Unschooling mit Jugendlichen (PDF of article as first published in German in Unerzogen, Winter 2011)
In the U.S., Sandra Dodd is one of the most popular figures on the unschooling scene. Over the years she has updated her website and blog with some of the best postings of her writings and that of others, from discussions of unschooling. Her children never attended school, and they were always radical unschoolers. We wanted to know how she experienced the puberty of her kids.
unerzogen: Were your kids always unschooled and did they have contact to schooled children?
Sandra Dodd: Our family kind of inherited and then hosted a weekly gathering, a playgroup, that had been La Leche League families, and gradually turned to homeschooling families. There they met children who were freshly out of school, as well as hung out with some who hadn't been to school. And in activities such as karate, dance and ice hockey, they were with schooled kids.
unerzogen: How did you experience puberty with your own kids?
Sandra Dodd: I got them each a book about bodily changes they might expect, and gave them just polite little suggestions, offering to talk if they needed to. They had other friends their age they could talk to, also, and by the time they were old enough for their bodies to be changing in ways they might not want to discuss with their mom, they had the internet. I don't know what's available in German, but in English there are some sites like http://www.scarleteen.com/ that can be helpful.
As to the "emotional unheaval" associated with puberty, though, that was minimal. I think much of it involves comparisons to other kids at school, and without that atmosphere of competition about who is taller, stronger, or can grow whiskers, life was easier for them.
unerzogen: Why do you think does an "atmosphere of competition" not arise within unschoolers?
Sandra Dodd: In school, the teachers create and maintain the competition. Comparisons are constant. In that playgroup, the parents would point out the best of each child, without comparison. One climbed trees really well. One could do tricks on the swings. Two of them were peacemaking negotiators among the other children, and if there was a problem we would sometimes point it out to them first before stepping in. If an activity arose among children that one child was feeling left out of, one of the moms would distract him with something else fun so that he wasn't standing there feeling sad or frustrated. Because peace and happiness were our goals, rather than striving for perfection (a phrase I heard many times in school), there was less jealousy and sorrow.
unerzogen: But doesn't the media also portray this competitive atmosphere? Did you experience your kids trying to act like a "teen in puberty" ought to act, due to what they saw on TV and such?
Sandra Dodd: If you mean, by "teen in puberty," the attitude of disdain and the rejection of parents, though, when that occurs in teens I don't think they're acting. When parents and school have tried to control them and when nearly grown humans are treated as though they were young children, withdrawal and reactionary behavior is normal. I now believe that it's school, and harsh parenting, and arbitrary limitations that cause classic teenage rebellion, not puberty. My children didn't "act" any way that wasn't direct, honest decision making, because they had been allowed and encouraged to make decisions since they were little. Because they weren't separated from their parents by school, we continued to discuss things in ways designed to assist them, rather than to limit or stop them. At the ages of 19, 22 and 25, they still talk to us when they have decisions to make, or concerns or questions. We still offer advice designed to help them get what they want fairly and safely, rather than advising them not to want or do or be.
unerzogen: Was there anything “visible” about them being teenagers?
Sandra Dodd: Holly was interested in fashion and was great at recombining things from thrift stores and was happy to get hand-me-downs from older friends and relatives. Some of her outfits would have been the envy of school kids, and many went beyond what would have been allowed by school dress codes. She had her own style, though sometimes it was inspired by things she saw in movies or on TV, and often things from other decades. She was interested in the 1930's for a while, and the 1960's still. For her birthday when she was 11 or so, she asked for 1980's clothes, and mothers of her friends gave her some great disco dresses and shoes they had in their own closets. One of those dresses she still wears sometimes (now that she's 19 and it actually fits her right).
Kirby wore bright yellow parachute pants for a year or two, and kids in school would have commented on it. His school friends did comment, but Kirby didn't care. His confidence was greater than their nervous conformity.
Their tastes in music were broad and varied and though they're always aware of the newest and most popular music, they aren't self-conscious about having favorites the kids in school have never heard of, or would consider out of style.
unerzogen: Did they have the cliché long hair attributed to free people?
Sandra Dodd: My kids all wore their hair in quite a range of styles. Marty had me shave his head for three years, when he was 12-14 or so. I didn't like to do it, but he wanted it shaved, so I did. Kirby had waist-length hair for many years. Now they both wear it short, by choice. Holly has had her hair all sorts of ways and colors, including partly shaved. Women have walked across parking lots or stores to look more closely and ask her who had done it, and though the coloring was sometimes professional, the artistic cuts were always me and Holly, at her direction.
unerzogen: What’s your summary?
unerzogen: Tell us about the difficult challenges you had with your teenagers!
