Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Sense of Self/Teenage Liberation Handbook

I loved sociology class in high school. The first sociology class I took, back in 1978, was "Contemporary Social Issues". The teacher was amazing. She taught in a class discussion format. Since I love words, this was my dream class.

She was radical in other ways. She took our class subjects from the headlines on the news and from current non-fiction best sellers. She encouraged us to scour magazines, music, television, movies- really any and all forms of human communication-in our search for truth on any social topic.

Since our subject was "Contemporary" it made sense to look for just-published material. Since our subject was "Social" it made sense to include all aspects of our society. Entertainment being a popular form of human expression, we were encouraged to look there as well as newspapers and news magazines for the answers to our questions.

She also asked for our opinions, as members of contemporary society, and listened with respect to our answers. Now that I am the age she was then, I realize how important that was and how hard that must have been. Apologies to younger readers, but many of the ideas we thought were original had been discussed (perhaps even practiced) throughout ages past and discarded as unworkable. Since this class was not a history or philosophy class though, she didn't point that out.

She let our class argue all the points out ourselves. Teenagers are smart and opinionated and if given a chance will jump right in there. We jumped. The rare times class would be coming to a close and an alternate opinion, criticism or favorable argument had not yet been raised, then and only then would she offer it up as a question, "Has anyone considered this....?"

She gave me respect that I rarely received, and an example that I still try to emulate. She showed me that I should listen to teenagers even if/when I don't agree, and to try to do it without correcting them. Reality will come along and correct most errors in logic that a teenager may be making. Whether that reality comes in the form of the opinions of other teenagers, reading about the lives of others, or a dope slap upside their head in a personal course correction offered by life itself, my sociology teacher was determined to let it come from some other source rather than to personally hand deliver it.

I appreciate that example, even though I don't always live up to it. (Sorry about that, kids.) I appreciate that example, even though as a parent I can't always live up to it. (You're welcome, kids.)

Which is why I think I love the two books I am now about to recommend. Both authors show great respect to teenagers. They are worth reading, even if you the reader winds up disagreeing with them at times. I found both books invaluable in bringing healing to my depressed daughter's heart and reminding me why I started home schooling in the first place.

A Sense of Self by Susannah Sheffer is an excellent book. Ms. Sheffer wanted to find out how home schooled adolescent girls felt about themselves, home schooling and life in general. She chose her questions carefully, and posed them to fifty-one teenage girls who were being home schooled at the time.

It is a wonderful book because so many of the questions are open-ended, letting the teenagers express themselves in their own words. That alone makes it worth the price of the book. I wanted to sample my copy and give my readers a tasted of how worthy the book is, but I have loaned it out. I do that alot.

The other book I highly recommend for parents of teenage home schooled girls (especially if you are leaving behind fundamentalist control and looking to inject some real freedom into your home high school) is The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn. It is a fascinating book that truly treats teenagers as worthy of real respect, in spite of their inexperience, because, well THEY ARE!

Now for all of those devout fundamentalists reading my column (LOL! Yeah, right.) I feel I must warn you. You will not agree with everything that Ms. Llewellyn writes. She is writing to teens, and her message is that they are capable of making decisions for themselves. So far so good. She encourages them to know themselves, and to discover that by actually living their lives. I agree with her on the major points.

On the other hand, as a Christian parent and former party girl, I both disagree with her and unfortunately prove her point. Her point, that in order to know what you really believe you need to get out there and live, is true for me. No one can convince me that "casual" sex harms no one, because it damaged my self-esteem and broke my heart. The exception: when it was truly meaningless to me I wound up damaging the self-esteem and breaking the heart of someone else. There was no win-win in my experience. Someone was always the loser.

Unfortunately, since I came through the whole experience without a crippling STD or an unwanted pregnancy, my experience seems to support her contention that experimenting with sex need not have permanent consequences.

The same is true of her opinions about experimenting with drugs and alcohol. I have had many wasted nights and bad experiences to show for my party days, as well as some good memories. I would be a liar if I did not acknowledge that it was sometimes fun and fulfilling. And truly, my opinions about drugs, alcohol and partying are definitely my own, won through hard experience. It's highly unlikely that anyone can change my mind about these things, knowing what I know.

The fact that I did not become an alcoholic, or a drug addict, or go to prison for possession of an illegal substance, would seem to support her view that a little experimentation with drugs will not cause lasting harm.

Of course as a responsible parent I can't support that view! Experimenting with teen sex and/or drugs and alcohol are just too dangerous. It's not the odds of experiencing a bad consequence that should determine your decisions. It's the depth of harm that a bad experience could cause that needs to be the deciding factor. At least that's how I make decisions.

I wear a seat belt every time I get in the car not because I am playing the odds of having an accident and I think they are too high to flaunt. I wear a seat belt because if I am in a high speed accident, being thrown through the windshield and out into the street is almost certainly fatal. The consequence is not one I can live with; therefore it does not matter how small the odds are that I will be in an accident that day. The seat belt goes on.

Having pointed out these two areas where I disagree with Ms. Llewellyn, I still recommend the book. Whether or not you give the book to your teens to read or not is a judgment call that depends on the teen and their level of maturity. But I think all parents should read The Teenage Liberation Handbook. It will remind you very much of what it really is like to be a teenager, and how most of them will respond in ways that will make you proud if you give them the opportunity.

