the wild side!!)

Somehow they manage to get up for food, but apart from that it can seem that for quite some time they’re not doing much else. And you know what? That’s OK! In fact, I think it’s probably exactly what they need.

And it’s exactly what they usually DON’T get if they go to school. I am so glad my boys have had the chance to take life at their own pace, rather than being swept along in the madness and driven-ness of school and all the extra-curricular activities. I still remember the sadness I felt when watching an SBS documentary where they were trying to help a teenager who was very depressed and had been suicidal. He was having trouble sleeping, and having trouble getting up for school. They tested him and found that he had “delayed sleep phase syndrome”. The solution they prescribed included light therapy etc, to try to get his body clock to be more synchronised with the hours of the school system, so he could cope with getting up for school etc. He tried the therapy for awhile but did not stick with it. At the end of the program there was a discussion with the psychologist and the boys’ mother, and the comment was made that he “simply has to go to school” so they had to do whatever they could to get him through. I thought it was tragic, and I’d hate to think how they would feel if he ended up acting on his suicidal thoughts. I beg to differ about the idea that he “has to go to school”. He could leave school, and live in harmony with his natural sleep patterns! I imagine they didn’t realise homeschooling or unschooling was a valid option? I know that I would never make my child stay in a situation where they were depressed and suicidal because they were so chronically tired. And I am so thankful that my teenagers have been able to sleep when they’re tired, and get up when they’ve had enough sleep. And you know what? They spent a lot of time sleeping in very late, but they’re also very capable of getting up at the crack or dawn or before, if they want to go for an early surf, or if they have to be at work early, or if they just decide they want to get up earlier. No problems.

There’s also another aspect of adolescence that seems vital, and that’s having the opportunity to do something REAL, that matters. Schools do this by offering leadership opportunities, etc, but this will only suit the cream of the crop. The vast majority will be going through the motions that have been chosen for them. What I love about unschooling teens is that they get to do what matters – to them! It’s authentic, it’s real, it’s usually self-initiated (yet supported by their parents where necessary or helpful)! They get to be true to themselves, and really get to know themselves, their likes and dislikes & their interests (without being limited to school type subjects, or having to choose electives that are on the right strand, or that the school offers).

For quite awhile it seemed that my teenagers’ only “subject” was bodyboarding! Outside of that it seemed they just “loafed around”, spent time on Facebook, watched TV etc. I felt concerned for awhile. OK, I admit it, I was very concerned. I was worried that they “weren’t learning anything”. I kept suggesting things they could be “doing” but was usually met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. I kept trying to think of ways to bring more things into their life in keeping with their passion. I subscribed them to bodyboarding magazines (English: check), I bought a book they seemed interested in called “The Science of Surfing” (English/Science: check) etc…… I’m sure those things helped, but what was most important, I think, was to really learn to TRUST. Not to fear.

I am so glad I didn’t interfere out of panic. I offered lots of ideas and possibilities, and I learned (eventually) not to judge their “No thanks” answer, either with a sigh or rolled eyes (I didn’t even realise I was doing that until they pointed it out, because it was very subtle).

My now 18 year old son (as of a couple of days ago) decided a couple of years back that he REALLY wanted to get his “Year 10 Certificate” through the TAFE system. This came about mostly because all of his friends from his work went to school, and that’s what they were doing. They were getting that piece of paper that said they’d made it to that level of education. My son placed a lot more value on it than I did, I have to say!. I tried to encourage him to study a specific subject area at TAFE, rather than the “General Vocation & Education” course that was the equivalency to Year 10 at school. But he was absolutely determined. He started off studying by correspondence but realised that didn’t suit him, so the following year he applied to go to TAFE face to face and complete his studies there. And you know what? He THRIVED. His teachers rave about him, referring to him as their “best student”, and he has finished off the year with distinctions in most subjects. Personally, I found the TAFE system to be a good follow-on from unschooling, because the students are treated as adults and with a lot more autonomy than the school system can give. Admittedly, most kids his age have completed their next level of schooling, but I honestly don’t think that matters. My son has enjoyed a rich and interesting adolescence, and he has chosen of his own volition to get this formal qualification. He how has a few eggs in the basket and he’s not sure which one he will act on. He is applying for an apprenticeship, he has applied to do a Certificate 3 in Fitness at TAFE, and he’s doing a Barista course later this year. These are all things of his own choosing. In fact, I didn’t even realise he’d started the proceedings for procuring an apprenticeship until after it had happened! He has also entertained the idea of perhaps studying teaching at uni (which is kind of funny!) or even the police force. I can really see him doing any of these things, and he has the determination and perseverance to achieve whatever he sets his mind to.

