What? You’re a TEENAGER??

Recently my teenage daughter and I listened to someone give a dry run of a speech about education. The speaker talked about his experiences teaching at a public high school. When he finished, my daughter, as one of the teens in the audience, was asked for her feedback.

She explained that since she doesn’t go to high school, she had no direct experience with the specific details in the speech. “I do take classes at community colleges, though,” she continued, “They don’t know how old I am, so they just treat me like the rest of the adult students, and I like that.”

I wondered whether the assembled adults would absorb the profundity of that statement. Homeschooled teens have the opportunity to enroll in advanced classes, get jobs, volunteer, or otherwise function as adults out in the world. Time and again, I’ve seen my own kids and others rise to the challenge with flying colors.

When the kids are outed as kids, the adults are inevitably surprised and impressed. But here’s the thing. In the kids’ minds, they’re not rising to any sort of challenge, they’re just pursuing something they care about, without the impediment of any pre-conceived notions about what they’re capable of because of their age.

So often when I hear people talk about education, whether it’s school professionals or homeschooling parents, the emphasis is on how to make students do or learn particular things. What materials will bring out the best in them? What methods will get them to learn what we think they need to learn?

What if all these methods and materials are actually obstacles in our kids’ way? What if we cleared the path and let them lead? What if we believed in them enough to send them out into the world to pursue what they care about?

Believing in the competence of teens to learn, work, and make meaningful contributions can be a challenge in our culture, which tends to portray teens as lazy, immature, and sometimes even scary, but the rewards, for all of us, are immeasurable.

Kids and structure

In these times when structured programs and expert instruction are available for everything, people can come to believe that allowing kids an open schedule with plenty of free play will keep them from future success. How, they may ask, will kids be able to structure their lives if they just run around and play all the time?

Thanks to a recent study, we have the beginnings of a scientific answer. The University of Colorado Boulder found that the less time kids spent in structured activities, the better they were at setting and achieving their own goals. While this may cause some people to do a double take, if we put aside societal messages about kids and achievement and reconnect with our common sense, the results become completely unsurprising.

After all, what do kids do when left alone to play? They imagine, they ponder, and they figure stuff out. When my daughters were young children, they had a game called Little People Land. In this elaborate set-up, they created a community complete with government, services, and recreation for its citizens. Little People Land was generally a happy place, but sometimes problems arose and had to be addressed. In the game of Little People Land, the players processed all facets of life as they observed them. It was a place to practice, if you will, being grown-ups while still relishing the joys of childhood.

When left to their own devices, kids become very good at using their time constructively. They decide, for example, when to leave Little People Land for lunch, or physical activity outdoors. They decide whether to read a book, and for how long, or whether writing or drawing or building or baking should be on the day’s agenda instead. When they’re in an unsupervised game with other kids, they negotiate the rules and structure. Those of us who’ve observed kids living this way know that they don’t just wander aimlessly through life. Goal setting and organizational skills are part of the vast and valuable skill set they develop.

Letting kids play can make life easier for parents in the long term, too. Now that my kids are teens, they have no problem being in charge of their lives. They balance complicated schedules which involve college classes, jobs, volunteer positions, and performances. How much executive function does it take to start a theater company, for instance, as one daughter has done? Choosing plays, scheduling auditions, casting, creating rehearsal schedules, renting a theater, putting together costumes, learning lines, directing the play, and getting the word out to the public – yeah, it takes quite a lot.

I’m glad that science is validating the value of unstructured time for kids, but I didn’t need a study to know that those years in Little People Land were well spent. Play on.

Solitude

This is a typical day around my house: I’m working in my office, and both teenagers are in their rooms doing whatever it is they need to do. I have a vague idea of what that is — homework, writing papers and articles, preparing auditions, getting ready for upcoming performances and commitments.

Really, though, they could just as easily be reading a book that has nothing to do with work or school requirements, writing in a journal, listening to music, drawing, daydreaming, or sleeping. I don’t really know, and that’s the point.

