The Unschooled Teen and Career Thoughts

The idea that the turbulent teen years, marked by rebellion against adult culture, laziness and irresponsibility, might be something that one could skip entirely given the right upbringing (or relationship with the parents) has been in my mind since my first child was born. Gazing into my newborn daughter’s eyes I thought back to my own teen years, with the constant battles with my mother and the overwhelming frustration I felt at wanting to be more independent but being blocked in every direction by my parents and society in general. While my approach to discipline (“focus on the relationship, not the behaviour”) addresses these issues to a certain extent, one cannot rule out the effects of society’s attitudes and a lifetime of institutionalization in the school system on even the most attached teenagers. It’s hard to believe in oneself and one’s abilities when everyone around you is insinuating that you are incapable of maturity, and too ignorant to be of value until you’ve gone through high school and another several years at university.

This post by Miranda over at Nurtured By Love was truly inspiring for me. I immediately resonated with what she was saying. I ended up reading The Case Against Adolescence some time later, and it also gave me much to think about. The teen years are not that far ahead for us now, and I’m increasingly thinking about what that will look like for us. I’m excited for my kids and the possibilities that a life without school can bring for them. I now firmly believe that we as a society infantilize our youth by preventing them from taking on adult responsibilities and by enforcing school until age 18, with most being pushed into another several years of college. Pursuits that, for most of them, have no apparent relevance nor hold much interest: is it any wonder that masses of people spend their working lives in uninteresting, unfulfilling jobs, looking up to authority figures that hold power over their futures, and with no sense of having any control over where they are in life and what sort of life they can have (sounds an awful lot like school, doesn’t it)? I feel this infantilization of our youth explains everything from youth culture and rebellion to the longer and longer delays in young people getting married and starting a family (when life doesn’t even begin until you’re in your mid-to-late twenties, who can blame kids for waiting another few years before settling down?). They say 30 is the new 20 – do we really believe that in the span of a couple generations we’ve somehow devolved to require more decades to mature?

Imagine instead that kids were prepared to have a choice around age 14 or so as to whether to continue on to more specialized education or to leave school and mentor in a real job, try out a variety of jobs, or become an entrepreneur. And then imagine that these kids were not raised within an institutionalized system that values one kind of intelligence over so many others, that ranks and pigeonholes children without fully understanding that child’s individual capabilities, and that robs kids of any sense of having control over their learning (indeed, convinces them that what *they* wish to do with their time is not valuable). Enter the unschooled teenager.

My children have complete trust in their ability to choose their learning path. If they are interested in it, then it has value, and that is the only message they have ever received. Contrary to popular opinion, they learn the value of hard work and perseverance not because it is forced upon them, but because they are intrinsically motivated to attain personal goals that have meaning and relevance for them. And when they reach their teen years and begin to feel the innate, biologically-driven urge to take on adult roles and responsibilities, they will be free to explore the possibilities fully while still being able to share in the resources of their family (more on that below).

My daughter’s passions and proclivities have been apparent from an early age but even so she is faced with multiple possible paths for a future career that moves her and satisfies her. Will she focus on her love of science, or will she pursue her intensely creative side? Will she work in a research lab, do field work, teach, consult? Will she become an artist? And how can one really know what a career based on one’s passions will look like without trying it on for size? It won’t be too much longer before she can start volunteering in a research lab and see what daily life as a researcher is really like. Perhaps she’ll discover that lab work excites and fulfills her, or perhaps she’ll realize that being inside all day is not what she wants for herself. Perhaps then she will volunteer on a field expedition, or work with a charitable organization in some far-off country for a while. She may find after this time that working as a scientist does not bring her the same sense of fulfillment as she thought it might (she wouldn’t be the first person to discover that turning a beloved hobby into a way of making a living changes the experience, and not for the better). The point is, she will have ample opportunities to gain real life experience (rather than trying to squeeze it in during summer holidays), to try on all these different hats, and make informed decisions while she is still young enough not to feel she’s wasted half her life running down the wrong path.

And this brings me to the young entrepreneur. Recently, Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, turned many heads when he offered a $100,000 scholarship to college-aged kids and spoke the ultimate blasphemy that they should use the money to drop out of post-secondary education and fulfill their entrepreneurial dreams. Thiel’s views on the value (or lack thereof) of a college education compared to the real-life experience of starting a business (i.e. life learning) seemed to resonate with many in the unschooling world. Similar views by public figures have been posted on various homeschooling websites, such as this post over at Home Learning Victoria. Thiel was recently interviewed on CBC’s fave artsy-newsy show Q. While I admire Jian Ghomeshi’s skill and talent as the show’s host, listening to his questions and comments made it apparent that he, too, had drunk the “college or burger-flipper” kool-aid.

With respect to Theil’s scholarship, I think the value of entrepreneurialism for teens cannot be underestimated. Small business is an important driving force in local economies; our province goes out of its way to help folks who wish to start their own business, and there are many grants and programs one can access. However, I think that for most people, it never occurs to them that this is something they could do. I could go on about the way our school system and socioeconomic divisions work in concert to pigeonhole children with labels that they then go out of their way to live up to, but the bottom line is that most people grow up expecting to work for someone else, doing a job that doesn’t excite or fulfill them, and firm in the belief that there is nothing they can do to change their situation. Starting up a business is something that “smart” people do, and most kids come out of school with the ingrained belief that they are decidedly not “smart”. But for my kids, no such obstacle has been made apparent to them, as this post demonstrates.

I’ve gone through the process of starting a business. It was exciting, and I felt proud though sometimes nervous. Key to making it an overall pleasurable experience was the fact that my husband was already supporting our family with an income, and I was under no pressure to be an overnight success. I could take my time to learn the ropes by experience, to slowly hone my craft and focus my talents where they could best be served because my family was not dependent on this business to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. Now my husband and I together have started a new business, but we’re not quitting our “day jobs” just yet. Once again we’re in the enviable position of being able to take our time, do it right, and enjoy the process without the pressure of having to pay the bills while we’re figuring things out. I love being self-employed. I take great pride in having my own business, and I cannot imagine working for someone else again. If this business fails, or the new one started with my husband does, I will come away having learned a great deal and not afraid to start another one again in the future.

This is the gift we give children who are free to do such things as start a business when they are still young. They get a chance to learn from real life experience, to make mistakes when it doesn’t mean losing their home or failing their dependents. By the time they are at an age where other kids are graduating from college and dazedly wondering what they are going to do now, they will most likely already be off and running. I’m excited for my kids’ futures, and looking forward to seeing what they do with their “one wild and precious life”.


Categories: natural learning, rethinking education | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The Unschooled Teen and Career Thoughts

  1. I can tell you that teenage rebellion is not set in stone – I’m just now growing my 3rd teenager :)….and none of mine have shown rebellion in the ways that I did. Of course, they have WAY more freedom than I ever did. And I agree about college – my oldest just received her first acceptance letter today – she’s going to go to music school. But her younger brother probably will not go to college – his interests are leading him elsewhere.

  2. I think teenage rebellion can come in many different forms. My husband and I were fairly rigid parents and my teens rebelled big time. That being said, I came from very rigid parents and I did not rebel as a teen. Hmmm.

    I think the big step that teens need to take is towards independence and for many people, that involves breaking ties, for a time, with their family.

    My children are all grown now, I’ve learned why I was such a control freak and have let go of much of my old ways. My children also now realize that I wasn’t such a bad mother after all. I wish I could have done better. I do now but I look back and wish that I could have learned some things sooner.

    Interesting blog.

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