What Labels Are We Placing on Homeschoolers?

Note: This column appeared in the print edition of the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, February 22, 2012.

A number of articles have been circulating lately about the growing diversity in homeschooling families.  Publications such as the Houston Chronicle, USA Today, and Newsweek have each reported on the number of homeschoolers who don’t do it for religious reasons, which has been a stereotype of homeschoolers.

Then in Slate, Dana Goldstein wrote an article titled “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids” in which she makes a case that homeschooling violates progressive values.  Madeline Holler responded positively to Goldstein on Babble.com.  She writes, “Homeschooling really isn’t the answer, certainly not for people who purport to value things like civic life and public institutions and who wish for those things to improve.”

While I’m glad the word is getting out that homeschoolers are a diverse group of people who choose to homeschool for a variety of reasons, I fear that more stereotypes are being made.  So let’s review. When you hear I’m a homeschooler, you might assume one or more of the following:

  • I may be an evangelical Christian that wants to indoctrinate my children with a religious curriculum that shuns science.
  • Or, I’m a bleeding left-wing liberal who breastfeeds my children well into their toddler years.
  • If we aren’t religious, then we’re probably atheist.
  • You may think we co-sleep with our infants and that we do not trust public schools to teach our children anything.
  • Or, you may believe I’m a “helicopter parent” who will never let my children flourish independently on his or her own.
  • You might think I silently judge others for making their children spend six hours a day in “prison.”
  • Finally, you may believe that we are “uber-intellectual” parents that have plenty of extra income to homeschool.

For the record, none of those descriptions fit us. But since we are not religious fundamentalists, I guess that makes us liberal homeschoolers, at least in the eyes of some of these writers.

Dana Goldstein writes, “This overheated hostility toward public schools runs throughout the new literature on liberal homeschooling, and reveals what is so fundamentally illiberal about the trend: It is rooted in distrust of the public sphere, in class privilege, and in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families….”

She also writes, “If progressives want to improve schools, we shouldn’t empty them out. We ought to flood them with our kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.”

First of all, why do I have to be labeled either liberal or conservative?  I have some liberal views, and I have some conservative views too.

When it comes to homeschooling and staying home with my children, I’m more conservative, yet when it comes to rearing boys, I guess I’m liberal because I adhere to a few practices known as “attachment” parenting.  But even then, I don’t fit the mold because I didn’t breastfeed my children until toddlerhood, co-sleep with my infants or ever carry them in a sling.  Where oh where can I fit in?

I respect those who don’t homeschool or adhere to my style of parenting.  More than that, I understand that there are many people who can’t do what I do. Though believe it or not, there are many homeschoolers who didn’t choose to homeschool in the first place.

Having read many forums on homeschooling, I can tell you that homeschoolers are diverse and teach their children at home for more reasons than we can count.  There are single parents, financially struggling parents, and as I mentioned, parents who had no plans to ever homeschool.  They put their child in school, but something went wrong.  I have heard stories about parents who tried to make changes at their child’s school, but they got fed-up and turned to homeschooling.

I think that is more than what those writers can see when they try to lay a guilt trip saying progressive homeschoolers are hurting the wider community by not putting their children in school.

Sure, if I wanted to, I could put my children in school and fight to change them in a positive way, but what kind of energy and time would it take on my part to actually make a difference?  I would have to rally the support of many families, and then we’d have to agree on what changes we wanted.  Do you think we could agree on what changes would make an ideal school environment for all our children?

Part of the reason I’m homeschooling is because I believe children deserve to have individualized attention when it comes to finding out what is the best way they learn.  Another reason is because I want my boys to have more freedom to move and play outdoors.  What works for my kids wouldn’t necessarily work for other kids.

Yet I don’t think of public school as prison.  Despite the problems our schools have, it’s not lost on me that a lot of good goes on there.  I read articles about student’s achievements, awards, and projects.  I know teachers who engage and motivate their students.  Good teachers are important role models and mentors for young people.  I’ll always support our schools, and when I’m able, I’ll do for the greater good.

But I’m not going waste my time trying to change my local schools when my priority right now is my children.  I’m not going to use what little free time I have to serve the wider community when I desperately need to nurture my own mind and body so that I can meet the demands of this household.

You can’t help others before you help yourself.  You have to get your own affairs in order before you can give to others.  Does this mean I’m conservative or liberal?  I believe I’m doing what most Americans are doing – doing what they think is right for their families and what they can to get by.

Note: Since I wrote this column, Dana Goldstein has responded to the overwhelming response she received on her article in Slate.  You can read that by clicking here.  You may also enjoy reading Why Homeschooling Is a Boon to a Liberal Society in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf.  I also enjoyed reading Liberal Homeschoolers: What We Really Are on the blog, Quarks and Quirks.

Please tell me what you think.

17 Responses to “What Labels Are We Placing on Homeschoolers?”

  1. Hehe… I definitely fit some of the stereotypes you mention.
    The main thing for us is time, school means too much time apart,
    and since, for so many parents, school = childcare,
    I don’t think I’d ever have my way – 2 hour a day school, 3 times a week, 1 teacher for every 3 kids kinda thing.

    I recently asked, on a forum, what people think makes them different from “most” homeschoolers – the answers were so diverse: tattoos, working nights, single working parent, too much structure, not enough structure…
    It was interesting to see what people found atypical in the homeschool circles.
    But yeah, we definitely come in all shapes and sizes.

    • Thanks, Gabriela. And for the record, I definitely don’t have a problem with some of those labels! ;) But I wanted to illustrate how easily it is to assume something when it may not be the case. Thanks also for the info you received on the forum – that is a nice illustration of what I was trying to say.

