Why We Homeschool

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on March 11, 2015.

Over five years ago, I wrote a column about why we were thinking about homeschooling our children. My eldest son was not even school age at the time. It’s hard to believe how fast the time has gone between then and now. We have officially been homeschooling our eldest son for two and a half years, and though we don’t have to file a declaration of intent to homeschool for our youngest until he turns six, he’s been homeschooled right along with his brother.

My initial reasons for wanting to homeschool have not changed much. I wanted to allow my boys to learn at their own pace while also having plenty of time to still be children. That is, I wanted them to play, move, and use their imaginations frequently everyday. I wanted our time to be used wisely. I knew I could work with my children on their academic lessons in a much shorter amount of time than a teacher could with a classroom of 20 or so students. Then my boys could play and delve into the things that interested them and fueled their desire to learn. I strongly believed that what young children need to learn is not easily measured by tests, and I still believe that.

Now that we have been homeschooling for a while, I can say more clearly why we want to continue down this path, though it has its challenges. Now that my boys are growing and showing their unique personalities, it’s clear that homeschooling fits them, which isn’t the case for all children. When my eight-year-old was four, he blossomed in some classes at the Sandy Creek Nature Center, and ever since then, he’s learned more about nature, animals, and science than I learned in the 35 years I lived before he was born. By setting up an environment at home where we have plenty of supplies for making things, and showing him how to use the supplies, he’s gotten used to being a doer and builder too.

He still needs his parents to do a lot of things for him, but when it comes to figuring out how he is going to spend his free time, he’s got that all sorted out. It’s not uncommon for him to say things like, “I have an idea,” “I thought of something I want to make,” “I have a science experiment I want to do,” or “Can you write down how to spell (for example) mata mata turtle so that I can look it up on the computer?” These statements tell me he’s getting what I had hoped he would out of homeschooling. He is learning how to learn, and not only that, he doesn’t consider it school. It’s just a part of life.

My five-year-old is both different and similar to his older brother. Though he enjoys the outdoors and loves to find interesting bugs just as much as his brother, he’s not as much of a “nature boy.” He does like building things, and I think when he’s older, he’ll be just as skilled at building Lego kits as his brother. He also draws with a passion that far surpasses his brother’s interest in drawing, and my floor is frequently littered with markers, paper, and growing stacks of his artwork. I don’t mind the messes. It’s a small price to pay for fostering creativity.

There are things I want my boys to learn, including the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, and I work my butt off to find the right resources that will make learning, if not fun, suitable for my boys’ interests and learning styles. I am grateful for the time that homeschooling offers me to get it right, and then we have time to stick to a concept until my boys really understand it. We also have more time to spend together and get outside on the days the weather is perfect. There is more time for the boys to sleep, and more time for them to spend on subjects that really interest them.

Perhaps my biggest reason for homeschooling, now that I see it in action, is the connections that our family is making on a daily basis. We are learning together, watching awesome documentaries everyday, and developing a closeness that I hope will never go away. My two boys play together well, and I think a bond is forming that will be there when they are grown up. While staying with my husband and me during the day, they also participate in running a household, and they understand why we have to spend part of the day working.

We have also made some wonderful friends through homeschooling, and we have met interesting people through the camps and classes that my son takes. These people are working in interesting jobs and teaching my son about the different possibilities he might pursue someday. I have found that by homeschooling, my boys are taken more frequently into the “real world” – the world that critics of homeschooling often say homeschoolers won’t understand when they are grown up. On the contrary, I think my eight-year-old has more knowledge about the wider world and the responsibilities he will have to undertake someday than I was when I graduated from college.

Homeschooling is not for everyone, and we have dealt with its challenges as well. Finances are always a source of stress, and I struggle to find freelance work I can do from home with decent pay. I also have to balance that work with the time I spend teaching the boys, helping them with their projects, planning lessons, doing house chores, and trying to find a few minutes to relax here and there. I also worry about whether we’ll be able to teach all the subjects my boys need to know, although so far, I have found that the Internet and community programs provide everything we need. Not living close to stores, extracurricular activities or friend’s houses gives life an added difficulty too. It’s hard to do everything I’d like to do, and I often wish there were more days in a week. But two years in, I can see more benefits than setbacks, and I’m always excited to find out what my boys’ next big interest will be.

