Coming of Age: Helping Teens Unlock Their Potential
Amidst all of the joys and rewards of homeschooling older kids, there are some challenges, too, one of which has been at the forefront for my family lately. No, it’s not higher math and science that we’re struggling with, nor is it teenage angst and mood swings, either. For these we have found classes or tutors, read books, or sympathized with other parents. This particular challenge exists solely, and squarely, in that time-limited space where teens attempt to merge with the adult world.
This challenge is lack of opportunity.
For over a year now my fourteen-year-old son, Sam, has been wanting to spread his wings – he wants to build things, he wants to earn money, he wants to be useful. He wants these things so badly, he’s been like a tiger in a cage, pacing and anxious and, yes, even depressed sometimes. But where are opportunities like this available to a boy his age? He can’t legally work, and he doesn’t have the knowledge or skills he needs to design and build the things he envisions making (he outgrew Legos and got bored with models years ago). He wants to do real things, not kid things, and this is the problem — most adults expect kids his age to be in school all day and, even worse, assume these young adults are incapable of providing much value when they do have free time.
As my husband and I have been wrestling with this issue, I was beginning to think that somehow we were missing something. What are other teens doing? Are we the only ones with a child who wants real experiences?
So, it was with great relief, and more than a few enthusiastic shouts of “Yes!”, that I recently read Marie Goodwin’s post, “A Peculiar Problem of Homeschooling Teens”. She describes this situation (and some of its causes) perfectly, calling this the “mentor seeking” phase, when a young person “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.” Perfectly described. Mentoring, apprenticeships, and jobs – these are what developing adults, and not just the homeschooled ones, truly want and need.
Before compulsory schooling, it used to be that boys the ages of both of my sons (12 and 14) would apprentice with a master of a trade, learning the skills and gaining the knowledge they would need as an adult. Girls would also spend more time with the women in their family, learning the domestic skills they would need to manage families and houses of their own. While this model of gender separation is certainly outdated, the apprentice model is one we need to consider resurrecting. Learning while spending time with adults is a natural way to learn and grow – it’s how children have mostly been raised for thousands of years.
For some reason we’ve decided that a system that locks our young adults away every day is the best model. Even among those of us who have rejected this form of education, many of us still assume that standard curriculum and kids’ activities should be enough until college or adulthood. What so many of us fail to understand is that our teens need more, that much of the angst and rebellion assumed to be natural and unavoidable part of adolescence is not just hormones – it’s the result of limited freedom, of underestimated potential, of separation from what’s meaningful and important in the world.
We can do better.
While I see some hopeful signs that more internships and apprenticeships are becoming available for teenagers (there are one or two small programs in my city), for my sons I’m realizing that my focus will need to shift from directly facilitating their learning to facilitating connections and opportunities. And I’m happy to report that we’ve had some successes. Both of my sons love music and have found a community, comprised of both adults and kids, at our local School of Rock. Their music teachers are really more like coaches, and they set high expectations for the boys (which they’re happy to rise to!) Also, there’s a fairly new maker space in our city that is almost exclusively for adults, but with some discussions and an interview, they agreed to make an exception for my fourteen-year-old. He’s been learning to cut and weld metal there, and will be taking a wood working class next week. Finally, we also found a programming tutor who’s just the right combination of instructor and mentor.
I know there are other families out there who are also struggling with this issue, even if they haven’t realized that this is the issue yet. If yours is one of them, I encourage you to seek out and develop options for your kids. And don’t be afraid to be creative. Just because a special program or position doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to create an opportunity. Sure, you can expect to be met with some confusion and resistance, and you’ll certainly need to do some explaining, but it will be truly worth it knowing that you’re not only supporting the growth and development of your child, but you’re also planting seeds of opportunity for others, too.