Friday, April 20, 2012

On the selfishness of homeschooling: Myth busting

Look at this selfish kid selfishly enjoying learning about physics outside a classroom. How rude.
I've heard a lot of objections to the practice of homeschooling or unschooling, and I'd like to address one here: the idea that it's selfish to keep your kids out of the public school system. (Of course, people can — and do — say this to parents who choose private or alternative schools as well.)

At face value, this is a nice, guilt-inducing train of thought for those of us who believe quite avidly in offering public schooling to society at large but who, for whatever reason, do not want our children participating in it. But let's break it down to explore what it's really saying, and the questionable thinking behind these seven popular myths.

Myth #1: If all the good parents abandon public schooling, public schooling can't improve.

Ok, I see what people are saying here. We home educators, it is thought, are the passionate, idea-driven ones. We're also, prima facie, the ones with time on our hands. Shouldn't we be driving the revolution?

Well, here are a few problems with that line of thinking, right off the top of my head. One: It's racist and classist. Oh, yeah, I said it. How come homeschoolers are the "good" parents in this argument? Does this make people who do use the public school system the "bad" parents? Because, um, that's almost all the parents. And I have to imagine that very few of them are bad. More on racism in a bit, but you can see where classism fits in: Working parents are much more likely to send their kids to schools than families with one or more stay-at-home parents. Are all working parents morally inferior for doing so? Of course not. And even the people making that argument know that, because for the most part, they're people who are sending (or intending to send) their kids to public schools.

Kablooey! Oops, we blew up your whole structure of education. Our bad.
Secondly, this argument trashes public schools. I'm not in the business of saying public schools are bad, just that formalized education itself has many problems. I see where people might be confused by my argument here, but let me elucidate. I went to public schools, kindergarten through high school. I had mostly wonderful teachers, and I got a good education. I'm actually against the whole philosophy of cookie-cutter, factory-inspired education. Not individual public schools, not individual teachers — the whole idea of it all. How on earth can I "improve" public schools? I want to take a sledgehammer to the concept of schooling. Do I wish kids were tested less and had more recess? Oh, yes. But that's just scraping the surface. And more on that later, as well.

Also? Homeschooled students make up something like 2.9% of the U.S. school-age population. Big, flipping deal. I can't emphasize enough: Most children are going to public schools. This will always be true. How is our rebellious 2.9% funneled back into schools going to fundamentally change things? Answer: It won't. (And more on that later, too.)

Plus, and I have mixed feelings about this, most homeschoolers are white, middle class, financially well off, and religiously fervent. You know where people like that send their kids when homeschooling's not an option? Private schools.

And just one more point here: Many public schools are bad, but their inferiority has nothing to do with how many people are homeschooling in that neighborhood. They're failing usually as a result of having the bad luck to be situated in a low-income area that can't attract good, or any, teachers. I've visited some of them, and tutored some of their students, and that situation's the pits. I feel awful for those kids who are getting such a bum deal that they still can't read by the time they get to high school. But it's not homeschooling's fault. Homeschooled kids are more likely being kept out of the schools in higher-income neighborhoods, for whatever that's worth.

Myth #2: Children should live out their parents' ideals.

But let's say that I decide that public schools are so important to me, for whatever reason, that I must support them. Well, then, why don't I support them? Why must my children pay the price for my zealotry? Why must they be the guinea pigs in my social experiment?

Here's the thing: I spent most of my daylight hours in school each day from age three through age twenty-two. Nineteen years of my life, in classrooms. That's a lot to ask of the children of even the most committed reformers.

This is not to say that parents can't drive revolutions that start in the home. Many parents who are vegetarians raise their children to eschew beef (see how I slipped "chew beef" in there? little joke). Many children will adopt their parents' religious or political beliefs. However, in those situations, the parents believe the acts themselves (being vegetarian, believing in a certain faith) are good. If someone believes public education is bad for children, how on earth could parents in good conscience require their children to marinate in it for all of their formative years? Day in, day out, living out some ideal of their parents. Wouldn't that be selfish?

No, here's the thing: If you the critic of homeschoolers want someone to change public schools so badly, then you take the hit. You make the sacrifice. Become a public school teacher, the kind who inspires students to stand up on their desks and recite poetry (although that was a private school, alas). Run for the school board. Head up the PTA. Tutor in an after-school program or mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Don't expect us to force our kids to make some imagined sacrifice for your philosophical comfort.

