Fast-forward four years. He decided to attend school part-time. Same reasons as with elementary math: he was looking for someone to force him to do some learning work that he felt was important but that he wouldn't otherwise stick to. He's small for his age, a little shy and sometimes emotionally fragile. I worried how he'd cope, thrown into high school courses with no experience whatsoever with school, tests, assignments, evaluations, homework.
He's taking 10th grade academic-stream math, english and Canadian History. (He's also doing a lot of other stuff as a homeschooler still, so his days are pretty full.) For the first time in his life he has the yardstick of teacher expectations and classmates' performance to measure himself against. Those are two things I was really happy to help my kids avoid as unschoolers. I wanted them to learn for learning's sake, not to get grades, please a teacher or prove themselves equal to or better than others. But it's turning out that at least a small dose of this yardstick orientation is a really good thing for my ds right now.
He came home from yesterday school saying "I'm really good at math! I catch on way faster than the other guys. For them it's review and for me it's totally new, but in two days of math I already know it better than they do." Jumping directly from 7th grade math at age 10 to 10th grade math at age 14 has been absolutely no problem. He is also feeling really good about his ability to assist everyone -- whether teachers or students -- with tech issues on the computers, and about his ability to work efficiently and capably at whatever is thrown at him. And he is realizing that he is an excellent writer! Although he can't use a pencil or pen easily, his critical thinking, creative and composition skills, spelling, grammar and keyboarding are excellent and his English teacher has asked him to please, please join the advanced writing class. He's flattered, and coming on board with this.
I wonder if this is one of the down-sides of unschooling: it can be difficult for kids to gauge the strength of their skills and abilities in a realistic way. For young children those things are all in flux and dependent on developmental timetables and I think it does kids an incredible disservice to compare them and make them believe that they are, for example "good at spelling, but suck at math and science" or whatever. But as teens a little of that can be very helpful as they begin looking to discover their place in the world.
I thought my ds was getting enough affirmation from the real world, but he tended to compare himself to much higher, unrealistic standards. He lives in a family of very bright high achievers and when he socializes he prefers the company of older people, and in the absence of school that's formed his frame of reference for competence. For instance, in working to learn math he compared himself to the person (me) who was helping him learn, and I of course already understood it all clearly. No matter how much I tried to make it clear that he shouldn't be expecting himself to master things at a first glance, he viewed it as a personal failure when he didn't. With his writing he compared himself to his immensely talented older sister, or to the writers of books and articles he read. He didn't really get the chance to see how he "measured up" against age-peers. In retrospect I think he always guessed he would be a bit of an academic loser in school. And so this little bit of direct comparison with the performance of other 14- through 16-year-olds has worked wonders for his confidence.
Having said that, it's not just school that is making a difference. I've seen changes in him over the last several months, increased confidence, more interest in risk-taking, more leadership. There's a sense in which the improvement in confidence is as much the cause as the result of him beginning school. Kind of a chicken and egg thing. Still, it's fun to see it all coming to fruition in the school environment.
I expect he will continue in school part-time through graduation. It is serving him well in his need for structure and affirmation. He is registered as a half-time homeschooler under their umbrella program and they'll be granting him credit for various parts of his unschooled learning -- science, digital media editing, choral singing and PE. The flexibility is working well.
I'm not feeling guilty or second-guessing myself, but I suppose I do wonder what I might have been able to do differently to help him appreciate his strengths better prior to entering school.