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Alison McKee’s Unschooling Ourselves

Finding Mentors for Our Children, Part I

In my book, Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves, I often discussed situations where my children with worked mentors. Since the publication of the book, many parents have asked how to go about finding mentors for their children. In answer, I say that finding mentors is not difficult if we follow the lead our kids give us. In this issue of my column, I am going to explain more thoroughly what I mean. I will draw heavily on my children’s experiences.

Our intention, as parents setting out to unschool our children, was to immerse them in the life of our community from an early age. In some ways, finding my son’s first mentor happened quite by accident. One of our regular family outings, when the children were little, was to go to the library. When Christian was four or five, he developed a special relationship with one our librarians. That relationship was a very informal mentoring relationship. Christian simply enjoyed asking Roger, the librarian, questions and Roger enjoyed answering them. If he couldn’t answer them, Roger showed Christian how he researched to find answers to questions he didn’t know. It didn’t take long before Christian’s arrival at the library was met with a small stack of books that Roger had held aside, during the course of our week’s absence, thinking that they might interest Christian. Christian’s first mentor had been found and I’d done nothing to make it happen.

I think it is important to take a minute to explore this little scenario, because it is such an apt example of how unschooling works: Children direct the learning process while parents facilitate the learning that children seem to be interested in. Finding those first mentors for our children is as simple as that. It happens because, with our children at our side, we engage in activities in the community. For our family, the library was a vital resource. It was quite natural for me to take our children to the library and involve them in what I was doing there. I also included them when I made shopping trips to our local co-op. When the kids were old enough to hang out with me as I did my volunteer stint, I took them along on that trip too. Guess what?

The kids wanted to help out. Soon they developed special relationships with some of the employees. Those employees became informal mentors as they taught Christian and Georgina to stock shelves, package dry goods, arrange displays etc. Without any intervention from me, my kids found these mentors on their own.
This scenario played itself out over and over during the first eight to ten years of my children’s lives. So, if you are thinking that in the near future you might have to start looking for mentors for your children, don’t panic. Simply think of the naturally occurring opportunities that happen in your day-to-day life and you may find yourself sitting on a gold mine. I’ve heard numerous parents tell me their version of the library scenario, and others tell me how weekly trips to the natural foods store, knitting store, and feed store all became fertile grounds for establishing a first mentorship.

Embedded into these first mentoring relationships are the seeds for growing more formal relationships in the future. Of necessity, our children grow in their need for independence as they get older. That growing need for independence, led by a child’s burgeoning interest in the world beyond the front door, is nurtured by the unschooling commitment to facilitating the learning of children. Inasmuch as the facilitation of a child’s desire to learn is the hallmark of the unschooled life, I always felt as though it was my responsibility to keep my eyes out for opportunities to do so. Those opportunities sprang up all over the place. Sometimes an opportunity might take the form of, “I don’t want to leave right now, can I stay here with Roger (the librarian) while you go next door to the post office?”

Those first quests for independence, although small in size, are significant stepping-stones along the path toward a future which might contain opportunities for our children to be mentored by total strangers. In the early years of this process, it is important to keep close tabs on the relationships our children develop. Once we have developed a trusting relationship with the individual with whom our child “works” we can “go next door” with a feeling of triumph: Our child has successfully found his first mentor.

Throughout my children’s early years this was how we accomplished finding those very first mentors. It didn’t happen only once or twice, it happened over and over again. Every time my children asked to stay put, while I ran an errand, offered them an opportunity to practice their skills of independence. With the development of those skills, came discussions about the “ground rules” of safe behavior. As my children demonstrated their ability to follow those rules they gained more and more autonomy.

If I am recalling accurately, both of my children, at the age of ten, requested to be able to do volunteer work in settings that I had never taken them to. Christian, at age ten, wanted to work at a radio station. Four years later, at age ten, Georgina was asking to work at a pet store. Suddenly we were being asked to find our children mentors, in environments we’d never been to, who would be willing to work with them as they learned skills that were of interest to them.

