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Homeschooling as “normal”

When our oldest daughter turned 6 and we finally had to make a decision about school, we decided we’d try our hand at homeschooling. She was already ahead of the game in many academic areas, our local elementary school is, sadly, near the bottom of the heap for Iowa elementary schools, and, frankly, I didn’t see a lot of value that could come from sending her off to school for seven hours a day every day, so it was a fairly easy decision. (I should say it seemed easy for me – my wife may have wrestled with it more, though to my perspective it was more trepidation on her part than resistance.)

I have a bit of a history with homeschooling; I attended a public kindergarten (well, two of them, actually, since we moved mid-year), but after that I was homeschooled from first grade through twelfth. Homeschooling was not exactly legal in Nebraska when we started back in the early 80’s; there was much legislative wrangling and several parents were in jail. Even after the laws were changed, there was a strong defensive mindset that was pervasive in the homeschool community, and probably rightfully so. My memory of it now, 25 years later, is that we were afraid. Afraid of the school truant officer who might show up at our door. Afraid that having a kid running around in the backyard during the school day would prompt an anonymous tip from a neighbor to social services. Afraid that something, somewhere, would go wrong, and that we’d be in legal limbo, with parents in trouble and kids in protective custody.

That feeling of fear was encouraged to an extent by those well-meaning organizations who were out there to help protect us. Organizations like the Home School Legal Defense Association did good, useful legal work; their newsletters, though, were full of horror stories of parents who’d run into legal trouble with homeschooling, and it seemed that only the families that were HSLDA members had happy endings to their stories. There were pages of helpful tips on protecting your family (“don’t open the door if they knock! Only talk through the locked screen door or step out onto the porch!”), and while they may have been useful to certain people in certain cases, to me they only seemed to add to the fear and to, of course, prompt us to renew our yearly membership in the protection plan.

Homeschoolers in those days, even through the late 80’s – early 90’s when I was a teenager, remained largely a fringe element. For every “normal” family who homeschooled, there were a half-dozen “weird” homeschoolers. Some parents were motivated to homeschool because they believed it was their God-given responsibility, and that they could do a better job than the public schools; some others, I’m sure, just used the freedom to homeschool as an excuse to keep their kids under their thumb in whatever twisted home life they had. (I remember one homeschool family who kept their kitchen cabinets locked… to keep their teenaged children out of them. Yikes.) My family teetered on the edge of “weird-homeschooler-ness” from time to time; in retrospect I believe that dalliance was driven not by an attraction to the weirdness but simply by the desire to have fellowship with people who shared some key beliefs about family.

Since starting homeschooling this year we have been very pleasantly surprised at the amount of support we get from all directions. Neighbors and people we meet around town don’t even blink when we say we’re homeschooling. The homeschooling oversight (required by law in Iowa) is provided by a homeschool assistance program that is funded by state tax dollars and run out of the basement of a local elementary school. (That sentence right there is probably enough to make any 1980’s homeschooling parent’s head explode.) The teachers who provide the oversight are full-time dedicated to helping homeschooling parents succeed in educating their children. Our daughter “goes to school” for 5 hours, one day a week, to do science and art and music and be with friends. It’s a really excellent arrangement all the way around.

The other pleasant homeschooling surprise has come as we’ve been at our church for two years now. Come in on a Sunday and you likely won’t see any families that stick out as obvious homeschoolers. But start visiting with folks and getting to know people and it seems like every time I turn around I find out that some other family is homeschooling. Sure, I knew about the one family, because their daughter goes to school on Mondays with our daughter. But that elder’s family, with the high-school-aged kid who’s always helping out somewhere? Yep, homeschoolers. The pastor with a couple of young kids? Homeschoolers. The family who keeps the kids’ club organized on Wednesday nights? Yep, homeschoolers again.

And they all seem so normal. I don’t want to go overboard on the value of “seeming normal”, because if it’s the right thing to do, it doesn’t matter whether we seem normal or not – we need to do it. But in this case it’s such a blessing to have progressed over the past twenty-five years to the point where homeschooling your children is an accepted, normal, even encouraged thing to do. I can only pray that it remains so.

What we all, as homeschooling parents in 2010, should recognize, though, is the debt that we owe to my parents and the thousands like them from the previous generation who blazed the trails for us. It was their civil disobedience, their prayers, their legislative lobbying, and their steadfastness in homeschooling when it was definitely not normal that has enabled us to come to our current state of normalcy. Thank you, Dad and Mom.

