Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reasons matter: homeschooling, unschooling, and priorities

Homeschoolers come to homeschooling for different reasons. I get that. But I do think some reasons for homeschooling are better than others.

It is better to homeschool because one cares about children's well-being than because one wants to exercise certain parental rights.

It is better to homeschool because one wants to help specific children learn well and happily than because one wants to give the government the middle finger, or make some other kind of political statement.

It is better to homeschool because one wants to make a child's world larger, with more opportunities, than because one wants to make it smaller, with fewer opportunities.

John Holt, the former teacher and founder of Growing Without Schooling magazine and the first to use the term "unschooling," was a great friend of children. I think it's safe to assume that Holt would be disturbed by the attempts of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) to become the voice for all American homeschoolers. The HSLDA argues for the right of parents to use corporal punishment on their children and takes political stances on subjects like gay marriage that have nothing to do with homeschooling and everything to do with religion. The HSLDA has undermined decades of work by state-level homeschooling groups to secure reasonable homeschooling statutes, and the organization uses hyperbolic and distorted reports to scare parents into becoming dues-paying members in exchange for legal defense they don't need.

Michelle Goldberg's "Homeschooled Kids, Now Grown, Blog Against the Past" reveals much that is wrong with Christian fundamentalist homeschooling, and with the HSLDA. The article makes it clear that many fundamentalist homeschooling parents are not only harming their children, but actually making the legal right to homeschool shakier for everyone. The general public is rightfully concerned about homeschooling that involves abuse, neglect, sexism, and anti-intellectualism--that is, with homeschooling used to make a child's world smaller instead of larger.

Another threat to homeschooling, and to unschooling in particular, comes from a different place on the political spectrum. Certain unschoolers who see unschooling as inseparable from a libertarian or anarchist world view are actively courting media attention these days, in the name of bringing unschooling to the mainstream. (As with the HSLDA, both economic and political motives seem to be at work here.) Unfortunately, some of these advocates seem to think that any attention is good attention. They imagine that the portrayals of unschooling on shows such as Wife Swap are wonderful even if the privacy of their own children is violated by camera crews and their children's reputations damaged by unscrupulous editing. No matter what the media-seeking unschooling advocates say their intentions are, if the public is left with the impression that unschooling means children being left to fend for themselves in the name of "liberty," the legal right to unschool will be jeopardized. The kinds of media representations that are good for unschooling (and there have been some of these, though never on Wife Swap) look deeply at how people learn, and are thoughtful and nuanced in their discussion of how parents partner with their children. They are designed to be informational and not entertaining (which is to say, they don't include guests uttering bleeped-out words and ranting at each other), and generally don't offer financial compensation to the participants.

While I am glad to know some wonderful homeschooling families, I don't see myself as part of "the homeschooling community" or "the unschooling community." I am wary of homeschooling where the priority is not helping children thrive, and of homeschooling and unschooling advocates with political and economic agendas that can too easily eclipse actual children's needs.

*UPDATE*: Those interested in how priorities can help or hinder unschooling and/or peaceful parenting should check out Sandra Dodd's page on Priorities. I don't know anyone who has written more clearly, or helpfully, about the subject.


  1. I am in complete agreement! There are definitely unhealthy "power and control" reasons out there that I find reprehensible!

  2. What you said is so true, and you couldn't have said it any better!! I also am not part of the homeschooling community, for the same reasons you mentioned above. I do not know any other unschoolers, but I've come across some online and I am amazed at how cult-like they appear, different spectrum than the fundies, but the same sort of non-tolerant attitude, which really makes me sad. I dare mention that I have weekly or monthly learning goals for my kids and I have just committed unschooling community suicide.

    So, instead, we involve our kids in other things like soccer, activitites at the library, and gym classes at a local public school. I'm glad for the opportunities my kids have to be involved in our community, but it does feel very isolating (for me, the parent, especially) to not have local home schoolers to socialize with. I've never come out as an atheist to any of them, but as soon as I make the off comment that we don't go to church, they make it clear they want nothing to do with me or my kids anymore.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Emmy. I am sorry you have had a difficult time connecting with other local homeschoolers. I don't know where you are located, or how long you have been homeschooling, but I hope you will keep your eyes and ears open. We are fortunate to know two homeschooling families who are glad to do things with us during the day, and one of these appeared fairly recently. While traveling last summer, we hooked up with a homeschooling group in another state that welcomed homeschoolers of different faiths and no faith, and was made up of eclectic homeschoolers, unschoolers, and Waldorf homeschoolers. It was a lovely group, and our kids had a blast.