Myth #3: Homeschooling focuses only on what the parents want to teach.

Well, I think this is kind of silly, because it assumes a school-at-home environment, where there's a classroom of two (or however many) kids, with a single parent (mom) at the blackboard in front, teaching class after class throughout the years from her own notes. I'm sure there are homeschools that look this way, but I don't actually know of any. Ours doesn't.

For parents who choose a school-at-home model, they almost always work with curricula, workbooks, and outside resources, including various homeschool groups. Those who are more freeform (like us) follow our children's interests and seek expertise outside ourselves to satisfy them. I "teach" my son very little that's solely from my own knowledge or memory. I know nothing about whale sharks — well, I should say, I used to know nothing. Now I could tell you a thing or two.

A lot of U.S. states (I haven't done the research for all the states' laws, only my own) have specific requirements of homeschooled kids. That often means they are regularly tested to see how they're scoring with regard to more traditionally schooled students, or at least when it comes time for college admissions. And, you know? They do just fine.

Myth #4: Homeschooling is insular.

Again, I think people imagine the two kids in the basement classroom with Mom all day when they argue this. I don't know any homeschooling family that doesn't have friends. (Well, I wouldn't know them, would I? Ha ha.)

It seems to be an object of prominent concern, every time I tell people we're homeschooling, that we offer "socialization" for poor, dear Mikko. Yes, because (a) we his family are not humans and therefore not capable of "socializing" him and (b) we are recluses who never emerge from our cave. Oh, wait, neither of those is true. Some people's socialization looks like structured homeschool groups and field trips. Some people's looks like meetups and play dates. No one is ever forced to attend a siblings-only prom. (I saw a short film about that and can't find it now. Source? It was pretty funny, though ludicrous. And depressing.)

You also have to consider: What is so social about conventional schooling? In my high school, we were allowed three minutes for passing in between classes, and twenty minutes for our lunch "hour." Yeah, real social. And the people we could socialize with were only those in our peer group in terms of age, location, often ethnic background, and usually educational tracking. I don't mind, and in fact wholeheartedly endorse, our children interacting with multiple ages and demographics. Speaking of which…

Myth #5: Homeschooling is racist.

On the one hand, I would love for more diversity in the homeschooling crowd. As a white parent myself, I would love to see other tones when I get together with my homeschooling groups, both now and in the future. I absolutely support any family who wants to pursue home-based learning, and I hope more can make it happen. However, I don't see homeschooling as inherently racially problematic. Could there be some people removing their children from schools because they're racist? Oh, golly, I shudder to think so, but probably a few. From my experience, that's far from the norm, though. (Again, statistically speaking, many homeschoolers are doing so for religious or environmental reasons, though neither is the primary reason for us.)

There's a high school near our pool that's incredibly diverse. When I see the students let out, I'm always agog at the variety. I say "agog" because (a) it's a funny word and (b) the schools where I grew up (in several states and even a couple countries) were astoundingly white. Like, I had one black friend in my graduating class. Woot. I do get a little wistful thinking my kids could go to a school like that one I see from the outside, and just be steeped in otherness until it became non-otherness. Though I know from my own research that that's not how it happens (at least not yet, and not without intentionality on the part of, well, everyone). If I look more closely at those incredibly diverse students, I see them walking along in cliques of like-like-like.

And, anyhow, the schools my kids would attend are not nearly so diverse. The high school I was referencing above is 20-ish% white (I know!), but it's not in our district. In contrast, the elementary school near us is 60% white; the middle and high schools over 40%. Not bad, but my kids would still be safely in the majority, and I don't know that it would magically cure racism. (I actually do know that it would not. Sadly.)

I don't intend to allow my family to associate with only people like us. We are intentional about seeking out other points of view and backgrounds and lifestyles. Again, we do not live in a cave, and having all types of different friends is important to us. I don't at all want to cast aspersions on public school parents, but I think it would be easy to assume the diversity at school would do the work for you. It does not. Are all homeschoolers intentional about seeking diversity? Probably not. But neither are most families, period.

