A scene from our homeschooling life, spring 2013
I’m going to deviate a little from my usual blog topics in this post. I mostly use it as a public scrapbook of my crafty projects, but I’m going to use this post as a bit of a platform.
I feel like I have a certain conversation over and over again with other parents at this time of year when school applications and first payments (in private school cases) are due and people are thinking hard about educational choices for their kids. I don’t mind explaining my choice over and over, and it seems normal to me that parents looking at education options would talk directly to homeschooling parents when exploring that possibility, much as they would schedule a tour at a school. I thought while I’m in the midst of explaining my opinion to those in my “real life” circle, I’d also lay out my feelings here. Maybe this post will be useful to someone, and it’ll help me organize my own thoughts as well.
Why we homeschool
The education of our children (specifically our oldest daughter, since our son is still only 3) has been a complicated decision for me and my husband, just like it has been for others. I don’t hate the public schools; I’m not trying to avoid anyone, anything or any idea in particular; I don’t think my child is smarter than yours; and I am religious but not in a way that would make me avoid schools. For us, homeschooling was something we decided to do on a trial basis in kindergarten because we couldn’t figure out what else to do. Our neighborhood public school isn’t very good (though let me reiterate that we aren’t against public education in general), and the magnet program we’d chosen would have required a commute. Other, closer magnet schools offer special interest areas such as science or performing arts that do not suit the interests of my child. Fancy private schools were impressive but expensive and across town. I toured and loved the sweet, nurturing, and very positive Catholic school in my area but it begins at 7:30, two hours before my kids and I generally wake up. In order to send her there (or commute to the public magnet) we’d have had to move our bedtime up by at least three hours, which would then place it at approximately the same time my husband gets home from work. Having our kids see and eat dinner with their father every day seemed like a priority to us, so our short quip when people ask is that we homeschool so we can sleep late in the morning.
And that is part of it. My kids enjoy a sit-down meal with Daddy in the evening, even if it doesn’t occur until 8:00. We might open up Candy Land at 8:45, walk the family dog at 9 (the neighbors must be certain we’re Those Crazy Homeschoolers), or fold laundry together at 9:30. It works for us. Since we are home, Daddy gets to come home sometimes for lunch as well, which also helps us maximize our family time, or take mid-week vacations on the cheap when everyone else is tied to their school schedule. And then at 10:15 or so when I realize my kid is lying in bed reading on her Kindle instead of sleeping, I never have to say “for Pete’s sake, stop reading and go to bed so you can get up and go to school!” Because since we homeschool (ostensibly) for late-waking reasons, she can read as late as she wants. We’re such anarchists, you see.
Homeschooling also works out well for us because I believe children need the space and time to be creative, both in play and in craftiness or art, and we’re a family that is apt to overdo it on the extracurricular activities. We don’t mean to be signed up for seventeen things at once (that’s a slight exaggeration though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it), but before we even realize it soccer season is in swing but ballet lessons are still continuing and then–whoops!-even though we’d quit our last Girl Scout troop because of over-commitment, we just couldn’t resist signing her up for a new one just forming with several dear friends already in it and suddenly we’re up to our ears in cookie forms, soccer snacks and kids’ taxi service all afternoon. Opting out of the traditional full-day school experience allows us to overcommit (even though we’re still trying to cut back, we swear) but still give our kids the time and space to just sit and be kids–building towers and making bottle cap ornaments, sewing costumes for the poor dog, and executing elaborate plots with the dollhouse people. Because they are actually going to learn a lot more doing that than they are in my homeschool books or at “away” school lessons. Homeschool lessons take a lot less time than traditional school, and it deletes a commute or bus ride, packing lunch, and doing homework, so our arrangement gains time for our kids to just be kids as well as participate in a full lineup of extracurricular activities.
Finally, we homeschool because we like it. We tried it for kindergarten thinking it was just a one-year thing, a postponement on a more permanent decision, but then when decision time rolled around again I didn’t want to give up what we had. It’s not that homeschooling is a bed of roses all the time, but it works pretty well for us. The other school options will still be there in the future if things shift and we decide that a different set of calculations make another scenario work better for us, but for now we’ve got a good thing going on for us, and we’re going to stick with it. And hang the alarm clock!
Now I want to address reasons some people seem to think negatively about homeschooling. I can’t tell you how many people want to be passive-aggressive nice/snarky to me, so they’ll say something like “oh, you’re homeschooling. That’s nice. I might do that, except for the socialization.” What am I actually supposed to say to that? Like “oh! The socialization! Damn, I never thought of that! And here I’ve been keeping my kid under a rock all the time, and she has no idea how to talk to other children. Crap!” Not to be snarky myself, but seriously, if you think about saying that to a homeschooling parent, know that they might “forget” that they socialize with you next time they are baking cookies to share or addressing party invitations, ok?
