The teenaged years are actually the most rewarding of the homeschooling years. That’s what we’ve found with our four homeschooled children. And that’s what I was told by many of the 110 families I interviewed for my book Free Range Learning:: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. People in Ireland, Australia, India, Germany, and the U.S. described coming to this realization in similar ways. Their concerns about helping a young child master the basics or their struggles to find the right homeschooling style gradually resolved. Parents grew to trust the process of learning much more completely and, perhaps as a result, they saw their children mature into capable and self-directed young people.
Homeschooling isn’t the cure-all, by any means, for a culture that barely recognizes a young person’s need for identity and meaning. But homeschooled teens are not limited to the strictures of a same-aged peer culture or weighed down by a test-heavy form of education. They also have more time. This provides ample opportunity to stretch and explore in ways that can benefit them for life.
There are a number of pivotal elements in the period we call adolescence. Two significant ones are the pursuit of interests and meaningful work. These factors are just as important for teens in school as those who are homeschooling. But homeschoolers are freer to fill their time with what’s significant to them. That can make all the difference.
In my family, we’ve noticed that interest-based learning builds competence across a whole range of seemingly unrelated fields. For example, as a preteen one of my sons put together a few rubber-band powered airplanes at a picnic. When they broke, he tried fashioning the pieces into other workable flying machines. This got him interested in flight. He eagerly found out more through library books, documentaries, museum visits, and You Tube. Soon he was explaining Bernoulli’s principle to us, expounding on changing features of planes through the last century, and talking about the effect of flight on society. He designed increasingly sophisticated custom models. He read biographies of test pilots, inventors, and industrialists. He won a state award for one of his planes through 4H and got a family friend to take him for a ride in a small plane. What he picked up, largely on his own, advanced his understanding in fields including math, history, engineering, and physics. All inspired by learning that felt like fun.
This particular passion didn’t last, but the pursuit of his interests continued. He built spud guns with friends, played bagpipes in a highland band, bred tarantulas, repaired recording equipment, and tried his hand at woodworking. He wasn’t always at full tilt (never missing a chance to sleep in). Now a college student, he’s surprised that his fellow students are so turned off by learning.
Interests engaged him, as they do each one of us, in the pleasure of exploring and building our capabilities. They teach us to take risks, make mistakes, and persist despite disappointment as we work toward mastery. Making sure that a young person pursues interests for his or her own reasons, not the parent’s, keeps motivation alive and passion genuine. Research backs this up. Pursuing our interests builds character traits that benefit us for life.
Long-term homeschooling families know that self-directed young people really take off in their teen years. Comfortable with their ability to find out what they need to know, they often challenge themselves in their own ways. Some add ambitious schedules to previously unstructured days, others seek out heavy doses of academic work to meet their own goals, still others don’t appear to be remotely interested in conventional educational attainment but instead create new pathways for themselves.
Children as well as teens tend to have lengthy pauses between interests. A boy may not want to act in any more plays despite the promise he’s shown, a girl may not choose to sign up again for the fencing team just when she was starting to win most of her matches. During these slack times they are incorporating gains made in maturity and understanding before charging ahead, oftentimes toward totally new interests. The hiatus may be lengthy. They need time to process, daydream, create, and grow from within. They need to be bored and resolve their own boredom.
Decades ago educational researcher Benjamin Bloom wondered how innate potential was best nurtured. He was convinced that test-based education wasn’t bringing out the best of each child’s ability. So he studied adults who were highly successful in areas such as mathematics, sports, neurology, and music. These adults, as well as people significant to them (teachers, family, and others), were interviewed to determine what factors led to such high levels of accomplishment. In nearly every case, it was found that as children, these successful people had been encouraged by their families to follow their own interests. Adults in their lives believed time invested in interests was time well spent. Due to their interests, these individuals developed a strong achievement ethic and a drive to learn for mastery.
This makes sense. We recognize that young people gain immeasurably as they pursue their interests. And not only in terms of success. When caring adults support a teen who loves to play baseball, study sea turtles, and draw comics, he’s likely to recognize, “I’m okay for who I am.” The interests well up from within him and are reinforced by those around him, so there’s coherence between his interior life and exterior persona. This reinforces a strong sense of self. All of us need sturdy selfhood to hold us in good stead while so many forces around us emphasize unhealthy and negative behaviors.
Interests have a great deal to do with promoting a young person’s feelings of worthiness. There’s an enhanced quality of life, a sense of being completely present that’s hard to name but recognized by those who “find” themselves within a compelling pursuit. A girl may love speed skating, or writing short stories, or designing websites. When she’s engaged in her interests, she knows herself to be profoundly alive. That feeling doesn’t go away, even when she has to deal with other tasks which are not as entrancing. Everyone needs to belong, contribute, and feel significant. The teen who knows his or her interests provide fulfillment is already aware that self-worth doesn’t come from popularity or possessions.
