Homeschooling as salvation

Lately my life has consisted of lazy days, sweltering heat, a zucchini bonanza, and Shakespeare in the park. Oh, and lots of discussions about homeschooling.

I’m a county contact for Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts, so people call me with all manner of questions and concerns. During this time of year, they’re busy with gearing up (already) for the fall, submitting education plans, figuring out logistics, or trying to decide whether to take the plunge. Sometimes, the callers are distraught parents, unsure of what to do to help kids who are suffering in school.

Today I read a piece by Lea Grover called How Homeschooling Changed My Life. She describes being taunted, bullied, and ostracized in school. When the taunts turned “sinister,” Grover needed an out. Her parents proposed homeschooling, and she jumped at the chance.

Over the years, I’ve heard so many stories like hers from parents whose kids are experiencing anxiety, depression, panic, insomnia, and self-loathing as a result of horrible school situations. Education? When energy is focused on day-to-day survival in a hostile environment, it kind of falls by the wayside.

It’s not like the parents haven’t made an effort to advocate for their kids. By the time I talk to them, they’ve usually tried long and hard to work within the system. The teachers and administrators they’ve appealed to couldn’t fix the problem, and sometimes have even fallen back on that age-old defensive posture of blaming the victim. These parents are desperately trying to help their kids grow up happy, healthy, and whole, so they turn to homeschooling, often with feelings of deep uncertainty and ambivalence. It’s a last resort.

Then something amazing happens. Their kids stop crying and tantruming. They start sleeping at night. They don’t frown all the time. They bloom, they glow, they laugh. They grow to love learning, and life. For these kid and families, homeschooling is salvation. As Grover puts it, “Homeschooling saved me from a school situation that had always kept me from achieving my full potential and might have done me much more harm.”

Grover’s story is about escaping a bad situation, yes, but it’s also about finding a good one. She describes how homeschooling fueled her love of learning and enriched her family life and relationships. It’s a tale I’ve heard many versions of over the years.

So I’ll keep talking to parents, supporting and empowering them to make the best choices they can for their families, knowing that in some cases, I’m throwing them a lifeline.

Homeschooling. Salvation. Bring it on.

Should kids be allowed to vote?

Recently, I’ve been reading Escape from Childhood by John Holt. It’s considered his most radical book, and indeed, to the contemporary ear, his proposals sound a bit wacky. His basic proposal is “that the rights, privileges, duties, responsibilities of adult citizens be made available to any young person, of whatever age, who wants to make use of them…”

Holt includes among these the right to vote. It was last week, right around the Fourth of July, when I was reading Holt’s arguments about why children should be allowed to vote, that this comedy video began circulating on my social media accounts:

All who posted it or told me about it found it funny, but also sad. Of course for the purposes of the video the interviewer was seeking out Americans who would happily make fools of themselves on camera, and of course not all Americans are as ignorant as those portrayed in the video, but it reminded me of something Holt says in his book: “We have learned time after time that most people (in spite of their schooling) do not even recognize the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights when they are typed out on ordinary paper and shown to them. When they are asked to sign these statements, the most fundamental documents of our society and supposedly the foundation of our political system, about nine out of ten people refuse, calling them radical, subversive, communist…” Holt, writing in the 1970’s, goes on to give other examples remarkably similar to those portrayed in the 2015 comedy video.

It doesn’t matter how much or how little anyone knows about our government, or the candidates running for office. Simply by virtue of being 18 or older, we enjoy the right to vote. As Holt says, “No amount of ignorance, misinformation, or outright delusion will bar an adult from voting.”

Is 18 not an arbitrary marker? It is legal adult age in our society, true, but other rights are conferred or denied according to older or younger ages, such as the right to drive a motor vehicle, or the right to drink alcohol.

I have known many children who are just as competent to vote, and decidedly more excited about it, than many adults. In 2008, the day after one of the Democratic debates, I had two ten-year-olds in the backseat of my car. Both had watched all or part of the debate, and one asked the other who she supported, adding, “I’m for Obama, because I want kids in the White House.” The other child, who happened to be my daughter, responded that next time there was an election she didn’t want to know who her parents were supporting, in order to be able to make up her own mind.

Pretty sophisticated stuff for 10-year-olds. Or is it? It’s human nature, and sensible, to support the candidate you feel would best respond to your particular issues, so why wouldn’t a kid want a president that would be tuned into the needs and issues of young people? My daughter’s comment reflects her own self-awareness about the fact that adults she respects are influential, but that she has her own mind, too.

