“My early successes in life were…a product of the consistent love and high expectations with which I was surrounded as a child.” — Michelle Obama, Becoming
I just finished Michelle Obama’s excellent memoir. It made me laugh, cry, rage, and ponder. In many ways it was a respite, a reminder of the best in people, a much needed balm of reason, intelligence, and compassion.
Obama writes a lot about children, health, and education, which were centerpieces for many of her initiatives as FLOTUS. The above quote is one of many that got me thinking, because of that word expectations and the controversy over whether having expectations for our kids helps them thrive or causes them to feel pressured by the weight of adult ideas about what they should do and how they should do it.
If pushed to choose one or the other of these camps, I would choose the latter. Based on the above quote one might predict that Obama would choose the former. It wouldn’t be the only thing she and I don’t share views on. She sees schools, for instance, as an essential path for young people to learn, grow, and become. School was, for her, the way to transcend the class position and neighborhood she was born into in Chicago. I get it. After having read Elana Ferrante’s novels I’ve been watching the TV adaptation, “My Brilliant Friend.” For the women characters in that world, a world very similar to the one my own mother grew up in, education in the form of schools was the only ticket available to fight one’s way out of oppression. In “My Brilliant Friend” the teacher visits Lenu’s home to urge her parents to sacrifice their daughter’s economic contribution to the household and allow her to continue to attend school. Access to education in the form of schools can be a particular problem for girls. Last year in a book club I facilitate for homeschoolers the kids chose to read “I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai, the remarkably articulate and courageous girl who captured the world’s attention with her advocacy for education — i.e. schools — for girls.
I am a woman raised by a mother who came from circumstances where she and many other girls were denied the chance to go to school and made to work in the home. Her situation was much like Lenu’s — the teacher came to her home to request that she be allowed to keep attending school, but her parents’ answer was not to consent, as Lenu’s did. Rather, her parents gave the same answer as the one delivered by the parents (or more accurately, father) of Lila, the other main character in “My Brilliant Friend” — no. So at the age of 10 my mother stopped going to school, staying home to help run the two-room household with eight siblings, a cousin, a few animals, acres of olive groves, and no running water or electricity. My mother was sorely disappointed to lose that chance. Sure, the nuns that ran the school dispensed brutal punishments for misbehavior (kneel in the corner on grains of rice until your knees bleed, anyone?), but school was the place to go, not to get an education for its own sake, but to jump through the necessary hoops to collect the knowledge and symbolic pieces of paper that would allow one to rise above poverty and oppressive circumstances.
When my mother came to America via an arranged marriage, she carried the belief with her that school was the only way to better oneself, and she is not alone. It’s a belief shared by most people in our society, so powerfully enduring that it verges on mythology. And yet, when it came time for my own children to go to school I chose another way. I know I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to do so. While I initially started homeschooling because of a dissatisfaction with my daughter’s kindergarten experience, I have said more than once that my choice to continue had more to do with the pluses of homeschooling than the minuses of school. It worked for us, as it does for so many families, and much of my work as a homeschooling advocate has focused on helping folks see the practice as a viable choice among a range of options.
Seeing homeschooling as one way to educate children doesn’t begin, of course, to represent the range of styles, approaches, and philosophies within the homeschooling community. Which brings me back to expectations. Homeschooling parents are vulnerable to all kinds of accusations, among them helicopter parenting, which is widely seen as imposing toxic expectations on kids. For some homeschooling parents, anxiety over doing a good job creates emotional insecurities that can lead them to expect their kids to fulfill unrealistic or unreasonable accomplishments. Within the homeschooling community there are those who choose unschooling, and those parents can sometimes be portrayed or perceived as negligent people letting their kids do whatever they want with no expectations whatsoever.
I’ve come to describe what our family did as slow homeschooling, a lifestyle that eschewed pressuring kids with expectations. There were no timetables for learning. Reading, writing, arithmetic, and the rest unfolded on the kids’ clocks, not ours. With no teachers or other education professionals grading our kids’ progress and determining whether they were meeting state-imposed standards, that worked just fine. Rather than us telling them what to do, the kids chose how to spend their hours, their days, their weeks, their years. There were no assigned tasks they were expected to complete. We imposed no requirements to learn anything academic at all. Instead we provided guidance, love, and exposure to books, art, nature, people of all ages, and the world at large.
Does this mean there were no expectations at all? I’d say no. Our kids were expected to be kind, respectful, and participate in family and community life. These expectations were not conveyed in didactic lessons or even in words. Rather, we showed our kids the same kindness and respect we expected them to show to us and to others. We strove to be and provide models to hold up the values we held dear, trusting that our kids would be looking. listening, and learning. We shared with them things that we cared about, like books, music, politics, nature, and getting to know and understand people, in the hopes that they would come to know and appreciate these pleasures themselves. In these ways and others, we enjoyed the great blessings of getting to know our children for who they were, not who we or anyone else wanted them to be.
I’m pretty sure Michelle Obama, while making radically different choices for her kids’ education, enjoyed the same blessings with her daughters. I come to that conclusion because of the way she writes about people. She may tout “high expectations” and I may not, but maybe that’s just semantics. What we share is a belief in the importance of loving and respecting kids, and being the best mentors we can be for our own children and any young people that cross our path. As she writes in her book, the most important message she could deliver to the young people she encountered in her visits to schools, churches, and communities was, “You belong. You matter. I think highly of you.”
To me, conveying that message comes down to trusting that children are competent, intelligent, capable, and unique individuals. They need our love, care, and guidance, not our judgment, evaluation, and arbitrary rules. I am glad that school worked so well for Obama and her brother, and for her own kids, but one flaw I see in her outlook is the idea that it can work just as well for anyone, as long as they put their mind to the task and work at it, when the reality is that it can’t. Like so many other structures in our society, school is a tiered system that too often values competition over cooperation. In order for some kids to be on top, others have to be on the bottom. On the one hand we are fed the idea that everyone can fulfill their dreams, when our class system requires a lower class, and even if it didn’t the world’s resources couldn’t possibly accommodate everyone living the way most Americans do. On the other hand we are told that our kids need to learn to “fail,” and we confuse the negative and harmful effects of labeling, judging, and categorizing children with the positive growth that can come from taking risks and making mistakes. The standardization that is the backbone of most schools at best does nothing to support, encourage, and celebrate the many different ways children learn and process the world around them, and at worst harms children with labels and records that follow them for years.
While not everyone can or wants to choose homeschooling, it has become a valuable alternative for millions of children. Its existence proves what people knew before schools ever existed, that attending school is not the only way, and for many people definitely not the best way, to get an education. Slow homeschooling helped our family to opt out of school and find a way of being that prioritized relationships, curiosity, play, and learning all the time. It is a way of being that helps redefine the very idea of expectations about what makes a good life. In the process of living such a life, views of what’s important bend, morph, and crystallize. It comes down to this. Pay attention. Open your heart. Open your mind. Do good work. Be kind. Be authentic. Enjoy. And do your best, always, to make sure the kids in your world know that they belong, that they matter, and that you think highly of them.