‘Unschoolers’ launch day

Dear Readers,

My co-author Sophia Sayigh and I have been working on Unschoolers for a while and I’m delighted to announce that it’s available now.


Visit our website for various ways you can purchase the book in e-book and paperback formats. I hope you’ll consider spreading the word among your friends in conversation, on e-lists, or via social media.  Perhaps you’ll even feel moved to rate the book or write a review.

I welcome direct communication, too. Drop me a line and let me know what you think! Thanks, as always!

Unschooling: they still don’t get it

Today I came across an article about homeschooling by  that lifted a quote of mine from last year’s Boston Magazine article. In talking about my kids I said:

“I wanted them to be in charge of their own education and decide what they were interested in, and not have someone else telling them what to do and what they were good at…”

My interview with the reporter was, like any good conversation, more complicated than an article could represent. I think she did a good job with the story, but conveying the complexity of homeschooling and especially unschooling is beyond the scope of a mere few pages.

I stand by my quote. It is still true, although my reasons for homeschooling, my experiences with it over almost three decades, and its meaning in the context of my life and the life of my family is ever evolving.

Yawar Baig seems to think that people, children included, can not make good choices without understanding the consequences of their actions. Consequences are a funny thing. How can one understand them when they’re only fully clear in hindsight? When I made the choice to homeschool my children, many around me warned of the dire consequences that could ensue. I alone couldn’t possibly provide my kids with a sufficient education, they might not get into college, they might become total weirdos.

The upside of fielding the concerns of others is that it can help one avoid problems that one hadn’t thought of oneself. I can’t say that was the case for me with homeschooling. Did my friends, family, and acquaintances really believe I didn’t think of these things? Conveying concerns through questions and then actually listening to the answers would have been nice, but it was rare. Mostly, it was judgments and assumptions and thinly veiled warnings along the lines of “you’re making a big mistake.”

Were there consequences to my choice to homeschool? Of course. Any action has consequences, and they’re often unforeseen, and they’re usually mixed. I, like most other parents I know, made a carefully thought-out choice about the education of my children. I continued to monitor that choice, modifying it when necessary.

But are kids capable of responsible choice? When Yawar Baig says choice can’t be left simply to subjective likes and dislikes, is there an implication that kids aren’t mature enough to make good choices about what they learn?

Unschooling, the form of homeschooling that I chose, says children can direct their own education. For unschoolers, the world is the “classroom.” Parents and other adults are guides. When they’re needed and wanted, there are teachers, because, as I wrote in another blog post, teachers are most effective when they’re chosen by the learner.

My quote from that Boston Magazine article meant that I wanted my kids to discover their interests, strengths, weaknesses, and desires for themselves, rather than internalizing the idea that they were good or bad at something because a teacher said so. It meant that I wanted their sense of self worth to come more from within than without, from their own thoughts and pursuits and imagination and observations, not from the praise or grades dispensed by a standardized system.

Of course I know there are wonderful school teachers who enhance the lives of children every day. I had a few myself, but I wanted to do something different with my own family. I discovered that based on my oldest child’s experience in public kindergarten.

Like many parents, I came to homeschooling because of a dissatisfaction with school. My child wasn’t failing there; she was succeeding, and that is one of the very things that disturbed me. She was one of the smart ones, the good ones. She was without a doubt the teacher’s pet. She was proud of herself, but it was also clear that she wanted that status very badly and would do whatever it took to reach and retain it. She became, as Alfie Kohn might say, extrinsically motivated. Worse, she began adopting an attitude of superiority and looked down on other children in much the same way the teacher did, something I observed when I volunteered in the classroom.

There was the troublemaker who drove the teacher crazy, a five-year-old boy with an ADD diagnosis whose consistent punishment for being too loud and rowdy in the classroom was denial of recess. He would sit at the window, looking longingly at the other children playing, his inability to contain his disappointment often leading to more punishments that would be dispensed later.

