A Field Guide to Homeschoolers

Unexpected encounters with homeschoolers outside their enclosures can be disconcerting. They typically start with generalized anxiety induced by seeing children outside during school hours and quickly progress to a host of questions the startled observer feels need to be answered. What about socialization? Is that even legal? What about the prom? This pushes the wary homeschooler into a defensive posture and her answers may signal aggravation. Don’t be concerned. They’re rarely dangerous. But I’ve spent 13 years studying the elusive homeschooler and wrote this guide to help cautious observers like you interact more comfortably with these fascinating specimens.

what is homeschooling

What is a homeschooler?

A homeschooler is a peculiar species who has opted to take over the primary role of educating her children herself. I refer to them as “she” for ease of reading and because the primary teaching role does tend to fall on the female of the species. This is not to downplay the role of the male in the education of his young, nor to discount the number of stay at home fathers who have taken on the responsibility.

How can I recognize a homeschooler?

Homeschoolers once had a kind of unofficial uniform. A denim jumper and a line of similarly dressed and perfectly behaved children were tell tale signs of a homeschool family. Recent protection efforts, however, have allowed the population to grow. It is therefore becoming more and more difficult to recognize a homeschooler on the street. They tend to move casually through their environment with a gait designed to not arouse suspicion or unnecessary attention. When they run into each other, they generally greet one another with a warm smile and possibly even a hug. Shouts to their “homegirls” across the aisles are unlikely.  Seeing a parent with minor children out and about during school hours remains the most reliable marker. Turning everyday things like nutrition labels at the grocery store into lessons can also be a strong indicator. Exercise caution before labeling. A mother discussing the label with her child may simply be a good parent. If she then launches into a history of where the 2,000 calorie diet originated, she is very likely a homeschooler.

Is homeschooling even legal?

Homeschoolers were once hunted nearly to extinction in many parts of the United States. They lived largely in the shadows, forming underground networks for support and as an alert system against those who would do them harm. They proved tenacious fighters, however. They successfully expanded their range and have since received protected status in all 50 states. They maintain strong local, regional and national networks to maintain these protections.

What is the homeschooler’s natural habitat?

It is a common misconception that homeschoolers reside predominantly at home. They have been known to participate in almost any activity that parents have been known to engage in, though they are somewhat less likely to attend PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences tend to be somewhat one-sided. They frequently congregate at libraries and office supply stores. When planning excursions into the wild, some homeschoolers deliberately choose to be most active during school hours when lines are shorter and exhibits less crowded. Others prefer to camouflage their activity by venturing out when most other humans are active.

What about socialization?

Many casual observers are highly concerned with the socialization of homeschooled children. Before approaching a suspected homeschooler with this question, however, it is important to be sure you understand what you mean. If you mean “social skills,” it is important to note that social conventions frown upon confronting strangers with their differences. Staring, drawing attention to them and interrogating them are generally considered rude and will lead the homeschooler to muse later on her blog about your social skills. Whether or not the homeschooled family you are observing has adequate social skills to be productive members of society can generally be noted without confrontation. Any behavior you see, however, is most assuredly also present in the public schooled population. I have noticed an increased likelihood that children will look you in the eye while talking to you and that they will answer your questions without that apathetic “Why are you still here?” look about them. This, however, is purely anecdotal.

If you mean socialization as it is most often understood by sociologists, i.e., the process whereby the social order is involuntarily (and at times coercively) imposed on us, you might be stumbling into one of the primary reasons the homeschooler you have discovered has chosen this path. This might also make more sense of the varied, sometimes sarcastic and often annoyed responses homeschoolers give to this ubiquitous question.

What about prom?

Homeschoolers have a number of social venues open to them. This may seem counter-intuitive to the outsider, but many homeschooled children actually meet each other through homeschooling. How does this happen when they don’t all go to school in the same building? Homeschoolers tend to be more intentional about their socializing and networking. They organize park days, co-ops, field trips and even dances. Many communities now have homeschool formals that act very much like a prom, though with less of the “twerking” plaguing public schools. Being homeschoolers, these, too, are subject to becoming learning opportunities. At the event I observed, the homeschooled youth were taught dance moves prior to being expected to actually dance. This resulted in near universal participation.

How should I approach a homeschooler if I see one?

Homeschoolers are passionate, but not generally dangerous. If you meet one in person, simply passing by while looking at your phone is acceptable. If you happen to make eye contact, don’t panic. A smile and a nod before returning on your way will likely be accepted in kind. If you say “hi,” they very likely will return the greeting. Curiosity is generally warmly received. The children are frequently asked math facts and state capitals by observers. Try mixing it up a bit by asking them what their favorite subject is. They’ve likely been asked if they like their teacher before, but when asked in a gently teasing tone and with a warm smile, it is also as well-received as most other small talk. Think of the length and depth of other conversations you have had with complete strangers in an elevator or in the check-out line. Use this as a model for the length and intensity of your questions. Most homeschoolers are happy to discuss their educational choices, even with strangers. That’s why so many of them blog. Still, try to keep it to one question and always maintain a polite, curious air rather than an obnoxious, judmental one.

Keep these observations in mind and your interactions with the homeschoolers you meet will likely remain pleasant. If you have further questions, feel free to drop me a note in the comments below and I will be happy to assist you.

25 comments
  1. Mom

    One of your best Dana! Thoroughly enjoyed the field guide – it ranks right up there with Audobons field guides- but more entertaining!

  2. Kristina Paché Ferency

    I have a few friends that homeschool their kids. I think it is awesome to be able to do that. As long as the kids are learning, having fun doing it go for it! Homeschooling can be more beneficial to some children than being in the public school system.

  3. Nisa

    One of the most anoying things people say to me when they find out I’m a homeschooler is what’s 2+2! I get so annoyed with this but I normally don’t say anything back! I just say 4! another one is do you know anybody?

  4. Neely Moldovan

    We have talked about homeschooling and while I dont think its for us I really enjoy reading about it. Great info!

    1. Vanessa Monteith

      Oh my word Dana!! ( * . * ) This is hilarious! I love the tongue in cheek angle. Great job writing this and I can only imagine the fun you had writing it. My daughter home schools my grandkids and she shared your article with me. I am proud to say 2 of my daughters home school my grandkids. Such a magical difference in all aspects! Loved your article!!

  5. Annemarie LeBlanc

    I’ve known of some friends who chose to take this route. I respect their decision and hey, whatever works for their family is fine with me. I am not one to judge. If the kids grow up to be equally competent as those in the public school system, then it is good! As an old Spanish saying goes, “Not everything that works for Pedro will work for Juan.”
    Thank you for this post. I hope it will make others learn about homeschooling.

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