For four years my husband and I have been homeschooling our two older children, who are now in fifth and seventh grades. Prior to that, our kids had attended both private and public schools. I am not one of those people who insists that only one type of education is the “right” one. Homeschooling is not for everyone. Traditional school is not for everyone. Each family must choose what works best for them, and ideally we should all support and learn from each other.
Having said all that, I would like to share the following list of 10 things I do NOT miss about traditional school. My list is not intended to criticize other ‘s educational choices or to pressure anyone into homeschooling. Consider it food for thought, for any hungry minds out there who might want to take a nibble of something new.
1. The tight, unchangeable schedule. When my kids were in school, we planned our days around the school bell, our evenings around homework, and our vacations around the academic calendar. One of the joys of homeschooling is the flexibility and self-determination it allows. If, now and then, we want to start our day at 10:30 a.m. and remain in our pajamas until noon, discussing over strawberry pancakes who our favorite character in the Harry Potter series is, we can. Conversely, if we want to wake up at 6:00 a.m. and work super-efficiently through the morning, we can be totally finished with school work by lunchtime. If we get a whim to take a road trip to the Grand Canyon in the middle of February when virtually no other families are on vacation, we can. Better yet, we can call any such trip “school” because, after all, travel is so educational.
2. The after 3:00 p.m. rush. Back when our kids were in private school, my hardest time of the day started at 2:30– when I had to leave the house to pick them up — and lasted until about 9:00 p.m. Those hectic after-school hours were often full of nonstop stress and whining (full disclosure: the whining often came from me). We lived half an hour away from their school, so the commute ate away a chunk of our precious free time. The kids’ immense homework load (see #3) meant that two to three hours each night had to be spent at the kitchen table, explaining concepts, going over worksheets, and toiling over reports and projects. Both kids played sports–which we considered extremely important to their overall health and well being–but it was very hard to balance athletics with their homework load. Eating dinner, showering, and fitting in their school’s mandatory “pleasure” reading time consumed the rest of the evening. When my first and third graders were getting to bed past 9:00 p.m. and started to complain that they “had no childhood,” I knew it was time to consider an alternative.
3. Homework. I know most people think that homework is an unavoidable and even beneficial part of life. Most of us take homework for granted because we attended traditional schools, and homework, in traditional schools, is as inevitable as death and taxes. But is homework really necessary, most of the time? Most kids spend about eight hours a day in the classroom, with little chance to play, enjoy fresh air and exercise, use their imaginations, or relax. Then they come home for . . . more desk time? When they were in public and private school, much of my kids’ homework consisted of: a) concepts that the teacher was not able to fully explain that day (so my husband or I had to re-teach them); b) concepts that the child already knew and resented repeating, i.e. “busy work,”; c) extremely time-consuming projects that required a maximum amount of parental help (see #4). I am not exaggerating when I say I now spend the same amount of time homeschooling (i.e. teaching the concepts from scratch) as I did back then, just “helping them” with homework.
Do homeschoolers have homework? Yes, technically all our work is homework! But it can be done throughout the day, is based on our child’s needs and abilities, and can be completed on a time schedule that works for us.
4. Projects. Every parent who has “helped” their child make a replica of a California mission and/or a paper mache volcano and/or a potato battery and/or a diorama of a coral reef knows how time-consuming, expensive, and often meaningless school projects can be. The Science Fair is notorious for causing extreme stress, student AND parent burnout, and overall resentment.
Don’t homeschoolers do projects? Yes, we do. Sometimes we even make potato batteries! The difference is that we get to choose which projects we want to do, which supplies we can afford, how elaborate or not they should be, and whether or not the outcome is satisfactory to us. You will not find most homeschooling parents completing their child’s model of the respiratory system at midnight because the science fair is the next day and they know that the level of competition is so extreme — and expectation so high– that their child cannot possibly fulfill the requirements alone. For most homeschooling families, the end result is not about how good it will make the teacher/classroom/school look, it’s about whether the child actually learned anything.
For those families who love projects, congratulations! As a homeschooling family, you can do projects every single day, if you choose. Your children can make them as elaborate or as simple as they wish. If they are really fascinated by a particular topic, they can do numerous projects that allow them to pursue and explore that passion to their heart’s content. If your children thrive on competition, you can enter their projects in a homeschoolers’ competition or other public exhibition.
Conversely, if projects are not your family’s cup of tea, you can opt out. You can explore subjects in whatever way inspires your child, because individualized instruction and customized, impassioned education is what homeschooling is all about.
5. Going at a pace inappropriate to my child. Every child is unique, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Even though schools try to place students in appropriate academic levels, there is no way they can meet every pupil’s educational needs. The child who excels in math and is placed in the advanced track might struggle with reading, or vice-versa. The result is frequently frustration: one student struggles to keep up with the academic demands, while another child in the same class is bored because the material is too easy. Homeschooling allows each child to go at his or her own pace and to learn in the way he or she thrives.
One lesson I have learned from homeschooling: when children are ready to do something, they will do it, almost effortlessly. Case in point: at my daughter’s private school, first graders were expected to learn cursive halfway through the school year. My daughter, at the time, was still struggling to perfect her printing. The teacher, however, expected the whole class to progress onto cursive. One day, when my daughter’s efforts at cursive were not up to the required high standards, the teacher crumpled up her paper and threw it in the trash, in front of the whole class. My sweet, innocent, six-year-old daughter was mortified. Her handwriting –both cursive and print–got noticeably worse after that experience. She did not even want to try, for fear of failing.