There was the little boy who fell smack in the middle of the teacher’s intelligence rankings. Maybe that was why the teacher tried to tell him that the special object he brought in to share on show-and-tell day wasn’t what he imagined it was.

There was the little Middle Eastern girl who the teacher complained to me about for various reasons, including a bathroom accident the girl had. One day, after a gym class that parents were invited to observe, the kids were asked to line up at the drinking fountain. Being overanxious for a drink, the Middle Eastern girl ran ahead. So did my daughter. I reflexively thought to speak to my child about getting back in line, but before I could take a step, I watched as the teacher knelt down, wrapped her hands around the other girl’s shoulders, and exclaimed sternly, “You don’t do that!”, completely ignoring the fact that my daughter had also run ahead to the drinking fountain.

There was the sweet, shy, thumb-sucking girl. One day my daughter came home and said that the teacher had told that girl if she didn’t stop she would tie her hands behind her back. I approached the teacher the next day and said that although I assured my daughter her teacher would never do such a thing, my daughter had believed her. The teacher brushed it off and said she was only kidding. After I told the thumb-sucking girl’s mother about the incident, she told me she asked the teacher to refrain from mentioning her child’s thumb-sucking, but the teacher said she couldn’t do that because the thumb-sucking was disgusting. Weeks later, that same mother shrugged and said to me on the playground, “Public school. You give up so much control.”

No, I thought. I could not again leave my child every day with a person who played favorites, dispensed punishments on a regular basis, squashed a kid’s imagination, and thought a five-year-old in her care was disgusting. I would not give up that control.

Initially I thought I would move for a better public school, or somehow pay for a private school, but in the process of researching what to do, I learned about homeschooling. I read an article called “The Crisis of Compulsory Schooling” by John Taylor Gatto, and I knew that homeschooling would be my path. Although I came to it because of a dissatisfaction with my child’s school, I chose it because it made sense to me, and I wanted it for my family. In other words, it was a positive, not a negative, choice.

The unschooling part, the part that is integral to the issue of letting kids choose what they learn, that came later, although not too much later, after observing that the activities my daughter chose for herself were more fruitful and meaningful than any schoolwork I could assign.

Yawar Baig’s article isn’t the first time I’ve encountered skepticism after expressing my thoughts that children can learn and develop just fine by choosing and pursuing their own interests. Gracy Olmsted in the American Conservative referred to “my teaching philosophy (or lack thereof)” and said my comments in a Pacific Standard interview raised questions about whether children would “sufficiently challenge their own predispositions toward laziness or ignorance without an older adult coaching and challenging them…” She and I have radically different views of children, as I don’t believe they have predispositions toward laziness or ignorance, but her assumptions that older adults would be absent as coaches, sources of inspiration, or influencers of other kinds are just wrong.

My response to her was a post I called Unschooling: they just don’t get it. Yawar Baig’s article, although addressing homeschooling in general, gives me the same feeling. In fairness, unschooling is a pretty difficult concept to get without actually doing it, but it’s important that we keep talking so that one day, people look at homeschooling and unschooling as just another educational option.



On not teaching your kids to read

I was very glad the other day to discover an excellent essay by Carol Black in The Washington Post. Black is a visionary writer on education and learning, and deserves a large readership.

Black says, “…people today do not even know what children are actually like.They only know what children are like in schools.”

I remember having a similar revelation when my eldest daughter was about twelve. In response to a discussion on developmental issues, her pediatrician xeroxed a section of a book on child psychology for me to study. That night as I flipped through the pages and read all about what was “normal,” it couldn’t have been more clear to me that the “normal” that was being presented was based almost entirely on children who live the majority of their days inside a school building. Hence, it wasn’t particularly relevant for me or my children.

Black’s piece also got me thinking about my children’s experiences learning to read. My eldest spent a year in kindergarten before I decided to homeschool. As a socially oriented child, she wanted to please and impress the teacher, and was keenly aware of what would be necessary to reach a high status in the classroom (one of the many reasons, actually, I turned to homeschooling, but that’s another story).

