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Unschooling Ourselves: Finding Mentors for Our Children, Part 2

by Alison McKee

In “Finding Mentors for Our Children, Part 1” (The Link, Vol 8, Issue 3) I discussed the natural process of helping our young children find mentors and establish relationships with them. In that column I discussed how unschooled children are included in the true routines of daily life. Thereby, they come with us to the library, grocery store, theater and other community venues. Through regular visits to these places, young children sometimes become familiar with adults who take a special interest in a child’s budding curiosity about library books, stocking grocery shelves, theatre and the like.

Under our protective watch, our unschooled children, and some adults they have regular contact with, form a very special friendship bond that can be looked on as a child’s first mentor. Over time, children who are continually exposed to community life begin to find, for themselves, things which fascinate them and draw them towards forming their own mentoring relationships. With no real effort on our parts, though with some parental guidance and supervision, young, unschooled children find mentors who are willing to guide them as they develop their interests. When children cease to be children, and instead teeter on the brink of adolescence and young adulthood, finding mentors for them can become quite a different task.
In this column I am going to explain more thoroughly what I mean. Once again, I will draw heavily on my children’s experiences and those of other families who have traveled this road and shared their experiences with me.

In my opinion, success in helping adolescents and young adults develop strong mentoring relationships is based on a few important things. The most important part of the process is that our children must desire to work with someone. If they do, and if we are willing to help them in their quest for mentors, finding a mentor is an achievable goal. Successful mentoring experiences also depend upon good making connections between the mentor and the one seeking a mentor. Of primary importance here is that both individuals share a mutual interest, be willing to work together and be willing to learn from one another. With the unschooler’s desire, some parental assistance, and by keeping the focus on finding someone with a mutual interest front and center, the foundations for successful mentoring are set in place.

Since unschooling, by definition, is a lifestyle which embraces the notion that children will lead the way in making decisions about what they are going to learn, is there any doubt that helping them create mentoring relationships should begin with their desire for one? In my experience, the answer to that question is an emphatic “No.” Without genuine interest in finding a personal mentor, the search for one is dead in the water from the start. Oh, there can be connections made between two individuals with a common interest, but if there is no desire to mutually share that interest, the connection will stagnate and die. Therefore, it is important to let our children’s interests grow and expand of their own accord. When they find themselves unable to deepen their interest without connecting with others, they will let their needs be known or they will begin the process of finding their own mentors. This self-motivation, this desire, will be all that is needed to set in motion the process of helping them find a mentor.

Children who want to work with a mentor or need to make a mentoring connection, do not always say, “I want a mentor.” We are simply aware of our child’s burning desire to be able to do more and their frustration with their lack of knowledge about how to proceed further. This is when they need parental help. When our children have interests which have deepened to a point that contact with a knowledgeable person seems to be the next step in expanding their knowledge, it is necessary for us to step forward. As perceptive parents, we will know when to offer help, how much to offer and when to back off.

In my family’s situation, we found ourselves having to help our son deepen his interest in fly fishing. He had done all he could on his own, and not being fly fishers, we couldn’t be much help unless we engaged someone else’s expertise. We offered our help, and putting our heads together, we came up with the notion of taking him to the local fly fishers monthly meetings. There he was able to listen to lectures, meet others who shared his passion and finally make personal connections with a few special people who, without formal invitation, became his fishing mentors. These connections eventually lead to our son finding fly tying work in Yellowstone.

Sometimes, our desire for our children to have mentors exceeds their need for one. Such situations are often where our children have rather casual interests in subject matter that we wish they would deepen. Oftentimes these interests reflect some of what we know to be part of traditional school subject matter. Children might begin to explore botany in the spring, writing poetry after hearing a friend read his/her poetry, or music after hearing an interesting concert. As their casual exploration of these interests begins to falter, and our desire to have our children expand on these interests increases (because they are really what “legitimate” learning is all about) we might try to foist on them the notion of working with a mentor in hopes of keeping the interest alive. Unfortunately this usually doesn’t work. Therefore it is important to keep in mind that a genuine willingness to help must not be motivated by our self-interest. This is not the un-schooling way and does not serve the best interest of our self-motivated, self-directed learners.

