Five and a half years ago, I stepped over the threshold of my Minnesota home with a mewling little bundle, my firstborn son. This morning I gave him a hug, snapped a picture, and sent him off into the Great Unknown, armed with nothing more than safety scissors and a glue stick. It’s official. He’s a kindergartener.
He’ll be back in a few hours. By the way, I still have three younger boys at home and underfoot, so I probably won’t get lonely. But landmark days like this give you that slipping-sand feeling, as you realize how fleeting time is.
Today school starts, tomorrow will be graduation, and the day after that I’ll be making up place cards for their weddings. Have I picked out my cemetery plot yet? Maybe should get on that; I’ve got a few hours until the boy gets back.
Thanks for Kicking Me When I’m Down
In the midst of my morbid, overwrought reflections, I wandered onto Facebook for some moral support. I found some homeschooling friends high-fiving one another over this silly Onion piece. On this occasion they weren’t really celebrating the pleasures of homeschooling. (I get many of those posts as well, and they are charming.) Today, they were reveling in their ingenuity in sparing their kids that torment of the modern world, Regular School. Oh, the soul-destroying sadness of spending several hours a day in a place devoted to learning!
Hey, I get it, homeschoolers. Everyone else is in a back-to-school tizzy, posting their pictures and checking their lists; maybe your mother-in-law seized the opportunity to ask one more time how your children will ever get socialized when they’re all cooped up at home. You just need some lighthearted solidarity.
On top of that, though, you do fervently believe that you’re sparing your children from something pretty bad. I know all about this. The scourge of Common Core. The assault on imagination. Boys who chew up pencils like little beavers because they desperately need more movement in their day. Seriously, give me a quarter and I can sing this tune all day.
Nevertheless, my slightly sensitive feelings today are not a product of guilt. My husband and I weighed and researched all the options. We observed school environments. We asked questions about curriculum and the level of physical activity, and probed teachers’ attitudes towards boys. Our choice was very deliberate, and I’m excited about the school my son is starting. (But I’m not going to brag about the details, because that wouldn’t be in the spirit of this piece.) I’m also open to changing the plan if things go badly.
I’m just emotional because my baby is growing up, and I’m not sure a schoolteacher can really appreciate what a precious, unique soul he is, and… maudlin mommy stuff. There are great reasons to homeschool, but doing it to avoid these clingy feelings would be creepy and wrong. I know this, but it still hurts a little to watch friends poking all the sensitive spots and, seriously, guys? I wouldn’t let people pick on you this way. Must the bullied always turn into the bully?
School: The New Mommy Wars
Schooling wars have become the new mommy wars, especially for conservatives. We get to the start of the year and people start with their passive-aggressive barbs about the awesomeness of their school’s new uniform, or how thrilled they are that their homeschooled child will get to take full advantage of the nice fall weather. To be clear, those kinds of remarks might be innocent enough, but sometimes they aren’t. There’s that same tension we associate with work-and-family conversations. The obvious insecurities and the public appeals for approval. The gusto with which we talk about the awful things we would never let our child experience.
Sometimes elderly relatives or friends catch the spirit by tossing in lightly-considered but heavily judgmental remarks, such as, “I’d never send my child to a school where girls have purple streaks in their hair. And all those body piercings!” Thanks, Auntie Adelaide. That’s hugely helpful.
I catch myself getting competitive about these things, too, so I understand why it happens. Education decisions are hard. The world is brutal, but our kids still have to live in it. (Or we can go Benedict Option and plan for them not to live in it, but then they’ll be sitting ducks to the machinations of the modern world. Truly, nowhere is entirely “off the grid” of the administrative state.) We’re trying to prepare them for a Brave New World that seems to be getting crazier by the day. So however you play this, it’s terrifying, and we’re talking about our kids. It’s entirely understandable that we’re all a little sensitive.
On the glass-half-full side, part of the problem is the range of options people face nowadays. If you’re looking at schools, you can consider regular public schools or charter schools or a wide variety of private schools. Meanwhile, homeschooling has come into its own, and there are zillions of resources and philosophies and homeschooling groups to consider.
In some ways this is wonderful, but opportunities can also be burdens. Now it’s up to us parents to craft the perfect education plan for our little Einsteins. We only need to devise something that will make them brilliant, broad-minded, adaptable, and virtuous. No pressure, right?
Divided We Fall
Things haven’t always been like this. When I was young, I remember my parents chatting quite amiably with their friends about the schools. Where I grew up, most parents did the same thing: they sent their kids to the local public school. Parochial schools might have been a thing if I’d known any Catholics, but I didn’t. As an adult, I have friends who were homeschooled, but back then I was barely aware of such things. In my church and neighborhood, nearly all the kids went to the same schools as my siblings and I. They weren’t particularly great, but we were all in the same boat, so there was no call for rancor. Griping about “schools these days” may actually have been a cozy subject for adults, like complaining about the winter weather.
Then the schools got worse and the options got wider, and suddenly education became a tense subject. We’re all interested, but choose your words carefully. You’re on thin ice.
It’s a shame this is getting so hard, because talking is exactly what we should be doing. Conservatives desperately need solidarity when it comes to raising and educating our kids. The institutions have turned against us, and many progressive liberals would be quite happy to lure us into their perverse worldview using free “education” as bait. Protecting our (counter)culture and the things we believe should be seen as a shared goal. It’s not easy, because regardless of what we want for our own families, liberals already have us forking over our hard-earned money to sponsor government schools.