Only one child in her class was reading, and this made him special. My daughter came home, sat herself down on the couch, and told me she wanted to read. “Okay,” I said, and proceeded to do my best to help her sound out words. She was pretty good at phonics at that point, and could sound out individual phonemes, but putting them together was another matter. We spent many painful hours in which she would try her hardest, reciting “c-uh,” “a,” “tuh,” but lacking whatever cognitive mechanism was required to merge those sounds into the word “cat.”

Eventually, of course, she learned to read. Did all the phonics hullabaloo facilitate it? I doubt it.

Not long after, my kids’ father and I got divorced, and off they went to school for a couple of years. My son entered a one/two classroom (first and second grade) in an alternative school full of earthy crunchy, liberal families. He hadn’t gone to kindergarten, and his reading ability was nonexistent.

Even in this progressive environment, the pressure the children felt to read in first grade was enormous. My son felt none of this. His teacher, who lamented the worries these six and seven year-olds already had about their abilities, would tell me what a wonderful example my son was for the rest of the class. “I can’t read, can somebody help me?” he would ask. His openness made him a target for ridicule, and his reading level, or lack thereof, made him a candidate for special time with the resource teacher.

During the summer between first and second grade, he forgot about school and played. One day in July, I walked into his room and he was reading Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

He went back to second grade, and in October his classroom teacher called to tell me he no longer needed time with the resource teacher. He had been tested, she told me, and was reading at a third grade level, with a fourth grade level of vocabulary. “What did you do?” she asked me.

What I did, of course, was nothing. The teacher didn’t believe me. It was inconceivable to her that my son could go from being so “behind” to being so “ahead” with no intervention.

But wait, some might argue, it was the hours he spent in school, and the time he had with the resource teacher, finally kicking in. Without that, maybe he wouldn’t have learned to read. Again, I doubt it (so did the teachers; the giant leap he took over the summer wasn’t something they typically saw in a child already identified as a late reader).

Later, I remarried and had two more daughters, neither of whom ever attended school. We visited the library regularly and read books to them often. They also spent many hours looking at books. Formal reading instruction? There was none. If you ask me how they learned to read, I would have to tell you honestly, I don’t know. They just did.

I know my kids are not special. I’ve observed many kids learn to read completely by themselves. As someone who’s been around children who were not subjected to forced reading instruction in school, the typical curve for reading that Black describes sounds exactly right to me. Some kids might read at age three or four, others might wait until they’re ten or eleven. When left alone to develop their reading skills naturally, the age is immaterial. In the long term, they will read equally well, and, as with walking and talking, no one will know or care how old they were when they started.

The repercussions that Black describes so eloquently of forcing children to learn to read before they’re ready, willing, and able are real.  “This is a choice,” she says. “In making it, we may be creating disabilities in kids who would have been fine if allowed to learn to read on their own developmental schedule.”

Fortunately, as homeschoolers, we have the option of choosing not to force, reward, or interfere with our children’s developmental schedule for reading.

Not back to school time, again

The nights are getting cooler, our first butternut squashes from the garden have been picked, apples are showing up at my local farmers’ market. Fall is coming, the season of mists and yellow fruitfulness, to quote John Keats.

It’s the season of the bittersweet, harvests of plenty, and the last gasps of beauty and fullness before the frost of winter. In our society, the season has been forever changed by the onset of school. Whatever we feel about school, the end of August is inextricably linked to it. As Dar Williams put it in song, The summer ends and we wonder who we are.

Who we are , is homeschoolers. For us, fall is not back to school time, as it has been for so many years.

Wait. Have I got that exactly right? My 19-year-old is going back to school, after all–to her sophomore year at college. My 17-year-old just went to the first of her three self-chosen community college classes last night, and will probably enroll in college next year, which makes this homeschooling year particularly bittersweet for me.