At this stage of the process, there is a very real shift in focus that we, as parents, need to take if we are going to be successful in finding a suitable mentor for our children. Whereas, in the early years, our children found mentors within the environments we exposed them to, the later years of working with mentors will be marked by their moving beyond what’s familiar. This is where we, as parent’s need to focus, at this stage of the process.

In the case of our son, things fell into place rather easily. As unschoolers, we felt it was our responsibility to facilitate what Christian wanted to do and to make sure he would be safe doing it. Our first step was to take Christian to the radio station and check it out. After spending time there, we were pretty sure Christian’s safety was not at risk. The next step in the process was that Christian had to explain his interest in working at the station to the volunteer coordinator. At that time (in the ‘80’s) it was unusual for a child to be at a radio station during school hours, and we felt it important that Christian explain himself so that the volunteer coordinator could get a grasp of how deeply interested he was in being part of the radio station’s mission. The face-to-face interview with the volunteer coordinator was the ticket to Christian’s success in landing his first volunteer opportunity there. Soon he was paired him up with someone willing to supervise him. Christian, having demonstrated to us that he knew how to comply with our ground rules for safe behavior, was then allowed to stay at the radio station for an hour on his own and do a volunteer task. This sort of limited independent volunteer work allowed us, as parents, to monitor the situation from a safe distance. As we all became more satisfied with the volunteer experience, Christian took on more and more responsibility at the station. Soon an adult stepped to the fore and mentored Christian in the rudiments of radio engineering. Simply stated, from a rather protected beginning, Christian was, by this stage of the process, well on his way to becoming an individual who would some day, without parental supervision, be able to select more mentors for himself.
Georgina’s first forays into the world of seeking her own mentors followed a somewhat different trajectory. In her situation she had no particular pet store in mind. Our task, therefore, was to scout around and find a pet store where she liked the ambiance. Not only did the ambiance need to be well-suited to Georgina’s needs, we as parents needed to be sure that the setting she chose was safe. So, with Georgina’s interests and our mission to facilitate her learning needs leading the way, we began our search. Within a week or two she found what she was looking for. Unfortunately, the owners were unwilling to have a child volunteer. For the next few months, whenever there was time to spare, we went in search of the perfect pet store. Georgina was unsuccessful in finding anything better than the first site that had turned her down, so we returned to that site to try again. The owners repeated their unwillingness to have her volunteer but offered that she might come to the store, any time she liked, and pet the animals. Little did we know we had just stumbled upon the key to building mentoring relationships: Take what you can and run with it.
Over the next few months we did just that. David took Georgina to the pet store, she petted the animals and chatted with the owners and then when she’d had enough, go next door to the coffee shop where David had stationed himself. Soon Georgina’s boredom with petting animals gave way to her desire to wanting more. (An important lesson is to be had here. As parents, it is not our job to relieve our children’s boredom or prevent boredom from developing in the first place. Rather, we should allow our child’s boredom be the motivation for them to move in new directions.) With coaching from us, Georgina approached the owners and asked if she might help out in other ways. Again, her offer to help out was rejected. Finally, David and Georgina went back to the owners and explained Georgina’s keen desire to volunteer. This was significant. The owners had concerns about using a “student” volunteer based on a previously bad experience. Georgina’s genuine interest seemed to shine through as the owners interviewed her and talked the matter over with David. At the end of the interview, Georgina was invited to volunteer. With behind-the-scenes coaching from us, Georgina soon learned the skill of asserting herself as a volunteer. A month later she was doing everything but run the register and answer the phone. >From here on out Georgina’s ability to find mentors, under our supervision, burgeoned. Like her brother, she honed the skills of finding mentors who could teach her more than her parents knew and eventually gained the skills of a life-long learner that have carried her into her adulthood.

So, there is no real mystery in how to go about finding mentors for our children, if we simply follow their lead. Unlike tutors and teachers, mentors are those individuals who meet our children at a place where interests intertwine and both the mentor and the mentored gain from the relationship. AMcG ■