My unschooler is 13. It became evident to me long ago that the process of trusting the child and facilitating their interests as they self-direct their life is the most authentic way to raise a human in their unique, inherent wholeness.
Today, a new direction blossomed. Had anyone been hanging around like a fly on the wall, they might have missed its origins. Unschooling in whole life is a process, not a trajectory with tiered way points. If you aren’t facilitating in connection, you will miss the cues that signal the oncoming organic bloom.
Examined as a chronicle of my teen’s short life, the detailed rabbit holes of exploration and adventure could fill a book or two. Even the highlights have been many: Visiting national parks, historic sites, and the Atlantic Ocean (where I grew up); being raised in the northern Rockies with hiking, rock hounding, fossil hunting, and even some snow shoeing; exploring big cities like Chicago, Charleston, St. Louis, and Denver; participating in Jr. First Lego/Robotics and two state tournaments; practicing four years of Chu Ryu Martial Arts; pursuing complex interests in dinosaurs, world history, anime, weaponry, Japanese culture, modern architecture, acting, comedy, and current events; performing in community theatre; competing in interpretation for Speech and Debate; and enjoying endless and unrestricted YouTube, PC/console/mobile video gaming, and other media.
Highlights as they are, the daily process of whole life unschooling ebbs and flows with the ordinary seasons and responsibilities of life but without the pressure of school or scheduling life around school. There has never been coerced learning. He has never been punished. He has never been restricted. He has had food freedom, language freedom, sleep freedom, and complete access to hours on end, weeks on end, and months on end of YouTube and video gaming.
The life of this child has been extraordinary because he has lived his entire life experiencing that individual sovereignty matters, and how that sovereignty is honored most through respecting the inter-dependent nature of community and the individual sovereignty of others. He endured emotional trauma and divorce and witnessed many forms of domestic violence for 10 years, but he always had consistent whole life connection with me facilitating and respecting his interests and self-direction. He met developmental milestones at his own pace. There was no indoctrination and nothing was taboo.
At three, he was fascinated by dinosaurs. He met with the state archeologist who engaged him like an adult as they conversed about the intricate features of Allosaurus. Albeit, his speach was still that of a 3yo, but his knowledge was gleaned from endless saturation in dinosauria.
At four, he potty trained himself without ever being coerced to try, consumed documentaries about King Tut, became a fan of Ghost Adventures, and hiked to the top of a 12er (12,000’ mountain peak).
At five, he played his first video game, watched his first YouTube video, became a Doctor Who fan, started collecting Nerf guns, and watched Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind. He took his time weaning from the breast and didn’t completely stop until well past six.
At six, he became a fan of Jack Septiceye when Jack only had about 7,000 followers. This is also when he found his first hunting knife on a trail. He then collected all kinds of knives and swords. Lego was a passion for a while. He entered elaborate freestyle creations into the local Library competitions for several years. He had his first experience with martial arts until the instructor moved. He taught himself how to play Minecraft and Roblox.
At seven, he was playing Halo on Xbox along with numerous other video games and opened a Steam account. He got his first gaming tower, established his Minecraft Realm, cultivated online friendships with unschooolers around the world, and developed a fascination with guns and world war history. He used his own money to purchase a BB gun and a practice katana.
At eight, he received his first legit gun, a 22, and rode his bike for the first time. He started at Chu Ryu Martial Arts and ranked up through seven belts over four years.
At nine, he had cultivated a posse of friends (all schooled). They still hangout, ride bikes, skateboard, sled, explore the town and mountain streams, swim, and game together.
Ages nine and ten were the cruelest, during the divorce process. He explored meditation, Emotional Freedom Tapping, and other modalities of healing. He learned that taking responsibility for the self from within is the key to enduring, authentic happiness.
At 11, he had three months of short sessions in vision therapy to address Convergence Insufficiency, a binocular vision dysfunction that was preventing him from decoding reading. He went from reading baby books to reading Harry Potter in that short quarter of a year and then played two roles in a community play. His love of acting was born, and he still insists he wants to be an actor more than any other pursuit. This is important to note, because out of all his passions, talents, and interests, he has identified what matters most to him without having to be pigeon holed into limited choices. But even as he has this passion and goal, he is heavily invested in other interests.
At 12, he asked to participate in Speech and Debate (an activity he heard about from friends and that is conducted with middle and high schoolers together). For two months, he pushed through the grueling schedule and a head cold of strange proportions that for all we know was Covid19 (Jan-Feb 2020). He placed second in the region and fourth in the state for his interpretation performances of Monty Python. The day he turned 12 was the last time he saw his Dad, a visit that ended in duress. This expanded my son’s process of self-reflection and identification of certain layers of trauma, including practice in compartmentalization of feelings for long-term examination.
Shortly after Speech and Debate, he saw his friends on March 7th, and by the next week, the community shut down. He didn’t hang out with a friend or even go into a store until June. Two weeks later, I had a total hip replacement due to advanced OA and woke up from surgery without the use of my foot as a complication of the surgery, a dorsiflexion palsy. The following two months were nothing short of hell for both of us due to the factor of treating constant nerve pain. My then 12yo son was my primary caretaker. By month three, things were settling down a bit, but even now my son has to provide daily aspects of care to facilitate me, truly testing his capacity for empathy and patience.