Parental willingness to help our adolescents find mentors also includes a willingness on our part, to take on some of the burden of finding those first mentors and making connections with them. Our son’s fishing experience is a case in point. Adolescents often have a desire for a mentoring relationship and yet have none of the skills needed to find and create those relationships. Sometimes, we mistakenly assume that such children are not ready for the responsibility of such a relationship. Not so. The adolescent simply needs us to help him to make those connections. If we are skilled as unschoolers, we will navigate the waters of finding a mentor while mentoring our own children through the process itself. In the case of our fishing situation, we worked together. Through a process of informal brainstorming and asking around, we soon found help that led us in the right direction. This became a familiar pattern of operation as our children sought more mentors in the future: Informal brainstorming, finding a direction and pursuing it. Within a few years, modeling this process repeatedly became the basis for both of our kids initiating their own mentor searches. As unschoolers, this was our hope, that our children, with some assistance from us, would eventually be able to find mentors on their own.

Another critical factor to keep in mind when looking for mentors is that both individuals must share a mutual interest, mutual respect for one another and a mutual desire to work together. This seems to be so obvious and yet there are some stumbling blocks that may trip you up if you are not looking out for them. For instance, we found that the best place to look for mentors was in their fields of expertise. In the case of fly fishing, we took our son to the public meetings of fly fishermen and let him socialize with them. The connections made there panned out. On another occasion, we connected him with a friend who worked in the field he was interested in exploring. Our expectation was not that he work with that individual, but rather that he get to see what happened in that work setting. That opportunity panned out well, too. Our son met individuals, in that work setting, who were willing to take him under their wing and show him the ropes of radio engineering. Our daughter had similar experiences. Failures in setting up mentoring relationships seemed to happen when we simply found someone we thought might be in the position to mentor our child and asking them to do so. More than once, such relationships never worked out well. In retrospect, I believe those situations failed because we were trying to create a relationship before there was any basis for one to exist.

So, it is important to keep in mind that helping our children find opportunities to mingle with others who share a mutual interest should come before we seek out particular individuals to mentor them. Try to keep this in mind when your child seems to be in need of or wanting a mentor.

It is also very important to keep in mind the importance of helping our children make connections with adults who will respect them and their desire to work and learn. Often, individuals offer to mentor adolescents out of their own personal need to “teach” the unschooler a thing or two. We experienced two such failures when our children were teens. In both cases, the individuals were referred to us by others. We made contact with them, told them our situation and asked if they were willing to mentor our children. Both individuals jumped at the chance to do so -- in retrospect almost too eagerly. Within a very short time our kids started to complain. Their complaints had to do with not being treated respectfully. They felt as though they were being talked down to, being relegated to doing meaningless tasks and being taught as though they were in school to learn lessons. None of these things sat well with our two unschoolers, so they terminated the relationships.

Be mindful of the fact that there are many individuals who would love to mentor your children. Often, these individuals make great mentors but if they are of the mindset that unschoolers, or even homeschoolers, lack school-type lessons, their motivation to work with our children may be simply to bridge that gap. If they cannot grasp the notion that children are capable learners, worthy of mutually-respectful treatment, then the mentoring relationship will not work out. In such cases our adolescents do not need to be the recipients of someone else’s lesson plans and would do better moving on.

In the earliest of years, when our children found special friends to mentor them, we were at their sides throughout the process. Quite naturally, and over time, most unschoolers come to feel the need to work with a mentor without parental supervision.When these shifts are on the horizon it is important for us to develop a willing attitude toward helping the process along. Keeping an eye out, and an ear open, goes a long way toward knowing when to help facilitate the process of helping our children find mentors. Our children’s desire for such relationships should lead the process. Helping them find like-minded individuals to socialize with may take creative brainstorming, asking friends, searching the Yellow Pages or calling your community library. All the while, keep in mind that the goal of your search is to find someone who will be able to make good, honest interpersonal connections with your child first. Simply remember that your children’s intellectual and creative curiosities will be served by a mentor if you follow these simple rules of the road. A.Mc. ■