Last week we finally met our neighbor who lives across the street. Her property dips down to a wooded area with a pond covered in emerald-green algae where we can sometimes spot deer. My girls had been begging me to explore that area, so we knocked on her door and asked permission. As we introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries, she pointed to Ellie (my oldest) and asked if she would be going to school this year. “We’ve actually already started school,” I respond, braving myself for the next statement, “we homeschool.”
I almost catch these words in my throat every time I utter them to a new acquaintance—because at that moment, it’s all over—I’ve slapped a label on myself, my children, my family. I want to follow the statement with either an outline of my reasons or my “fully-qualified” resume. In short, I want to prove myself.
“Now, why would you do a thing like that?!” she responds with incredulity, her posture changing, creating more distance between us.
“Because I love it!” This is literally the only thing I could think of that moment. Then the resume starts spilling out of my mouth.
She shifts her weight as she listens, and when I’m finished, she asks bluntly, “So what do you think about public school?”
“I’m a product of public school, so it can’t be too bad.” We both laugh. “I think public school is the best decision for many families, and I think most public school teachers are heroes.” I speak earnestly now. “I just realized that I’d rather teach my own kids than other people’s kids. I’m going to teach either way; it’s my calling.”
I’ve been thinking about this encounter all week. See, unlike the touchy decisions of early motherhood—natural birth vs. medicated, breast vs. formula, baby wearing vs. stroller, co-sleeping vs. crying it out—all of which label us to some extent, our children’s education is much more than a parenting decision; it’s a lifestyle choice. And let’s face it, homeschooling is an alternative lifestyle.
What’s more, for thousands of brave mamas and fathers across this country who make this choice, although we represent a new generation of home educators, we inherit the old label (some may even call it a stigma). I am truly grateful for the previous generation who paved this road, working diligently to maintain our freedom to homeschool; I also fully recognize that the resources afforded to home educators before the digital age pales in comparison to our 21st century options. Still, let’s be frank. The rise of the modern homeschool movement coincided with a fear-based “cultural war” message spreading through conservative circles of the 1980s.
Homeschooling became labeled as a separatist movement, and in many ways, that was an accurate label. But isn’t the choice to attend parochial or private religious schools quite similar in this regard? Even the elite, secular preparatory schools—I was privileged to teach at one for seven years—is essentially established on a philosophy of separation for rigor-sake.
Which makes me think of when, a couple years before I left my teaching job, our administration brought in an expert who researched elite school recruitment and the retention of top students. This was well before the prospect of homeschooling was on my radar, or even in my stratosphere. As far as I was concerned, my girls were going to be wearing green plaid skirts at the all-girl institution where I worked; but in looking back, I now think the seed was planted during that researcher’s presentation. I remember an entire slide devoted to homeschoolers. The researcher warned us not to ignore the “competition” offered through homeschooling, as the fastest growing population of homeschool families are among the same demographic who would traditionally send their kids to private school. At the time, I found that information surprising and fascinating; now, I totally get it.
The face of homeschooling has changed. While certainly there are still thousands of talented, inspiring homemakers who are schooling at home for more traditional reasons, the profile of a home educator also includes artists and entrepreneurs—creatives that feed off a slower rhythm, time in nature, and freedom to explore. There’s also a surprising amount of doctors, lawyers, professors, and former educators choosing to homeschool, as explained in this excellent article. My professor-husband and I clearly fit this category, although as a writer and nature-lover, I could fit in the former as well. So what draws such varied types to an alternative (even counter-cultural) education choice? For many it is the ability to custom-tailor an education to a child’s learning style and strengths. For others, a desire to be master of their own time. And for even more, a passion for maintaining the wonder and simplicity of childhood. A common unifying thread amongst most of these home educators is a high regard for freedom and creativity. Maybe that’s why universities such as MIT are actively recruiting recent homeschool grads.
My decision to homeschool did not stem from fear or ambition—and although I’m happy to keep my children innocent and protected a bit longer, and I’m thrilled to teach uniquely from my worldview, my choice to homeschool didn’t emerge from a desire to shelter my children from “the big bad world.” By contrast, I want them to be savvy and wise, able to think critically and analyze all of the mixed messages that will be thrown their way. I want them to emerge skilled and competent, able to navigate college and enter the professional world ready. I believe that all of this could happen if they were in traditional schools.
But then our lives would speed up and fill up, not allowing for the amount of adventure and connectedness and freedom we crave as a family. So, there’s the answer, really.
It is such a personal choice. For so many of us in this new generation of home education, our decision to homeschool is not a statement against other educational choices as much as it’s a leap of faith into a new, adventurous life. That’s why many of us approach it as an experiment, or on a year-by-year basis. Homeschooling isn’t for everyone—I wholeheartedly believe that—and it isn’t for all seasons. But when it’s right, when it fits, it can absolutely be the best choice.
So that’s what I told my neighbor last week. It’s our best choice. Who can argue that?