"We offer homeschool activities for teens, but they don't come."
If this sounds like your homeschool group, you are probably wondering why teens aren't interested in attending your events. Many groups are sincere in wanting to offer activities for older homeschoolers, and want to figure out why it's not working.
As someone who has created multiple homeschool groups and co-ops in the many communities where we have lived, I have a few ideas about some of the reasons that may contribute to low attendance by teens.
The Younger Kids Factor
Sometimes, upon further discussion with a homeschool group leader, it turns out that all the younger siblings are invited to Teen Movie Night, or that 10 year olds are being allowed to sit in on discussions of complex social issues, or that activities are arranged for "tweens and teens" and not just teens. For many older homeschoolers, this is a decidedly unwelcoming scenario. Many will choose not to attend.
Older teens may feel uncomfortable socializing with much younger kids, especially at an event like a dance or movie night. They are keenly aware that their high school compatriots are not attending dances with younger children, and it feels silly for them. No matter how many times a well-meaning parent says they should "get over it," that's not how it works with many teens.
In classes or activities that feature discussions, there may be issues that teens feel strongly about, but don't want to discuss candidly around younger children. They may feel they have to self censor because they are uncomfortable exposing younger children they care about to sensitive issues or honest opinions that may be unexpected. It's easier just not to get put in that position.
It's also true that homeschooled teens have frequently been very involved in activities with younger siblings, including taking care of them and attending family activities with them. While they love and respect their brothers and sisters and enjoy spending time with them, they are developmentally ready for some independent activities. They're not looking for their "teen group" to be yet another scenario swarming with little ones where they are de facto expected to provide some version of looking out for younger kids.
Sometimes, well meaning parents have younger children with advanced academic skills. They are seeking higher level classes, and they become insistent that their kids are included in classes for teens. While the younger children may be intellectually ready and have the requisite academic skills, they are still socially at a different maturity level and may not be able to handle complex discussions of sensitive issues that might be part of literature, writing, history, social studies, debate, and philosophy classes. This is definitely a challenge for parents of academically advanced younger kids, and I don't mean to minimize that. However, not having homeschooled older teens yet, they may be unaware that some teens feel their own learning experiences are diminished when precocious younger children join them. In many cases, some teens will stop signing up.
The Busy-with-Other Things Factor
It can be hard to introduce teen activities, especially when the kids didn't grow up together in a homeschool group. No matter how carefully classes or activities are designed to be "just for the teens" to avoid the age range problem, teens are often just busy.
Many teens stick with homeschooling because they have intense academic interests, community involvement, or sports participation. These things take loads of time and may come with their own social groups. They are also working at part-time jobs or their own entrepreneurial projects. They may be highly valued volunteers, or they may be attending community college for a few classes. With a drivers license in hand, they may say they want teen homeschooling activities -- because homeschooling remains a part of their identity -- but they may not prioritize them.
I find that teens who grow up together in the same group have a much better record of prioritizing continued participation in teen homeschool activities -- both formally and informally. It's a good reason to start early in building those social ties within your group. And yes, it's hard if your family has moved a lot. I speak from experience.
Homeschool group leaders may simply have to accept that in some homeschool communities, this is just going to be an uphill battle.
The Critical-Mass Factor
In some places, many always-homeschooled kids attend public school beginning in the 9th grade. This has always been the plan in their family, and due to challenges transferring homeschooled credits to some public high schools, they start attending high school as freshmen. This can feel like a mass exodus in many homeschool groups and co-ops, leaving the teens who are continuing to homeschool feeling isolated -- perhaps for the first time during their homeschooling careers.
Sometimes, there is simply not a critical mass of homeschooled teens left in a community after this. Organizers can address this by creating some events that "bridge the gap" -- offered at a time that homeschool alumni can attend and socialize with their old friends. Yes, the school kids will get busier in their new setting, and these relationships may become more difficult to maintain, but it is a gift when a homeschool group can offer opportunities for these older kids to keep getting together. Likewise, joining with groups in neighboring areas to offer regional events for teens may help.
The Parent-Centered Factor
Some "teen" activities and classes are simply set up to meet parent agendas. This works better for classes, when teens will attend if the family's homeschool model has been one of parents selecting classes to meet graduation requirements, or if the teen has autonomy to choose from among interesting topics. It's less easy to persuade some older teens to take part in activities a parent believes he or she "should" participate in. They just may not buy into what parents are setting up. If you can find one or two teens in your group who will participate in organizing teen events themselves, you are more likely to get participation from others.
It can be hard to remember that what was cool or interesting when we were young is simply not what today's teens want to do. And never forget that teens highly value having the time to "just hang out." They may want or need to peg this to another activity, but it's often the "hanging out" that is the motivational factor.
The "Will-My-Friends-Be-There?" Factor
Above all, teens want to attend things when their friends are also attending. Homeschool group leaders are wise to do a little behind the scenes planning to insure at least a small nucleus of teens will participate. You can build from there. Also, creating the event or class in a way that a small turnout does not seem like a "failure" can help. Managing expectations and investing time with a willingness to let a class or group grow "next semester" or throughout a year can be worth the trouble.
And before anyone points out that family activities are more important, even for teens, you'll get no argument from me there. I have loved the many wonderful things my husband and I have done with all our kids, who are in a wide age range, as well as the fun and learning we have shared informally with a few homeschooling families at a time. We have also enjoyed the picnics and outings our homeschool groups set up (ok, yes, often I was the organizer, but definitely not in all the places we have lived) that were meant for everyone -- not just teens, not just moms, not just preschoolers, not just elementary age kids or tweens.
Teen events and classes don't need to be bigger than the influence of family fun and learning -- but they can provide some seasoning and more independent learning and social opportunities.
Teen Events are Worth It
When you plan things over and over and the teens are not showing up or have little enthusiasm, it may pay to take a hard look at whether you are considering some of these factors that can affect teen turn-out. Ask the teens. Talk to their parents. Accept the reality that homeschooling looks different for teens than it does from behind the steering wheel of a carload of younger children. Understand the dynamics of your geographic area.
We see successful homeschool proms, clubs, and co-ops that work well for teens in many communities, so we know it can happen. Planning teen homeschool activities and classes can take some determination and boundary setting, but these events can definitely enrich the lives of homeschooled youth.
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