I’ve been involved in homeschooling for a quarter century. It was the way I chose to educate my own four children, but along the way I organized field trips, hosted potlucks, published newsletters (pre-internet), moderated my support group’s Yahoo list, helped found a statewide non-profit advocacy organization (Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts), and led writing workshops.

I still volunteer for AHEM, and I still lead writing workshops. I love working with kids in an environment with no curriculum frameworks, no grades, and no pressure to perform on standardized or other tests. Watching kids learn and grow in this way is a privilege and a blessing for which I’m ever grateful.

Homeschooling has changed radically since I first dipped my toes into the waters, in ways that make me wonder how my own homeschooling would play out if I were starting today. I hope that families are still discovering the value of that organic process of learning, and the rewards of kicking back and enjoying a slow homeschooling lifestyle.

I know I am.

Making our own kind of music

Every so often I hear people ask the question, how do you unschool music? How do you learn music without lessons or instruction?

First off, unschooling doesn’t mean you can’t have a teacher, use instructional materials, or undertake any other kind of traditional study. By the same token, those methods aren’t necessarily required to learn music. The trick is to foster appreciation for music, support whatever involvement in music your kids choose, and keep the joy and creativity in music making alive.

All four of my kids are musical in different ways. Kid one leaned toward the singer-songwriter world, number two embraces traditional folk, number three is a devoted jazz fan and vocalist, and number four likes classical best, although she also enjoys playing klezmer with her dad.

Below are some ideas for how to nurture musical intelligence in your kids.

Exposure First and foremost, expose your kids to many different kinds of music. There are plenty of excellent recordings made expressly for kids. By all means, enjoy them, but play other music, too. As young children my kids loved Bob Dylan, Beethoven, The Beatles, Queen, other more obscure bands, and many kinds of ethnic music. Don’t just listen to music around the house, go hear live music, too. I really can’t overestimate the importance of exposure to music. My daughter is a perfect example. Our kids regularly attended classical, folk, and world music concerts, but we didn’t go hear jazz very often, or listen to it much at home. That all changed when somehow, Ella Fitzgerald found her way onto the family mp3 player when my daughter was 11. She fell in immediate, absolute, obsessive love. Within months she had listened to and learned Ella’s entire canon, mostly by taking her CDs out of the library, and today is an accomplished, primarily self-taught jazz vocalist.

Modeling If you want your kids to learn about and love music, do it yourself. My husband is a musician, so our kids witnessed the joys of making music on a regular basis, as well as the necessity of practice. I’m an amateur singer and the kids listened to me practice choral music they later heard in performance. Even if you don’t want to pick up an instrument or sing, you can still model music appreciation through listening and enjoying music yourself.

Make music together Since learning to listen is one of the most important aspects of making music, this is pretty important. One of the things our family did when the kids were little was sing in an inter-generational chorus. We also performed in inter-generational theatrical productions. If those kinds of commitments are more than you can handle, try seeking out (or organizing) low-key events like sing-a-longs, or folk, blues, or jazz jams. If classical music appeals, there’s plenty of simple chamber music your kids can try with you or some friends. Ditto for rock and roll.

Find mentors No matter the undertaking, whenever my kids felt passionate about something, they found a mentor. With music, there’s no reason that person can’t be a teacher, especially if your child asks for lessons. All our kids took lessons on various instruments at one point or another, and were free to quit if their interest waned. Sometimes mentors are more like idols–masters your kids might never meet but nevertheless become huge influences, much like Ella Fitzgerald was for my daughter. My son found some of his musical heroes on YouTube, mandolin players like Chris Thiele and singers like Tony Cuffe.

A word about practice This is a controversial subject, especially for unschoolers who might feel that “making” their kids practice is anathema. Because our family takes financial commitments like music lessons seriously, and because my husband, as a musician and music teacher himself, understands the vital role of practice in playing music, we did require our kids to practice as long as we were paying for music lessons they wanted. This doesn’t have to be a rigid endeavor. Since the lessons were chosen by the kids, practicing mostly happened naturally, but if it didn’t, we discussed the issue and negotiated agreements that worked for all. How practice works is going to look different in every family, but the key thing is to not squash a love of music by forcing the issue.