In Response to a Teacher’s Questions About Homeschooling

Yesterday I read Why Are Urban, Professional Parents Choosing Homeschooling? by Judy Molland.  She was writing in response to Linda Perlstein’s recent article in Newsweek, and I think she brought up some good concerns and questions about homeschooling.  These are concerns I’ve heard before, so I thought I would answer them from my perspective in regards to why I want to homeschool my children. 

Molland writes:

As a teacher, I can say that with differentiated instruction, we try to accommodate all students’ needs and learning styles, but it’s impossible to do that perfectly with a classroom of 30 unique, individual kids.

But is that such a bad thing? Don’t children need to learn to work together with their peers and help each other? And is it such a good idea for children to be constantly with their parents as they are growing up?

As Molland points out, many homeschoolers do it because they want to give their children a tailored education that meets their needs.  This includes me.  As she mentions, it’s impossible to accommodate all the children in a classroom, and I do think that’s a bad thing.

Some children may be able to compensate and do very well in traditional school.  (I’m not totally against traditional school.)  But I think, if possible, every child could benefit from having one-on-one instruction with someone who is looking out for his/her individual needs.  If the child isn’t homeschooled full-time, parents should “supplement public school with homeschooling” as someone I knew once said.

I read in Discover Your Child’s Learning Style that it has helped students when their parents took the time to figure out what his or her special learning style was.  Though the classroom instruction was not changed (it’s impossible to change it to meet just one student’s needs), it helped that student to realize that he wasn’t stupid or couldn’t do it the work.  It confirmed for him that he is unique and capable.  And by helping him learn his own style, he could apply certain techniques at home to help him with his studies.

(Also, I’ve already written about why I think it’s a good idea to Support Your Child’s Interests.)

Don’t children need to learn to work together with their peers and help each other? 

Ideally, yes.  But I’m not convinced this always happens at school in positive ways.  I can remember being devastated in second grade when a new student influenced my best friend (and several other children) not to be my friend anymore.  I think this actually had consequences on my self-esteem and trust in friendships for many years after.

And the “help” I remember getting from fellow students as I got older was answers to tests that I should have been taking myself.  I’m glad to say I didn’t cheat a lot, but it did happen, and I knew other students who did it too.  Students can help each other beat the system, and the group culture can foster underachievement.  It was never cool to be smart in school.  It was cool to be pretty, wear the most fashionable clothes, and to be popular.

I know that doesn’t happen to everyone, and I know there are some awesome schools out there.   But I can homeschool my children, and I can give them opportunities to find out who they are and what they love without peer pressure.  This is their one chance to have a childhood and find a direction for their life.

I think my children will learn to work together and help each other better when I’m helping to create their social network.   The world is always going to try to beat down their self-esteem, and the cruelty of the world will rear its ugly head at them.  I don’t think I have to worry about sheltering them too much.  But I do want to help them build a platform of self-esteem, self-reliance, a love of learning, and a heart full of compassion so that when something bad happens to them, they won’t be crushed by it.

Is it such a good idea for children to be constantly with their parents as they are growing up?

Maybe not.  Because I know it would probably help my mental health if I had some breaks from my kids!  However, I love being with my kids, and I believe being a close family is a reward of homeschooling.  Society is always touting “family values,” but I see very little support for these so-called “family values” we’re supposed to have.  Why are people so concerned about homeschoolers when they truly care about family values and are doing something about it?  Also, I don’t think we’ll constantly be together.  As they get older, I’ll find more outlets for them.  There are classes, camps and many other opportunities for homeschoolers to spend time away from home.

Homeschooling is not perfect, but I would rather take its imperfections over the imperfections I see in our current public schools.

