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The Challenge of Older Children
This article, by Eileen Yoder, was originally published in the May-June 1996 issue of Home Education Magazine.

Parents of older home educated children sometimes find themselves dealing with the question of school for their older kids. I wrote this piece hoping to provide some food for thought for these parents who have kept their children out of compulsory school programs, but, faced with the challenges of older children, are wondering if they should enroll their kids in school now. Perhaps they don't feel equipped to handle the emerging needs of their older kids. Perhaps their kids, needing to work and play with others to hone their relationship skills and explore the world, may be wondering if school would be a good thing for themselves. It is a question that comes up for a lot of families. It is hard to swim against the current of our culture, even if you are pretty sure that it is the right direction for you.

I am deeply committed to helping families keep children out of compulsory schools. I feel clear that there is far more damage than good done in that disrespectful environment, and I speak from that bias. -E.Y.

There is a fundamental understanding of human life that has stood me in good stead through all the bumps in the parenting road. . . that there is a natural plan for human growth and development based on survival of the species. (Understanding this plan as divine or evolutionary I leave to you.) Accepting and working with that plan, respecting that plan, has never failed me. The real bumps occur when I have worked against that plan in the service of my own plan or someone else's plan.

Try it out. The two-ish child begins to see himself as an independent self. Mom is still feeling close and happy with the one-ness of baby days. The child sets out to begin his work of self-identifying. He says "NO!" and "MINE!" If Mom resists the beginning of the natural plan for separation and independence, she'll find herself dealing with a TERRIBLE TWO. If she respects the child's need to begin to make his own decisions, within the realm of safety and respect for others, as a part of the natural survival plan, her child will be able to do his work, Mom will learn to live with a new expectation of her relationship with the child, and the twos will not be terrible. "Terrible" happens when we buck the natural drives and yearnings of human growth.

Now, use the plan to understand so-called teen-age rebellion. If an individual of any age is treated with respect, and his inherent plan for growth and development is respected, there is no cause to rebel. But most children spend the major portion of their lives in compulsory schools which are not respectful of the human species plan, and we have artificially cultured a whole lot of very rebellious teenagers in that medium!

As our kids grow older and begin looking out from the family center, where often they have been comfortable with family activity and a small number of friends, we find ourselves dealing with the new challenges they present. They are now looking for more opportunities to stretch and grow in physical and mental skills, and in relationships outside the family and the extended family. These yearnings are appropriate to the inborn drive to survive and keep the human race going.

When our developmentally able babies stood up and took first steps, we offered our hands and cleared the rooms of breakable treasures and hazards. Our babies learned to walk because they belong to the human species and are designed to walk. The opportunity to walk existed. Developmentally, the time was right. They had our support. They didn't learn to walk because we consulted experts who told us how to position our babies' feet in the proper sequence of stepping motions, not because we took them to a special building where they could work with experts on walking skills or pre-walking skills, or peri-walking skills, or anything else!

Now our children are older, and the drive to develop into adult human beings continues its work. Our kids want to expand their knowledge base, their experience of the wider world. They seek physical challenges which stretch their new, bigger bodies. They want to find out what they can do, and they want to do things they see adults do. They have become aware of the world and want to find ways they can move about in it as adults do. They want to know people from the wider world as well as their families and close friends.

Once again, we can support and aid our still developing young humans by recognizing their species-appropriate drives, providing opportunity for their work to occur, and providing respectful support. It's the same thing we did when they learned to walk.

Only now, because the tasks are bigger and more complicated, and because we have been schooled to trust experts instead of ourselves, we may be more likely to feel overwhelmed by our role, unsure of our role. We have absorbed our cultural myths so fully that we have lost sight of the very basic and simple requirements of parenting young humans. . . to recognize the natural process and accept it, to allow or provide the opportunity for the young person to do his developmental work in his/her own time frame, to support the young person until he/she is walking securely alone. (And I might add that walking securely alone might very well be walking beside us. There is another cultural myth of maturity that has taken hold in the last fifty years or so that says one must leave the family and go far away to be properly grown up. This myth denies the natural family structural design of human life and supports isolation from family communities, which in turn supports a social plan for the state to become the family substitute, developing the individual's allegiance to and dependence on the state, which serves the state's best interest, not the individual's or the family's best interest. But that is another story. . . )

When parents don't have an understanding of the plan for human growth and species survival, it is even harder to cope with the demands of the culture, which seldom support the plan. It also becomes harder for the growing young person, because deep within himself he instinctively feels he must follow the plan, yet the ones he looks to for support tell him to deny this deep feeling. What follows is that the young person feels confused, unresolved, and will have to develop some way to cope with this discordant situation until he can find a way to resolve these inner needs. (How many parents have kept their children out of compulsory schools to free themselves as well as their children?)

It is a piece of work to share the world with children. It can be expensive, which can limit some options. It is certainly time consuming and requires personal sacrifice of parents. It can be physically exhausting. It requires conscious, active decisions. It takes a lot of patience, and, probably most of all, trust in your child, in yourself, and in the plan. It can look really appealing to turn that work over to parent substitutes who appear to be better equipped than we feel we are. And we have been schooled to believe that the experts know best and can provide best for our children. That myth can be hard to put aside, even for the truth of reality.

We have few unschooled adults who can share their experience with us. But there are more and more kids who are older now and growing magnificently without schooling. We can observe these kids and learn how they have met their challenges in their communities. We can learn from them and their families how to build opportunities, how to find opportunities in our communities. We have come to expect that the schools will connect us with our communities during the years that our children are in school. Instead, we must learn to become responsible for finding or building our own community connections and the resources that meet our needs. Families whose children are not attending school can join together in support groups, gatherings of people with common interests with whom to share and build resources. The opportunities we will be able to provide will always be better than school, simply because they are part of real life.