Resources Make instruments readily accessible to the extent it’s possible. If you can get your hands on a piano, guitar, or any other instrument, have them in your home. Inexpensive wind instruments like recorders or penny whistles are great to have around, and easy to play. Don’t discount percussion–rhythm is a huge part of music, and real or makeshift drums can be loads of fun. Whatever instruments you collect, let your kids experiment with them freely. Make CDs, records, downloaded music, or whatever technology you use to listen to music accessible, and offer a wide variety of music. When you go to the library, check out music in addition to books. Be musically curious, open-minded, and experimental, and most likely, your kids will be, too.

Have ideas or stories about unschooling music? Please share them in the comments section!

What are you doing this summer?

We all have them, right? Summer memories of lazy days, popsicles, swimming, pick-up games of tag or kickball, and oodles of fun.

Well, maybe we don’t all have them, especially since summer has become just another season for scheduling stuff. These days, when people ask What are your kids doing this summer? the answers generally include multiple kinds of classes, day camps, sleepaway camps, or other programs designed to help keep kids from getting bored, driving their parents crazy, or-heaven forbid-having nothing to do.

campingyay 051Lately, I’m even reading about camps designed to appeal to people like me, people who unschool their kids. Yes, there are camps now that advertise themselves as places for self-directed learners. You can sign up to send your kid to a camp where they get to choose what they do all day, experience community, and learn to be themselves.

The reality, of course, is that no special program is needed for such an experience. Unschooling offers it every day, regardless of the season.

I remember looking forward to summers when my kids were small.

We gathered with other families at the beach, where the kids spent hours building sandcastles, frolicking in the water, hunting for shells, and finding tiny hermit crabs.

We took regular hikes at our local nature reservation, observing the plants, searching out wild edibles, and picking wild blueberries that we enjoyed in pancakes, jam, and pies.

We biked to the lake near our house, where we swam, hung out with friends, and picked black raspberries for snacking.

For vacation, we visited family in Northern Virginia, checking out Monticello and Mount Vernon, exploring Luray Caverns, hiking at local state parks, and playing with cousins. Or we went camping, exploring nature trails, beating the heat at the pond, biking to the ice cream shop, walking on the sandy ocean bottom at low tide.

When my kids got older, they sometimes signed up for summer programs connected to their special interests, but until they became teenagers those were a small part of the fabric of summer life.

While articles about and links to learning centers, camps, and other structured programs directed at homeschoolers, unschoolers, and “self-directed learners” continue to pop up in my news feeds and inbox, I was relieved to see an antidote that appeared recently on Huffington Post. It’s by Pam Lobley, and it’s titled How I Slowed My Family Down. Like, to the Last Century.

“When the kids are little,” she says, “simply being together and enjoying the passage of time can be the best way to enjoy the hottest months.”

I couldn’t agree more.



The boy with the boulder

Many years ago, when my eldest daughter was in public school kindergarten and I was helping out in the classroom, I witnessed the following exchange between the teacher and a boy who had brought in a special object for show-and-tell.

Boy (holding up his smooth round rock proudly): “This is my boulder.”

Teacher: “You mean, it’s your rock.”

Boy: “No, it’s my boulder.”

Teacher: “A boulder is much bigger. That’s a rock.”

As I observed the crushed look on the boy’s face, I inwardly cringed. Clearly, the kid knew the difference between a rock and a boulder. Clearly, something else was going on, something the teacher, perhaps due to her mandate to “educate,” completely missed.

I was reminded of this incident this morning upon reading a 2013 article in New Scientist, about the wisdom of beginning schooling before age seven. In a discussion of the importance of play in learning, the author states, “…much of children’s play involves pretending that one thing represents another, for example that a cardboard box is a space ship. This ability is thought to be unique to humans and underpins language, drawing and other ways in which we convey meaning.”