Time alone is valuable, and it can be hard to come by in the frenetic pace of modern life. We are blessed to live in a bustling city with oodles of opportunities, but that doesn’t negate the need for rest, renewal, and reflection. I’ve seen plenty of homeschooling families (including my own), miscalculate and burn out on overscheduling. One of the gifts of homeschooling is the ability to bring our schedules back into balance, and get that much needed solitude back into our lives.

I have a few extroverted children, and one introvert, and solitude has helped all of them. Self-knowledge, relaxation, idea percolation, creativity, and overall health and well-being are all fostered by solitude. Thoreau knew it, Einstein knew it, and so do you, because it’s hard-wired in all of us.

Solitude for kids and teens is underrated, but their humanity cries out for private time as much as any adult. So when your kids are just hanging out, in their rooms, in the backyard, on a walk through the neighborhood, doing nothing much that you can see, just think about the importance of solitude, and the possibilities of things they’re incubating: Ideas. Others. Peace. Being happy. Themselves.

Or just keep this Franz Kafka quote nearby: You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Give your kids have their solitude, grab some for yourself, and let the world start rolling.

The benefits of age-mixing

What about socialization?

It’s a question homeschooling parents hear all the time. Those of us who are seasoned homeschoolers know it’s a non-issue.

In fact, the opportunities for mixed-age socialization is one of homeschooling’s great benefits. At homeschooling park days, kids of all ages interact and play with each other. My teens attend one where some kids engage in a game of ultimate frisbee, while others play capture the flag, and still others enjoy the playground or brook.

Generally, it’s teenagers who play ultimate frisbee, but an interested and motivated younger child would not be turned away. Sometimes, you can see younger children watching the game with rapt attention, clearly admiring the “big kids” and looking forward to joining their ranks. When a younger kid wants to be in the game, the older kids get to mentor them.

In recent years, I’ve noticed a tendency in homeschooling support groups to create events that are age-segregated. If these gatherings are a small part of a person’s life, and the person is engaging in the larger world full of many different kinds of people, they can be just one component of a full life. But sometimes I feel like the push toward creating age-segregated events in homeschooling groups is driven by our cultural obsession with age segregation.

There’s research on the benefits of mixed-age groups, but even without empirical evidence, my common sense and my own experience tell me that age-mixing is a better choice. We all gain knowledge, perspective, compassion, and confidence from interacting with people from all stages of life.

When older children serve as mentors and role models for younger children, either intentionally (by acting as a teacher, director, or tutor, for example), or inadvertently (by playing in their presence a robust game of ultimate frisbee that involves cooperation and skill), the benefits are tremendous. Adults also reap rewards from developing relationships with kids.

It’s true that sometimes parameters need to be set for a group. Parents who want to start a math club might need to define the level of ability required to join. A writing group might necessitate a particular skill level to participate. In all these cases, homeschooling parents can consider ability rather than age as the most important criteria.

When my son was turning 16, the list of invitees for his birthday party included homeschooled and schooled kids ranging in age from toddlers to teens, homeschooling parents and other adults he counted as friends, and adult members of his birding group. The gathering reflected what I have seen to be true time and again — homeschoolers raised with plenty of mixed-age experiences become socially well-adjusted teens and adults who enjoy relationships with all kinds of people.

Interactions with people of all ages is something which homeschooling naturally offers, so get over the idea that classes, activities, and other programs need to be defined by age, and enjoy and reap the benefits of age mixing.

The fuss over ’50 Shades of Grey’

Everywhere I turn the past week, I see news about the dangers of 50 Shades of Grey. It will teach our daughters that pain is erotic, for example, and it will teach our sons that women want to be controlled. I haven’t seen the movie, but I doubt one film could impart lessons that lasting (whether we have a larger social problem along those lines is another matter).