These two books are a great antidote to all the Christian pablum out there about how Christian teen girls SHOULD think, act and feel. Both of these books deal with teens as they actually ARE. Parents who care about their girls hearts would do well to listen to the hearts of the home schooled teens who have graduated before them in A Sense of Self: Listening to Home Schooled Adolescent Girls. Parents (and teens) who want to understand their teens as people in their own right, capable of making their own decisions and willing to accept responsibility for the consequences, should read The Teenage Liberation Handbook.

In reading these books, at the very least, you will have learned something from people you would never otherwise meet. Where you disagree, it would be good practice in logic for you to be able to formulate why you disagree with enough clarity to satisfy your teens. That will win you much more respect than the "because I said so" or even than "because the Bible says so". God is the author of reality, so it stands to reason that there are real reasons behind what the Bible says. Exploring and articulating those reasons which support wise counsel from the Bible in no way detracts from the authority of scripture, but supports it.

Jesus is, after all, the Logos ( i.e. the logic) made flesh...


  1. It's amazing the sources from which we can extract practical knowledge. We just have to be willing to explore, discern, keep the good and discard the bad.

    I appreciate how you attempt to give your kids, and yourself, room to grow in all things. Keep it up, sis.

  2. I read The Handbook about 5 years ago and really wished (again) that I could have been homeschooled in high school, if the homeschooling could have looked like this book!

    I agree that it is a book more helpful to people who are coming into the high school years from a more rigidly structured educational/family setting like conventional school or authoritarian family where children are told what to do than people who have a looser, autodidactic approach (although still some great ideas and reminders of what is possible).

  3. Lewis,

    Thanks, bro.


    The target audience of Llewellyn's book is actually publicly schooled teens. I don't know if you remembered that part or not. =) I think it's a great read for parents, but it was not her intention in writing the book.

    She is an honest author though, and I really appreciate that. She wrote a book chronicling the lives of unschooled teens (check Amazon for other books by her) and she did not cherry pick her subjects. She takes pains to include at least one teen seemingly doing nothing with his life- not at all the message of TLH, but she was honest enough to include it.

    I am not an unschooler, but unschooling literature has been really helpful to me in many ways. For one, TLH helped my daughter to formulate her own goals, which I could then brainstorm with her on achieving. Lucky for me they are goals I could understand and be useful in obtaining.

    Now my son, if he still wants to pursue medical, I can help with that goal. I can make sure he takes all the right classes from the right places for his high school transcript.

    On the other hand, if he really wants to take a shot at musician in a rock band, I will be useless. I will bite my tongue often. I might even cry, but hopefully not in front of him, and hopefully he will be wildly successful in spite of my incompetency in that area.

    (But I still hope he picks something with which I can help somehow. So not TLH of me!)

  4. We aren't unschoolers in any usual sense of the word (we aren't really anything in the usual sense!) but I have always tried to raise the girls by principles rather than rules, treat them with the same respect and courtesy as I would an honored guest in our home, and tell them YES as often as I can. These are the fundamentals of radical unschooling as preached by Sandra Dodd with the simple extra step of not being schooled. But I see that the lines between being schooled and unschooled are awfully blurry when the kids are choosing to take classes and to learn in rather traditional ways rather than learning primarily through non-traditional venues.... I digress.

    I meant in my earlier comment only that I agree with you about TLH being directed at schooled kids, whether that schooling took place in traditional public schools or highly structured homeschool. I have recommended it several times to families approaching the high school years who realize that the educational practices that were used in the younger years are just not cutting it for the older child--usually because they had got caught up in their particular educational system and forgotten to look deeply at the individual child and develop educational and life goals from there rather than continue to try to fit the child into a particular pedagogical/doctrinal box.

    The one instance where I referred the book that still makes me smile in irony is where the mom was adamant that she had developed the Best Waldorf homeschool possible and had a knee-jerk revulsion to unschooling. So she was quite clear that she was NOT going to implement ANY of the suggestions of The Handbook. She and her daughter struggled for the next year until the daughter simply put her foot down and told her mother what she intended to do/study for the next semester. By the semester after that, the daughter had applied to, and been accepted at a boarding school for the arts a thousand miles away. All at the daughter's own initiative.

    Now, several years later as she is starting college, the mom is raving about how it all worked because she (the Mom) respected the daughter's ability to know what she needed to be doing. Same thing TLH recommemends, she just got to the same place by a different path. But she's still adamant that there is nothing about unschooling that has any redeeming value whatsoever. Whatever! As long as you get there. I still chuckle.

  5. Ah, I get what you were saying now. Thanks for the illustration. Yes, it is hard to let go of control, especially when you are sure you did so well with it when it was your responsibility. But let go we must.

    Susannah Sheffer's book would be a fitting place for your art student story to be chronicled. A huge part of her findings was that many home schooled adolescent girls were pretty good at taking up for their authentic selves. ;-) But I don't want to ruin the book for anyone.

    It is a wonderful read, both encouraging as well as offering the dope slap of reality in a few places. I think anyone with an adolescent home schooled daughter should read it. A parent is sure to learn something useful.