Most thoughtful conservatives appreciate what is at stake here, but often we still allow the stress of all these choices to push us apart. Public-school parents can no longer count on “schools these days” being a friendly topic, because they feel judged for allowing their children to be there in the first place. Private-school parents may have some of the same, or they may be anxious to trumpet the perfections of the school they worked so hard to find (and finance). Homeschoolers, for their part, are used to being scorned, and in consequence they often prioritize homeschooling solidarity over other forms of parental solidarity.
To be clear, I know parents in all of these groups who are wonderfully open to discussing education. Some families also move quite fluidly between them by homeschooling some kids in some years, while also making strategic use of available schools. But for many of us, it takes time to outgrow our sensitivities, and to focus more clearly on the challenges we collectively face.
Accepting the Hard Truths about Parenting
As in the mommy wars, so in the schooling wars: we can’t build solidarity until we accept a few hard truths. I can think of three.
First, we have to accept that the same formula won’t work for everyone. Private and parochial schools cost money. Homeschooling takes a huge investment of time and energy. Good charter schools, where they even exist, tend to have long wait lists. The available resources will be different for everyone and, by the way, parents have different temperaments and talents. So do kids! It’s too much to demand that no one should judge anybody else, but perhaps we could shoot for something more reasonable. Don’t assume that families that make different choices are “doing it wrong.” Assume as far as possible that they are granting you that same courtesy.
Second, we should realize that every education option involves trade-offs. Whatever you do, your kids will miss out on something potentially awesome, and that’s life. I’m already quite sad that my family will have to stop spending our Januarys in southern Texas (as we’ve done the past three years) because of school.
Of course, schooling families can still do many fun and educational things together; my childhood was filled with game nights and family hikes and wonderful seasonal activities. Still, compared to homeschoolers, schooling families don’t have the same level of schedule and curricular control. Also, it will sometimes happen that your child will have to spend a golden September afternoon at a desk, while a homeschooled friend dives joyfully into a pile of milkweed pods. I certainly can remember days when school seemed like a perverse torment devised by Uncle Screwtape.
On the other hand, there can be great things about schools. I feel a little sad sometimes when I hear homeschooling parents talk about their awful memories of school. Was that really all they experienced? I was educated in a very progressive public-school district, and the list of things I would change is pretty long. But, frankly, a lot of it was also pretty great, and I can say that without in the least begrudging my homeschooled friends (or children’s friends) their own book of magical memories.
The school play. Track and field day. Those fetal rabbits we dissected in biology class. That thing in the third grade where we ran “the post office” for a week, delivering valentines to every child in the school. The hilarious “telenovelas” we produced in Spanish class, which had me tearing through my dictionary with the zest and fervor of a true creative visionary. Musical activities like orchestra and choir. The scrapbook of cherished school memories is, for me, pretty thick.
Even the “unapproved” memories can be kind of precious in their way. I was recently reminiscing with an old friend about the time in the sixth grade when we figured out an ingenious way to cut gym class every day without getting in trouble. The computer lab happened to be empty that period, so we would sneak in and play “Oregon Trail.” This was our idea of rebellious-juvenile malarkey. (And although I’m not going to reveal our secret, I will say that we pulled it off without lying to anyone, either parents or teachers.)
Some reader out there is probably fuming that, first, homeschoolers can do everything good on this list (here’s the link to the fetal rabbit supplier, Ms. Lu!) and, second, am I seriously bragging that my public school enabled me to get more screen time instead of physical exercise? If you are that person, please lighten up. Yes, I think a structured education facility sometimes enables good experiences of a sort that might be hard to recapture. But my real point is simply that everyone gets left out in some way or other. No matter how amazing we are, we can’t pack every magical thing into our children’s lives.
A Wish and a Prayer
It can be hard to accept that your child is missing out. The third point, however, is still harder. It is this: no matter what education method we pick, it might go wrong.
What we’re doing here is hard. Most conservative parents want to raise kids who can live in the world without being fully assimilated to it. This is a daunting project, and there are many ways to go wrong. You can overprotect your kids. You can underprotect your kids. Some parents blight their children’s futures by monitoring them too closely, never allowing them to develop the emotional maturity needed to cope with disappointment and failure. Other parents will look back in 20 years and wonder, “Why didn’t I intervene before that problem became serious?”
Homeschooling is becoming more popular because it gives parents more control over the various stages of their children’s development. That’s readily understandable, but homeschooling can’t be a magic bullet, because kids do eventually need to learn how to navigate an unsympathetic world where most people do not love them. This is the grain of truth in the often-lazy “socialization” argument against homeschooling, and parents who reply “I wish to socialize my children myself” are missing the point. Your kids cannot spend their whole lives in the bosom of their natal family.
Of course we should try to facilitate a gradual, guided initiation to modern life, and homeschooling may be part of that. In the end, though, we’re all dealing with the same challenge: how to prevent our kids from wrecking against the rocks of modernity without giving in to the natural impulse to lovingly wrap them in bubble paper. On the high seas of modern life, what works for one may go catastrophically wrong for another. Literally every education plan should come with the attached warning, “results may vary.” The only thing I can recommend without qualification is prayer.
Solidarity is also good, however, and sorely needed. Modern parenting is ridiculously hard. Let’s at least give one another the consolation of being on the same team.