I guess technically my son is an 11th grader. It’s a big year for most students—the year that counts the most for college applications when kids choose rigorous courses—often including AP and honors, get serious about extra curricular activities, and ramp up the community service. Many start heavy test prep.
And for my son’s 11th grade? We are deeply entrenched and committed to unschooling. So, does the label “11th grade” even count for anything? I have no idea. At this point we are way, way, way off the beaten path.
Today I sit in the corner of a house watching my son and his friends make a music video. This is no small production. The entire 4 minute video is done in 3 shots, with a steadicam and other specialized equipment that I can’t even wrap my head around. Someone is handling makeup, with a producer coordinating a complex 13-hour schedule, shot list, craft service, continuity and prop management. There are real props—lots of them—and rented costumes that tell everyone to bring their A game. There are 5 actors and a dancer.
The video is for a song on an album he wrote last summer, about the time our unschooling journey really began. He sang and played all the instruments himself, released the EP on streaming sites, and has worked with a band playing live venues since then. The project was the start of him running and managing his own life, with his dad and me as supporting characters.
The video he is shooting today is pretty typical of one of his self-directed projects. He’s done all the work, pulled together everything he needs, coordinated all the people to help him, and is running the show. We haven’t lifted a finger; our sole role is to provide his sounding board when he wants advice.
Past projects have included pulling together a music event with 4 local bands in a local coffee shop. He hoped to get 40 people, ended up turning people away when the headcount hit 150. He made over $1,000 that night between selling merchandise and charging at the door. He got it done with an assembled crew of volunteers (including many adults he has come to know through his unschooling adventures). My husband played roadie, helping with the gear, and I ran around making sure kids under 18 were behaving themselves. Other than that—we didn’t help at all. All the start-up funding, promotion, design, communication, scheduling, stage design, sourcing and managing the other bands—everything—he did himself.
If it sounds like I am bragging, please know that I’m only writing about it now because I want to tell people how much kids can do on their own, with no help, when you give them the space to pursue what they care about.
Most people think they know what it is like to foster independence in their kids. They are wrong. When I talk to parents about what my son does independently, they don’t believe me. Like, they actually don’t believe me. They look to shoot holes in all his supposed self-motivation asking tricky questions about this and that, trying to find some level of hidden parental involvement. Or parents rattle off all the ways they are helping their kids (running their schedules, communicating with teachers and the like, catching them when they fall, helping with school projects, setting up their community service) and I know to just keep my mouth shut about my own son.
The support my husband and give our son can be pretty clearly defined:
Money. When he wants to pursue a project, he pulls together an estimated budget, determines how much of his own money he can allocate (will get to that in a moment), and then asks us for the balance. Assuming the project is well thought out and the budget is reasonable, we always give him the green light. We aren’t paying for private school, or other extracurricular activities, so we feel at peace with supporting his endeavors financially.
Feedback—but only when he asks. He asks for our opinion a lot—texting and calling us through the day to bounce ideas off of us.
Help—but only when he asks. He’ll ask his dad to debug some code in a website he’s trying to launch, or to research some equipment with him that he is saving up for, so he can make an informed purchase. He’ll ask me to proofread an email he’s sending to a music producer. Once in awhile he asks me how he should position something, or ask if I know where the best costume/prop/goodwill/vintage/whatever store is. That is usually the extent of help he requests.
Supervision. Many of his self-directed projects need some level of adult supervision. The music event needed adults. He had enlisted a bunch of other adult volunteers, but he asked his dad to be the roadie and he asked me to make sure no one got into trouble.
Transporation, food, shelter, insurance, phone. He drives one of our cars, and we shuttle kids around to and from his projects as the back-up driver when his car gets full. We make sure he is fed. We pay his insurance and gas. And pay his phone bill. Other than that, he gets a small allowance each month to use as his spending money. We frequently dock his allowance if he forgets his responsibilities—like when he works all day on a project and doesn’t clean it up when he is done. There is reprimand when gentle reminders aren’t working, and consequences when needed.
Love, time and attention— lots of it. We’re with him a lot. He likes to hang out with us. He says his dad is his best friend, and he means it.
I am often shocked at how much adult interaction his day requires and how he navigates it all without hesitation. Booking a gig directly with the owner of the venue? All him—I rarely know their names. All the volunteers for the shows (made up of teachers, co-workers and the like)? He coordinates it all directly with them. The costume shop lady he has on speed dial? Don’t know her. The test prep, art, math and history teachers? He does all the scheduling directly with them. There are plenty adults in his life and he is working directly with them.
There is very rarely a lazy day, or an unscheduled block of time. And when he needs something done, he just does it.
College? He has a list of very specific schools that appeal to him and says he wants to go. We’ll take him on a tour of 3 schools next week. We hired an independent college counselor who has experience working with homeschooled and unschoolers like him.
I am so grateful to have not spent the past few years fighting a battle we weren’t going to win. I am so glad to have a strong, close relationship with my son and I am grateful for his committed presence in our family. I know, with certainty, if we had pushed him to stay in school it would have been at the sacrifice of strong family bonds and peace in the house.
I know this is a very rosy summary. One day, I will write to you about the downsides to unschooling someone who is almost 18 years old—the invasion of every nook and cranny of our house to accommodate his projects, the times he blows the budget on his projects, the presumptuousness that can creep in if we aren’t vigilant, the incredible tolerance and patience needed. But for today, as I watch this video shoot happening, I just want to focus on the positive.