A group of homeschoolers touring a rural historical society noticed that storage areas were stuffed with uncataloged documents, some crumbling from age. They offered to digitally scan and reference these materials with the museum’s coordinator. Several other teens researched the requirements for a dog park in their suburb. Working with a group of interested citizens, they petitioned city council for a permit and eventually won a grant to construct the dog park. Another teen started a business fixing and modifying bicycles. He also earns revenue from videos of his mods. These examples from my book indicate how young people eagerly take on challenges and the accompanying responsibilities.
Throughout human history teens have fully participated in the work necessary to help their families and communities flourish. They were needed for their energy as well as their fresh perspective, and they built valuable skills in the process. Working alongside adults helped motivate them to become fully contributing adults themselves. Most of today’s young people are separated from this kind of meaningful work. They have fewer opportunities to encounter inspiring people of all ages who show them how to run a business or foster a strong community. Now that teens aren’t needed to run a farm or shop, they also don’t get as many real world lessons in taking initiative, practicing cooperation, deferring gratification, and working toward a goal.
Ideally young people have taken part in real work from an early age. Many studies bear out the wisdom of giving children responsibility starting in their earliest years. In fact, having consistent chores starting in early childhood is a predictive factor for adult stability.
Although work is largely valued for monetary reasons in our society, the kind of meaningful work I’m talking about has inherent worth. Chances are it is unpaid. (Here are dozens of service ideas for kids.)Through this work young people learn that it’s the attitude brought to any task, whether shoveling manure or performing a sonata, that elevates its meaning. Often an endeavor that’s inspiring doesn’t always feel like work. It may include establishing an informal apprenticeship, developing a small business, traveling independently, or volunteering with a non-profit.
What is meaningful work may be different for each person. A homeschooled teen may put up a shed for a neighbor, make a documentary with fellow parkour enthusiasts, perform puppet shows at a nearby daycare, help a zither club record their music, become a volunteer firefighter, assist an equine therapy program, coach a kids’ chess team, tend beehives, walk puppies at a dog shelter, or help a chemist in the lab. Through such work they tend to get more involved in their communities and connect with inspiring role models.
Meaningful work may not always be interesting, let alone fun. It has to do with putting in sustained effort to get results, even when the hours become long and the endeavor doesn’t feel rewarding. Through this work young people gain direct experience in making a valuable contribution. They know their efforts make a difference. That’s a powerfully rewarding experience at any age.
Learning of the highest value extends well beyond measurable dimension. It can’t be fit into any curriculum or evaluated by any test. It is activated by experiences which develop our humanity such as finding meaning, expressing moral courage, building lasting relationships, channeling anger into purposeful action, recognizing one’s place in nature, acting out of love. This leads to comprehension that includes and transcends knowledge. It teaches us to be our best selves.
Originally published in Lilipoh Magazine, Winter 2012
33 thoughts on “Successful Teen Homeschooling: Two Vital Factors”
Fabulous post, Laura. I am sharing this. 🙂
“People in Ireland, Australia, India, Germany, and the U.S. described coming to this realization in similar ways. ”
We are from Germany, living and unschooling with our children in the US. Any form of homeschooling is prohibited in Germany and the duty to have your children attend school is strictly enforced. Where did you find “homeschooling” families in Germany? Have not read your book yet, but curious already;-)
I believe the family who contributed to the book with “Germany” as their location were US citizens living there. If I remember correctly, one parent was in the military.
Thanks for your reply. That makes more sense;-)
My kids are 7 and nearly 4. I have been home educating for only 4 months since I pulled my unhappy son out of school. He is loving home educating especially since we’re very relaxed, I’d love to unschool but need to deschool us both first!! I read your book in the first days of this wonderful adventure and was very grateful for it and have recommended it to many curious people! I am very much looking forward to my kids being teenagers. Due to my attachment parenting philosophy, I have always been very close to them and thought this would increase the chances of a less challenging time but now that we’re home educating, from what I’ve read and what I think is likely, I am really excited to be so close to them during such exciting years. I don’t know many people who feel this way! I can’t wait to see what fantastic things will ‘light their fire’. I am sure they will always surprise and excite my husband and me, as well as themselves. Thank you for all the positive messages your are sending out about home educated teens!
SO good to hear! I didn’t start out as a homeschooler either and had to learn what this meant along the way. What it means to us, more than all the educational joys we’ve found, is family closeness. I know it’s different for every family, homeschooling or not, but I never encountered a “horrible age” when kids are nasty, cruel, and rejecting. I wonder if that’s a response to pushing them into peer culture and away from the family at such a young age. Today our teen and young adult kids have plenty of friends. They also cherish their siblings, working together on projects and choosing to go have fun together. That’s a blessing that warms my heart every day.
