reasons to homeschool

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 homeschoolers is 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.

reasons to homeschool

Homeschooling in the popular culture

Sunday night, the children and I sat down to watch a movie on Hulu since we have no television (and no real interest in football, anyway.)  On the lineup?  Princess, because I’ve had about all the Flipper and Fudge I can take.  The plot doesn’t really matter.  Suffice it to say, she doesn’t get out much, having spent almost her entire life in this castle.  And it doesn’t take long for the writers to invoke our culture’s one great symbol of isolation:

Rumor has it, she was homeschooled.

Being a princess, you sort of automatically think of governesses and tutors, for what sort of princess is properly homeschooled?  But nothing says locked-away-in-a-tower quite like homeschooled, so homeschooled she was.  And seriously, how else would lines like “I don’t socialize much,” and “Can you tell I’m not used to this?” (referring to, uh, having a conversation) make any sense?

Now we homeschool.  Locked away in the west tower, looking out over the kingdom and unable to have any part in it.  I asked my children what they thought about the comment, but the negative undertone passed by them unnoticed.

Of course she was homeschooled, mom.  She doesn’t have time for school with all those mythological monsters to take care of.

So I don’t have to worry about what subliminal messages they are being fed, just yet.  It all makes sense within the context of their own experience and beliefs about what homeschooling is and is not.

But the stereotypes are heavy on my mind as I look around at nearby churches.  It is a long drive in to Lincoln for worship, long enough to negate any real participation in the church community there.  When our commitments are through, I hope to move to a local church where we can be part of an active community.

I’d never really thought about it before.  I know people who have had difficulty in their home churches due to homeschooling, but Lincoln is big enough that it just isn’t that hard to move to another church.  The pickings are slim, out here, and somehow, we’re going to just have to make things work if we want to worship in our own community.

I like the idea of that, but I guess we shall see how it plays out once we begin actually visiting churches.

reasons to homeschool

A little homeschool-style socialization

Seated around our table with five of her friends, Mouse celebrated her eleventh birthday.

  • One is two years younger than she. One is three years older. The other three are her age.
  • All five are Christian. Only three attend our church.
  • Three are homeschooled. Two attend public school.
  • One lives down the street. Four live thirty minutes or more away.
  • One is Hispanic. One has enough Native American in her that you can tell. The other three are white.

And this in an area that is 91.4% white.

And I wonder, for all the concern about how homeschooled children will learn to appreciate diversity when raised in the bubble we have supposedly manufactured for them, how many children truly select friends who are so diverse?

We note how many opportunities homeschooled children have to play with others. We note that children do not learn to value others by sitting quietly next to them. We note that the playground is little more than a miniature stage for all our social ills.

We don’t like to talk so much about the challenges of giving our children the opportunity to develop friendships. Real, close, lasting friendships as opposed to numerous polite interactions with other children in an ever-rotating cycle of activities. Maybe that is because it isn’t a problem for many, but a number of homeschoolers I have talked to have sympathized readily with the need to be intentional in this area.

As I passed out scones, I thought that maybe that isn’t all bad. In school, you are surrounded by children. You have the option of forming bonds with others like you and building distinct barriers to keep those who are different away. With scarcity, however, comes a willingness to set aside superficial barriers such as race, income, location, etc., in favor of fulfilling the social needs every human being has.

When your class is 90% white, you notice the one Hispanic girl. Outside of that context, however, when you just want someone to play with, you are much more likely to notice that she is nice.

reasons to homeschool

On socialization and learning where we fit in the world

Hey, did you know we’re Mexican?

says the little girl at craft table at the library.  She couldn’t have been older than six.  Her little friend across from her dropped her scissors, mouth agape.

Don’t you call me that!

She was clearly insulted and the table fell silent, all eyes on the offender.  She averted her eyes, but there was no place to go.  She and her two friends had been told to stay there and color and stay she did.  Just before hurling this horrendous insult, she had been happily counting and singing . . . in Spanish.  Clearly, neither she nor anyone at the table had any particular issue with the country of their obvious heritage until it was named.

