What do homeschoolers do?

Homeschoolers number in the millions now, so why is it still so hard for people to understand what we actually do?

I know, of course, that there are so many ways of “doing” homeschooling. The ultimate individualized education, I like to call it, which means it’s different for every family. Still, you’d think that stereotypical misconceptions, at least, would go away. I and my one child left at home (who’s 17) regularly encounter them. We attend a lecture, and on the way out my daughter is asked if she’ll be writing a paper on it the following day. We go to a social event, and someone inquires whether my daughter’s schoolwork for the day is finished. She’s reading a book, and the nice lady on the bus wants to know whether she’ll be taking a test on it. Almost every week, I meet people who assume that I’m teaching my daughter everything, from biology to algebra to English.

Everyone is well meaning, and of course, why would someone understand something they haven’t experienced? One problem is the word “homeschooling.” For better or worse, it’s the commonly used term for parents educating their children outside of schools, but it doesn’t accurately describe what we do. Most of us are not recreating school in the home. Quite the contrary, much of the time we’re out in the world doing things that don’t remotely look like school. Parent-directed education is a better term.

When people make assumptions about how homeschooling happens they’re often relying on stereotypes about education in general, i.e. traditional schooling, with the learner being spoon-fed information by a teacher then tested and evaluated. That’s only one model of education. People who choose not to send their children to school are choosing an alternate model, one that often looks completely different from a traditional classroom. My kids, for instance, did not do structured schoolwork. They drew pictures, read books, made music, rode unicycles, created comics, played chess, wrote stories. They went to the park, the library, historical houses, museums, book groups, the beach, the woods, the theater. When my husband or I attended meetings, volunteered at soup kitchens, went to the supermarket, or voted, they tagged along. As they matured and entered their teenage years, they started enrolling in formal classes at community colleges, volunteering in the community, and pursuing the interests they’d spent their childhoods developing.

By that time, it was easier to answer questions about homeschooling. It was easier to simply talk about the community college classes, the volunteer jobs at the science museum and hospital, the performances in plays and concerts, or whatever. When they were younger and spending the majority of their time playing, dealing with well-intentioned folks assuming they spent hours a day being instructed by me was a bit more challenging.

That antiquated outlook on education doesn’t make sense. While the world has changed dramatically over the last century, the school model hasn’t. Materials and techniques perhaps have shifted, but the hierarchical structure, and the philosophy that children must be compelled to learn, remains the same. Technology, it seems, is shaking up that system at its very core, offering options that have never before been available and encouraging novel approaches to learning. At the same time, the drive for standards-based education entrenches the status quo even more deeply, making it more rigid and inflexible, tying the hands of teachers and shunning innovation. How this plays out remains to be seen, but I for one would love to see what we now consider as alternatives (like homeschooling) become nothing more than choices on a spectrum of normal. When we get to that point, the education revolution will have really happened.

Is homeschooling hard?

Oh, I could never do that.

Most homeschooling parents have heard this after mentioning the way they educate their children. It has always seemed to me a strange response. For one thing, I’m never suggesting the other person do it. For another, homeschooling isn’t all that hard.

Societal messages abound that lead people to believe that it is difficult, and these days, there are plenty of people and establishments willing to exploit that and offer parents a place to leave their kids that looks a lot like school. For learning centers, alternative schools, educational day care centers, and places like them, encouraging the idea that homeschooling is hard is good for business. But is it true?

Nothing is without its difficulties, of course, but homeschooling can make life easier in many ways. No more fights over getting out of bed in the morning. No more rushing to get to school on time. No more tearing your hair out trying to make sure your kids do their homework. Problems like bullying, anxiety, depression, and lack of interest in learning can also disappear.

So what are some of the myths that make people think homeschooling is hard?

Educating kids requires trained experts  Let’s face it, education is big business. Schools employ scores of people, and while teachers may not be getting rich, thanks to standards based education, corporations are.  For the entrenched school system to continue to survive, and for newer initiatives like Common Core and mandatory testing to take hold, the overarching belief must be that children need trained experts to teach them. When schools fail, the general response is to insist that kids need even more time with trained experts. Longer school days and mandatory preschool have become a rallying cry for many who insist that children need school, and lots of it, to get a decent education. Homeschoolers reject these notions, operating under a different paradigm, one that values children’s natural curiosity and drive to learn.

Spending time with kids is no fun  Our culture is steeped in the idea that parents can’t wait to get rid of kids. The media is filled with images of moms and dads filled with relief at back to school time. We’re just not supposed to want to spend too much time with our kids. If we do, we’re accused of helicopter parenting, overprotectiveness, or trying to live through our children. It is true that to homeschool, you have to want to spend time with your kids, but doing so isn’t a burden. It offers us the opportunity to know our children well, develop strong relationships with them, and enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle centered around living and learning together.

Kids won’t learn unless you make them  This myth goes alongside the idea that kids are lazy. It’s simply not true. Human beings are innately curious, which means they have an innate capacity for learning. Trying to make kids learn things they don’t want to learn, aren’t ready to learn, or don’t see any reason to learn–yes, those things are hard. Exposing them to a wide range of subjects, honoring their natural curiosity, providing resources, supporting their passions, and tapping into community opportunities make life, learning, and even hard work seem more like a piece of cake.

Kids have to be with other kids  The idea that homeschoolers don’t have opportunities for socialization is a common myth. Support groups, community organizations, lessons, sports teams, volunteering, internships, jobs, you name it–the opportunities for homeschoolers to be out in the world with other people are boundless. And yet, the age segregation of schools has led many to the belief that in order to develop socially kids have to be with children of the same or similar ages on a regular basis. As a result, new homeschooling families sometimes bend over backwards to try and connect their kids to their age-mates. Eventually, most get over that and discover that it’s easier to enjoy the benefits of age-mixing.

College is a requirement  Most parents stress about whether and where their kids are going to get into college. We want them to be able to go to any school they choose, but we also assume that choosing one is a must (I disagree). Despite the fact that homeschoolers get into college all the time, the belief that they’ll be disadvantaged is still common and contributes to the idea that homeschooling is hard. The fact is, homeschoolers who want to go to college do, but for many, the experience of having been alternatively educated opens their minds to choices that don’t include conventional four-year college.

While homeschooling requires commitment and work, it doesn’t have to feel hard. For me and so many others I know, it feels more like a rewarding, worthwhile effort that can be done without the aid of learning centers and other entrepreneurial start-ups that target homeschoolers. Still, all the suggestions and reassurance in the world won’t help you if you can’t find a way to trust that you are doing what’s right for your family, and that your child is competent and capable of learning. If homeschooling is important enough to you and your family, you’ll stick with it. If not, hopefully you’ll find what’s right for you, no guilt or shame necessary.