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Alison McKee's Unschooling Ourselves

How Unschoolers Transition Into the Workforce

by Alison McKee

Years ago I was asked to do a presentation on homeschooling at a local parenting support group. The group was not a homeschooling group although some members were interested in considering it for their children. At the time I was a closeted unschooler. When my presentation was over, the questions came. I only remember one, and it has stayed with me all these years: "How will your children know how to get up and go to work when they are grown if they donít have to get up and go to school each day?" I remember an inward chuckle as I answered the question which, at the time, could only be based on my personal faith in the unschooling process. "My children will know to get up and go to work because they see their parents doing it. When they are older they will have needs, similar to our needs, to put food on the table and a roof over our heads, and getting up and going to work will be the only way to meet those needs." At that point I launched into a discussion of how absolutely natural such learning was and how unnecessary it was to go to school for thirteen years simply to learn to get up early for work

My answer that morning was based on the faith Iíd always had in my children, Christian and Georgina, who had always been motivated to do things based on their personal needs. I was pretty sure that their unschooled lives would eventually provide them with a solid motivation to work. In fact, I was pretty sure that their unschooling experiences would do a better job of it than any school could. Of course, all I could do was wait and see. Soon I was to discover how naturally unschoolers begin to find their way into the workforce at quite young ages through their individual needs and their individual interests.

Our son was the first to develop a need to work. As a youngster, he had met some homeschooled boys (no easy thing to do in the 80ís) with whom he enjoyed spending time. One of the things these boys did was to gather at someoneís home for a variety of short-term "classes." Our budget, at the time, was too stretched to afford the expense and Christian, too young, could not get a "real" job to pay for the classes. I suggested he work out a barter with the teacher of one class and she agreed. Christian was to cook and freeze two meals per week for her. He would receive two recipes and the ingredients for those recipes from the woman each week. He delivered them at class time, as payment for that dayís participation. This arrangement became Christianís first foray into the world of work.

At age eleven, Christian wanted to go to Concordia Language Villagesí (Moorhead, MN) German Camp, but once again, mom and dad couldnít afford the luxury. We were able, though, to help him earn the money. He got a job delivering papers and we were willing to supervise, for safetyís sake, the early morning delivery. Over the years, Christian worked his paper route and other jobs as his needs for money grew.

Christianís sister, Georgina, had similar needs for money, but an entirely different path into the world of work. Her big financial needs had to do with international choir tours. Fundraising through choir activities helped her cover some of the expenses involved but not nearly enough. When she realized this, she got a job at a local bagel shop and since then (age fourteen) has held a steady string of jobs to support herself and her needs.

One might say that these two examples are no different than examples I could draw from the schooled population of children who enter the job market. Iíd have to agree, but there is a subtle difference: Unschoolers generally respond to a call to the workforce based on their personal learning needs and a self-motivation to expand those needs through employment. In other words, their interests draw them into the workforce. When personal interests are the driving force for earning money the question about knowing to get out of bed becomes a moot point. For both of our children, their first jobs required them to be on the job by 5:30 a.m. and they were. So, the simple answer I gave to the curious mom at that parent group had, indeed, proven itself to be true. There had been no need for my children to go to school to learn about the necessity of getting up early to go to work. Personal interests and needs made the issue clear.

On a more serious side, though, you as parents of unschooled children are faced with deeper and more profound questions regarding employment. These questions are bound up in issues of whether or not your children will have good enough credentials to get good jobs, whether the jobs they find will provide enough financial support, and whether or not you, as parents, will be able to prepare your children for the world of work. I wish that I could say, "Oh posh, donít worry about these issues, of course your child will find employment and be self-sufficient," but Iím afraid I know better. As parents, our job is to worry about such things, and we will. My hope is that my words here and the lives of all the unschooled children who have successfully gone ahead with their adult lives, can help you understand how gracefully unschooling lends itself to full and satisfactory employment, often at quite young ages.