      In light of your comments, I do want to clarify my position a bit. I don't so much feel excluded from the homeschooling community as I question the idea that a unified community, transcending place, exists. I am happy to support efforts that benefit the kind of homeschooling I feel good about, but I'm not going to pretend that I think all homeschooling is equally great for children. If parents are going to prevent their children from learning about evolutionary science or various religions or allow their children to eat only raw foods or encourage their children to live in constant fear of hellfire or the government, then their children might be better off in school. If one's priority is to recruit soldiers for Christ, or to usher in some kind of social revolution, then one's priority is not one's actual children, whose needs may conflict with the army's or the revolution's.

      On the issue of tolerance and "cults": I belong to some online unschooling groups that I find very helpful. If you were to mention "weekly or monthly learning goals" in these groups, you might not like the response, especially if you were talking about goals that you were imposing on your children and not ones that you decided on together. For instance, last week, my goal was to check out some places for my son to do karate, an interest he and I have been talking about for several months now. That's the kind of thing I might share with one of my online groups. But if I shared that my goal was to make sure he memorized his multiplication tables by next month, I would expect that idea to be challenged. I wouldn't see the group as being intolerant or cult-like, but rather dedicated to a particular philosophy about learning. So I think choosing the right group is pretty important.

  3. I wish we could school our 5 year old son but I really wouldn't know where to start. I'm not religious and have often been targeted for that. I believe in science, what we can prove and always willing to relearn as new findings are made available. I've never personally meet you but I have meet your husband when he was on the campaign trail here in the county. My problem with schooling outside traditional means is my son really enjoys playing with other children and I feel it is an important part of learning. I recall a fictional show (Blast From The Past) where a child is raised in a bomb shelter his father built during the cold war and was isolated from the local culture. It would be the equivalent of moving to another country and having culture shock. What are your thoughts on this aspect of private schooling and how do you prepare your children for the world we live in? Don't get me wrong I agree change is the course of the day.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I am going to try to address the various concerns you raised.

      1) "I really wouldn't know where to start."

      A book I recommend to those who are just beginning to think about homeschooling is David Guterson's Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense. (Guterson is the author of the novel Snow Falling on Cedars and was, for several years, a public school teacher whose own children were homeschooled.) Another book you might be interested in is David and Micki Colfax's Homeschooling for Excellence. If the unschooling philosophy appeals to you, Sandra Dodd's The Big Book of Unschooling is an amazing resource. I am also happy to share my family's homeschooling experiences with any local families who wish to contact me directly: suzannelamb [at] bellsouth [dot] net.

      2)"My problem with schooling outside traditional means is my son really enjoys playing with other children and I feel it is an important part of learning."

      I agree that playing with other children is important, and my children enjoy this, too! While it's true that you may have to make a bit more effort, homeschooling families are typically able to find playmates for their children. We spend quite a bit of time with another homeschooling family, and my kids have some schooled friends, too. Even if your son is homeschooled, he can participate in clubs, groups, teams, etc. that will bring him into contact with other children. And if he's lonely for other children during school hours, you could consider driving to Owensboro now and then and visiting the Science and History Museum or Smothers Park on the riverfront, which are often full of homeschooled kids.

      3) "It would be the equivalent of moving to another country and having culture shock."

      It seems to me that the day-to-day life my children lead is more "real-world" than school. Let's face it: adults don't typically spend their days with twenty or so people of exactly the same age. My kids are not only at home during school hours, but out in the community interacting with people of all different ages. They experience the local culture by going out to eat, seeing movies, attending parades, visiting libraries, walking/biking on Rails to Trails, etc.

      Because of our particular approach to homeschooling (unschooling), our children are also used to having a great deal of control over their own learning. They have experience planning and managing their own time, finding and selecting resources, and delving deeply into subjects that interest them. They are also very good at navigating technology. While our children aren't being raised as Christians, they are exposed to a variety of religious ideas from around the world. The know the story of Noah's Ark, for instance, and some things about Buddha and Buddhist meditation.

      Perhaps there are other aspects of "local culture" that you are concerned about homeschoolers missing out on. If you could identify these specific areas, I will do my best to respond.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to put things into perspective. I think you addressed all of my concerns and I look forward in reading the books you mentioned.