Molland goes on to write:

It is true that nowadays there are lots of resources available for homeschooling parents including, in some cities, curriculum, centers and classes designed especially for these youngsters.

And yet, I worry that these homeschooling parents will become the helicopter parents of the future, unwilling to let their children flourish independently, or to give them the freedom to grow as separate individuals.

I can’t speak for all homeschoolers, but I’m homeschooling my kids exactly because I want them to flourish independently!  Please go back up and re-read the first part of this post to see some of my reasons.  In addition to that, I can say that although I’m sure I’ll experience the pains of an “empty nest” someday, I know it’s in my son’s best interests to at some point let go.  As someone who advocates child-led learning, I don’t see myself not letting my children flourish independently.

I am the first person who will encourage my sons to meet new people, try new things, and do for themselves.

I’ve already written about how I plan to teach my children more than what they’d learn in school in What Are We Preparing Our Children For?   

Right now, at the ages of 5 and 2, I try to ask questions as much as I parcel out information.  I want them to know that their thoughts and ideas are valued.  In a classroom, a teacher may ask questions too, but how many students answer?  There’s usually one or two who raise their hand a lot and the rest of the class stays silent.  (I was always too shy to answer a question in school, and I hated it when a teacher asked me a direct question.  Going to public school did not help me overcome shyness or insecurity.)

I would advocate that any mom should not let go of her interests too.  While we may do less of the things we love while rearing children, we need to keep a flame lit so that when the time comes for our children to step on their own path, we’ll have our own path to travel too.

Molland’s final questions are these:

Will These Kids Know How To Interact With Others From Different Backgrounds?

And, as someone who grew up in a very isolated town in the southwest of England, it also concerns me that these children won’t know how to interact with people from backgrounds quite different from theirs.  What do you think?

I wish I could ask her, “As someone who grew up in a very isolated town in the southwest of England, how did you learn how to interact with people with backgrounds very different than yours?”

When I was in school, I wasn’t very aware of “different backgrounds.”   In college, and throughout my twenties and thirties, I began to realize what adults consider the “dividers” in class, culture and beliefs, and I finally experienced the pain of that through first-hand experience.  This might tell you that I was a middle-class white girl without a lot of experiences to clue me into these deep emotional divides.  Yes, I was quite naïve.  And guess what?!  I attended public school.

Again, I’m not saying everyone has this same experience.  I know young people who are very aware of things I had no clue about growing up.  I offer it as an example that public school doesn’t always allow us to learn how to work with people of different backgrounds.

But come to think of it, as I became an adult and lived in London and Japan for a while, I never thought that I needed to “learn” how to interact with people in those countries.  I just did it.  I learned about customs and nuances as I went along. (I believe my son is doing the same thing in his five-year-old world as we meet new people and go places.)

When I returned from Japan, I learned that most Americans don’t know half as much about the world outside their borders as people in other countries know about us.  Schools may do a better job of having multi-cultural lessons and events, but we do not make learning a second language a priority in our schools.  My husband is a college professor who teaches world history, and he says that students coming out of our high schools don’t seem to know the first thing about other religions of the world such as Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam.  With all the globalization that has been happening for many years now, shouldn’t our students have a basic knowledge of these religions?

This is a reason I want to homeschool!  I want to teach my children about the world, different beliefs, different religions, and if possible, I’d like to teach them a foreign language.  In Our Homeschool Mission, I listed Religious Education as an emphasis of mine.  I don’t mean one religion.  I’ll teach my children about my personal beliefs, but I’ll also teach them about others.

I realize that there are many homeschoolers who do so for religious reasons, and they do want to shield their children from any other beliefs.  While I don’t agree with that, I have to respect a parent’s right to teach their children in their own way.  If I don’t respect their right, how can I expect anyone to respect my right? (Child abuse is a different story, and unfortunately, it will exist occasionally for all children – traditionally schooled children and homeschooled children.)   Frankly, I believe parents can still shelter children even if they go to public school, and children often grow up and continue to hold the same beliefs and attitudes their parents did.  (I think the parents who don’t shelter their kids will have a better chance of their kids not rebelling than those who do.)