Don’t let your kids see 50 Shades of Grey, the warnings proclaim. Because, well, this. It’s a letter to young people by a psychiatrist. Since I have teen daughters, and thought I might get good guidance from it, I clicked on the link. Whether people read the book or see the movie, whether people feel comfortable with their teenage daughters doing so, and how they talk to their kids about it are all personal decisions. Different families will have different responses based on their values, personalities, and dynamics. But after reading psychiatrist Miriam Grossman’s letter, I wondered why on earth anyone would want to show that to their daughters. Besides the didactic, condescending tone, there’s this pronouncement:

“A psychologically healthy woman avoids pain. She wants to feel safe, respected and cared for by a man she can trust. She dreams about  wedding gowns, not handcuffs.”

Whoa! Let’s make blanket statements about how a psychologically healthy woman should feel. About a man, of course. Psychologically healthy women couldn’t have romantic feelings for anything but a man, right? And hello, wedding gowns? What century are we living in?

Then there’s this: “Sure, Anastasia had free choice – and she chose poorly. A self-destructive decision is a bad decision.” Poor choices, bad decisions. Not much of a leap to bad person. Not a message I want to convey to my kids, unless I’m completely positive they’ll never, ever make a choice or decision that’s anything less than perfect.

About experimenting with sexuality, the good doctor says it might be okay, “for adults in a long term, healthy, committed, monogomous relationship, AKA ‘marriage’.” There go those wedding gowns again. One thing she says that I do agree with is that the plot of 50 Shades of Grey could happen “only in a movie.” Ironically, her idea of chaste young ladies with visions of wedding gowns dancing in their heads seems just as fantastical.

I’m no psychiatrist, but I’m pretty sure that showing this letter to anyone would make them more likely to want to see the movie (especially if they didn’t already know that Beyonce is on the soundtrack). And seriously, didn’t we learn anything from Nancy Reagan, Just Say No, and D.A.R.E.?

A just say no attitude spiced with a heavy dose of judgment isn’t going to keep kids away from self-destructive sexual behavior any more than it keeps them away from drugs. This 2013 Scientific American article talks about why Just Say No doesn’t work, and what methods have proven to be effective. Not surprisingly, they involve “substantial amounts of interaction” between adults and young people, and “lessons that are reinforced over time.”

As parents, we have the opportunity to put those kinds of responses into practice with our kids. We can take a simplistic, punitive approach to what, for better or worse, is a very popular movie, or we can use it as an opportunity for discussion about sex and relationships, both of which, whether Dr. Grossman likes it or not, are not black and white.

Do kids have to go to college?

College has been on my mind lately. We’re knee-deep in the application process for my third child, who hopes to attend a school of her choice in the fall. Of my four children, she’s the only one who unequivocally wanted or wants to attend college. My oldest didn’t go, my second quit after two years, and number four is on the fence. Does that make you pause? In a world where the conventional wisdom seems to be that college is a necessity, I wouldn’t be surprised. Just last week, the New York Times published a piece called Is Your First Grader College Ready. It was meant to be provocative, but only fuels the entrenched notion that eschewing college means no chance for a successful life.

Neither of my parents had much formal education. My mother, who came to the United States in the 1950’s at the age of 27, left school when she was 11 because she was needed at home. There were zero books in her house, and precious few in her tiny village in the mountains of Italy. Like most people of her generation and her background, she sees education as the ticket to opportunity, economic success, and ultimately, happiness. Statistics about the earning power of those with and without college degrees seem to prove her right. And yet, the promise of college has turned into a broken dream for so many young people shouldering massive debt from student loans, and seeking difficult-to-land jobs in our rapidly-changing economy.

Despite this, most teenagers assume college is a requirement. “Where are you applying?” is a standard question for young people, most of whom are given the message by their families, schools, and the larger culture that college is expected. Somehow, I didn’t get that memo. Although I loved school, including college, in raising my own kids I chose to embrace a completely different educational paradigm.

***

What about college?

When it comes to the most common questions directed at homeschoolers, it’s second only to What about socialization?