That poor kid in my daughter’s kindergarten class was just pretending; profoundly pretending; pretending in order to understand the world, imbue it with meaning, and to develop into an engaged, creative person with intellectual flexibility and a love of learning. Too bad the teacher squashed it.

Although I’d moved to a city with one of the top school districts in my state, the incident with the boy and his boulder was one of many that made me question what kind of education I wanted for my own children, a process that led me to homeschooling.

It’s not surprising that The New Scientist article, which showed up in my Facebook feed, resurfaced now. The push toward universal preschool is strong, despite the reams of research that play is of vital importance to developing minds. While some cite research that points to the benefits of preschool, there is disagreement among scholars about how to interpret it, as discussed in this 2014 Atlantic article.

A new paper from the Brookings Institute examining models of public spending on early childhood points to another issue inextricably connected to the well-being of children and families. It states “…family support in the form of putting more money in the pockets of low-income parents produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than a year of preschool, participation in Head Start, or class size reduction in the early grades.”

That makes sense to me. Social factors such as income inequality, lack of support for new parents, the gender pay gap, and others stand to have a much larger impact on quality of life for everyone, including children. Should we make sure all children who need it have access to excellent child care and schooling? Of course, but pushing universal preschool and ignoring the bigger picture, which might include paid leave for new parents, economic security, and health care for all, is short-sighted.

Also of utmost importance is paying attention to the research on play and how children learn, and respecting their vital, creative young minds, something that becomes very difficult for teachers in an environment that measures achievement through standardized test scores.

Which brings me full circle to my original story. As the adult in the room who didn’t have to check off boxes for educational attainment, I was free to appreciate the boy with the boulder’s creative license and obvious love for his special object without having to worry about “teaching” him anything. Once I chose homeschooling, I took responsibility for my children’s education, but I could still prioritize trusting, respecting, and nurturing their innate ability and desire to learn.

That’s what I’d like for all children, regardless of how they’re educated. That boy from my daughter’s kindergarten class would be an adult now, thirty something years old. Wherever he may be, I hope he still has his boulder.




Is that cute enough for you?

This week I read about Hilde Kate Lysiak, the journalist behind the Orange Street News. She’s nine years old, reports on news in her Pennsylvania community, and is currently getting her fifteen minutes of fame due to her coverage of a neighborhood murder (a scoop, by the way).

Some folks think it’s inappropriate for a child of her age to be reporting on such serious material. Seems to me that Lysiak is up to the task. I loved watching her rebut her critics, signing off with the defiant rhetorical question, “Is that cute enough for you?”

I also love that her 12-year-old sister filmed the video, and that the two work together on the Orange Street News. This reminds me of my own daughters and their younger days of collaborating on their own serious work, from living room puppet shows to Shakespeare productions.

It was no surprise to me to find out that Lysiak is homeschooled. According to the New York Times article, Lysiak’s parents “gave their daughters the freedom to pursue their passions under the theory that when they are engaged, they learn.”

While the debate over whether she is a “real” journalist rages on, Lysiak continues to focus on doing what she loves best–chasing news stories. Of the media whirlwhind she said, “I feel I’m getting the attention for my age, not my work.” Clearly, she’s no fool. Her work is what’s important to her, which is why the criticism doesn’t faze her and the celebrity doesn’t distract her.

The story brought home to me why another article I read recently, “Picasso was wrong. Your child is not an artist.” by Sebastian Smee bothered me. I see Smee’s point, but I think what he’s talking about is the fawning and empty praise adults so often lavish on kids. That’s quite different from the satisfaction kids can derive from doing real work they care about, whether it be reporting, creating art, or some other chosen pursuit.

In order for kids to be able to become passionate about and pursue real work, we adults have to support and believe in them, and give them the space and freedom to do it.