I respect people who voice concerns about homeschooling and ask good questions, but these concerns are unfounded, especially when you consider the countless students in public schools who are left behind.  There are so many kids out there who need help….  who need food….  who need new clothes.  Why do people keep bringing up these ridiculous concerns about homeschoolers?

There may be some students who are at a disadvantage while being homeschooled, but there are many who are disadvantaged in our public schools.  Most homeschooling parents are doing so because they love their children and want to give them a good education.  They hear these concerns and they do what they can to overcome any negative effect that homeschooling may give their child. 

Personally, I would rather deal with the possible ill effects of homeschooling than the possible ill effects of public education.

That is what I think.

Shelli Pabis is a newspaper columnist, photographer and homeschooler living in Georgia.  Sign up for her RSS feed by clicking here.

The Importance of Play in Children’s Lives


Note: This column appeared in the November 9, 2011 print edition of the Barrow Journal.  Almost two years ago I also wrote a column about the importance of playing make-believe and the research on how it teaches self-regulation to children.  You can read that column by clicking here.

Sometimes I’ll get the question: “How’s homeschooling going?” and I get a little taken aback because I feel as if I should answer: “It’s great!  We’re doing reading, math, science, art and going on lots of field trips!” At least, that’s what I think people want to hear.  After all, if my child were in Kindergarten, he would be getting a daily dose of the above.

Truth be told, though we do a little of that stuff, and I’ve written about it in my columns, my main directive for my kids is “Go play.”  Because when I consider what the most important mission of a five- and two-year-old should be, it’s PLAY!

Play is one of the main reasons I am homeschooling in the first place.  I don’t want my children to have to spend their day at school and then have most of their evening hours consumed by doing homework, eating dinner, taking a bath and going to bed early because they have to get up early the next morning to go to school. 

I’m not saying that schoolchildren don’t play, but I do think that play is at a lower priority when we have to stick to schedules and get homework done.  And from what I hear, Kindergarteners are not excluded from these pressures anymore.

The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a report on “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.”  I recommend that parents read it.  It issues a concern that a “hurried and pressured lifestyle” may be having ill-effects on our children.

It does not say that all activities or after-school programs are bad for children.  In fact, they have clear benefits.  But it does say “…the balance that needs to be achieved will be different for every child on the basis of the child’s academic needs, temperament, environment, and the family’s needs.”

As I watch my boys grow and my eldest nears his elementary years, I increasingly feel that he needs the right balance between structured activity, academics and playtime.  Playtime should take up a much higher percentage of his time.

In “The Case for Play,” Tom Bartlett describes several researchers attempts to bring old-fashioned play back into children’s lives.

He explains that these researchers believe: “The emphasis on standardized testing, on attempting to constantly monitor, measure, and quantify what students learn, has forced teachers to spend more of the school day engaged in so-called direct instruction and has substantially reduced or eliminated opportunities that children have for exploring, interacting, and learning on their own.”

I want to homeschool for exactly those reasons cited above: so that my children can explore, interact and learn on their own.

In a wonderful New York Times opinion piece titled “Play to Learn,” Susan Engel lists what an ideal classroom daily schedule would entail for a third-grade class.  Besides being immersed in storytelling, reading, discussion, practicing computation and giving the children a chance to devise original experiments (just to name a few), they would also have extended time to play.

She writes, “Research has shown unequivocally that children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play — from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games — can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way. It can also help them acquire higher-order thinking skills, like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from someone else’s perspective and thinking of alternate solutions.”

Reading this makes me very excited about homeschooling because this is the kind of school I want to create.  At home, I can teach my children the basics without drilling them or making them work on assignments they have no interest in.  I can give them hours of leisure time to play, or I can plan some outings and interesting projects that they’ll enjoy.