That sibling closeness was something that I’d read about, probably with your book as well as others and it’s GREAT to hear about. My son is already, after only 4 months, kinder with his little sister (despite still saying he wishes he was an only child!) partly because she’s such a good role model for him, so good at sharing and so kind and helpful, and partly because, as many homeschooling books say, well socialized kids/adults are well socialized not because of millions of playdates but as a result of being around (presumably) well behaved adults. And homeschooled kids get to see how adults behave in the real world so much more than schooled ones. And I do think homeschooling parents are often so much more aware of how their kids will model their behaviour and so they’re more careful about how they act in order to be a good one. So, I can understand that home educated kids won’t go through any horrible stages/ages. My husband says the house is so much happier when he comes home from work and we therefore have even higher quality family time than we did before, and it was pretty good before. I am SO happy to be home educating now. I just have to discover, with my kids, exactly how this will look each day! What works for each of them, what works for me. I am a bit insecure about the unschooling approach but I hope in time, that we’ll be able to embrace it in all its wonder and that I will feel better when I start seeing all those unschooling things happen like amazing, spontaneous inventions!
I never followed an exclusively unschooling approach although we ended up pretty close to that in the last few years. It took me some time to get out of the school mindset initially. I started out intent on pushing academics in part because my kids were so past their grade levels in school. Slowly I discovered that pushing on my part wasn’t really necessary and was often counterproductive.
I’ve grown somewhat wary of all the different ‘camps’ within homeschooling. Our homeschooling group has always been inclusive and we find that many of us draw from the best of different approaches. The Charlotte Mason people adopt ideas from the unit study people, the unschooling people ask the school-at-home people for ideas, the Classical Education people enjoy adopting Waldof ideas, and eventually the tight little camps we identify with become more open and gracious, letting us find the benefits that
best suit our families.
I wish you the very best on your journey.
Thank you, Laura. And I look forward to reading more of your wisdom in the coming months! Penny
“I’ve grown somewhat wary of all the different ‘camps’ within homeschooling. Our homeschooling group has always been inclusive and we find that many of us draw from the best of different approaches. The Charlotte Mason people adopt ideas from the unit study people, the unschooling people ask the school-at-home people for ideas, the Classical Education people enjoy adopting Waldof ideas, and eventually the tight little camps we identify with become more open and gracious, letting us find the benefits that
best suit our families.”
If only more people understood this! I love this statement! Thank you for your beaitful article:) It is so nice to see others who feel the way I do. I have hs’ed for 14 years & have 1 in college with 5 more on her heels! I can honestly say it has been a roller coaster of a ride but one I would not trade for anything!
Roller coasters can be fun, even if we’re on them for such a long ride….
”I’ve grown somewhat wary of all the different ‘camps’ within homeschooling. Our homeschooling group has always been inclusive and we find that many of us draw from the best of different approaches. The Charlotte Mason people adopt ideas from the unit study people, the unschooling people ask the school-at-home people for ideas, the Classical Education people enjoy adopting Waldof ideas, and eventually the tight little camps we identify with become more open and gracious, letting us find the benefits that
best suit our families.\”
If only more people understood this! I love this statement! Thank you for your beaitful article:) It is so nice to see others who feel the way I do. I have hs\’ed for 14 years & have 1 in college with 5 more on her heels! I can honestly say it has been a roller coaster of a ride but one I would not trade for anything!
Just posted about our conversation! Hope you get more readers from Bahrain!! http://homeschoolingmiddleeast.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/chattin-with-laura-grace-weldon-of-free-range-learning-fame/ Thanks so much for giving me your time. It’s so much appreciated!
I was a teacher for 25 years and enjoyed integrated, interest-based teaching for most of that time. It wasn’t always easy under whatever systemic priorities of the time, but we managed to have some time every week to follow electives. Reading your article was a bitter-sweet experience knowing that many children did not retain that ‘love of learning’ that they otherwise would have. There are many learning pathways children can follow if given the opportunity and support. I enjoyed reading your article but it also made me sad as I believe, as you do, that following an enquiry of your own choice, gaining that great feeling when all the pieces come together and you know you’ve ‘got it!’, you’ve solved the puzzle and now know what you were curious about. Many children miss out on that natural ‘dopamine’ effect and their love of learning becomes jaded.
I come from a family of teachers (my father, aunt, grandmother, and cousins). I know that love of learning and the desire to fan the sparks of curiosity into life long light is what inspires so many wonderful teachers. I remember watching as my father struggled with increasing regulations that took away his freedom to do so many innovative things with his students (I wrote a little about his experience here https://lauragraceweldon.com/2010/09/22/waiting-for-superman-really/) and made the school day into an increasinly regimented place. And that was before NCLB! As I write in my book, all sorts of innovative educators are pushing for new collaborative models like Democratic schools, learning communities, and more. Every child whose love of learning becomes jaded should motivate us to make tomorrow’s learning options better for the next child.