So here we go:
Naysayers say: Socialization
Children don’t actually need to be with other children all day in order to be socialized. Children learned how to be fully-functioning humans with a range of healthy emotional experiences long before someone came up with the efficient (but not necessarily best) educational strategy of sticking all kids of approximately the same age into one group and teaching them letters and numbers all together in a group. Most children are socialized by their parents. In sad situations, where parents don’t have the support they need to adequately parent (socialize) their own children, schools do try to step in and teach values, manners, and behavior to children. It doesn’t actually work as well as parents teaching the same thing, and the parents in that situation are not likely to decide to homeschool their children. This is not a post about poverty or lack of opportunity or plain old poor parenting. If you are reading this, you probably socialize your own children, even though you may also send them to school to be hooligans with and learn dirty jokes from other children their age. That’s fine, and I’m not knocking it, but please don’t confuse it with socialization.
I do think it’s helpful for children to be with other children, although children living in remote situations with loving families certainly can turn out fine too. My kids are with other children a lot (see our tendency to overcommit, above), and learn all the dirty jokes they need from the small people at Girl Scouts and soccer without having to set the alarm every morning. They attend the birthday parties of children from church and eat blue, artificially-flavored icing on cupcakes. They hold hands and giggle with other homeschoolers on field trips. They don’t live under a rock.
Naysayers say: But I meant the kind of “socialization” that means when weird kids get made fun of and it “cures” them from being weird.
Really, you think that homeschooled children should go to school to be made fun of so they will act more like other kids? Maybe you need to take a step back and examine your own feelings on the subject. Do you think personality differences among children or adults is a problem? Were you bullied, and you think that you become stronger through the experience, and that other kids should have the same experience? Do you think bullying is useful? Let’s talk.
1. Personality differences. This one isn’t even about my own kids, but I feel like it comes up a lot in conversations. My kids (at least the two oldest enough to have social lives) are hopeless extroverts and my daughter generally gravitates toward leadership positions in group situations. People who have actually met my kids don’t tend to worry too much about their “socialization,” but I want to address this because I think it’s a real thing that homeschoolers in general have to defend.
We all know people who are socially awkward or who have poor social skills. This really bothers some people. Children, in particular, who are still laying out their own internal maps of how people should behave, might be very bothered by children or adults who are socially awkward because they aren’t sure how to handle them. I’m not personally very troubled by people who struggle with (or simply don’t bother with) social convention. I’ve watched feelings get hurt as a result of poor handling of social situations and I’ve been in situations with socially-awkward people where I’m not sure what to say or do, but I also know and love people who are socially awkward but are awesome people. They have other talents and skills that shine, and get jobs they are great at that don’t involve, say, working at a bank counter, being a flight attendant, or a hotel concierge. And most of them went to traditional school, where perhaps unkind things were said to them or they were made to feel bad about themselves in ways that left a lasting impact on their self-esteem.
Being stuck in a classroom full of judgmental kids is not a cure for social awkwardness. Many socially awkward people are (surprise!) the result of socially awkward parents. Because socialization happens at home, and because personality traits can be genetic. Parents who struggle with social interaction may gravitate toward homeschooling as an option for their own children because they had so many negative experiences in school themselves. But guess what? They still found a partner and had kids and now they may choose to homeschool their children to spare them the same negative experience of trying to deal with an all-day, every-day cocktail party with 26 other children who don’t get them at all. These people are unfortunately the ones some people think of if they have a negative view of homeschoolers and socialization, but let me assure you, it’s not about the homeschooling. And if you think about it for a minute, you might decide it’s not even a problem, but just one more way that people can be different and make this wide and diverse world a little more varied and interesting.
2. Bullying. Now you’re thinking, ok, maybe you have a point about the quirky person who is inherently a little socially awkward. But what about the nerdy boy or the girl who dressed weird? They need to go to school so they can learn to fit in, because I remember kids I went to school with who were nerdy or dressed weird, and yeah, they got made fun of on the playground some, but it just made them toughen up and they turned into “normal” adults. Um, ok. First, back off and think about it—you’re still internally defending the bullying of children, and that’s not ok. Second, I can speak to that with authority because I was totally that kid. That kid wasn’t awkward and you bullied it out of them; that kid was a late bloomer and/or a kid who is busy using their time to think about things other than how to fit in with the crowd, but will get around to it later. I was a little bit of both. At 11 my peers were starting to think about boys and bras and clothes. I was still stuck on dolls and books and calico jumpers. And when I was 12 or 13 I got bullied, and was miserable, and tried to fit in, but just wished I could play with my dolls and read my books in peace. By the time I was 15 I was totally over my dolls and most of my books and was into boys and bras and clothes. This wasn’t because people were mean to me when I was 13—it was because I got older, and I’m a person who operates within a normal parameter of interests and behavior, and that’s what happens. The difference between my experience and the experience of a late-bloomer who is homeschooled is that the homeschooled kid can skip over the bullying, play with their dolls until they are thoroughly done with them, and then be into boys, bras, and clothes. Those interests don’t happen because of “away” school—they happen because a child turns 15 (or 13, or whatever). I probably learned things from the bullying, maybe about empathy or humor or something, but those are lessons that can be taught in other ways; they do not require bullying to be learned.