Last year when I was conducting a workshop for new homeschoolers, someone in the audience asked whether my kids got into college. Not whether my kids chose college, not what my kids were doing with their lives, but whether they were able to get in. I replied that my eldest didn’t go to college and my second quit after two years, but my third was about to apply. Maybe I imagined the deflated look on the woman’s face, but I don’t think so. Homeschooling parents and others can take admission to college as evidence of success, and a job well done. A child who doesn’t get into the college of their choice, or who doesn’t choose college at all, can hit current or prospective homeschooling parents in an emotional weak spot. I get that. I found myself pulling my hair out when my son decided to quit college to pursue a career as a full-time folk musician. But what did I expect? He was raised unconventionally, to see possibilities beyond the beaten path.

***

Years ago, Peter Kowalke made a movie called Grown Without Schooling. It profiled several young adults who’d been homeschooled in the 1970s and 80s. You’d be hard pressed to find commonalities among them. The one I noticed was that they were all open, self-aware, and thoughtful about their lives and choices. For some, that didn’t include college, or entrepreneurship, or traditional employment.

I attended a showing of the movie for homeschooling parents. At the post-screening discussion, it was fascinating to see how unsettled many of them were. They found it difficult to accept that each and every one of the grown homeschoolers couldn’t be held up as “successes” in the eyes of society. I understand the reaction. We all want what’s best for our kids. Our culture puts so much responsibility on parents for how kids “turn out,” and homeschooling only magnifies that burden. But our kids are individuals, like us. There’s a certain amount of irony in play when homeschooling parents expect their kids to take a traditional path. Our homeschooled children know better than we that learning doesn’t have to happen in a school. They’ve lived it. Ultimately, they’ll take the paths they choose, and if we can take a deep breath and relax, watching those paths unfold can be a learning opportunity for us.

 ***

 Almost daily, my daughter receives glossy flyers from universities all over the country, decorated with color photos of satisfied students engaged in studious conversation, working in state-of-the-art labs, using impressive facilities. These schools are trying to sell their product, and they want to make it look as attractive as possible. The value of knowledge for its own sake, and the profound effect that deep learning experiences have in making us who we are, don’t appear to be paramount. Mark Edmundson talks about this in his book Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education. He says about formal schooling, “We are educated to fill roles, not to expand our minds and deepen our hearts. We are tooled to slide into a social machine and function smoothly with a little application from time to time of the right pleasing grease. Education now prepares us for a life of conformity and and workplace tedium, in exchange for which we can have our iPhones, our flat screens, our favorite tunes, Facebook and Twitter.” One of the reasons I chose homeschooling was to keep my kids from sliding into the emptiness of the social machine. As a result of homeschooling, our adult children often have a broader sense of options and possibilities. They aren’t machines that need to be well-oiled by social constructs. They can create, and nurture, themselves.

 ***

 There’s much to be gained from the resources available at a university (and Edmundson has much to say about this in his book), especially when the student enters with an intact love of learning. But is attendance necessary for “success” or even to become educated? I think not, and the sooner we parents get that, the better.  Of course college degrees can open doors for their recipients, but it’s possible to get jobs, start businesses, learn trades, and live fulfilling lives without a college degree. What’s more important than any piece of paper is the process of becoming an educated person. As homeschooling parents, this is what we’ve offered our children. We plant the seeds and guide them when they’re young, but by the time they reach college age, however they extend the process is up to them. Whether they choose college or not is immaterial to whether their education will continue. As Edmundson puts it, “…what we want is real learning—learning that will help us see the world anew and show us that there could be more to our lives than we had thought.” That kind of priceless education can happen anywhere.

Sibling harmony

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I lead a creative writing workshop for homeschooled kids, and two of its members are sisters. It’s pretty endearing to see the way they cheer each other on, support each other’s work, and just generally adore each other. When one brings a story to share, her sister’s eyes light up. When the story is read, there is enthusiastic applause. The love goes both ways.