      I have considered that if school could be two days a week with really good teachers, I would love that. I would have a couple of days off and I’d be assured that they were getting something positive out of it. But I definitely prefer that my boys be able to spend more of their time at home. Kids need more freedom to play, explore and find out what in this life makes them excited!

  2. I agree with taking care of your own before taking care of others. Maybe by making sure our children are well educated they will go on to help our country in other ways as adults.

    I wish the focus was on what we share, not our differences. I bet we all agree that we want to solve our nation’s education problems. We are all just doing what we feel is best.

    • Thanks so much, Laci. I was a little concerned that people would not understand me when I made those statements. I really do want to help other people. But if I spend my energy on helping other people when I don’t yet have my own life/family taken care of (I know people like this), I don’t think that is a noble or worthwhile pursuit. It can create resentment in one’s family (those being neglected) too.

      I’m learning more and more that the only way to get along and tolerate people’s differences is to focus on the similarities and common goals. You are so right about that.

  3. Love this post! As someone who is brand new to home schooling (our first official day was 10 days ago) my head has been spinning with all the sterotypes and labels and not really feeling like I fit into any of those completely. With all the recent news articles I’ve been bouncing back and forth between feeling proud and offended. We haven’t even told everyone in our family because I just don’t want to deal with the negative comments and/or judgment that comes from ignorance. Anyway, I really appreciated this post and it made me say “Yes! Exactly!”

    As a mom of three boys I totally hear you on feeling like they need a lot of time to play and explore.

    I think the public schools will eventually improve, I just don’t think it will be during the time that my boys are in K-12 and I’m just not willing to take the chance and hope it turns out ok for them.

    • Anne, thanks for your comment, and I sympathize with you. It’s very hard being so different from most folks around here. And we have people who are very against our decisions too. I think motherhood more than anything is teaching me how to be strong and stay with my convictions. Good luck to you! I look forward to hearing how it works out for both of us!

  4. I will be honest: Before this year, I did not support homeschooling. I’d seen my two aunts do it (Evangelical Christians) and saw how hard the integration in to public schools were for my cousins. I also did not support charters, magnets or even privates. I’ve watched them all destabilize the school district in St. Louis. Public schools, in my mind, must be maintained as our second most-important cultural institution.

    And then my second son entered third grade. Where he’s been greatly under-served. To the point of negligence. Amongst other things. And I realized that I could provide so much more for him than his third grade teacher ever could.

    I won’t pull him out of public school, but all progress he makes this year will be due to our schooling that goes on at home.

    I realized that I had been judging (both liberal and conservative) homeschoolers too harshly. And I now see that some of the things we are able to do at home would be of great benefit if it could be incorporated in to public schools. I think we have to take the approaches of each now, and integrate them (with some national dialogue as well) into a program that teaches our children what we actually want them to learn.

    • Sarah, thank so much for your comment and honesty. Someone once said to me, “I’m going to do something really radical and supplement public school with homeschooling!” If only every parent would do that then there would probably be less need for alternative education! I have also met some homeschoolers who really sheltered their children and kept them in a bubble. I don’t support that, yet I’ve also met traditionally schooled children who were also quite sheltered by their parents. I think there will always be cases where some children are ill-served by the choices their parents make. No one is perfect, and none of us have the right to tell each other what to do. (I know for sure there are people who think I’m making the wrong decisions.) So, what can we do? We can only do what we feel is right for our kids. I know your son will benefit from your proactive choices!

  5. I think you ask some great questions. Personally I am kind of tired of the inflated hoopla over it all. Home Schooling has been around for quite some time [even without mentioning what pioneers did before public schools]. Right now in our divided society that seems obsessed with being punitive and forbidding–stereotypes abound!
    I am sick of that too.
    I have been labeled in some of the categories you mentioned–and I wonder when it was, that we lost our ability as a culture to respect that adults have their own lives, their own ideas and will make their own plans to handle whatever life might throw at them–including child rearing and education of said children.

    I thought Goldstein’s article was poorly argued. And given the issues that we face right now as a country–as we slide from Democratic Republic into a Theocratic Plutocracy–really, I think her time and her admonishments could have been better spent in some other category that actually requires fixing.

    • Green Mother, I’m not sure what happened, but I just now see your comment on my blog post. I’m sorry about that! I agree with you completely. I wish people would stop going on and on about homeschooling when there are so many other problems that are so much more pressing and important to take care of.

  6. I love this article! I have chosen to send my kids to a very good public school, but have always said if their needs aren’t being met I will pull them. So far the teachers have been more than wonderful for my kids. My daughter thrives on social interaction and I am not sure I could meet that need for her here at home, but would definitely tried if I felt that she needed more than school could provide. I am a big advocate that all children should be “homeschooled” regardless whether it’s full time or in addition to a public or private school. Parents should be supported in whatever decision they have made as long as their choice is in the best interest of their children and parents should not go into any decision with no desire to switch gears if it isn’t working!

    • Thank you, wundermommy! Yes, definitely…I always say that all kids should be homeschooled! Public school should be considered the supplement to homeschooling and not the other way around.

  7. Outstanding. Thank you so very much.

  8. I enjoyed reading your article. It’s amazing to me still the comments I hear made about homeschooling. I would love to be “unlabled!” I don’t want to fit into anyones idea of who I should be, and certainly don’t want my children conforming for acceptance. I once read, ” Why try to fit in when you were meant to stand out?”

    • Thank you so much, Marilyn. I agree with you, and if I think about what others might think of us and our homeschooling lifestyle, it could really get to me. So I try not to. I love that quote! Thanks for sharing.

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