If you are considering school for your older child, first be clear about why you are considering it. Do you feel inadequate, not up to meeting the new needs? Are you tired? Are you not really available because your own life is so busy, demanding, involved? Do you think that teachers can do a better job of giving your child support and healthy adult modeling? Do you think schools can do a better job of teaching problem solving and critical thinking skills, perhaps the most important skills to have in the coming world? Is enrolling your child in school the best option for solving the discomfort you may be feeling? Understand the older child's request to go to school, if there is one. Is it to try out an experience common to most children in our culture, to conform and feel accepted, to please parents who feel unsure of their role in child's growth or ill prepared to compete with the experts? Is it simply a request for more challenge or more social opportunity? Will the social experience the school offers be the social experience your child longs for, the one you'd wish for your child or can you better provide healthy social experience in other ways? Are there ways to meet your child's or your own needs without enrolling your child in school? Spend time talking with those who would become your child's teachers, observing classes, breaks between classes, recess. Consider what options you have for supporting your own good, healthy life. Can you eliminate unnecessary involvements, pare down your activities to provide time to support your family relationships, to be a better rested, more available parent? Gather all the information and observations you can. This is an important decision. It is not an easy way out of dealing with the challenges of older children. Parents see less of children who are in school, that's true. But the problems that compulsory schooling creates are often a lot worse and more demanding than the problems that caused the parents to opt for schooling.

If you have come to a considered and thoughtfully made decision not to have your child attend school, your child, though he may disagree with your decision, will appreciate your firm commitment to your decision. Parents must take responsibility for making healthy, adult decisions regarding their children's lives. It is a mistake to consider your child a peer in the decision making process. Children may express opinions and desires which, rightly, their adults should consider and respect. But final decisions lie with the responsible adults, who must accept responsibility for those decisions, even though they are not sometimes popular decisions. Parenting is not a popularity contest. Parental ambivalence creates discomfort for both parent and child. Children who can expect respectful consideration of their wishes will be most comfortable, in the long run, with parents who accept their adult responsibility to bear the weight of decision making.

There are many ways to retain integrity and maintain independence while seeking educational goals and answering developmental challenges. Your older child may take a class at the local community college, the continuing education program, the recreation department, or at an alternative or local school if it is important to try out the structure of a class with a teacher. Your child will have to cooperate with the requirements of any program, but can always feel free to drop out if it doesn't meet the child's needs.

You might look for someone who has information or skills your child wants and arrange for them to work together. Include other kids, if being with other kids is a goal and it's O.K. with everyone. Make it a "class" if you'd like, but make sure the "teacher" is passionate about the subject and the children are there because they really want to hear what the teacher is sharing.

Look for interest-oriented societies, associations, and clubs. Your child can learn a great deal from a whole membership of folks actively interested in herpetology, ham radio, quilting, local history, astronomy, hiking, chemistry, etc. Adult members are often absolutely delighted to have young people participate in their interests, and they love to share what they know, their equipment, time, and more.

Start a 4-H or Girl Scout/Boy Scout group. These organizations offer a lot of support and resources for leaders, some program structures, national and international membership, opportunity for shared association and experience, and feelings of belonging. Such groups provide an opportunity to learn to work together respectfully.

Make up your own gathering. It might be a consistent group, so your child can really get to know others better, or a drop-in group for meeting a lot of different people.

If you don't feel up to sponsoring a group, find someone who does, or share responsibility. Don't see yourself as the teacher or program director, but as adult support for the work the children want to do. Let them do all the work they can themselves.

Communities are filled with opportunities. . . theater, both on-stage and behind the scenes, children's theater, community theater; volunteer work with your local library, nursing home, historical attractions and historical societies, community festivals, children's museums, your local radio or TV station. Home education support group members have a terrific resource in the group, because there are many like-minded families with whom to share times and responsibilities. With support group members supporting an idea, you can hold a craft fair, a variety show, a contradance, an art show, a science fair, family baseball, hockey, international potluck dinners, a literary guild, indoor gymnasium play, form a French club, or build a competitive soccer team. The possibilities are endless. The point is to take responsibility for making opportunities that meet your child's needs and invite others to join you when that is appropriate. Understand that you have to take responsibility for the events you wish to create. There is no institutional structure or program-director-in-the-sky to do it for you. If the thought of helping to set up opportunities like these seems overwhelming, or like an awful lot of work, it is helpful to know that as our older kids find their way in the community, they will soon be able to pursue their interests with very little help from us. In addition, the community quickly discovers how wonderful it is to work with healthy, intelligent, self-directed, able young people, and opportunities will come your child's way with very little work on your part. Besides, you will have worked hard for a very good cause, and that will feel good. You will also have irreplaceable memories of shared experiences with your child and his or her friends, your friends.

If, after careful thought and exploration, you do decide to enroll your child in school, remember that your child is free to leave and resume life without compulsory schooling at any time.

It is easy to succumb to the culturally popular myth that children have to be fixed or prepared for life, and that schools are there to do that work, work you are not skilled to do. Children need to be exposed to the world, supported to grow in healthy ways, protected from being rushed out of childhood, respected as individuals, yes. But not fixed, treated, or prepared like a meatloaf. Human beings have the innate capacity from the first moment to grow and develop to their full potential. Our job is to support that natural growth, protect it, cherish it, and provide the opportunity for it to flourish. No compulsory school can ever do that. - Copyright 1996 Eileen Yoder

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