Reading the latest research on play has renewed my enthusiasm for teaching my son and has reminded me to keep asking him questions, engage him in conversation, and, most importantly, encourage him to create his own make-believe world.

Susan Engel also writes, “Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.”

At five-years-old, spending time and money worrying about a curriculum should not be on my to-do list for my son.  Instead I should be outside toting sticks and playing with him.

How important do you think play is for children…and adults?!

My Reasons For Thinking About Homeschooling

This was written on April 3, 2009.

Five years ago, I had never heard of homeschooling, and I’m pretty sure I was introduced to it by a neighbor who teaches her four girls at home full-time.  Then my friend Maya of Springtree Road told me she was going to homeschool her daughter, and then we had another homeschool family move in the neighborhood, and I’ve gotten to know them very well.  I can’t remember my first reaction to homeschooling.  Maybe I thought it was a bit crazy, or maybe I thought it was something I wouldn’t be interested in.  But it didn’t take long for the idea to sink in, especially as I watched my two-year-old relish learning — at 21 months, he could identify all the letters of the alphabet correctly.  He loves books, and he loves exploring.  Now we’re working on the sounds of the letters, and he also knows his numbers and colors.  I keep asking myself, how can I keep fostering this love of learning without pressuring him or making him lose interest?

This, I believe, is my number one reason to want to homeschool.  I want to foster that love of learning.  I am not against traditional school — I believe most teachers do their best to teach students.  But I do think that once you put 20 or more children of the same age and different learning levels in a classroom, the teacher can only do so much.  She or he has to keep moving through the curriculum whether some kids are more advanced or some need to stay behind.  Occasionally the teacher has to spend the majority of her time dealing with behavioral issues.  So I ask myself:  if it’s possible for me to homeschool — if I’m willing and we can afford for me to stay home — why not?  Why not give my children the one-on-one attention they deserve?  If they are interested in a particular subject, I want them to be able to study that subject without any restraint.  And what if I can build some other lessons around what they are already interested in?  Surely it is common knowledge that each of us learns better when we are interested in what we are learning.

Now that I have been thinking about homeschooling for a while, I have been meeting other people who homeschool – whether in person or online.  And seeing how well-adjusted, well-mannered, and bright their children are, I am more and more convinced that homeschooling is a good thing.  My husband is a professor at a local community college, and he has had students in his classroom who were homeschooled.  He says they are among the brightest and most willing to participate in class.  They seem very well-adjusted, and furthermore, they are usually high school students taking courses for early college credit!

I would also love to homeschool so that our family can be together more and for the flexible schedule it offers.  My husband has a flexible teaching schedule (at least right now), and he’s home a lot.  I believe that raising our children in a homeschool atmosphere can only foster close family ties.  Not to mention the children’s schedule —  elementary school children have to be at school by 7:30a.m. in Georgia.  On his way to work, my husband has seen small children waiting for the bus in the dark (with their parents, of course).  I like getting up early, but I don’t like having to scurry around to get out the door early in the morning.  Think about all the hours in the school day that are taken up by simply getting to school, from class to class or to the cafeteria, recess, etc.  I would like my kids to spend that excess time at home doing things that are more productive or simply more fun!

Finally, I’d like to homeschool because I love learning.  I love to read.  I love to explore historical places or museums or anywhere that will expand my mind.  I used to travel to other countries, and I love learning about different cultures.  Not only do I think that homeschooling would be good for my kids, I think it would be wonderful to learn right along with them.  And I would hope that my enthusiasm would rub off on them.  I think it would.  Unfortunately, I think that traditional school can have the opposite effect on children.  I know that when I was in school, I was more concerned about the friends I had and the friends I wished I had, the clothes I was wearing, and the boy I liked.  I didn’t do badly in school, but I could have done much better.    It wasn’t until I was in college and beyond (when I could study what I wanted to study), that I became a better learner.

In my next post I will talk about other concerns and issues with homeschooling, specifically socialization, financial considerations, and what other people might think.