Now, friends of my generation: let’s take advantage of the opportunities we’ve been given, and not mess this up.

10 Comments

  1. Misty Misty

    I struggle with this quite a bit. I have previously been fairly anti-homeschool as I feel like negotiating the social waters of school is as valuable, or maybe more valuable, as the academics the children learn. However, after reading Peg Tyre’s The Trouble with Boys, I realized that given certain issues that might crop up with my son, I would at least consider doing some homeschooling if the need arose. We are fortunate that our local elementary school is excellent but given your situation, I might be of a different mindset.

    My other issue is that in our area, the homeschoolers still are made up largely of the zealous religious. I haven’t been impressed with my interactions with the folks I’ve encountered around town and because of that, it’s soured me against giving homeschooling a great deal of serious consideration.

    • Misty, thanks so much for sharing. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a good perspective from which to comment on the social skills question. My four siblings and I turned out fairly “normal” (IMHO, at least!), but I know plenty of homeschoolers that didn’t. Whether our success was as a result of or in spite of our homeschooling, I don’t know.

      I definitely appreciate your hesitancy to be associated with the religiously zealous homeschooling types in your area. (I’m familiar with the type, myself.) I definitely share that hesitancy. I wish I were able to put a community of more “normal” homeschoolers around you there – not to provide pressure to make a similar choice, but only to help provide some assurance that there is such a thing as a non-wacko homeschooling family. 🙂

  2. Misty Misty

    That said, I applaud your family for struggling with this. While our family isn’t choosing to pursue the option, I’m grateful for the sacrifices your family made to allow me the choice.

  3. I’m pretty sure that I’d never want to homeschool any theoretical kids that I had. I attended public schools for primary, secondary, and baccalaureate education. The experiences that I had were not perfect: moving from quite-good schools in Ohio to, well … good-for-Mississippi schools was probably not the best thing for me from a purely academic perspective. With that said, I think that, on balance, it was a good choice for me overall, because I got to experience with being people of all socioeconomic and cultural strata that were available to me in the areas I attended school.

    All of that said, it greatly pains me that homeschooling was once regarded as something that should be suppressed by the law. I think it’s a perfectly viable option for educating your child, and if you want to make the effort required to do so, go for it!

    • Geof, I’m all for not homeschooling theoretical kids. It’s hard enough homeschooling the actual kids!

      I’m certain that this is a decision we will revisit many times over the next 18 years. At the moment, Iowa has some good dual-enrollment plans available that could hit a sweet spot for our family. Guess we’ll have to see.

      • I could see homeschooling kids through primary education, but I would have problems—academic ones—with secondary education. Somewhere along the way, I came to loathe any subjects that required memorization (biology, foreign language) as the primary methodology for learning, even as I’m fairly good at doing so. I really wouldn’t be able to put any enthusiasm into teaching those subjects. Also, there are subjects where I wouldn’t be as good of an instructor as a professional.

        With that said, in no way would I plan on being passive in the education of any (again, theoretical) children I have. The professionals may be the primary educators, but I will definitely be the secondary one, and I am a stern taskmaster.

  4. Great post, Chris! We feel confident of our decision to homeschool, especially given our fondness for the classical method. We are, however, very mindful that with our choice of homeschooling there is a need for social interaction that has to be sought out with purpose and intentionality. One of the natural answers for years has been sports, but sadly so many of the local rec leagues have games on Sunday mornings..etc. We are working hard to be purposeful about educating our son’s social skills as much as his mental ones.

  5. Lyn Lyn

    Chris, I’ve just decided to see if I can “officially” homeschool my daughter on her sick days only because she has a lifelong condition which effects her ability to be in school at times. I’m hoping to do this so a truancy officer won’t reappear, torturing me with threats of going to court if the absences continue I’ve been living in fear of all the scary things that can happen via the court system. It’s causing more stress for both my daughter and myself, and we don’t need any more stress piled on top of the hard times we have during her illness episodes. Have you heard of this kind of “homeschooling”?

  6. I also was homeschooled in a previous generation when it was neither common nor generally condoned, and even today it’s a choice that’s not well accepted in some locations…

  7. Jason Poling Jason Poling

    For what it’s worth, here’s a good rule of thumb on this issue: “Homeschooling doesn’t make kids weird, weird parents make kids weird.”

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