My 15 year old son ended up getting a job at McDonalds when he was 14 (his big brother had done the same thing), and while he was still 14 he was promoted to crew trainer. After 6-12 months he’d had enough of that type of work and decided to leave. When he told his boss at work that he was considering leaving and going to TAFE, his boss really didn’t want to let him go, and convinced him to study a Certificate 2 in Retail through his work. My son, being the wise one that he is, decided it seemed logical, since they would supervise his course and also pay for it! He’s almost finished that Certificate now. They said it would take 2 years. It has taken about 3 months. Now he’s decided that he’s very keen to get into the cafe scene, so he is going to do a barista course, and has applied to study a Certificate 3 in Hospitality at TAFE next year. He’s been looking up to see how far he can go with studies in that subject area, because he’d probably like to go to uni one day. He’s very keen to explore the possibility of owning or managing a cafe, too. He’s also contemplated the idea of counselling, which doesn’t surprise me, because people are often turning to him for advice, support and encouragement. He is incredibly insightful, perceptive and intuitive, with a deep understanding of human nature and behaviour. And that would come in really handy in the hospitality industry too. In fact, it’s a skill that will help him immensely, no matter what he decides to do.

I feel so blessed to have had these boys at home throughout their teenage years. Well, not always at home! Often gallavanting around the countryside! But I’m glad that home has been their base, not the schoolyard. I’m glad they’ve been free to be themselves, and to now step out and explore various opportunities for study and work outside of the family unit. It has not been a bed of roses, and living in close proximity can at times put stresses and strains on the familial relationships, but when all is said and done, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I don’t know what the future holds for them, but I know it will be just what they want it to be, which means it will be wonderful.

It will be interesting to see if there are any differences in terms of process and outcome with my younger two children, who have never been to school.

Published by

Karen Lee

FAMILY: Married since 1989 (does that make me old?), a full-time Mum since 1993, and unschooling my kids since 2005. On a journey of learning to live free and fully loved as God intended, following Jesus rather than an institution or "religion". Caring for the world and its people as best as I can.

6 thoughts on “Unschooling Teens”

  1. What a fantastic post, Karen! It's such a big concern for people isn't it? 'What will you do for high school?' We are continually asked that question lately as Lewi has just turned 12 and would possibly be going into high school next year if he was a schooly. The whole teenage thing is so suited to unschoolibf. It's perfect for them because, like you said, they will get the time they need to eat, sleep and learn in a good balance. I'm going to forward your post onto all of those with teens or who have kids like my Lewi, who are in their last years of pre-teenhood.Thanks again, Karen, for a really great read. PS Oh and I know of a guy with a uni degree who worked on the garbage run for awhile and he loved it!

  2. My oldest is 8 right now. I can't wait to have a house full of teens. I think we had the most fun with my mom and dad after the age of 12. When we could drive, it was even better. I guess we were not normal teens, not filled with angst and we didn't think our parents were stupid. My mom was a blast, and that relationship has carried out through adulthood. I am so sad when people tell me things like "oh man, kids are great until they become teenagers then you'll hate em" it boggles me!! Your boys look like happy, well rounded awesome guys.

  3. Great post Karen, especially when so many worry about whether they are doing the right thing allowing freedom! It's really wonderful to hear the real life stories of people we know and your thoughts. I know you must be very proud of all of your family and the life long journey you are all on together. It is so sad when people do not realise that there is always other options that our children not society's expectations is the important thing. Thankyou so much for posting. Hope to catch up in the New Year!

  4. That was beautifully written. Thank you for sharing this on the CU FB group. My oldest is 9 but I was very encouraged and inspired by everything that I read. We've been unschoolers from the beginning but there were times in the past that I thought I should make him do "school." I'm glad that it rarely happened.

  5. Great post Karen. Those of us with younger kids look to you as someone who has been there, done that – its so encouraging to see that they do turn out ok – with some trust :)I also had to revise my expectations – I always assumed that Billy would go to uni, but he tells me (at this stage) he doesn't want to. He's going to set up a computer gaming company instead. And you know, that's been one of my own biggest personal growths – to stop thinking that "going to uni" was the ultimate in accomplishment and to realise that what I really want is for him to be happy. No matter what he's doing, what he's earning – I want him to be passionate about it and love his life.

  6. 🙂 Thanks for humoring me. Great post!I truthfully believe unschooling in high school is WAY more important than elementary school. I've seen so many of my 'relaxed' hsing friends reign in their kiddos during high school which is SO counterproductive in my opinion. We've guided them through handwriting and reading and math and writing… high school is the time for them to spread their wings and practice using those skills as they choose!I'm really feeling like an oddball since I've decided to completely let go of the reigns. :p

Comments are closed.