Mexican.

After a long moment of silence, the third girl leaned in and whispered, “It’s called Hispanic.  We’re Hispanic.”  With that, the tension eased and they went back to their playful chatter about school and television and friends.  They forgot about that dirty word.

Mexican.

She may as well have said, “Hey, did you know we were spics?”  Or niggers.  Or chinks.  Or any number of racial slurs.  I can’t help but wonder how a child growing up Hispanic in an Hispanic home with Hispanic friends, watching Dora the Explorer, who happily sings songs in Spanish in the library learns that Mexican is a dirty word.

This is socialization.  Learning what is “other,” labeling it and trying to make it conform.  This is the “leavening effect of democracy” which compulsory schooling offers.  It does not teach us to value difference, but to conform.  It does not teach us to handle conflict, but to submit to the capricious and cruel tendencies of small children with inadequate supervision.

Humans are fundamentally social creatures, and I would be the last to argue against teaching our children how to function within our social groups.  Socialization is a natural part of being human.  But how do we best teach this to our children?  Seated in neat rows while the teacher talks?  Or perhaps better seated in circles?  On the playground while an adult with a whistles chats with an aid and watches for any grievous rule breaks?  Or within the context of the family where true, selfless love can be experienced alongside daily modeling and guidance specific to each child’s needs?

reasons to homeschool

Line of risque T-shirts has family groups outraged

Somehow, there is a new level of risque attained when you slap sexual messages on a four month old. I’m still trying NOT to picture my sweet little cherubs kicking about in a T-shirt with “I’m living proof my mum is easy” slapped on the front. Even if he does have four siblings, it does not seem to be the place for opening that kind of cultural dialogue. After all, what is a T-shirt slogan, if not a sort of pre-Twitter medium for expressing your message quickly, succinctly and to a broad audience?

Katherine Hamnett, whose T-shirts The Guardian credits with becoming the cultural signposts of our times, says of the medium:

“I wanted to put a really large message on T-shirts that could be read from 20 or 30ft away,” she says now. “Slogans work on so many different levels; they’re almost subliminal. They’re also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They’re tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself.” The Guardian

Aligning yourself to a cause. Connecting yourself to other people. Branding yourself. You have five seconds and the passing eye of a distracted stranger.

What do you want to tell the world about your cause and yourself?

Maybe “The Condom Broke”?  Or “I’m a t*** man.”  (Without the asterisks, of course.)  Or how about “I’m bringing sexy back”?  On an infant!

Julee Gale, director of Kids Free 2b Kids, bought some items at Cotton On Kids (I presume for education purposes) and is outraged by the messages carried by these shirts that may be conveyed to young people.

“I reckon there should be a penalty and there needs to be an awareness campaign with retailers about what’s appropriate and what’s actually harmful,” she said.

“They don’t get that it’s . . . harmful. It’s all part of a continuum of sexualisation of kids. It’s about the mental health of our children.” Herald Sun

But is it really the retailers that need education? What if, in response to this collection, Australia decides to regulate the messages that can be printed on t-shirts marketed to or for youth? Would anything really change? The items on the rack at your local department store are, after all, an effect of the culture we live in, not the cause of it. Certainly there is a bit of a circular relationship between marketers and the market, especially when the marketers are successful in attaching their products to other things already sought after (think High School Musical merchandising!).

But a T-shirt slogan? For this collection to become a colossal flop would speak loudly and clearly to Cotton On and other clothing manufacturers and retailers about the inappropriateness of both the message and the medium. Rallying family groups? Not so long as the collection is turning a profit.

The collection bothers me. That product designers, marketing directors and retailers wanted to design, advertise and sell this collection bothers me.

But really it is the fact that there are parents who are willing to buy them that bothers me most. Your child is not your vehicle for sexual-expression.