Unschooled Teens: Learning without a Curriculum

If we don’t do classes, what DO we do?

All sorts of reasons exist to not duplicate school. Your own teen’s experiences (and possibly yours too!) have probably led you to explore this option of unschooling. Yes, it’s considered a pretty non-traditional or unconventional approach to educating children – but only during “the school years.”  It’s actually how humans learn most of the time! We learned this way before we became “school-aged” – and this is how we learn as adults. Before the industrial age, this was how everyone learned! But somehow, we were convinced that this one-size-fits-all way is the most beneficial and most efficient approach. And because of the conditioning we’ve all endured for years – decades even – these thoughts pop into our heads off and on for a long time.

The main worry is that we’re going to sabotage our kids’ chances for success…that’s the bottom line, right?

But that’s just a lack of confidence on parents’ part. Confidence can be restored with knowledge and information! So let’s dive in!

The big question that I hear from coaching clients is,

“OK, I like this idea, but what exactly are we going to do all day?”

And the answer is going to be different for every family and every child. But that’s the beauty of a truly unique learning environment!

Yes, it may be much EASIER to toss a textbook at a kid and say, “Here’s what you need to learn.” But it’s going to be TORTURE to get them to do it! (But you already know that, right?) Why do you think that is? I think it’s because buried deep inside them, kids know adults are not telling the truth. They don’t really “need to learn” it. They’re hardwired to be curious – and they know what they’re curious about. And it’s not THAT.

When a family first starts out in home education, they have a lot of deschooling to do. They think in terms of subjects, tests, and grades. But Real Life doesn’t come at you all broken into categories like that. It’s much more like those (dreaded) math word problems where you had to sift through finding what’s relevant and what isn’t.

So here are some points to remember when you’re trying to figure this out:

Start with their interests.
Your teenager may be interested in a variety of activities/topics or maybe just one. Talk with him/her about each of them and start the adventure of getting to know your teen and their curiosities at a deeper level. Instead of saying, “Well, you’ll never get a job doing THAT!” – help them explore it, knowing that one thing does lead to another. Their life is unfolding in front of all you! Exciting, right?

  • What did they enjoy doing before school got stressful or too busy?
  • Recognize that solitary interests may be part of their decompression period – be supportive.
  • Watch out for projection on your part – they are not you. They have their own path to carve.

Conversations are key.
A lot of people overlook or undervalue conversations with their kids. And yet, this is where your data-mining is often going to come from! Your teen will give you insight into what’s happening in their world, how they’re prioritizing things, and what they’d like to pursue. Sometimes they’re even a little hesitant to share because they’re not sure what your reaction might be – or maybe past experiences tell them what your reaction is likely to be, so they’re worried! You have a chance to change that. If you want an honest dialogue, everyone needs to be able to share their thoughts without being worried about judgement or criticism. And, if their ideas are still somewhat naïve and unrealistic, know that they will change with maturity and especially if they feel you’re being supportive.

  • Some of the best conversations happen late at night – take a nap in the afternoon so you’re ready for that!
  • Realize that communication is sometimes nonverbal. Notice cues and indications as to preferences and dislikes.
  • Less is more when it comes to parents talking. Remember the Charlie Brown depiction of adults voices sounding like, “Wah-wah-wah-wah”? Don’t create patterns where tuning you out is the norm.
  • Avoid dominating the conversation – listen more.
  • When it comes to making suggestions, think of it as quick seed-planting. That’s it. Let them ponder your ideas without a lot of input from you.

Enjoy opportunities to bond.
If you’ve been trying to get them to do their school work up until this point, you may have some relationship repair to do. Make the decision to drop any efforts to coerce your teen into doing anything. This only widens the wedge between the two of you. Instead, focus on enjoying your time together. (Truth is, you only have a couple years left of them home with you.) What you choose to do will depend on what the two of you enjoy doing together. But that’s the important part – that you enjoy the activity together.

