"But what if..."

Jobs or College?

Amy Childs' response to this question:
But what if a child wants to grow up to be an engineer or something that needs a lot of formal education? Isn’t he going to miss out on a lot of opportunities and/or necessary education if he doesn’t go to high school or at least get taught high school level math and science curriculum?

I’ll admit, there were times I would worry about my son. At 14 years old, someone could easily have called him cranky, bored, unmotivated, whiney, lazy, contrary, annoying, self-centered, disinterested, uncooperative (and maybe there were times that I did, I admit, although hopefully he didn’t hear me). He cared about video games a lot, and Game Boys, and computer games and Nintendo. He played the guitar sometimes. He read online comics. He doodled. He smoked. He slept all day. He didn’t cheerfully help with the chores. He didn’t like to play outside very much. He didn’t like doing things with me and his younger sisters all that often. He wasn’t always particularly polite about it either.

If someone wanted to use him as an example of what a terrible idea it is to unschool, how “that much freedom is obviously bad for children,” and “unschooling just doesn’t work,” and “kids only do productive things if you make them,” it would have been pretty easy.

Perhaps worst of all was that back when he had gone to school, he’d gotten good grades. Everyone knew he was smart. People could have said (and maybe they did): “It’s such a shame that they are just letting him rot away like that. He could have had such a promising future. He has a lot of natural intelligence but it’s all just going to waste.”

That’s what it was like when he was 14, 15, 16, 17. Certainly there were fun times in there, good laughs and conversations, many adventures and “experiments” of all kinds. But it never looked like “learning” or “preparing for college” or “putting his natural born intelligence and talent to use.” Even so, I held fast to a belief/hope that people really are born to figure out what they need, that people really, really can be trusted to grow in the way they need to grow, to learn in the ways they need to learn, to live in the ways they feel called to live.

In a world-culture that expects that adults will continually evaluate and test and judge and adjust younger people’s lives to make sure that they are heading in the “right” direction, four years is a long time to defend your grumpy child’s right to be whoever he is, to feel however he feels, to do whatever he does. But I am so glad I did, because through those years an amazing, deep, trusting, loving bond slowly grew between Jonathan and me. I kept reminding myself that I cared way more about my relationship with him than I did about whether he became a Starbucks barista or a rocket scientist. (And I often wondered if he’d ever be able to handle even the responsibilities of a barista.)

Ironically, in his 17th year he decided he did want to be a barista (or more accurately, he wanted to earn money to buy a guitar, and Starbucks was hiring.) In spite of years of “laziness” and “sleeping-in,” somehow Jonathan knew how to get to work on time every day, and he knew how to be a good worker. He found that he enjoyed observing the Starbucks corporate-mandated structures for efficiency and safety, and entertained himself by finding ways to improve on the systems that were in place. His boss loved him instantly, and he became one of the most respected and popular employees in his store. I was quietly astounded.

One day a regional manager or vice president (?) came to Starbucks for some kind of a promotional visit. Jonathan was impressed that this man in the fancy suit earned lots of money and that he had real influence on how things in Starbucks were run. He came home and announced that, having realized that a business degree would mean that people would pay him to improve business practices (what he had been doing to entertain himself anyway), he had decided he wanted to go to college.

At that point, two main things troubled him: how could he get into college, having just spent the last four years “hanging out,” and if he somehow did get into college, how was he going to pay for it?

He spent the next couple years tackling these problems. He got text books and studied the things he felt he needed to study. He found SAT practice tests online and figured out what he needed to know to get a good grade. We hired our homeschooling evaluator (in PA you need a good one, and we have a great one—props here to Wendy Bush) to advise him in his college application process. He worked two jobs and started saving money.

To tell you the truth, I don’t actually know that much about how to get into college as an unschooler, because Jonathan (with a little help from Wendy) did ALL of it. I think I might have driven him to a test site, but then again maybe by then he’d bought his scooter and handled that part too.

He aced the SATs. He applied for financial aid and grants and got his tuition and half of his living expenses paid through various means. (“It’s great how poor we are!” he cheerfully informed me. “Good job!”)

After being accepted with a full scholarship to the honors business school at Temple University, he realized that the vice president of Starbucks had a masters degree in business, not just an undergrad degree. “If I’m going to need a masters degree in business in order to make tons of money anyway, I might as well learn something else in my first 4 years of college” he reasoned. And so he decided he wanted to learn how things work, and promptly switched into the engineering program even though it cost him $1500 of his financial aid in doing so.

Again I cannot stress how shocking and astonishing each of these steps were to me. I don’t know how he knew that it would cost him some of his financial aid. I don’t know how he figured out that business people get masters degrees. I don’t even know what the forms he filled out looked like.

I kept waiting for my grouchy bored lethargic little boy to reappear. He never did.

Jonathan received a 4.0 in his first semester, and then again in his second semester, and then again in the summer semester. In the middle of the year, he was awarded a surprise grant, an award given to only one of the thousands of freshmen at Temple. He joined the national engineers chapter at Temple (it probably has a fancier name than that) and somehow became the vice-chair (even he isn’t exactly sure how that happened).

All of this is NOT to say that if you let your lazy uncooperative adolescent son play video games late into the night for years, that it will eventually make him turn into someone who is thrilled about his physics homework in college on his enthusiastic way to an engineering career.

What I AM saying is, if your child is someday going to be thrilled about his physics homework in college on his enthusiastic way to an engineering career, he does NOT need school, or any form of coercion whatsoever, to help him get there.

I do not give unschooling the credit for what an impressive young man Jonathan has become. Maybe I should, but I don’t. He might have turned out that way even if he had been forced to attend school his whole life. And besides, I’m not necessarily impressed by things that seem “impressive” anyway.

What I do give unschooling complete credit for is that instead of spending Jonathan’s adolescence fighting with him, shaming him, trying to make him do things, judging him, punishing him, or trying to “teach” him anything, instead I spent those years affirming him, accepting him, embracing him, and supporting him in being who he was.

I would never trade those precious years, that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, nor the relationship that was born between us during those years, for anything in the world.

Amy Childs

Read an earlier account of how Amy's daughter learned times tables!
and there's more on teens, college and jobs here.