In a culture where rivalry and discord are assumed inevitabilities of the sibling relationship, what I’ve described might seem like an anomaly. It’s not an anomaly among homeschooling families. Homeschooled siblings are often close, supportive friends. Instead of spending the majority of their days apart from each other, in separate classrooms, and sometimes even separate schools, they grow up working, playing, and solving problems together. They bond.

I’ve seen the closeness my own kids developed as young children carry on into adolescence and adulthood. Much of this has to do with the time they’re able to spend together, but there are probably other factors involved. There’s no peer pressure from schoolmates telling them it’s uncool to spend time with a little brother or sister. Homeschoolers are not regularly judged and evaluated by education professionals, and hence are less likely to look outside themselves for validation and compare themselves to their siblings. A homeschooling lifestyle is simply less stressful for kids, and less stress means more peace and joy in any family.

Does all this mean jealousy, bickering, and spats are nonexistent? Of course not. Homeschooling isn’t perfect, but it is a lifestyle that allows siblings to really know and appreciate each other, warts and all. Disagreements are opportunities to work through issues, and doing that successfully teaches tolerance and deepens relationships.

Can you work and homeschool?

In many homeschooling families, parents create a division of labor in which one works full time and the other stays home with the kids. While this may be the most obvious set-up for homeschooling, it’s not the only option. Single parents and families with two working parents also homeschool quite happily. Below are ideas for making homeschooling work when you have to work.

Be flexible When both parents want to or need to work, seek non-traditional employment situations. I have a part-time job that offers a semi-flexible schedule I fulfill partially at the office and partially at home. My husband is a musician with a flexible schedule and work hours that fall mostly on afternoons, evenings, and weekends. Did you find the key word in that? It’s flexible. If there’s any way you can find a job with flexible hours you’ll have an easier time creating a workable homeschooling schedule. The other situation that’s advantageous for homeschooling is the ability to work at home.

Who’s the boss? Another option is to be your own boss. Homeschooling parents have been known to start their own businesses and hence make their own hours. Fields I’ve seen work for people include child care, catering, teaching, editing, dog walking, and web design.

Assess your options Creativity and cooperation are your friends in this endeavor. Sit down with your partner and brainstorm. Can either of you work different hours? Fewer hours? Work at home? Take your children to work with you? Can you take turns working? In one family I know, the dad works for a few years, then the mom takes a turn. When my 16-year-old was an infant, I worked at night and brought her to the office with me. The key here is keeping an open mind and understanding that once you start thinking outside the box, you do have options.

Use the village What if you’re a single parent and don’t have a partner with whom to negotiate this territory? Or, what if you’re in a situation where there are hours during the week when both parents simply have to be at work? In cases like this, look to your homeschooling support group. Often, you can find another homeschooling family willing to work with your kids on a regular basis for a fee or even barter. If your needs are sporadic, swapping child care is an option. Sometimes, the solution involves several families helping each other with rides, kid watching, and more. Figuring out a schedule that offers your child a satisfying homeschooling experience might not be simple, but it can be successfully done. Don’t be afraid to ask for (and offer) help. Another obvious solution is hiring a teacher or tutor to be with your kids in your home while you’re at work. While that may seem easier, it’s far more costly and in the end, may not be as rich and rewarding.

Ask the kids Don’t forget to involve your children in the discussion. They’re stakeholders in the outcome, and they may have some great ideas for solutions, too. Remember that the window for needing someone to be with your kids while you work is relatively small. Each family has to make personal decisions about when kids can start staying home alone, but regardless of yours, in the scheme of a lifetime the period during which you’ll have to juggle working and homeschooling is not long. Another payoff for doing it is that homeschoolers tend to be self-sufficient and independent, which makes homeschooling and working during the teenage years, when kids can get around on their own and are capable of taking charge of their own educations, even easier.

Owning it

It was tech week for Romeo and Juliet, and the teen that was supposed to sit at the ticket table couldn’t make it.

Enter a mom to help out.

This mom, while stocking the refreshment table, overheard the following remark. Friar Laurence to Romeo: ‘We really need a kid to sell tickets.’

