An excellent article by Wendy Priesnitz has gotten me thinking about success. Most homeschooling parents, like Wendy, have experienced questions about whether their chosen path was “successful.” Many new homeschooling parents I meet look for “success stories” in order to reassure themselves that their choice isn’t doomed or foolish or crazy. Larger societal forces seek to determine whether homeschooling is “successful” in order to decide whether or how to regulate it.
The problem with all these endeavors is that in order to measure something as subjective as “success,” one must define it. Once, after relenting in a tussle about whether our son would go to high school, my ex-husband told me that if our son failed it would be my fault. In response to my question about what that would look like, he replied that not getting into college would constitute failure. Well, that would be no problem. While getting into college is often held up as the marker for homeschooling “success,” it isn’t particularly difficult. My son did eventually get into college, only to drop out after two years. His older sister didn’t go, but now, in her thirties, she’s pursuing a degree, reminding us of a truth we so often forget, that people can enroll in an institution of higher learning at any age.
Our family is sometimes looked to as a model of homeschooling success because one of my children got into Harvard, and it was broadcast on the cover of Boston Magazine. The article mentions little about her specifically because it was intended to be about homeschooling. I was one of several parents interviewed, and in the course of the conversation the reporter asked me about my children, and I said one was enrolling in college in the fall. She asked where, I told her, and that was the extent of it. Weeks later, on the day the photographer was scheduled to come to our house, I got a phone call asking what size shirt my daughter wears. I knew immediately that an editor saw the opportunity for spin, and that they were going to show up with a Harvard shirt. We didn’t know my daughter would end up on the cover until the magazines hit the newsstand.
As the daughter of an immigrant and the child of a working class household, sending a kid to Harvard is a big deal, but the pride I feel for my daughter and the rest of my kids has much more to do with who they are as people. If my daughter had gotten into Harvard under the shadow of parental or societal pressure and expectations, she might still be deemed “successful” by others, but her life would be quite different, because the truth is that other people’s opinions about the success of individuals is meaningless and hollow and maybe even destructive.
When you are steeped in a society that is unequal, classist, racist, sexist, and ageist, this is a hard truth to absorb. Judgment often trumps compassion and keeps us focused on accomplishments, income levels, and social status rather than our hopes, dreams, and fellow human beings. Just last night I was having dinner with some friends, and we were telling stories about embarrassing moments in our lives. A published author of several books who everyone at the table would deem a great “success” talked of attending a conference with more acclaimed, prize-winning writers and feeling like a fraud. I’m sure I’m not alone in relating to that feeling. At what point does it end? Is there any rung on the ladder of “success” that can stop it, or does stopping it come from inside ourselves?
As homeschooling parents, facing our own baggage about “success” can help keep us from passing it on to our kids. My baggage is particularly heavy, so it’s been tough for me, and while I don’t claim to have been perfect, the rewards of the journey have been many. Doing the right thing, as Priesnitz says, by respecting and trusting our children not only allowed them to develop into the people they are today, it also gave us years of wonderful experiences and close relationships with our kids. Because of the society we live in, raising kids this way doesn’t guarantee they won’t struggle with the concept of “success,” but it does give them a strong foundation of self esteem, self respect, and self motivation to help counter destructive messages. It also gives them a frame of reference for a different way to live, a way that values people, learning, and evolving rather than measurable accomplishments.