As I mentioned above, unschoolers can be lead into the workforce, quite naturally, by following their interests. The natural unfolding of this process begins when unschooling parents carry some of the responsibility for helping children develop their initial interests. We do so by following the lead of our children. In the earliest years, this is done by simply exposing children to their natural environment. Two words of caution here: First, when I suggest that parents expose their children to the natural environment, I am not suggesting that young children spend countless hours watching television, playing video or using the computer, simply because that is what they want to do. These devices, while being a large part of our environment, are not conducive to helping our children become actively engaged in the world around them. Indeed, excessive use of these tools at very young ages can actually cause children to become disinterested in the very real, interesting and complex world that surrounds them. My second caution is not to become overzealous in your attempts to try to turn all your childís interests into passions. Small children will and should become interested in many things in their world. It is quite natural for them to flit from one thing to the next on an hourly or daily basis. As they age however, the number of interests they involve themselves in will, quite naturally, narrow. Somewhere between the ages of ten and fifteen, they will begin to show particular interest in one or two things. As these more mature interests surface, we can begin the process of helping children learn about the inter-relatedness of work and the need to be able to support themselves.

To be sure, there is parental groundwork that needs to be done first though. That groundwork, in our case, came in the form of volunteer work which our children did alongside my husband and me. Doing volunteer work with your child, whether it is working at a "soup kitchen," putting stamps on envelopes or raking an elderly personís lawn, helps children get to know about their community and to become comfortable with taking direction from unfamiliar adults. These are skills children must have if they are to successfully move into the world of work and find the pleasures it offers. Having ample experience working alongside parents and adults, who were once unfamiliar to them, helps unschoolers cross the natural bridge to real work. Again unschooling parents can assist children make this transition too.

When children reach the stage of development where they have a few select interests, unschooling parents can begin to look for ways to facilitate the development of that interest by suggesting that their children do volunteer work in settings where they will find like-minded individuals. Again, to draw from my familyís experience, this is how it may look. Our daughter had ample experience volunteering with us by the time she was ten. Her continuing interest in animals began to require more than reading to her about animals or owning a multitude of family pets. At our suggestion, she began to look for volunteer opportunities that would include work with animals. She decided to check into volunteering at the local pet store where she had purchased her rat. We helped her make those initial contacts with the store owners. To make a long story short, she volunteered at that store for four years. Along the way, she learned and performed all of the skills required to run the store. By fourteen years old, she had mastered many business skills and had the beginnings of a fine employment resume which showed a variety of volunteer jobs and work skills.

Hundreds of unschoolers have done as our children have. Their first entries into the world of work were often through a family business, or doing volunteer work with their parents, or a friend. When these young unschoolers were not volunteering or busy with the family business, they spent their days doing things children should be doing: Playing, having their parents read to them, visiting with a new neighbor, making trips to the library, grocery store or other places of business, and thus experiencing the joys of learning about their community. Sometimes, as young children, they developed a keen interest in a particular thing, but most often they simply enjoyed a wide variety of experiences. As they got older and began to discover what gave them pleasure, they may have taken on volunteer work or a paid job to expand their knowledge of that particular interest. On the other hand, they may have taken on simple paid employment to be able to afford participation in an activity that meant a lot to them. There was no real magic in these processes, simply a natural need to move beyond what their family could provide in order to carry on with what interested them. Generally, unschoolers who have found their way into the workforce by such means continued to seek new jobs when the urge hit. By the time they were ready to be on their own, and if they were not going off to college, they have had impressive employment resumes as a result of this very natural process.

If you are willing to look at the natural opportunities which present themselves to your children, whether they are driven by need or interest, you as unschooling parents are going to be more than able to help your children find their way into the work force. It may take some creative groundwork, but opportunities abound. Generally speaking, these opportunities are quite plentiful in most communities. By the time most unschoolers are ready to leave home, they have had more than one or two good volunteer or paying jobs that will become the foundation for an impressive job resume. Therefore, unschooling is the perfect stepping-stone into the world of work!

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Alison McKee is a homeschooling mom of two grown children. She is also the author of "Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves" published by Bittersweet House. Please see her ad on p. 20).