Myth #6: Parents involved enough to be homeschoolers could do more good in the public school system.

I realize this is kind of a repeat, but I need to get this off my chest. HOW could parents do more good in the public school system? Seriously, someone tell me how this is possible.

Public school systems are a mix of bureaucracy, committees, and rooted cultural conventions. Tell me where in all that is an opening to bring about change.

Even in my kid's fricking preschool, we were shut out and not allowed to participate. And that was a private school, where we were paying particular money. Even in our former church's nursery — yes! for babies! — we were not allowed past the sacred half-door of we'll-take-it-from-here-thanks.

The schools? Do not want us. The school system is set up for parents not to interfere.

Seriously, just try going to your kids' public school classroom and saying, "So. I had an idea for what you could study this quarter. Also, I think we should skip the testing this year and see how that goes. And, by the way, I'm staying for lunch. Which I'm cooking." There's a reason there are big signs on all the public school doors warning outsiders to report to the office immediately for a badge. You are a visitor, at best. A nuisance, at worst. You can effect pretty much zero change. That's how the system is rigged.

And, again, my change would be: anarchy. I don't want fewer tests; I want no tests. I don't want more benign punishments; I want no punishments. I don't want fairer grading; I want no grades, no rewards at all. I want children to be able to follow their own interests, even if that means wandering out to the monkey bars and staring at a butterfly for three hours.

Does my way work in the public school system? With one teacher for 30 kids? No, it does not. And so it will never be implemented, because it would be untold chaos. I'm cool with chaos in my own home, but no one in public schools is going to take me up on that on a system-wide basis.

Myth #7: Homeschooling (especially unschooling) is lazy.

Aiming elsewhere.
I don't know, I don't think you can have it both ways. We unschoolers have been called too involved in our kids' lives (stop smothering them!) and then told in the same breath that we're unschooling just because we're too lazy to get up to push our kidlets out to catch the bus.

All I have to say is, I've been tempted — very tempted — to take advantage of the FREE CHILDCARE that is the public school system. I say that with no snottiness implied. I seriously cannot believe the government will hire competent adults to take care of our kids for hours and hours every day with just the tax money we've already given them. Whoa. But so far, Sam and I are not taking that easy out, even though it would greatly simplify our work-home balance. It's just — and let this be an inspiration to anyone hesitant but wanting to take the plunge — the more we unschool, the more I can't even summon a twinge of regret that we're missing out on anything the schools could give us. I love this. I love the freedom, the excitement of learning, the ease and simplicity of our days. I don't know — maybe I am selfish. Maybe I just want to eat it all up, this precious time with my children, seeing firsthand how they learn. But I'm not apologizing for that.

I want to say that I know, absolutely, that home-based learning is not right for every family. If you've chosen conventional schooling for your family for whatever reason, know that I support you in that and that you are firmly in the 97+% majority (in the U.S.). So don't worry. In the interests of being (a little) funny, I've also chosen to be blunt, but I'm not intending to hurt any feelings.

I just wanted to defend our littler group against the critics. Homeschoolers aren't selfish. I can't speak for everyone, but I'm just doing what's right for my children, at this particular time. If what works for us changes in the future, I'll roll with that then. For now, I'm enjoying unschooling; I'm soaking it up. But I'm not greedy about it: I'd love to share it if you want to give it a try yourself.


Anonymous said...

I have been homeschooling for 6 years and have not heard many of your myths. I live in a VERY homeschool friendly location. In fact, I have met more homeschoolers than public schoolers, and homeschool supporters than anything. The socialization one is just ignorant, and the opinion holder should really look in a dictionary. Outside of that, I think you have several very good points. FTR- I am the product of public school, and my education sucked. I had a few good teachers, but in general I would rate it up there with manure.

Diana Holquist said...

"Public school systems are a mix of bureaucracy, committees, and rooted cultural conventions. Tell me where in all that is an opening to bring about change."

I love this. But one thing I've seen is that as home schooled kids get older, THEY often want to try school, and when they do, they can be powerful forces of change.

I've seen this happen often. My daughter wasn't homeschooled, but she definitely was raised on a fringe. When she integrated into a mainstream school, her self-identity was so strong, she was able to really turn heads and open minds.

It was a beautiful thing to watch.

melissa said...

