Inspiring Teens and Our Biggest Mistakes

By Dianne McLean, HECOA Director

So what can I say about inspiration in teens?​

Many parents write every week asking how to mentor their teen. Some want step by step processes, and some have given up hope of being the perfect mentor, and they just want to "get through" these teen years and have their child come out of this as a somewhat independent adult.

The truth is - few of us feel like we are perfect mentors, especially when it comes to educating and preparing our teens.And that is where I think a lot of parents try to put themselves - in a box of perfection.

We want that "perfect" graduation day, when we know that our children are going off to college and are going to be successful.  It's a picture that most parents have in their mind of their child in their cap and gown, the Pomp and Circumstance playing in the background, clutching their diploma and smiling with enthusiasm about the next step in their life.

When we paint that kind of picture, we not only cause anxiety in ourselves, but we pile a lot of stress onto our kids. Because along with THAT picture, comes the world's standards and the world's model of what education should be.  The world's model involves a great deal of useless busy work, hours of rigorous study about things which are uninteresting and unnecessary arguments about forcing all of this in the name of "education".  


The world's model of education for middle school and high school is the least inspiring path.  It has consistently failed in nearly every aspect. [You can find the explanations and data for that statement in many of my video presentations on our website.] I will simply repeat - the world's model of education is a failure and emulating it is uninspiring. But realistically, we still comply with it to a certain degree, because well....there's college....and a "standard".   Moving on....

To truly inspire our children, we must return to the greatest models of education - those which great leaders and great thinkers were able to experience. The model of education which involves mentors who inspire young people to be great leaders and great thinkers. And so this brings us full circle to the question - how can parents be great mentors to their children and inspire them to be great leaders and great thinkers?

Well, I have worked with thousands of homeschoolers every year for nearly 13 years and there is truly ONE essential key to developing independent teens with leadership qualities:

Let them lead.

I'm not indicating "do nothing" with your teens or "don't be involved". Certainly not. Most of us have that voice in the back of our heads asking us "what about preparing them for college?" We feel that if we don't tell them what to do, it's quite possible they will simply do nothing. And as a parent, that is a frightening thought. What about accountability? This seems to be where many parents (myself included) have drawn the line on implementing the leadership philosophies such as TJed, the Liber, and unschooling. It's the voices of accountability which frighten us back into the box.

If you are intrigued or feel prompted to implement any of these amazing philosophies, there are ways to mesh them with accountability.  Another mistake parents fall into is the idea that you have to implement a particular philosophy exactly as the author has written it.  I'm here to tell you that it is okay to take one bite at a time.

First, we can provide opportunities for our teens to make choices about their education and their future. We can teach them about consequences. We can inspire them by not imitating a failed system - (there are other options for a college-prep education than purchasing curriculum filled with useless, uninteresting busy work.) We can show them what those choices are and we can support their choices. And we can't be complacent when it comes to religion. Remember, if you don't show your children what you believe, then the world will show them what the world believes. [Notice I said "show", all religion is honored best through example.]

When I meet with teens and their parents in private video conferences, we never leave without that teen having some sort of revelation and inspiration about their next steps. They understand clearly what their options are, they set obtainable goals, and they even know how to pay for what they want. They are excited to lead.

Parents are sometimes speechless at the end of our meetings (probably because I had just spent 30-45 minutes focusing on turning all control [and consequences] over to the student). The transition is clearly more difficult on the parents, sometimes leading to micro-managing of their newly liberated teenager for a short while. But over a few weeks of allowing the teen to lead, we meet again and the parent is usually sighing relief because they are able to see the changes and the effects of allowing their child to lead.  And the interesting thing is that the parent is still very hands on, and the relationships improve.

Another important key in raising a confident leader is to bring in outside mentors. Teaching high school is HARD, even if you have a teaching degree yourself. And especially hard when you are trying to "teach" high school using a boxed curriculum and emulating a failed system.

Parents make a huge mistake when they try to be an expert in all subjects or they try to do the entire high school program (college prep especially) by themselves and they try to be perfect in every lesson plan. When people ask me how my kids did so well in Calculus and Statistics, I am the first to proclaim - I had nothing to do with that!! I found them great mentors who loved math and who helped them to love math (or at least love it enough to do well). People who had failures and successes and were willing to share their best tips, rather than dry textbook instruction.  

The greatest and most admirable leaders in the history of the world had mentors who were passionate about something in particular - because they earned that passion.  To learn to write well, you learn from a person who loves to write - someone who has a passion for writing - someone who has failed, learned from their failures, and is willing to share tips for not repeating the errors.  To learn to speak well, you study with someone who is an orator and can move people - but someone who has bombed on stage and who is willing to tell you why they bombed.   To be a successful entrepreneur, you study from someone who is successful, someone who has failed and shares those failures so you won't repeat them.   When your children want to study a particular subject, encourage them to find someone who LOVES that subject and who has earned the rites through failure and success.  If you can't find someone living who can be a mentor, then find them in books.  READ with your teens, every single day, from unabridged classics - both fiction and non-fiction. You can search the internet and find classic book lists from a variety of sources. 

These are my best ideas for inspiring teens, coupled with the mistakes which I have encountered through my years of homeschooling and through 13 years of mentoring thousands of homeschoolers.  ​Share this post if you feel it is useful.  And, I would love to know your thoughts!

Dianne McLean is the director for Home Education Council of America.  She has given countless presentations on homeschooling through high school, and specializes in college preparation.  Her highly-acclaimed courses "Homeschooling High School and Beyond" and "Skipping Middle School" are part of our popular Plus Gold membership.  She also created the "Ultimate Homeschool Workshop" course for Plus Silver and Plus Gold Members, provides FREE monthly workshops for our Basic (free) membership, hosts 3 of the largest online homeschool conferences in the world each year, and speaks at homeschool conferences throughout the country.  CLICK HERE to join HECOA.

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