  • Maybe you like baking together. Or maybe creating a meal, each doing a different aspect of it. Or maybe you’re cooking and they’re sitting on the counter chatting with you, keeping you company.
  • Maybe you like watching movies together, or talking about documentaries that are interesting or relevant in their lives. Or maybe it’s the Discovery channel for something new and different, or MythBusters, or Shark week. Maybe you need something quick and funny like Jerry Seinfield’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee or James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke.
  • Maybe you’d sign up for a yoga class together, or a class at Whole Foods about using knives, or a speaker series at the local university. Not only will this give you more to talk about but making this a priority shows how you value the relationship.

Brainstorm about things they can do on their own at home.
Sometimes teens need to be reminded of some the activities that are available to do at home – create a big brainstorming session together.

  • Make a list of solo activities your teen enjoys but maybe hasn’t had time to do recently. Go room by room, because something in a particular place may jog your memory.

For instance:
Kitchen = cooking, eating.
Living Room = TV, hobbies?
Bedroom = art/drawing, napping, daydreaming.
Anywhere else= Music, chatting with family members, brush/walk the dog.

  • Forget about the idea of whether you consider it worthwhile or productive. Help them figure out what choices they want to make when they have “down time.” We all have to figure this out at some point – who we are and what we like to do with our lives. This is just practicing for later, when they won’t have your help. Trial and error is a learning process.

What’s out in their community?
What do they enjoy doing that is beyond your home? Now’s the time to brainstorm about this too!

  • Think seasonally. What rolls around in your part of the country each year? Festivals, outdoor events and activities – these are all opportunities to expand their world. You never know what (or who!) you might run into when you’re out there.
  • Sports aren’t only at schools. They also happen through recreation centers, and private companies, and open parks. Yes, sometimes you’ll pay for them – but if your teen wants to explore something, it’s a worthwhile investment. Team sports are available. Solo sports are too – and if they really enjoy them, they’ll be able to easily carry them into young adulthood. Watch for local fun runs around town or maybe help out with the Special Olympics.
  • Community workshops and quick classes are available to pursue an interest or dip their toe in a curiosity. Maybe they’d like to take a cake decorating class at Michael’s or learn to sew in a fabric store class. Or maybe you can hire a local photographer to help them learn more about their new camera – or even create a group class where they shoot photos downtown. The sky’s the limit!
  • Community service is always a good endeavor to pursue and so many options exist. Helping at soup kitchens, giving out food to the homeless, working with Habitat for Humanity, reading at a library program – this barely scratches the surface for all the ways your teen can contribute to the community. Making real contributions like this is empowering and helps them see that they are connected to others in the world and that they do, in fact, matter.

Lead by example.
If you think you think your teen should be exercising more, are you exercising? And enjoying it? If you want more family time, what are you doing to help create that and make it an enjoyable experience? Don’t just talk the talk, they’re really waiting to see if you’ll walk the walk. And, take the opportunity to connect with your teen. Sometimes they don’t know how to ask for it, but they’re looking for more connection with you! Developing that relationship will be so beneficial.

So back to the question of “How will I know what to do?”

The answer is standing right in front of you: Your child – regardless of their age. They have interests, even if they might be somewhat buried at the moment. While your role is to help them uncover those curiosities, it may take a while. And it may look like they’re “doing nothing.” This is the time to reframe what you’re expecting and focus on connecting with them. Remember that their communication isn’t always verbal. Your kids will give you all the clues to what lights them up, what they’re curious about, where they want to go in their lives. We have to get out of the habit of trying to direct everything. Your job as the parent is pay attention to that – ask questions, listen, notice. Give them room to take the reins, helping as much or as little as they seem to want.


If you’d like to read more about what 75 young people ACTUALLY did during their teen years, check out my book, Homeschooled Teens

And if you think this sounds like a great idea, but you want a some help figuring it out for your family, make an appointment to talk with me! 

 

About Sue Patterson

Wife. Mom. Daughter. Nana. Mentor. Coach. Writer. Editor. Speaker. Activist. Find me also at: Instagram: @UnschoolingMom2Mom Twitter: @Sue5 Pinterest: /umom2mom Facebook: /UnschoolingMom2Mom AND /SuePattersonCoaching
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