One of the things I love about unschooling is that it allows for a long childhood, at a time when childhood seems to be getting shorter and shorter. This is important to me and I believe healthy for children, and one of the reasons I decided to unschool.
What I see in unschooled children is that well into the teen years they are still spending a lot of time playing, they are carefree, they are focused on fun and joy, they are free-spirited and energetic. Qualities that we tend to think of as childlike persist well into the teenage years.
Compared with their schooled peers, some might say unschooled teens seem younger. And yet, they are mature in many other ways. They are often much more independent, confident, able to talk to people of every age, emotionally mature, have great self-awareness, and have healthy friendships. They are accepting of others and their differences. They talk and debate about relevant current social topics. They are intrinsically motivated and take responsibility for their own learning and education.
They are so much more mature in many ways, but still keep that sense of childlike optimism, wonder, and playfulness. Often when we meet new people they are a little puzzled by this. It seems that we have come to equate children exploring concepts beyond their age with ‘maturity’, and being playful and carefree as ‘immature’.
Unfortunately, what people seem to think of as ‘mature’ these days is young teens acting like adults and exploring adult concepts and behaviours before they often should be, and without the actual maturity to deal with them. From packed schedules of academic and extra-curricular classes that equate to the same amount of hours as an adult work week, to more worrying behaviours like greater exposure and engagement with adult content online.
Swapping the playfulness of childhood for acting like a miniature adult at age 12, without the capability to deal with adult things, is now seen as ‘growing up’ and normal. But, maturity is not acting like what you think an adult should be, or doing things that only adults do, before you are ready.
We’ve swapped actual maturity for these unhealthy ways of acting like adults. Without the power to make real choices in their lives, kids may explore adult concepts in unhealthy and immature ways, pushing the boundaries where they can, often with negative consequences.
When given the kind of freedom (and healthy social environment) that exists in unschooling homes, kids seem to spend much more time in the playful childhood years, where they gradually develop the skills needed for adulthood. Where they can process what they see and hear in a safe environment, where they are not under pressure to be anything other than themselves, where they have enough healthy adult role models around daily, where they have greater autonomy and agency, and where they can develop healthy relationships with peers.
They sit in the space between childhood and adulthood, as everyone does at some point, but instead of it looking tumultuous, stressful, and quite frightening, it looks so natural. Maturing in many ways, while keeping alive that sense of playfulness and joy. Not shut away from the adult world, but not locked out of childhood either. Able to have real-world experiences and contribute in meaningful ways. I can’t help watching them and thinking this is just how it was supposed to be.
To me, real maturity is knowing who you are, and having the courage to be yourself. It is responsibility, and adequate decision-making skills developed through years of practice making your own decisions. It’s independence, balanced with connection to community. It’s knowing your boundaries, beliefs, and values, and how to communicate them. It’s being able to regulate your own emotions and also have empathy for others. These are the qualities that I see fostered though unschooling. Along with being a beautiful unique individual!
At a glance, unschooled teens may look less mature than their schooled peers with their free spirits, carefree nature, and willingness to still enjoy types of play that their school-aged peers may have already been shamed out of at their age. But, look a little closer. I see children and teens that are maturing in all the right ways, at a healthy pace. I see people growing beautifully into who they were meant to be.