My mom is visiting for a little while, and since we’ve often lived far apart she’s only spent time with my kids sporadically, and probably less time overall with my younger boys than my older kids. She’s always been supportive of homeschooling, but she does read this blog when someone helps her get online so she’s aware of some of my more radical ideas about kids and learning. I decided early on to blog openly about the way we live, and not worry too much about who is reading and what they think. That’s one of the liberating things about getting older: you become more willing to just be yourself, to live and let live.
I don’t blog exclusively about homeschooling, and I only write about my unschooling ideas when I feel really inspired to share something; but I don’t avoid writing about it either. It’s all part of our life, and I can’t imagine not writing about the way my kids learn. So my mom probably reads some of what I write and isn’t exactly sure what I’m talking about- her ideas about homeschooling are more along the lines of conservative Christian homeschooling and we’ve never really delved too deeply into the specifics of what we do. I was pretty conservative in the early years of homeschooling- we were always “relaxed homeschoolers”, but I tried hard to fit in with structured, religious groups, and was influenced by Charlotte Mason ideas which are often adopted by Christian homeschoolers.
But I’ve changed quite a bit over the years, and our home education style reflects that. I’ve loosened up, and I’ve become more comfortable with the hybrid self that I am. Labels are tough. I’ve written before about my struggles moving to a new area, and feeling unable to pretend that we’re something we aren’t in order to fit in with a certain group. For me, it could be an unschooling group or it could be a structured Christian group… or a structured secular group, for that matter. It could be a Waldorf group… the list goes on! The bottom line is, we are who we are, and I want to be open and honest about that. We don’t fit neatly into anyone’s category, and sometimes that feels a little lonely. And it can also be confusing to people who think in terms of groups and labels and definitions; people who find security in knowing where they belong, who their tribe is.
My mom is pretty cool in her own way though- she’s passive (unlike me), so she won’t come right out and press for details. She won’t initiate a disagreement. And although I have a more forceful personality, I like getting along with people so I am happy to focus on our common ground and avoid hot topics. But she did ask me the other day about how the kids did their “homeschooling”, saying that she was glad to help out if she could. So I had the opportunity to explain a bit about the way we do things, how my boys have a very different learning style from what she was used to. I have four sisters, and we all had the sort of conventional learning style that is favored in school. Early reading and writing, being articulate, able to sit still and focus, compliant and eager to please. That’s what a lot of girls do, and that’s what we did.
My older two were like this too, even though they didn’t go to school until they got older. But as I’ve had more kids I’ve had my assumptions about learning challenged, and I’ve changed my way of doing things to meet their needs. In the process, I’ve understood so much more about the nature of learning- the magic and mystery of it. I see how big the role of adults is in kids’ lives, for better or worse; the power we have to encourage learning, or limit it. We can turn learning into something small and mean, something that is good only for getting ahead and winning. Or we can embrace it as the most natural thing in the world, something that all humans are born to do, something that should not be thought of in terms of better and worse, success or failure.
I see so many homeschoolers (most of them new) asking for reassurance on support group forums, saying that they want to homeschool but they are afraid, and they don’t know how to stand up to their critics. I’ve had many personal conversations with other moms (usually moms, if the dad is the primary homeschooling parent he doesn’t usually seem as worried about what people think) who say that their husband or extended family disapproves, and they’re at a loss for how to deal with it. I’ve known women who have been to ivy league schools who feel inadequate when it comes to defending their choice to educate their child without school. Imagine having what it takes to make it through something like that, and yet lacking confidence about knowing what is best for your child.
I was thinking about this after my conversation with my mom the other day- the word “unschooling” didn’t actually come up (because I rarely bring up that word if I don’t have to); but I gave her a simple explanation of natural learning. And it was fine- no big deal. I know that some people would be more likely to question, to criticize, to look for holes… but I still think that some of the lack of opposition to my homeschooling is because I’m secure in my choices.
There is a huge difference between confidence and arrogance. Arrogant people think they’re right and everyone else is wrong. Confident people think they’re doing what is right for them, and they’re not too concerned with the opinions of others. And that’s what I wish for all parents, that they would make thoughtful choices and then be confident in them. It doesn’t have to be the same choice that I make. There are pros and cons to all schooling choices, and we make the best decision we can while acknowledging that it won’t be a perfect one.
Think of how much could be avoided, the “mommy wars”, the sometimes bitter disagreement over the best way to do things. If people are confident, they’re not going to feel defensive about their choice. They’re going to be willing to advocate for it while accepting that others may choose differently. Homeschooling is not for everyone. But if someone really wants to homeschool, then I think the very first thing they should do is get real comfortable with that choice. If they don’t fully believe in what they’re doing, if they can’t articulate the reasons why they’re making the choice; then they can’t expect others to be supportive.
Some choices are easy in our society- they are the “normal” choice, and no one will expect an explanation. But school should be a thoughtful choice too, not the default one. And the bottom line is that it is really no one else’s business, how you choose to educate your child. Or how you give birth, or feeding and sleeping and all the other choices that parents make. We can only do what we think is right, and be secure and confident in those decisions. And then respect those who do things differently, as long as they love their kids and want what is best for them. That’s really all that matters.
I try to feel sympathetic when I read yet another post from a mom who is desperately seeking reassurance that homeschooling won’t mean ruining her child for life. But at the same time I look at it from the other angle: does she not realize what she’s implying- that the rest of us are doing something crazy and potentially harmful? Why in the world would someone even consider such ridiculous fears about homeschooling, when it’s perfectly clear that it is working very well for many people, and isn’t just some lunatic fringe thing? Why give ignorance power by acknowledging it? If someone is so easily swayed by nonsense and unwilling to just hang out with as many homeschoolers as possible, then maybe they shouldn’t be homeschooling. Sending a child to school doesn’t require any independent thought or willingness to buck the system, so it is a better option for people who don’t want to think outside the box.