When we started homeschooling the next year, my daughter balked at any writing assignment. But I decided, in regards to her handwriting, to focus only on what she did well and not make a single negative comment. If she wrote a whole paragraph and made only three neat letters, I pointed those out: “What a beautiful D!” “Look at that perfect S!” I kept this up for the whole of second grade and introduced cursive (gently and slowly) in third. By the end of third grade, my daughter’s handwriting–both printed and cursive–were excellent.
The moral of the story? When she was ready– when her motor skills and focus and maturity and self-esteem were all aligned– she learned the skill, without tears or stress. Going at your child’s pace is something unique to homeschooling and it makes education a much more joyful process.
6. Mandatory volunteerism. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but in many schools these days, parents are, indeed, required to complete a certain amount of “volunteer” hours at their child’s school. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely believe in the importance of getting involved in our children’s education. I know many teachers are overworked and can benefit greatly from parent volunteers who help decorate the classroom, grade papers, read stories, chaperone field trips, or supervise activities. I was one of those parents who ended up fulfilling three times the mandatory volunteer hours at my kids’ private school, but that was only because at that time, I did not have two toddlers at home. For parents who work full-time, or for those who have babies to care for, completing those mandatory service hours can be extremely difficult. Especially annoying to me were the fundraisers that required us to sell pizzas, cookie dough, coupon books, and the like. Although I have worked in fundraising for educational institutions and realize how desperately many schools need extra funding, I still resented, as a parent, having to pester family and friends to buy the school’s latest fundraising gimmicks.
7. Peer Pressure. One of the most tedious and oft-repeated question a homeschooling parent hears is “But how do your children socialize?” The misconception that homeschooling children are isolated, friendless, and socially inept will probably disappear only when people actually take the time to get to know them. Homeschoolers actually spend much of their time outside the home: volunteering, exploring, taking field trips, participating in classes and activities with other students, playing sports, and often interacting with people of all ages and walks of life. True, they are usually NOT spending eight hours a day in a classroom with children of their same age. . . and frankly, that is a definite advantage, as far as many homeschooling parents are concerned.
Peer pressure and conformity are much less evident among homeschoolers, who tend to be a diverse, broad-minded, and accepting bunch. While I will not pretend that homeschoolers are perfect angels, never succumbing to peer pressure or falling for the typical fad and foibles of youth, I have seen much less evidence of these unappetizing behaviors in homeschooling circles. Also, while in traditional school, parents cannot do much to separate their child from unwanted influences, homeschoolers have much more freedom to choose environments and people who are beneficial to their child.
Yes, learning how to deal with peer pressure, bullies, and other difficulties IS an important part of life. Fortunately (or not), normal life experiences provide homeschoolers with plenty of opportunities to deal with challenges, and homeschooling parents are much more aware of these when they do happen.
8. Wardrobe drama. For traditional-school students who are not required to wear a uniform, clothes shopping can take a huge bite out of the family’s budget . . .and parents’ patience. Particularly for older kids who want to follow fads, wear the latest fashion, and buy upscale brands, school clothes can add up to a lot of expense and headache.
School uniforms can definitely cut down on the clothing drama. But even uniforms have a disadvantage in that they are often expensive, and the dress code rules are persnickety. Many children who are required to wear uniforms will try to express their individuality by subverting the uniform code somehow or another, leading to disciplinary consequences.
Since we started homeschooling, clothes shopping has become incredibly simple. Our kids do not need to dress to impress anyone and can choose what they find appealing and comfortable.
9. Conflicting Values. Even at public and secular schools, teachers bring their particular world view into the classroom. Sometimes their commentaries on history, lifestyle, religion, current events, or politics will completely contradict your family’s values. All of us — whether we are particularly religious or not — have strong views on some issues. Sometimes, if a teacher makes an insensitive or hurtful comment, our children will come to us right away, and we can nip the problem in the bud. Other times, a whole school year passes before parents realize that their child has been hearing a constant stream of messages that belittle them or oppose some fundamental family values.
Homeschooling allows parents to instill their family’s core values when children are young and impressionable. Every subject can be infused with–and enhanced by– the family’s belief system. Families who defy the mainstream in any way can thrive in a homeschooling environment, where there is no shame in going against the flow and being unique.
10. Fear of in-school violence. Anyone whose child has experienced bullying and physically harmful behavior at school knows that our educational institutions are not always the safe havens they should be. While administrators do their best to stamp out bullying, fighting, and gang activity, they are not always able to prevent tragedies, and even one victim of school violence is one too many.
Also, although statistically rare, school shootings are a terrifying reality in the world today. Whenever our nation hears another horrific news report about armed intruders in schools, we parents collectively wonder, “If it could happen at that school, could it happen at my child’s school?”
I am not trying to advocate a fearful mentality. I believe that the vast majority of schools are basically safe places. I am just saying that I appreciate the comfort of knowing my children are safe at home under my supervision. I do NOT miss the nagging worry at the back of my mind when I turn on the news and hear about another school tragedy: “Are my kids safe today?”
Of course, homeschooling is not perfect, either. In my next article, I plan to paint a more complete picture of homeschooling by writing about some of the challenges homeschoolers commonly face.