During the months since my surgery and as he turned 13, my son has been focused on certain interralated self-directed interests. He spent as much time as he could with friends during warm weather, but since they’ve gone back to school, and Covid19 is in an uptick where we live, he hasn’t seen friends in a couple of weeks. He has been playing a lot of Skyrim on Xbox, enjoyed a free Beta for Call of Duty Cold War, and for several months he has worked his way to Builder status on the World of Keralis (WOK) Minecraft server. He watched videos by Keralis for years. This year, my son found his way to joining the WOK server and complied with requirements for 22 (and counting) unique builds of his own design and creation. He blueprints his ideas, researches architectural styles, and settles on design elements before starting each freestyle build. Here is a recent modern home.
During this time, he has also been singing frequently (something we’ve both always enjoyed), and I’ve noticed a new ability to control his vocal range. We’ve talked about musicals, and will soon pick some new pieces for the upcoming Speech and Debate season. His interests have expanded from singular pursuits to dynamic, integrated, complex engagements.
He got heavily into Skate 3 on Xbox during lock-down and plowed through endless videos on YouTube about skateboarding technique and safety, board design, stunts, pro tips, and hardware maintenance.
An unschooling friend whose Dad designs and builds skate parks had gifted him a board when he was eight, so this revived his interest. He then spent much of his summer after lock-down practicing stunts with friends and asked for skate shoes and protective gear for his 13th birthday. I knew at the time that the Wyoming winter would send his board back into the closet very soon, but he made the most of it until it snowed.
Still on an almost daily basis since before he turned 13, the fly on the wall might not have noticed that the skateboarding videos transitioned down rabbit holes pertaining to airsoft and mountain biking. The airsoft videos have interested him for several years, and he now has an airsoft rifle. He has recently saved to purchase another one after spending his money on attachments that he first researched. He has watched videos on airsoft battles, the history of military strategy dating to ancient civilizations, gun reviews, games on fields, CQB intense indoor experiences, immersive MILSIM campaigns, and safety. A friend’s Dad graciously took him to the local gun range, but the majority of the time he combines his martial arts training with John Wick moves as he negotiates imaginary airsoft battles at home.
The fly on the wall – that might have considered watching videos to be a waste of time or not educational – might have missed how more frequently the air soft videos were giving way to videos about mountain biking. My first intuitive reaction was to be concerned for his safety as I imagined him attempting the stunts the adults in the videos were doing, just like with skateboarding. As an unschooling parent who partners her child, I know that these inner responses are conditioned fears. I have learned to trust the child. My job was to pick up on the cues to learn how this interest meets a need and to facilitate his access and exposure as the rabbit holes transition, expand, turn, and loop.
This partnering in his learning facilitated my awareness a couple of months ago when he expressed interest in a new bike. He reasoned that he can ride his friends’ more expensive bikes better than his own. He is always lagging behind them. He has a nice bike, but he is outgrowing it after two years. I told him with winter, I probably can’t afford to focus on a new bike until spring. He seemed concerned about this, but his bike spends most of nine months hanging from the garage rafters due to snow. He kept talking about biking. I noticed he was watching YouTubers construct trails, going over the economics of building trails, converting vans for travel to various trails, and detailing specs and maintenance processes for a sport where replacement parts and repairs are frequent.
Soon, he was coming to me expressing a desire to get our city to create a mountain biking trail as a tourist attraction, and as a part of a master plan in his head for extreme sports. Ours is a destination community. We are at the foot of the mountain that is the scenic route to Yellowstone National Park. We have resort level hiking, hunting, and skiing. Our community is quaint and historic, the basis for the fictitious town of Durant in the Longmire book and TV series. Longmire Days brings tourism that triples our small-town population. My son suggested that having an airsoft field, expanding our pitiful skate park, and adding a mountain biking trail in town would bring people from all over for repeat visits, which would impact our economy.
We have lots of trails in our mountains. There is a major trail that leads from town a good ways up the mountain, but few trails if any are limited to mountain biking and most are primarily hiking trails. Also, the kind of trails my son wants to see constructed are exclusive to mountain biking and include special features, jumps, safety elements, and turns that can be repeated without riding long distance across a trail through protected habitat.
He said businesses would be needed to accommodate travelers in need of repairs or to lease bikes. He talked about how hotels, restaurants, other businesses and our sporting goods store would benefit from visitors to the trail. We talked about events. He wants to involve a YouTuber that has helped sell these attractions in various communities.
The more we talked, the more it became clear to me that this is something I will facilitate over time. He is a 13yo wanting to become involved in community improvement that ultimately could be a lasting interest and give him first-hand experience in community project management. Like all things in unschooling, this could also be a trail leading to other rabbit holes of discovery. He is not limited to one or two interests. The world is wide open to him.