I have no idea if I will still be homeschooling my children when they reach the middle-school years because our set of reasons for doing it may have shifted before then in ways I don’t foresee, but if I do, I will not worry about what my kids are missing something by not being put through the middle-school ringer.
Naysayers say: What about friends?
You don’t have to be stuck in a room for 7 hours every day with a person to be friends with them. My kids make friends in our neighborhood, in their extracurricular activities, at church, and with the children they meet at homeschool activities.
Naysayers say: If I homeschooled my kid we’d kill each other
A surprising number of people tell me this when I talk about homeschooling. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be an excuse for them not doing it (I don’t care if they do or not, so excuses aren’t necessary) or a question as to how I handle it. If it’s the first, that’s fine. Please, don’t homeschool your children; I’m not trying to talk you into it. If it’s the second, well, my kids and I do butt heads sometimes of course. We don’t get along all the time when we’re doing school, nor does my daughter tackle every assignment with a cheerful heart. I do, however, think that homeschool is a net positive for us. If I had to drag my tired butt out of bed every morning to drag her tired butt out of bed to get ready for school, we’d really be in trouble. We did that the year she went to preschool and it was awful. We tried to put her to bed early enough but it was just never enough sleep. Like me, my kids seem to have internal clocks that push the morning back a bit further than most people’s. As homeschoolers we get to start the morning at our own pace, with our body’s natural wake-up times indulged, and a leisurely breakfast (and full cup of coffee for Mom!) in pajamas if we wish before we tackle our real day and academic work. Then before we’ve even cracked a book we’re off to a good start. We also don’t have to fight over homework when evening rolls around and we’re tired again; we get the best of each other at the best point in our mutual day.
When we do our school work things also usually go pretty well. Taking on a task jointly with your child (like a pile of school work) is not the same thing as supervising their play. The attitude is different. You know that moment when your kid wants to know something and you get to explain it, and they understand, and you get a warm and fuzzy feeling like you’re a good mom? I get to have that feeling a lot when we do school. I’m the one that helps her have her eureka moments, and I’m the one who realizes when she doesn’t get something so I can help her understand. I’m not saying we’re like some mother/daughter pair in a painting, all holding hands in white dresses with daisy chains in our hair or anything, but I’m saying that I think our daily work together helps our relationship instead of hurts it. Yes, she’ll sometimes throw screaming fits about things and I sometimes lose my cool, but that happens to everyone, regardless of their school choice. We also have weeks where I feel disorganized and scattered and like all we did was bicker and lose paper instead of learn, but again, in balance and at this point I feel like we’re coming out ahead.
The first year we homeschooled we would go to a designated part of the house we only used for school, and we’d light a candle and sing a song to signify the end of our regular morning, and the beginning of our parent/teacher time. I think that helped us set a tone for interaction that tends to be outside our usual relationship. Our starting ritual has gone by the wayside in the meantime, but its intent was established. Again, it’s not always perfect, but for the most part I enjoy the extra time with her, and if we ever reach a point where it seems the negatives outweigh the positives, we’ll revisit our schooling decisions.
It’s also worth saying that most people need a break from their kids (or their spouses, or anyone else they spend a lot of time with) sometimes. My husband and I are fortunate in having two sets of helpful parents nearby who help with our kids and are great about giving me breaks when I need them, which allows us in turn to have a better experience when we’re together.
Naysayers say: If I homeschooled I’d never get anything else done
Yup, time can be an issue. But if you add up the time that parents of traditional schoolers spend driving children to and from school (or preparing for a bus ride), packing lunch, supervising homework, signing forms, and attending PTA meetings you might be surprised at how little time one has to spend homeschooling. We typically spend 2 to 2.5 hours a day on school, but not all of it involves my active participation. There is no ramp-up time, commute, or homework after our lesson time is over. I do lesson prep while she’s working on subjects she does herself, like handwriting, and we do grading together. We also have a rhythm to the day that involves cleaning up before we transition, so at least the mess we make during our morning lessons and activities get cleaned up before we move on to other parts of our day.
