Children thrive in an environment of disciplined discovery curated for their individual learning style, not one in which prescribed testing and narrowed curricula is spewed out of a “teacher” away from parental control for five to eight hours a day.
Until my oldest son came home crying nearly every day of second grade begging me to homeschool him, I’d never even considered the concept. A public school teacher for nearly 10 years prior to “retiring” to raise our kids, I’d known there were homeschooling families, but I had considered these people separatists who couldn’t play well with others. I supposed the whole homeschooling concept to be fairly ridiculous.
That perspective began to disintegrate, however, as I watched the light die in the eyes of my bright, generally happy kid every day he dutifully trudged off to school to be bullied by his classmates and teacher. I knew I didn’t have a choice. He had to come home for school, and I had to figure out how to make that happen.
That was nine years ago, and though we’ve used many methods to accomplish the task since, I’ve never regretted my choice. One year after deciding to homeschool my son, I pulled out his two elementary-aged siblings, and I’ve witnessed my three youngest kids do, learn, and be things I never thought possible at their ages thanks to the opportunities afforded them outside a traditional school setting.
Today’s Students Aren’t Yesterday’s Students
People are often shocked to learn that John Quincy Adams traveled to France with his father on a diplomatic mission when he was 10, proceeding to translate for diplomat Francis Dana in Russia at the tender age of 14. However impressive this accomplishment, many families who tutored their children at home prior to the advent of public schooling reared similarly mature offspring and close-knit family ties.
Even after public schools became commonplace in America, stories of people such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Ansel Adams, and the Wright brothers provide an excellent record of the inability of many bright children to assimilate into the cookie-cutter shapes outlined by common education, while chronicling the necessity and desire of their families to educate them in whatever way produced positive results.
Today, an average teen leaves home in the morning, moves back and forth among classrooms in a building for much of the day, and spends several hours devoted to after-school activities. Once home, homework and familial commitments leave little to do but sleep until the next set of classes in the morning. For younger kids, the focus of public education on testing, accountability, and rigor has usurped recess. Overscheduled activities at home leave little time for simple play, an absolute necessity for appropriate child development.
This lack of personal free time is beginning to lead to numerous problems, but a very important one can be illustrated by posing the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Although high-schoolers are often asked this question, few today have a response. Why would they? When do they have time to think about what interests them, let alone discover the mechanics of it?
Personal Interests Are Discovered Over Time
Each day, my kids meet with me to go over their coursework. After that, they’re free to study when they choose, in any way they choose. I’m available to answer questions and grade finished work, but it’s their responsibility to get their work done on time — yes, we have deadlines — and done correctly — yes, they have to prove mastery of their subjects.
Occasionally, one fails and is grounded back to the micromanagement level for a bit, but fortunately that’s rare. They quickly learn to prevent setbacks and keep their autonomy. My kids love this lifestyle because it allows them time to do things other than coursework.
Coleman, for example, began making scale models at age 10. Soon he was studying World War II warfare methods and machinery to learn about the models he was building. He’s made more than 40 different models over the years and, as a result, can speak a bit of German and enthusiastically discuss World War II military campaigns.
He rebuilt a vintage motorcycle at age 14 using YouTube videos. At 15, he taught himself to compose and record electronic music, which he uploads to his SoundCloud account from his bedroom studio on many hundreds of dollars’ worth of equipment he’s worked to buy. Now a senior, he’s in a computer programming academy at a local technical college and is applying to universities where he can graduate with that degree.
I began teaching my daughter Betty how to sew and cook when she was about 10. Until she began babysitting and working in a local restaurant at 14, she made clothes and quilts and cooked meals for her family and friends. After two years of photography courses at a homeschool co-op, she started her own photography business her sophomore year.
Also a senior, she routinely takes individual and family portraits, scheduling appointments around a full-time, well-paid nannying job and the classes she’s taking at a local college. Although she thought she wanted to be an attorney after two years of mock trial classes, Betty’s now decided to continue her photography business and work toward opening a day care after graduation.
What Works for One May Not Work for Another
After a very painful and unproductive first-grade public school experience with our youngest son, Samuel, I discovered he had dyscalculia. This forced me to spend his second year at home rebuilding his math skills from scratch.
Since he was able to hold a pencil, Sam has spent countless hours drawing, filling sketchbooks with some of the most imaginative drawings conceivable. With schoolwork, however, he’d complain bitterly about every assignment and then be up and down 20 times finding other things to do. This inability to focus, along with massive test anxiety, prevented him from completing much of the coursework I prescribed for him from about ages 11 to 13.
Although his focus has consistently improved with age, he still struggles with concentration during the afternoon hours. Finding a great math tutor and working hard to get as much as possible done in the morning has helped a great deal. Other than removing access to electronics when he gets too far behind, we try hard not to punish or force his work, as this only increases his anxiety.
This year, as a freshman, Sam is doing well in Algebra 1, while staying on top of his other courses. He still has plenty of time to illustrate and recently sold a pencil drawing of a buffalo at our farmer’s market. None of us have any idea of Sam’s future career path, but I’m confident he’ll have plenty of time to discover it while we navigate his next three years at home.
Relationships Are Built on Shared Experiences
Our two oldest daughters were not schooled at home for different reasons. Although they are successful women — one, in her 20s, serves in the National Guard while in nursing school, and the other is a married woman in her 30s with a job she adores — our parent-child relationships are very different than the ones I have with the three youngest.
Unlike the older two, I’ve been with the three youngest kids nearly 24/7 since elementary school. I’ve watched them grow every day over the last nine years, during which we’ve had countless field trip adventures, fought and loved one another, and learned things about each other in ways I couldn’t have with the other two.
In retrospect, I feel like I existed on the periphery of the lives of the oldest two because I never knew what they did in a day, who their friends were, or what kind of relationships they had with peers. With the youngest, I know all their good friends and their parents very well, and until they began to drive, I knew everything they did in a day because we did it together.
Because this heavy investment in my kids’ lives has precluded the need to question their activities or relationships, we’ve had time to discuss current events, politics, interpersonal relationships, morals, values, and dreams for the future multiple times in multiple ways. These discussions and our shared experiences have allowed a closeness that would have been impossible had we chosen not to homeschool.
We Do What We Value
Parents have many reasons for not educating their kids. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told, “I have to work,” or “I can’t,” when recommending homeschooling to parents frustrated with their public school experience.
This is frustrating because there are more methods, opportunities, and materials by which to school kids at home than ever before. Homeschool co-ops are growing by leaps and bounds. Large quantities of educational materials are accessible to nearly any home simply by typing “free online homeschooling” in a web browser. Homeschool sports, once nearly unheard of, have boomed. Students like Sam who have a hard time learning in a traditional classroom are thriving under their parents’ supervision.
Homeschooling can work in even the toughest economic situations, including single parenting on a barebones budget, if parents are committed. A great many parents have both the means and time to educate their children at home, yet unfortunately believe the state is responsible to fill that role, though study after study has shown parenting to be more important than any other factor in academic achievement.
Although this is clichéd, children are the repositories of our future, yet public schools are doing a poor job filling them with useful knowledge. Today, more than ever, parents must decide for themselves what they treasure: passing desires and excuses, or productive future adults.