A headline caught my eye today. Even For Homeschoolers, There Is No Happily Ever After.
The writer, Linda DeMers Hummel, had a job answering phones for a curriculum company whose clients were homeschoolers. Most of the questions were about math, but then she got a call from a mother who wouldn’t let her eighth grade daughter read The Diary of Anne Frank because it didn’t have a happy ending.
Hummel says, “I knew enough about homeschooling to understand that some parents (not all) homeschool their children precisely to keep them inside their own comfort zones.”
Spare me the caveat that “not all” homeschoolers are overprotective. Hummel jumped on this because it played right into the stereotype of homeschoolers as helicopter parents. The call, as she describes it, was just that–one call in a sea of calls. But stereotypes are powerful things. When people see evidence of them in real people, they latch on tight.
About that mom who didn’t want her daughter to read Anne Frank’s diary. I knew a mom who felt exactly the same way. She was Jewish and wanted to be careful about exposing her child to the Holocaust at too young an age. She herself had felt traumatized and scared when she learned about it as a child.
I would never call that mother a helicopter parent. Rather, I would call her someone who was thinking carefully and lovingly about raising her child. I’m willing to grant that the mother in Hummel’s phone call was trying to do that, too.
I don’t know, of course. There’s so much I don’t know about that mom and her daughter. Maybe her daughter had nightmares in the face of tragedy. Maybe a close family member had recently died and she was just trying to hold it together. Maybe the mom, like my friend, was remembering a particular experience of her own. I just don’t know, which is why I give her the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe that mom even changed her mind, as people are wont to do. All of us parents know that trial and error plays a huge part in the process of bringing up kids.
I remember being super excited to read my eldest daughter one of my favorite books from childhood, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. She was seven, and after the introduction of the white witch she dissolved into a heap of terrified tears. Oops.
My son, at around the same age, freaked out in terror over the movie version of Pinocchio. Oops.
When my third child was about ten, we went to the science museum to see an exhibit of sculptures made from actual human bodies. Three quarters of the way through she broke down. I tried to soothe her by explaining that all the people in the exhibit had consented to have their bodies transformed into art. “Not the babies!” she cried indignantly. Oops, and touché.
I remember these, of course, because they were the exceptions. Most of the time the kids were happy and enjoying themselves, even when we were reading books that depicted difficult historical realities, even when we dragged them along when we volunteered at the soup kitchen, where scuffles were known to erupt in the meal line. There was the first time I took my daughter to the movies (Toy Story, who knew?) and her terror was so great we had to leave halfway through. Sometimes the upsetting incidents became opportunities for discussion, and sometimes it was best to simply offer comfort and move on.
The reality is that everyone’s reality is different. Parents can “shelter” their kids simply by choosing, to the extent that they have the luxury to do so, where to live. How many public schools are economically, racially, and culturally homogeneous? How many public schools are teaching literature and history primarily from the Western, mostly white, and mostly male canon?
After soul searching about whether to take her kids to the Holocaust Museum, Hummel says, “I…often felt envious of the homeschool crowd for not having to make the decisions I was making about my kids’ exposure to this imperfect and hopelessly flawed world of ours.”
Of course she’s very wrong. The homeschool crowd faces the same decisions she faces, and puts the same loving care into those decisions. We are humans just like she is, imperfect, hopelessly flawed humans living in the same crazy, imperfect, hopelessly flawed world. Hardship, cruelty, pain are inescapable, part of the human condition. The sheer range of historical atrocities, current atrocities, inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental violence, the list goes on, are a challenge for any parent–heck, any person–to parse and keep up with. Of course we must face that challenge, but the best any parent can do, and what almost all parents I know, homeschooling or not, strive to do, is to help their kids become as educated, resilient, and yes, happy, as possible.
I think about the popularity of dystopian fiction for kids, and it occurs to me that sometimes kids know all too well about the meanness of the world, and sometimes they get tired of it. The youth of the Boston Area Homeschoolers Queer Straight Alliance are a case in point. Weary of tragic story after tragic story about queer people, they launched The HEDA Project; “Stories by and for LGBT youth, all with happy endings.”
I’m with them.