I have had a lot of people ask how I cope with homeschooling and having an infant, but I find that (once again) being able to sleep in starts our day off right, and then being able to cozy up on the sofa to nurse is compatible with both her happiness and a math lesson, whereas dragging everyone out the door in coats and car seats and with a rigid timetable would be much more difficult.
Naysayers say: Aren’t you worried about “The Test”
What test? In Kentucky, homeschoolers don’t have to take tests–that’s part of the fun of homeschooling. I don’t mean to go into curriculum or types of homeschooling questions here, but I do want to say that fretting about whether a child will learn one specific set of things over another isn’t a great reason to discount homeschooling. If a homeschooling parent wants their kid to learn all the exact same stuff the local children learn in public school, they can certainly teach it to them. But guess what? God didn’t choose the textbooks for your local private or public school. There is no law of nature or academia that says all 7-year-olds have to learn the same things in the same order. There are some obvious things—the good old reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic—that you probably want to hit, but homeschooling is a great opportunity for a parent and kid to learn things of their own choosing. Again, I’m not meaning to talk curriculum or homeschooling philosophy here, but I internally cringe when non-homeschooling friends ask me how I can make sure my kid is learning all the same stuff as her public-schooled peers. Because sometimes she’s not, nor does she need to. If we do decide to homeschool all the way through I promise I won’t be up all night fretting the night before college entrance exams, because there is more than one way and one order to cram information into a kid’s head.
Naysayers say: But your kids will never learn how to set their alarm to get up early and hold down a job
I actually heard an interview on public radio where a call-in listener identified herself as a public school principal and complained that homeschooled children would never learn how to set their alarm clocks. Really? As I said before, it’s not that my kids are smarter than other kids, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t take more than one lesson to teach them how to operate an alarm clock. “Hold this button down here. Now rotate this dial until your chosen waking time comes up. Now press this button until the red light comes on. Great! Now tomorrow morning while it is still dark out and you’d rather be asleep, a loud obnoxious noise will rouse you from slumber.” That was pretty easy. Seriously. Kids who are given responsibility and held accountable to for age-appropriate tasks will be able to set the alarm clock and hold down jobs. Kids who are not given responsibility and not held accountable for age-appropriate tasks may have some trouble, but those kids are just as likely to be found in public or private school classrooms as they are at home. That principal was probably bullied as a kid and never got over it, and now she’s negative and on the offense all the time. Maybe she should have been homeschooled.
Naysayers say: I’m not sure I know enough to teach my kid
There seem to be two different types of people who make this response about homeschooling. First, there are people who maybe are not college-educated or are for some whatever reason just concerned about their own lack of elementary knowledge. In these cases, I’d say the parent should go with their gut feeling. If they feel like they are able to guide a student through with the help of a curriculum, then they probably can. If they feel like they cannot, then they probably shouldn’t, because even if they would get along much better than they think their lack of confidence may prevent them from enjoying it. And there is no reason a person should take on a job that pays no money if they’re not going to enjoy it.
The second kind of person is usually a person who is comfortable with their own pool of basic knowledge, but is concerned that educating a seven-year-old requires special skills that their own branch of graduate school (or whatever) didn’t cover. I really don’t think this is true. I spent some time in education programs myself, though my degrees are in other areas. Education programs don’t prepare a parent to teach their own seven-year-old nearly as well as parenting their child for the first six years of his or her life did. I don’t mean to knock teachers, or the value of training in pedagogy in particular for upper grades, and I am incredibly grateful for the support and advise I get from my mother, who is a retired elementary school teacher. But I don’t think my homeschooling friends who don’t have my mother or specialized education training are ill-equipped to teach their own children. There is a great array of materials and advice available to homeschooling parents, and it can be sufficient. There isn’t any special kind of magic that gets sprinkled on schools so that learning can only happen In That Designated Space, and only by Licensed Teachers. People get so used to our culture of licensure, specialization, and lack of do-it-yourselfness (is that a thing?) that they believe it’s countercultural or scary to teach their own child when people did it with no training or second thoughts for a zillion years before our current educational system became standard.
So there you have it. I’m not trying to talk anyone into homeschooling, but I’d like to talk people out of the reasons they think other people are a little wacky for doing it. Educating a child is just as personal a decision as other parenting choices, and I believe each parent should have the confidence and the ability to mess their own kid up the way they see fit. (Just kidding.) If homeschooling seems like it might be for you, don’t let the haters talk you out of it for reasons that don’t make sense. Choose not to homeschool because you want to wear grown-up clothes and go to an office where there are grown-ups and someone else empties the trash can and makes the coffee, not because you are worried that your kid has to be “socialized” by a herd of seven-year-olds. And definitely don’t snark to me about what I’ve chosen for my own or assume that something like “socialization” has never occurred to me. 😉