Homeschooling: what if people stopped asking what if?

Recently I heard a national radio show host trying to wrap her head around homeschooling during an hour-long program on the topic. Many of her questions were of the “what if” variety.

You know the type of questions I’m talking about. What if the kid doesn’t learn to read, what if the kid plays video games all day, what if, what if, what if. If you homeschool and don’t structure your days with programmed academics, give your kids agency to decide what and when they want to learn, and use the world and the community as your “classroom,” you’ve likely heard these “what ifs” many times over.

little boy playing in the sand
Photo by Kaboompics .com on

At one point the host confessed that she just wasn’t at a place where she could trust her kids in that way. This is a place many homeschooling parents recognize. Over my decades of homeschooling, it was unusual to meet a parent who had decided to embrace slow homeschooling before they started homeschooling. The ones who had were mostly people who’d read John Holt before or shortly after starting their families. The majority of parents I met were like me. We had a child/children enrolled in school. It wasn’t working. We discovered homeschooling.

People like us had to learn to let go. How did we do it? By living with our children, watching them, listening to them, getting to know them. By experiencing firsthand that overseeing schoolwork at the dining room table didn’t work, but letting kids dive into something they thought was cool and exciting did. By figuring out for ourselves that life was so much better when we were all happy and engaged in stuff we cared about.

It didn’t take me long. It was 1991 when I started homeschooling and I could count on my hands the number of families in my local support group. We stuck together, which was another way many of us came to feel comfortable about relaxing. Watching a community of children learn unimpeded makes it abundantly clear that a schedule for learning is at best ludicrous and at worst harmful. Babies walk and talk in their own time. The same is true for reading, adding and subtracting, riding a bike, developing social skills, and on and on.

My daughter seemed excited at first about doing schoolwork but once we started we both hated it. Full disclosure, the fact that it wasn’t fun was high on the list of my reasons to quit math worksheets, reading comprehension, and the like. Did that make me irresponsible? Maybe, but still, I gave up the schoolwork almost immediately. My kid was six years old and already reading. She spent long hours in her room writing poems and stories. She was physically active and agile and spent plenty of time outdoors playing and riding her bike. She hung out with the kids that lived next door, her friends from her former nursery school, and the ones she was making at the homeschool park days and other activities we attended. How behind could she get in first grade? It was enough of an initial justification to see me through until I learned that doing schoolwork with my kids wasn’t something I ever needed to worry about.

Many of my fellow homeschooling parents were making the same discoveries as they watched their children teach themselves to read, spout multiplication facts without ever having been taught, display knowledge they picked up who knew where, and otherwise prove that they were constantly learning something. For some parents, this was enough to let go entirely and let their kids lead the way, but even for the ones who couldn’t do it one hundred percent, the hours they spent with their kids on schoolwork were minimal, allowing plenty of free time to play, explore, and roam. We learned to live in the moment, have fun with our kids, and use the community as a resource. Our lives were chock full of regular visits to the library, going to museums on weekdays when they weren’t crowded, picking edible plants in the woods, hitting the beach, attending plays and concerts, going to park day with homeschooling friends, hosting reading and writing groups, volunteering at soup kitchens and animal shelters, and much, much more.

Some of us wanted to tell the world about what we had figured out, so amazing was it to watch human beings unfold freely. Others chose to experience the wonder more quietly. Often it depended on the situation. When my oldest was ten, I enjoyed a regular poker game with a group of high-powered academic types from revered institutions of higher education. One night when we were at my house, an age mate of my daughter’s was visiting and very interested in our game. I didn’t take much notice of her intent observations and keen questions. They seemed pretty normal to me. After a time she left to do something else and one of the guys at the table remarked, “Wow, she’s really bright.” I smiled in agreement, wondering what he would think if I told him that she wasn’t reading yet. Was that a problem? Not really. She learned to read in due time and wound up attending an Ivy League college.

The fact that I and many other parents I know learned to trust our kids with their time and learning didn’t mean we stopped worrying. All parents worry at one point or another. I had one kid who some might call a kinesthetic learner, full of energy, constantly losing things, doing everything with more enthusiasm than anyone else even if it was something that wasn’t a good idea. Would that kid ever grow up, I sometimes wondered. What would that kid do in the world? Another kid’s occasional scribbles showed they could not spell simple — and I mean simple — words at the age of 11. Was a learning disability at play? Did I screw up? We have these concerns not because we are homeschooling, but because we are parents who love and pay attention to our children. Most of my friends who choose to send their kids to school also grapple with bouts of worry and/or insecurity.

So to the radio host and anyone else who wonders how the heck we can trust that our kids will learn to read, do math, build stuff, create art, make friends, and become engaged citizens of the world, be assured that for most of us it was a process. It may not be one that you care to initiate with your own family, and that’s fine. All I ask is your open-mindedness, tolerance, and willingness to acknowledge that not everyone has to do things the mainstream way. Take those first steps and you may be able to begin to fathom what we are up to, and who knows, you just might learn something.


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