Well said! I have been spending some observation hours in our nearest elementary school, where I used to teach, lately, and the more I see, the more firm I am in my decision to keep my children far from traditional schools. Why would I put precious time and energy into attempting to improve on a system that is fundamentally broken? It just does not make sense!

Tiffany said...

I love this! We've decided to homeshool my daughter, and even though it's far away (she's 11 months) we've already gotten a comment from some family members, that she's going to be weird. I want to say am I weird? I just wish people (with all my parenting choices) would keep their mouth shut unless they truly know what they're talking about. I will definitely send them here the next time they say something!

Becky said...

Interesting thoughts. I really appreciate your points-of-view. I have recently gained a rather negative view of public schools. I was always a terrific student, but now I realize what little cognitive flexibility I have, most likely stemming from grades. The thing is that my husband is from Germany and over there it's illegal to home school. I believe that it's just Germany and another European country that has such laws now. Anyhow, I can't convince him that we should home school, so we won't.

However, I do think that the reputation attached to homeschooling is changing. I remember a couple of my high school friends that were home schooled until 9th grade and yeah, I must admit, there was something a little "different" about them. ;) But I think the face of homeschooling is becoming more mainstream and less insulated. I hope that public school is changing somewhat as well. From the news I gather that teachers are becoming more aware about bullying as well as diversity, learning disabilities, etc.

I am thankful that we live in a new and growing area, so I know her schooling experience should be pretty good. I'm pretty sure most of her classmates will also be white. One of the reasons I loved college was the diversity... with culture, race as well as the ideas. Classmates and professors were actually capable of explaining their opinions and thoughts on life.

Terri said...

Today I told someone I was homeschooling and they looked at me like I had two heads and called me 'crazy!' Yesterday I spoke with someone about homeschooling and they were asking questions so I tried to explain our unschooling to them and they were amazed that people could possibly do such a thing! So reading this was more positive inspiration for our choices. I sometimes wonder if I am depriving my kids some of the more positive aspects of schooling but for now we are really happy with the choice. Even though I have to say that the free childcare seems a tempting option every now and then!

Anonymous said...

The short film you're thinking of is "Boutonniere," and the trailer for it can be watched here:

Lauren Wayne said...

@crackerdogsam: I should have known you'd come through for me with a movie question!

EarthMamasWorld said...

I am unschooling my three and am loving every minute of it. I have heard many of your myths and really enjoyed this post, thank you!

kelly @kellynaturally said...

This is a great article, Lauren. Really enjoyed it.

I've found, as a private schooling family, we face many of these same preconceptions/accusations/myths. Particularly so because the school where we send our kids isn't one of the more "commonly accepted" private schools - i.e. Catholic. It's a Montessori school which runs longer days than typical schools & operates on a farm in a more communal manner (think one-room school house with mixed ages) where children learn animal and land care as well as how to prepare, cook, and serve meals, sew, weave, build, etc., and DON'T have homework, grades, or tests.

When we talk about our kids' school, people often just stare, then say... but you live in such a "good school district". It's hard to say, yes, we do, while saying, but we're choosing something different - while not offending those who moved here to GO to the "good schools". Our problem isn't with THIS school district, it is, like you mentioned, a problem with the industrialized system of public schooling - in general: learning all the same things, at the same time, with a large group of children all the same age, and being tested and graded not as individuals but against a large scale of what's appropriate & expected for xyz age group so that the school can get xyz amount of funding (and i could go on).

I have several homeschooling friends, and I think it's a wonderful solution for at-home parents (or w/very flexible working schedules) who want to follow their kids' lead when it comes to learning.
Really enjoyed this.

Green Kids Guide said...

What a wonderful article! My kids are only 2 and 4 and since they are not in preschool, others feel it is necessary to label us as "homeschoolers". Which doesn't bother me because ultimately we will be, but I find the need to label it at this age strange, because I did not go to preschool or kindergarten and no one labeled my family anything (as far as I know). I was just playing with my mom and my sister like lots of our other friends' families did in the 70s.
And guess what...I didn't become a failure in school. Gasp! I graduated from H.S., College and MBA programs in the top 10% of my classes, was the president of my graduate school, in the top 4% of the employees at Microsoft for the 6 years I worked there and now own my own successful business.