Sandra Dodd: Because we had developed close relationships and trust for many years before, problems weren't very hard. We built on what we already had established, and so our children were willing to come to us when they were afraid or frustrated. Our children weren't given curfews, but were asked to tell us where they would be and when they expected to be home, and then to contact us by phone or e-mail if that changed. They were very good about that. The first time I woke up, one wasn't home and there was no message, he was at the first place I called, and their internet had gone out. He was fine, but hadn't wanted to wake us up very late, and I was able to guess where he was.
Sometimes our children were at parties where there was drinking, before they were legally old enough to drink, but they didn't lie about it because we didn't make it a crime. We offered rides, or asked them to stay there if they needed to, and they were careful to keep themselves and others safe. We tried to avoid situations in which they might feel dishonesty was better than honesty. Not all families are willing to do that, and so they will have rules, rule-breaking, lying and sneakiness.
Holly wanted to move away when she was seventeen, and we found a family she liked, several states away, where she could stay for a few months. Then she was an au pair in the UK for a while, and then in Quebec for a few months, and after those many months away, she was ready to move home again. She is nearly 20 now, and living at home by her own choice, having explored the world a bit within the safety of other unschooling families.
unerzogen: Was this challenging for you?
Sandra Dodd: All of it was fine with us. She stayed in contact by Skype when she was out of the country, and by phone when she was in. We were glad for her to come home, and we will help her out when she wants to move away someday. Or if she wants to stay forever, that's fine too.
unerzogen: Did you have any fears while your kids where becoming independent?
Sandra Dodd: I was more afraid that they would have friends who were harsh influences, to the point of bullying them into being sneaky. But they grew up to be confident kids who continued to share their concerns and questions with us, so although they have been on late-night adventures, experimented with a few substances, watched fairly nasty music videos and probably seen some porn, they're also kind and considerate, realistic and responsible. They go to their jobs and volunteer to help others and the two who have taken a few college classes got good grades. The horrible predictions of naysayers have not come true at all.
Of course I was nervous when they were out late sometimes, but I would think of the things I was doing at their ages, and remember that my kids had better resources, more practice making decisions, and had me and their dad ready to help them without penalty if they needed us.
unerzogen: Did you let them walk alone at night in the dark – were they interested in that? Or did you always pick them up when they needed to be outside in the dark?
Sandra Dodd: There is a public park near our house that was pretty safe, but I didn't like them to walk on the bike trails or hiking trails alone. When we had a dog, sometimes one would walk the dog, which seemed safer to me as the dog was intimidating. But for our daughter, we explained – lightly, without scaring her – why it was dangerous and coached her about safety considerations. Because for years she had known our advice really was intended to make her life freer and safer, she trusted us.
Children can only hear "no" so many times before they start to ignore it, so we helped them make good decisions when they were young, and saved "no" for really important things.
unerzogen: It sounds so easy. Like you haven' t had any troubles or your children always behaved calm and considerate. Is that the secret, to build up a close relationship and trust right from the beginning?
Sandra Dodd: We had worries, and sometimes our kids did things that were dangerous, but part of our advantage was to redefine "troubles" and to allow our children the space and acceptance to do things like drink or hang out with people we wouldn't have picked for them, and to be there, close and ready to help, so that they could discover on their own what kinds of people and activities they might want to avoid.
unerzogen: Dr. Epstein said in his interview teen turmoil happens because society doesn't give responsibilities to the teenager. For me it sounds like you gave responsibilities to your kids far earlier than teenage years. Is that right? And if so, why?
Sandra Dodd: For many people "to give responsibilities to the teenager" means to assign them tasks. We never made our children responsible for one another's safety. We never gave them a household chore that we weren't willing to help with or to do if they didn't get around to it. Still, they were helpful at home and looked after each other when they were out. Partly it's because they liked each other – eventually, by the time they were teens – because we had never tried to force them to be friends. We gave them space apart when they were young and likely to squabble.
unerzogen: What kind of responsibilities did your children have?
Sandra Dodd: The responsibilities our children had often came from outside. Each was offered a job, at 14, 15 or 16. Real jobs for real money. They had been seen to be responsible in informal or voluntary situations, and because of being homeschooled they were often in the presence of adults, doing things with people of all ages, and their ability and calmness had been seen in real-life situations. We didn't create false situations of "responsibility," they had opportunities to help as much or as little as they wanted to as they were growing up, and we didn't punish or shame them if they chose to just play rather than help. As they got older, they wanted to help other people first, and then eventually us. They were allowed to participate on their own terms, and the result was that they didn't learn to avoid helping people. When I was a child and was assigned chores, I learned to do the job in a rudimentary fashion as quickly as possible. My kids never learned any such thing, and when they work at jobs, they work hard and happily.