Homeschooling without polarization

This morning I came across a new book written by Michael Kenmore, a homeschooled adult. It purports to be a neutral analysis of homeschooling by someone with firsthand knowledge of growing up outside of school.

I really want to read the book. I think homeschooled adults can have valuable perspectives we should all look at. I remember how much I appreciated hearing the young adults in Peter Kowalke’s film Grown Without Schooling talk about their lives.

Kenmore’s book is called Homeschooling Without Harm. That doesn’t sound so neutral, but I forged ahead, anyway, and read this in the book’s intro: “In most cases, homeschooling just benefits parents—individuals who can indulge in their overprotective tendencies while convincing themselves that their children are better off because of it. In reality, these parents are probably setting their kids on a path to hate them and themselves.”

So much for neutrality. I still plan to finish Kenmore’s book, because I still think it’s important to listen to all voices, but I was dismayed when I read the blanket value judgment he made in his introduction.

About an hour later, I was talking with a homeschooling mom who said she’s afraid to send her two kids, ages 9 and 12, to the library, two blocks away from her suburban home, by themselves. She’s not afraid of attackers, predators, abductors, or other dire consequences. She’s afraid because too many people she’s heard about and known have had authorities called on them for letting their kids do things like walk to the library or the park or the grocery store.

She wants to let her kids walk to the library alone, but she knows that if she does, facing legal repercussions is a real possibility. I don’t blame her. I also have known too many families who’ve been investigated by social services for having a family bed, letting their kids play outside with no coats, and other ridiculous reasons. Most of us read about the horror show a Maryland family experienced last year because of letting their kids walk to the park. Fortunately, it all worked out fine in the end, but who wants to go through that?

How do these ideas coexist? How do we, on the one hand, argue that most homeschooling parents are overprotective for not sending their children to school (because Kenmore isn’t the only voice I’ve heard that unsubstantiated claim from), and at the same time argue that the state needs to patrol children so intensively that if they are left on their own for any brief period, their parents need to be investigated for potential neglect? When I read the website of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, I think we may be getting to the point where some people believe homeschooling parents should be investigated for neglect simply for choosing to homeschool.

My kids are mostly grown now, and I feel fortunate that I was able to exercise my right to homeschool without undue fear of investigation. The way I chose to do that might qualify as educational neglect to some, because we unschooled and didn’t pursue traditional lessons in much of anything until my kids were well beyond elementary school age. That didn’t mean, of course, that they weren’t being educated, but under strict regulations designed in accordance with the methods and approaches of traditional schooling, at any given point they may have been found lacking.

By the time they were tweens, my kids were getting themselves places on their own, either by walking or taking public transportation. The descriptor “overprotective” was actually leveled at me more than once as a pejorative, for extended nursing, family bed, and other parenting choices. Nevertheless, independence and self-reliance were always at the top of the list of my parenting and homeschooling goals.

Maybe I just convinced myself that I was achieving those goals, but I don’t think so. Rose colored glasses have never been my specialty. More to the point, I think, is the fact that there is no one single way to raise educated, independent, happy people. We can’t say that any one form of parenting or education–homeschool, public school, private school, charter school, or whatever else comes down the pike–is right for all, any more than we can say one approach to homeschooling is right for everyone.

To Kenmore’s credit, he acknowledges that homeschooling can be a good choice for some families, but he did give his book a provocative title that implies negativity, probably because he says outright that, not unlike legions of adult Americans who attended school, he hated the way in which he was educated. He also says his book is about the “right and wrong reasons to homeschool.” I’m not a fan of distilling things into “right” and “wrong,” but maybe in the age of click bait, sound bites, and viral internet memes a provocative title and introduction are necessary to sell books, and there’ll be more nuance in the pages as I go along. I hope so, because we badly need dialogue that avoids polarization.






Where’d you learn that?

Yesterday my daughter and I were in the car, on our way to see her sibling in a play. She’s in college now, but still lives locally, so we can do things like that.

While my daughter sat beside me in the passenger seat, she worked on a paper. As she busily typed away on her laptop, I noticed something.

“Wow,” I said. “You’re a really fast typist.” She wasn’t using a two finger method, or any other self-created style. She was typing the way I was taught to type when I was in public high school, and they offered classes for such things. Curious, I asked, “Where’d you learn that?”

“From a program I found a while ago.”

“Oh,” I said. “I don’t remember that.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I wanted to learn to type so I found a typing program.”

“How old were you?” I asked.

My daughter shrugged. “12 or so.”

I tell this story at the risk of being accused of not paying attention, and there’s some truth in that. I wasn’t paying attention to how she learned to type. I did know that as a teen she was using keyboards to write papers for classes she chose to take. I didn’t stand over her while she did so, and didn’t concern myself with how she typed. It ain’t rocket science, after all.

Although a two-finger or other makeshift method is just as useful (I have other children whose  fingers move like lightning over the keyboard with their self-styled typing techniques), this kid apparently wanted something else. So she got it, on her own, and without my knowledge.

I know other homeschooling parents have experienced this. I’ve heard their stories, and I have others, too. For example, I have no idea how my son taught himself to make websites when he was a teenager. I have no idea how my youngest daughter learned to crochet.

Sometimes, I do know how my kids learned things, even though I had nothing to do with it. I know that my son learned about birds by going bird watching every weekend. I know that my daughter learned how to sing jazz by intensively listening to Ella Fitzgerald and other vocalists, as well as Miles Davis and other great horn players (I remember her telling me that Ella said that’s what she did, listened to the horns).

One question homeschooling and unschooling parents get a lot is, “How do you know they’re learning?” It’s a hard question to answer. Typical attempts include pointing out children’s curiosity, the human drive to learn, or trusting children.

Words inevitably fall short. When you’ve watched your children excitedly pursue knowledge and expertise, when you’ve seen them master skills on their own, when you’ve observed them find resources when necessary (and yes, sometimes that resource is you), the question “How do you know they’re learning” becomes patently absurd. You know they’re learning like you know they’re breathing.

Sometimes when people ask that question, I think what they’re really asking is, “How do you know what they’re learning?” Because isn’t that what school does? Tells kids what to to learn and keeps track of whether they learned it?

I plead guilty to not always keeping track of what my kids learned. I knew my kids were breathing, and I knew they were learning. Most importantly, I knew they were self-sufficient, resourceful, and empowered to learn. That’s the prize I kept my eyes on.