How is this related to homeschooling? Because even though I did enter the "regular" school system eventually, the deep sense of support, love and confidence I gained from those early years at home with my mom and sister are things no one can ever take away from me. Maybe I didn't learn about whale sharks as early as or in the same format as some of the other kids my age, but I don't think it made my life or ability to learn difficult or horrible in any way. In fact, quite the opposite!'s the selfish side for me...I am having fun learning about them (whale sharks) now with my kids and I hope they're being set up for "success" in life the same way I was...success for us is defined (among other things) as discovering who we are as individuals and as a family, developing emotional intelligence and concern for others that inhabit our planet, and becoming confident, loving, contributing members of society. I catch glimpses of each of these things in my 2 and 4 year olds already and I wouldn't miss out on continuing to see these moments for anything in the world.

P.S. LOVE the pics of the "physics experiments"...we live in the Pac NW too and that is my kids' absolute favorite place to play! Too bad they never learn anything from roaring at the dinosaurs and wandering thru the butterfly exhibit...or getting called up on stage to help with the science experiment of the day. ;)

Unknown said...

OMG people say your lazy? I am too lazy so I don't homeschool LOL! That's not the real reason, but it was one of them. haha Homeschooling is a lot of work.

Personally I didn't feel me doing homeschooling was the best education for my kids. I am not great at school, and I am not always the best at teaching them everything they need to know. There was some basic things I couldn't figure out how to teach my son, and love that he went to JK and came home knowing how to do it.

Momma Jorje said...

So many big words! You must be smart enough to educate children! ;-)

Yes, "socialization" does seem to be the #1 knee-jerk concern when you mention homeschooling, but I always think of history... the days when kids learned how to read from a bible with the help of their parents. Life was simpler then and even neighbors weren't close enough for socializing often.

People talk about "family values" dying in this country. I think homeschooling definitely places (or can place) more importance on family.

mythreewonders said...

I don't homeschool, for several reasons, but the only one of these I have ever heard is regarding socialization. I think homeschooling has changed dramatically and this is not typically valid.

Interestingly, I was just listening to a friend talk about a recent lecture she attended with a renowned economist who argued that there will be major educational changes because of the rapidly changing economics. I hope that is true because the current system is benefitting very few, if anyone at all.

Tree Peters said...

I feel your fire!
I love the points you made and I do agree.
I thought I was going to homeschool my daughter... but as it happened, I didn't feel it was the best thing for her.
We're so lucky to have a good Waldorf school. I would not have sent her to Public school. No way, no how. Uh, uh.
I love the shots of Mikko too.

Anonymous said...

I dream of homeschooling my children when the time comes (so far we only have one nugget, a 15 month-old), but I can't even imagine a time when we'd have the flexibility or financial stability for me to be able to stay home. I feel as though the sacrifice made by all of us would be too great.

Manderson said...

HAHA It's been a while since I've been to the science center. I didn't even know they had added all that to it. As soon as I saw the pics I knew exactly where they were taken. Seattle is so beautiful! I'll have to take my daughter up there and let her play!

Anonymous said...

Love, love, love. Especially #6!

Found you via Thatmom


Anonymous said...

Well said! Actually, since homeschooling families still pay the taxes that support public schools, we're contributing to the system while not receiving any benefits. By keeping our kids out, we're lowering the teacher student ratio and allowing more resources to go to the students who are there. Seems pretty unselfish to me! In NC there are income tax incentives for those who remove their children from public schools as well as an at-home public school option. Even the state wants to reserve the public schools for those who really need them because of the costs involved.

miss.s said...

White privilage.

Where are the non-white homeschoolers?

Being content to let other children suffer at the hands of a racist and classist system seems pretty selfish to me...but that's ok, YOUR kids will be fine. Public school involvement, whether you send your kids or not is a duty to the future of our country. If so many people use public school, wouldn't it be in every single person's best interest to make sure it's a functioning system? The kid of "oh I can rescue my kid so public schools don't matter" or "I can't change the schools" or "I'm doing what's best for MY family" or "oh they get my taxes anyway!" are all comfortable, white privilege arguments. Nothing gets better when people don't fight. You're letting the system win by choosing to ignore it. What kind of future is that?

miss.s said...