I have another child who developed a keen interest in politics as a young teenager. Although she phone banked and canvassed for several of her chosen candidates, she could not vote for them. She was such a reliable member of the team that she was even asked to work as a poll watcher on several election days. She was respected enough to be selected to ensure voting procedures were properly followed, and still, she could not vote.

What if allowing kids to vote simply gave their parents extra votes, as some fear? The anecdote about the 10-year-olds I related is one example that shows that wouldn’t necessarily be true, but even if it were true, why would the influence suddenly wear off at age 18? And don’t spouses in many cases vote alike, and does that diminish the validity of either vote?

Holt also argues that denying the young the right to vote is unjust because in the long run, they will be the most affected by government policies and decisions. The young, he says, “…will have to live longer with the consequences of what we do and any mistakes we make.” They are among the biggest stakeholders, yet they are not allowed a voice.

When it comes to voting, I’m with Holt. I see no reason why young people should be denied the right to participate in our democracy. This might also give us a chance of developing a less apathetic electorate, something which we sorely need. As Holt says, “Merely knowing they could vote if they wanted, or knowing people of their own age who voted, would do more to interest and inform the young about the society around them than anything, however ‘relevant,’ we could put in the curriculum or do in the school.”

Holt acknowledges that if the right to vote is given to the young, it would likely happen in increments. He encourages young people struggling to be granted rights in their schools to change their focus. “Forget students’ rights and get yourselves the rights of citizens. Get the vote, and when you have it, get it for those younger than you are.”

Should any such young people seek to do that, they’ll have at least one adult in their corner.

As usual, parents can’t win

Last week I wrote about the American Conservative’s take on my comments about unschooling. The question was posed, “…will children sufficiently challenge their own predispositions toward laziness or ignorance without an older adult coaching and challenging them?”

So, we have to “coach” and “challenge” our kids, but carefully, lest we become a Tiger Mom. While we’re busy avoiding that trap, let’s make sure we don’t unwittingly become helicopter parents, because guess what? A new study shows that young adults whose parents were over-involved and didn’t temper that with enough “warmth” are more likely to have low self-esteem and engage in risky behaviors.

There’s nothing new about parenting advice, but frankly, I’m sick of the blaming. Salon recently published an excerpt from former Freshman Dean at Stanford Julie Lythcott-Haims’s new book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

There’s something ironic about a former dean at one of the most selective schools in the country (admission rate for this year was 5.05%) saying about parents, “Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is ‘best’ for our kids is completely out of whack.”

It’s not that I think parents don’t sometimes go overboard. Of course we do, and we should take responsibility for that, but can the other players in the game step up and take responsibility, too? Might universities, for instance, do something to mitigate the “college admissions arms race”?

When I was a kid, a few B’s, or even a C, on your high school transcript wasn’t the end of the world.  If you ventured out into the world as a teen and got into a smidge of trouble, that wasn’t the end of the world, either. In the information age, that’s no longer true. Everything about our kids’ lives is on the record, and the record doesn’t go away. It’s not a forgiving world for anyone, young people and parents included, so the rise of parenting styles that seek to avoid “mistakes” is no surprise.

The elephant in the room in this discussion is the industrial school complex. We have an education system in this country that embraces standardization, rigid schedules, labeling, and top-down authority. Teachers, increasingly forced to implement packaged curricula and incessant testing, get to determine our children’s strengths, weaknesses, personality traits, and even how intelligent they are. If they’re lucky, kids get a teacher that won’t squash curiosity and critical thinking, but that has to happen in spite of the very structure of school, with its age segregation, bells, compartmentalization of material, and lack of choice for students. Lythcott-Haims writes about the dangers of parents depriving their kids of the chance to be creative, solve problems, and develop self-awareness. I submit that our school system is equally guilty.

What to do? Opt out, of the school system if you can, or at least the culture’s obsession with status. It’s starting to happen, as homeschooling continues to grow, and more people start embracing philosophies like free-range parenting. Parents, forget the societal messages and go with your gut. Let your kids play, because that’s where they really learn problem solving. Let them have free time so they learn who they are. As much as you can, let them choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it, so they develop self-esteem and dignity. Teach them to care for others by doing it yourself. Most of all, enjoy them. While we can’t win in the media, we can win with our kids.