Homeschooling for the Whole Family

photo credit: 
Bourneagain on flickr
Keeping It Home, Part Two

It's happening more and more around my house these days. The kindly lady at the furniture store asks my daughter how old she is. "I'll be four in two days," she answers. "Oh, well, then you'll be going to kindergarten soon. Won't that be fun?" Random adults engage in advertising for the public school system. Everyone assumes that she can't wait to get out there in the "real world." Usually, my daughter doesn't answer. Sometimes she'll shake her head. It doesn't sound fun to her, and quite frankly, it doesn't sound fun to me.

So what will Sarafina be doing when she's five? She'll probably be doing many of the same things she's doing now: learning about what interests her with our assistance; exploring the world around her at her pace and from her unique perspective; and not thinking of knowledge as discrete bits of disconnected information. By choosing to homeschool, we think that she'll keep the joyous spirit she brings to learning for the rest of her life.

The perfect class size
But why should simply not sending her to school have all these positive results? Well, we've got a great learner to resource person ratio. Small class sizes are often seen as a good thing in schools and we've got that. Also, since I don't have to attend to the different learning needs of up to thirty other children, I can respond quickly to her cues. I don't believe in curriculae, as all of human knowledge seems interrelated to me.

If Sarafina wants to study dragonflies, to take a recent example, she will also learn about pond ecology, predator/prey relationships, and biological life cycles. Ballet leads to music which is inseparable from mathematics, and so on. If I were to say, "That's enough thinking about why Pooh Bear lives under the name of Sanders, we have to count objects now," it would seem like a crazy way to talk to a child. Yet life is artificially broken up into "subjects" during a school day.

You probably know from your own experience that what you want to learn comes easily. I don't remember much of any history class I took in school, but I can discuss King George III of England in detail. Pure interest fueled that study. Without grades, without tests, your children can learn amazing amounts of information.

Alfie Kohn inventories the perils of the carrot and stick method of teaching in Punished by Rewards. Any parent whose school district uses pizza coupons or gold stars might want to give it a look. Most children begin school eager to find out about the world. In a few short years, those same children sigh with boredom while sitting in rows at their desks. Something about schooling makes the change.

I firmly believe, as though it's an article of faith, that my child will find her way through all of human wisdom and discover that which resonates for her. She's already got many of the basics, with reading and simple computation on their way. No one can learn all there is to know, and I defy anyone to make a watertight case that some corners of information are inherently more important than others.

Free rein in the world's riches is among the greatest gifts you can give a child. Young people will discover meaning and richness without being told what to learn or how to learn it. It's simply faith that they will which helps create that protected space so they don't have to lose their love of learning. Perhaps insisting that students become well-rounded, with a helping of each branch of learning, that leads to such alienation. Instead, how about encouraging passionate pursuit of interests? There is no human endeavor which exists in a vacuum. A learner can not only learn about one thing. No matter what the idea, it is linked to all others.

The "S" word

The most typical response to our family's plans is "But what about socialization?" When I'm in a good mood, I calmly tell people that there is only one other system in our country where people are rigidly grouped by age and set under a single authority figure. That's the military. It's not a model I want to follow for my children. If I'm in a crabby mood, they'll get some version of "Tell me what you think she'll miss out on: peer pressure or violence? I'll make sure she gets some of each, thanks."

But seriously, to consider a person socialized in our world means one of two things. Either we mean that they know how to play the games modern life requires. They can stand in line at the bank, they can take turns at the gas pump. Or else it means that they can get along in social situations. Generally, if someone talks easily to all ages and stations of people and can conduct themselves in different social situations, we consider them well socialized.

I fail to see how classrooms promote good social interaction. Most talk is between teacher and student, not between peers. In addition, the peer interaction taking place is often highly negative. Competition, sorting out a pecking order, bullying -- who among us doesn't remember this from school? It doesn't take thirteen years of sitting in rows to realize that when you check out at a store, you wait your turn. It doesn't take repeated insistence that there is only one right answer and talking out of turn is punishable to make someone a contributing member of society.

Rather, a loving family is a model socialization laboratory. Parents teach respectful listening by practicing it. With adult help, children learn about conflict resolution. Younger siblings or friends help bring life to the idea that making way for the weaker is a part of being human. No one has to hear taunts about their looks or family status. And, if mean words are hurled, a loving adult helps the combatants make sense of the feelings that prompted them and that result from them. You don't get this kind of socialization anywhere else.

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger--OK, but in grade school?
We have a friend who admitted that school was hellish for him. But he claimed that it was going through all that pain that made him the strong individual he is today. Perhaps this is true.

Why draw the line at school, though? Why not seek out difficult and possibly harmful situations and put our kids in them? Surely they'd be even stronger for it. Except that people don't work that way. Secure, happy children have the inner strength which comes from being loved.

I grow vegetable seedlings indoors. They don't go from sitting under lights into cold weather in the garden all at once. They gain strength from gradual acclimatization. In the same way, children gather strength from loving families. When they are ready, the nastiness of the world won't be so devastating for them.

The other funny thing about socialization is that we don't stay home. Possibly because many people homeschool for religious reasons, it's assumed that we huddle around our table, hidden away from sinful influences. Rather, my child at four interacts more in her community than many adults. Because our schedule is our own, we can volunteer at the local food co-op. Within the limitations of her age, she does actual work. Picking out bruised produce may not change the world, but she's getting a taste of what grown-ups do. We also give some time at the local library. When she's old enough to do these things on her own, the habit will already be there. I honestly think it doesn't occur to her that she's supposed to only play with children her age. She's interested in people, from infants to my ninety-two year old grandmother.

To unschool, or follow child-directed interests is not to set a young, inexperienced person adrift with no guidance. But if you want to strengthen family ties, if you choose to make a home by not working outside of the home, consider offering your child the chance to learn at home. With you to answer questions, point to resource for things you don't know, and listen with attention and love to your child's discoveries, you're doing what no school in the world can.

Contributing Editor Stefani Leto writes and parents in the Bay Area. Mother of an almost-five year old and an infant (long ago when this was written), she says nothing challenges her mind like parenting. Her work also appears at and