Lauren Wayne said...

@miss.s: You're being very dismissive of non-white homeschoolers by your comment. They exist, and I seek out their voices.

"Being content to let other children suffer at the hands of a racist and classist system seems pretty selfish to me…"

So I should be UNselfish and let MY children suffer in it? Day in, day out, for 19 years? See Myth #2. Why can't I work to further the good of public schooling without expecting my children to endure it, when I see such tremendous flaws with the system? (And that includes private schooling, if you read my post.)

As for fighting the system, see Myth #6. What exactly do you want me to do? What do YOU do to change the school system? Honestly, I'd love ideas for how I could get involved and effect change, beyond my political involvement. If you have concrete actions someone can take, please share them.

It sounds like you hate the public school system but expect everyone to be part of it, so that we're fighting it from within. But how does that work, and how does that help? It hasn't worked for the centuries the public school system has been in place. Most privileged white folk send their kids to public school, as do most parents of other ethnicities. Who's leading the charge to overhaul it? No one.

Lauren Wayne said...

@miss.s: This is a white public-school advocate reiterating the myths in my post.

Nicole Nikki Sonnier said...

I have a 3 year old and an infant. And I'm going back and forth on homeschooling. I was wondering if it was selfish of me to not let them attend school like everyone else. Thanks so much for this post!

ShesaDJ said...

My daughter suffers from major depressive disorder, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Due to these issues, she has missed too much school and we're being threatened with court involvement. Even if I could get her to go to school and stay all day, she has no intention of doing the work. She wants to drop out but she's 15 and cannot drop out until she's 17. She must be enrolled in school, to keep us out of trouble with the law. I'm about to start creative homeschooling/unschooling but I don't know what to do. I'm in Colorado and understand she's required to log 172 days/4 hours a day per year. Other than that, there doesn't seem to be a required curriculum, unless I'm missing something. I just need to show she is enrolled in homeschool and meet minimum requirements. Any advice or help is greatly appreciated.

Lauren Wayne said...

@ShesaDJ: That's a hard thing for you and your daughter to be going through. I hope being out of school will be helpful and healing for her.

I don't know Colorado laws specifically, but I have some ideas for resources:
* First, and this has been one of the most helpful for me, do a search on Facebook for "Colorado homeschool" or "Colorado unschoolers" and the like, and join some groups. They'll probably have pinned posts on the basics and can help you navigate the details as you get started homeschooling. It's invaluable to have some parents who can give you firsthand experience.

* Colorado's laws: It does look like you're right about 172 days/4 hours a day. You have to take attendance, teach specific subjects (but how you teach is up to you, and you can choose what counts/works for your daughter), keep records that might be requested, and have an evaluation or test in odd-number years that you submit to the school district. You also need to file a written notification each year. That's my scanning of the requirements, but I imagine you've already read through them in more detail. I'd personally have questions about how some of those requirements play out (like what the records should look like), so that's something I'd take to a Facebook group for advice.

* Here's a more detailed breakdown of the laws:

* Here's a helpful site from a homeschool mom with a roundup of Colorado homeschool law explanations and resources:

* You might have already read up/thought a lot about this, but it's fairly easy and natural to use unschooling to cover multiple subjects and attendance time without a lot of bother or traditional curriculum. Here's one blogger's example:

* Since your daughter's already been flagged by the system for missing school, I'd make sure you keep good records about what she's learning, no matter how insignificant each part may seem. Whatever she's working on that day, write it down and connect it to a required subject and probably write down how much time was spent. I'm sure you're already anxious because the court threatened to get involved, so having detailed records that show progress and intentionality in your homeschooling will help a lot if it ever comes to that. This can all be done in a way that's not too stringent on her. Here are some record-keeping ideas and here's an idea for high school transcripts:

Hope that helps and that you can find a community to help guide you! It can seem daunting, but the flexibility of homeschooling/unschooling really does let your daughter cater her learning to what works for her. Best wishes to you both!

ShesaDJ said...

Lauren, I can't thank you enough. Yes, I'd read most of those sites about the law but you really broke it down, for me. Thank you you for that and those additional resources!!! My daughter did say she wants to learn but not necessarily what the school is teaching, so there is hope. Thank you, again.

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