My gut reaction of hey-whaddaya-mean-we-grown-ups-count-too was as fleeting as the wink of an eye, and about as ironic. Wasn’t this what all the homeschooling stuff was about, anyway? Confidence, independence, and things of that ilk?

On the website for Youthquake Theater, they claim the following: ‘We are proud to say that our productions are organized, acted, and directed entirely by children and teens.’ I’ve been around for all of their shows, and can unreservedly say they’re not exaggerating. Grown-up involvement is limited to transporting actors to rehearsals and performances, and selling tickets and refreshments.

We also get to watch, with great pleasure, the process of kids taking ownership of their work. Although I’ve seen it in many forms over the years, it never fails to elicit a kind of transcendent astonishment, a feeling of being surprised but not surprised, a sense of excitement as I watch what I know to be true — that kids are brilliant and capable  — come true.

The ability to own their work isn’t limited to kids who are homeschooled, but they’re in a better position to do it than kids who spend their days being told what to do, how to do it, and whether they’re good enough.

I’ve watched my own kids, as teens, become competent songwriters, play in professional musical ensembles, co-author psychological research, record CDs, sell art work at fairs and open studios, start a theater company specializing in the work of William Shakespeare, write and edit professionally, tutor grade school kids in math, answer phones at a suicide hotline, build websites for their various undertakings, and pursue academic subjects of their choice with zeal. I’ve been privileged to see other teens embrace their work with dedication and competence, too. I think what I’ve observed is reflective of what all teenagers, who we now know are in a period of intense, powerful brain development, can accomplish.

Lest anyone think a high-powered childhood led up to my kids’ high level of productivity and drive, let me burst that bubble right now. The first decade of their lives was spent, primarily, in play. They played when they wanted to, and how they wanted to. They had ownership of their play, just as they have ownership of the work they do now.

When kids grow up with ownership of their own work (and that includes play), they are less likely to feel trapped, hopeless, isolated, and lonely. They are more likely to be able to flow with change, see challenge as opportunity, and experience satisfaction from within, rather than seeking it from without. They are more likely to be blessed with, in the words of the late, great John Holt, ‘A life worth living, and work worth doing…’

Every day is play day

Did you know that today is Global School Play Day? It’s a good idea, I suppose. I mean, I understand why it was created. But it still strikes me as absurd.

Register now to play! Take pictures so the world can see kids playing! Don’t forget the hashtag! There’s even an official #GSPD song with a rap and a catchy hook: ‘Every day, find a way, to let our kids play-ay-ay-ay…’

I don’t mean to make fun. I understand that many educators are clueless about the benefits of free play, and the value of non-intervention in their students’ learning. I completely agree that kids need more time to play. My reaction has to do with the fact that such an effort is needed, not the effort itself. And that’s sad.

‘Can adults play, too?’, the #GSPD website asks. ‘Of course!’ is the answer that jumped into my head. Adults should definitely play! But, oh wait, that’s not what they meant. Be careful, #GSPD urges teachers: ‘Resist the temptation to organize, discipline, and teach.’ Of course they would need to say that. And that’s also sad.

How do we get the message across that letting children lead in their learning, their play, and their lives is the best way to grow creative, smart, independent, happy adults? When I look at my generation, I realize that kids who were allowed plenty of free play won’t necessarily grow up and offer the same opportunity to their kids. No, the dearth of play in our children’s lives has become deeply embedded in our culture, the result of complex factors including economics, employment, the decline of neighborhoods, and our obsession with competition.

I’m glad people like Peter Gray care, and are doing the research and giving TEDx talks on a topic that should be obvious to all of us. If people won’t listen to their common sense, maybe they’ll listen to science and experts.

Meanwhile, we’ll go about our play days as usual. My husband will play his clarinet. I’ll play with my blog, read my book, and maybe try a new recipe. Teenage daughters will play with their favorite toys, like jazz, or psychology, or Shakespeare. While the experts work to spread the message, we’ll continue to live it.