Hit the nail on the head!!!
People are already telling me to watch out for the teenage years, and my son is only 10. I think our culture expects trouble with teens. It’s good to remember that it’s likely to be different for homeschoolers. (We’re not exactly homeschoolers. My son attends school at another family’s home. But they call it an unschool.)
You make a great point. What’s with the cultural belief that the teen years are horrible? Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy at work.
Great post (thanks homeschooling penny for the link!)
Thank you so much for sharing this. We are just starting the young adult years and this is how we envision our homeschool environment unfolding.
came over from Simple Homeschool
Brilliant!! Interest based learning!! Bravo!! The sky’s the limit or wouldn’t that be Heaven if we all had the FREEDOM to pursue our interests. WOW!! My interest is working out how to be energetic and joyful everyday. If only there were no limitations! I can imagine kids saying HOW CAN WE FIX UP THIS DIRTY WATERTWAY??? Let’s start breeding lobsters. Ok krill Ok lets try sea slugs now
Siu Churches Wollongong Australia
We have selected your wonderful book to be part of our donation package to our library.
Thanks for your important and inspiring words 🙂
Thank you Nikki!
What a happy find this morning! Enjoyed your post – I homeschool my 9 and 12 year old, and am like you, primarily interest based. I look forward to following your blog, and share with my own blog readers as well.
I really enjoyed reading this, thank you Laura!
I’d like to share it on my most recent blog post about homeschooling in the high school years, if that’s okay .. ?
My blog post: http://serenadesandsolace.blogspot.com.au/2012/11/teens-nuturing-independence.html
Sounds wonderful, thanks for including me Catherine!
I’m finding the whole homeschooling thing fascinating – here in the UK the culture seems quite different, much less directed towards self-sufficiency in all things really.
I’m concerned though about how you take on the responsibility of homeschooling teenagers, with all their boundary-challenging, identity-finding, independence-striving needs. it must take a huge amount of self-confidence in the parents who (like most of us) are doing the whole parenting thing for the first, and perhaps only, time.
Important concerns Stephen. But let’s consider that what we know of teens in today’s society are teens who have always been in adult-directed, peer-intensive programs for education, recreation, and often, for safekeeping while parents work (daycare, afterschool programs, summer programs, etc). They’ve typically had little time to really delve into their own interests independently, to take on self-chosen risks (rock climbing or public speaking or parkor or whatever), to lie around daydreaming, to advance in the direction of their own particular dreams. No wonder those very natural urges for “boundary-challenging, identity-finding, independence-striving” are more intense, sometimes dangerously so.
Starting unschooling/homeschooling with a teen who has previously been in school can be challenging. A great way to launch into it is what we call “decompression.” Imposing absolutely nothing. No goals, no agenda, just time for the teen to shake off the stress and the narrow perspective imposed by schooling. There’s time to simply BE. It seems counterintuitive but in a matter of weeks, sometimes months, the motivation and enthusiasm returns. We didn’t start homeschooling until our oldest was 15, forced out by school violence. We’ve found the journey remarkable.
Thank you for this timely article. I have homeschooled my 13 year old in a relaxed manner for 6 years, supporting his interests in geology, photography, marine biology, oceanography, birds, salt water aquariums, reptiles…my husband now thinks it is time for him to go to “real” school so he can “compete” in life. I am feeling torn in two and have been more negative with myself and DS because of these perceptions. Hub thinks he wastes his time on the computer too much, while in reality he spends hours researching new fish, etc. any advice on how to create a balance here between two very strong personalities?
Your husband wants the very best for your son, as you do, but he’s thinking within a school mindset that equates conventional education with success. Here are some links to help him see that homeschoolers/unschoolers are not only well-suited to “compete” as adults but perhaps more suited than schooled kids.
Homeschoolers in college http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2012/11/01/study-homeschoolers-happier-better-adjusted-college
Home educated students as adults: 15 years later http://www.hslda.ca/assets/pdf/2009-study-synopsis.pdf
Grown homeschoolers http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201406/survey-grown-unschoolers-i-overview-findings?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed:+Freedom-to-Learn+(Freedom+to+Learn)
Creating innovators http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericaswallow/2012/04/25/creating-innovators/
Getting past the school mindset https://lauragraceweldon.com/2014/01/02/five-ways-to-transcend-the-school-mindset/
Other than talking with him about the evidence versus his assumptions, it may help to acknowledge the basis of his concerns. He looks at his son’s daily activities, compares them with what he was doing at that age, and that dichotomy feels unnerving. Perhaps it would help if your son did a sample log to show his father what he does in a typical day, maybe keeping a log for a full week.