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.






The gift of time

Last night I ran into a dad whose eldest had started homeschooling as a pre-teen and is now in her first year of college. I asked how she was doing. “Great,” he replied. “Homeschooling really saved her. It gave her the time to pursue what she really wanted to do.”

I nodded. The advantages of homeschooling are many, but if I had to distill them into one word, it would be time. I know that my kids, like my friend’s daughter, benefitted hugely from the simple availability of time.

As little children, they had time to play, spending hour after hour with blocks, with books, with paint and pencil and paper, with music, with cooking, with our ducks, with the beach and the park and the woods. Passions showed up early, some obviously, some more subtly.

By the time my son was a teenager, he loved critters and folk music. He spent time reading as much as he could about animals, especially mustelids (the weasel family) and birds. He developed relationships with adult birders in the area and went on weekend outings with them. He soaked up their knowledge, while they appreciated the sharpness of his young eyes and his enthusiasm for something they loved. He landed a job at the science museum’s live animal center, doing everything from cleaning cages to feeding the snakes to holding the great horned owl for educational programs. He spent hours at the nearby folk music club, listening to music and developing relationships with the musicians and the employees before becoming a music teacher and performer there himself.

Similar stories could be told about my other children, whose time led them to pursuits including jazz, psychology, theater, and Shakespeare.

When we think about this, it makes perfect sense. Don’t we all benefit from having time to do what we love? Doesn’t thatallow us to improve, to discover, to evolve, and to learn?

Giving our kids the gift of time doesn’t just fulfill their hearts and minds. Along the way, they learn valuable skills. Having available time means figuring out how to fill and manage it, so kids become self-sufficient instead of dependent on waiting for someone to tell them what to do. They learn to prioritize, to say yes to what’s important or necessary, and say no to what isn’t for them. Down time, and time to be alone, gives kids a chance to rest, regroup, ponder, imagine, and get to know themselves.

Sometimes, the availability of time that homeschooling offers is criticized. When a homeschooler excels, people brush it off, or worse, claim unfairness, because the homeschooler had more time to devote to honing a particular skill. Yes, that’s true, and what’s wrong with that? Isn’t time to work on things they care about something we want for all kids?

Some may fear that giving children ample time to pursue their interests could take away from their learning “the basics” and hamper their ability to get into college or get jobs. The good news is that it doesn’t. The organizational, problem solving, and critical thinking skills my kids began to master through play got applied to serious studies and pursuits later on. Involvement in the community, exposure to a wide range of subjects, and observing adults in the wider world were important pieces of that process.

As I’ve observed my kids grow up, seeing how each of them uses their time has been fascinating, enlightening, and sometimes frustrating. Different people have different learning styles, after all, and one of my kids possessed a style that involved obsessive embrace of one passion, only to drop it for the next exciting endeavor on the horizon. Another child appeared to have a kind of tunnel vision, focusing intently on one interest to what appeared to be the exclusion of everything else. Neither of these approaches to learning match mine, which meant I had to open my mind to new possibilities, and hang tight to the belief that what my kids were doing was right for them. It can be hard sometimes, to trust our kids’ instincts, abilities, and competence. Society puts a lot of pressure on parents, and when we choose to homeschool, we can feel that even more. Our own schooling experiences, and social messages about how kids learn best inevitably affect how we approach homeschooling, too, but when we put those things aside, the results can sometimes seem like magic. It can be hard to believe, for instance, even as it’s happening right before our eyes, that kids can learn to read and multiply and write without the involvement of any teacher or boxed curriculum.

Through the challenges, I’ve tried my best to act as a guide and throw out ideas I think my kids might not have thought of while taking a deep breath and trusting them. I’ve given them the time, after all, to know themselves, and I’ve found that also means they know when to reach out and ask for help. They know the value of time, its gifts, its challenges, and its limitations. And that, like time itself, is precious.

This article first appeared in The Homeschooler Post.