Home Education: Delicious and Nutritious

March 22, 2006 @ 3:54 am | Filed under:

Homeschoolers talk a lot about the reactions and comments they get (so often negative) from people who don’t know much about homeschooling. Nearly everyone has encountered a critic in the extended family, a naysayer in the neighborhood, a cross-examiner in the grocery store. Then there are the articles and editorials, a handful every week, in which some “expert” wags a warning finger about the disadvantages of home education.

This fascinates me. Ten years ago, when we decided to tread this path, people’s negative reactions often upset me. Now I am simply amused and somewhat perplexed. It puts me in mind of the stern admonishments I used to get from the little old ladies in my Queens neighborhood who were appalled that I wore baby Jane in a sling. “It’s not good for her to be squished up like that!” they would scold. “She can’t be comfortable!” And I’d look down at my contentedly snoozing child and have to stifle a laugh. Babies are really, really good at letting you know when they’re uncomfortable. Discomfort generally evokes a different reaction than the blissful slumber Jane slipped into when I walked around the neighborhood wearing her in that sling.

At first the old ladies’ disapproval bothered me, but eventually I decided it was an interference borne of good intentions. They genuinely cared about the well-being of every random baby on the street, including mine.

And over the years I’ve decided that it’s that same genuine concern that prompts a lot of the negative responses people have about homeschooling. I just wish these folks would stop and think about what is REALLY bothering them, what their concerns really are. Usually, their objections are based on assumptions they have never seriously analyzed.

Like this one. If I had a nickel for every time someone has said to me, “But you’re not a scientist. How are you going to teach them biology, chemistry, trigonometry?” I could pay my mortgage and have change left over. I always answer, quite seriously, “Well, I took those classes in high school. Didn’t you?”

“Of course,” the skeptic will say, “but it’s not like I REMEMBER any of it.”

This cracks me up. Sometimes I’ll say, if I’m feeling snarky, “Then surely I can do a better job than your teacher did!”

But I’m not really slamming the teachers. I’m slamming the skeptic’s ill-considered argument. You can have the best teacher in the world, but if you don’t have a reason to use the knowledge, ten or twenty years later you’re probably going to have forgotten it. Since none of us can predict exactly WHAT knowledge our children will need in their lives to come, many homeschoolers approach education not from the perspective of “What do our children need to know?” but rather “How can we help our children retain the love of learning they were born
with?” There’s a reason that Yeats quote about education being “not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire” is so popular with the homeschool crowd.

The skeptic’s question presumes I’m going to be teaching in the textbook-and-test style that has been deemed most efficient for classrooms full of many students at various ability levels. I think most people who come at homeschoolers with the “are you qualified” argument are imagining a scenario in which Person With Knowledge imparts said knowledge to Student Without Knowledge (Yet). And that’s just so different from how home education really seems to work—no matter what method, philosophy, or curriculum is applied. We’re working one-on-one—an unbeatable student/teacher ratio—with a teacher who knows the student intimately, knows his interests, abilities, moods, sense of humor, learning style, sleep patterns, and diet, a teacher who has the strongest possible attachment to the student. This creates a whole different kind of learning environment. School vs. homeschool becomes apples vs. oranges. They are such very different experiences that it becomes nearly impossible to compare them. But I think that when the skeptic says, “Are you qualified to teach subject x,” he’s looking at my orange and thinking what a misshapen apple it is.

Rarely in these encounters is there an opportunity to explain in glorious depth what home education is REALLY like: the freedom to explore, the excitement of following rabbit trails, the lack of testing or administrative pressure, the absence of certain social pressures, the luxury of time in which to immerse in a subject, the spontaneity, the opportunities for hands-on learning, the lightheartedness. It’s a really delicious orange, see. But if you’re expecting it to taste like apple, then of course you’re going to look askance at it.

Other critics will allow for the academic advantages of a low student/teacher ratio. After all, there are all those statistics about high test scores among homeschooled students, all those geography and spelling bee winners, all those dazzling science fair projects. “But,” comes the objection—that persistent, prevalent, popular “disadvantage” you see in almost every single editorial about home education—”what about socialization?”

Honestly, I’m amazed that people are still beating this particular dead horse. Homeschoolers packed it off to the glue factory a long time ago. (That’s how we stick together all those sugar cubes for our model Egyptian pyramids.)

When I hear this question, I always want to ask right back, “What exactly do you MEAN by socialization?” Because I don’t think most people who toss the word around are really thinking about what they do mean by it.

Do they mean, “How will your kids learn to get along with other people if they’re holed up in your house with only YOU all the time?” Because if that’s their question, they’re leaping to the assumption that most homeschooled children ARE “holed up at home” all the time. I have yet to meet one family for whom this is the case—and between real life and online, I’ve met thousands of homeschooling families. The person who harbors this concern could lay his fears to rest by doing a quick bit of investigation. Homeschooling blogs, websites, books, and magazines are jam-packed with examples of kids getting out in the world and encountering other people in all sorts of situations: co-ops, clubs, sports teams, orchestras, drama groups, church groups, animal shelters, internships, apprenticeships, gym classes, volunteer groups, museums, nursing homes, playgroups, and on and on and on. We can hardly walk for tripping over opportunities for social interaction, both in peer groups and mixed-age groups. Two minutes of conversation with my kids, and the person who was worried they were stuck with just MY company all day, poor things, can breathe a sigh of relief. Good luck catching my kids to ask them the question, though, because they’re out playing with the neighborhood schoolchildren who flock to our yard every afternoon. (The neighbor kids must not realize how unsocialized my children are.)

But maybe the Socialization Worrier meant something else. Maybe she meant, “See, I know this family who homeschools, and their kids are just plain weird/socially awkward/obnoxious/wild/[insert unpleasant adjective of choice].”

To which I must respond: And you’re saying that there are no weird/socially awkward/obnoxious/wild/etc. kids in schools? Because, um, I beg to differ. They were there when I was in school, and I know they’re there now because I hear about them (or read about them in the news) all the time. Some of the weird ones—the nerdy guys in the computer club—grew up to become multimillionaires (and usually really nice people—but then, they were nice all along, just weird). Some of the obnoxious ones now draw huge crowds at the comedy club. Others are in jail.

Maybe, dear critic, that family you know does have some really weird kids, total Napoleon Dynamite types. Are you saying those kids would be better off in a school situation, where their awkwardness will be rubbed in their faces all day long? As for the obnoxious/wild/rowdy/ hooligan kids—are you saying you’d PREFER to have them in your kid’s classroom, causing disruptions? Do you really think they’d be less obnoxious in a school setting?

That’s what I’d like to ask the “I know a homeschooling family and I don’t like them” skeptics. Because I don’t believe that if they really thought the matter through, they would believe that the problem with those kids would have been avoided by “socialization” in a school setting. The obnoxious kids would almost certainly be just as obnoxious (what our skeptic is really objecting to is probably a parenting issue, not an educational one), and the weird kids would be just as weird and probably a whole lot more miserable. After all, “weird” in this context just means “different,” doesn’t it? Kids who just don’t fit in? How many times have we seen the school misfit blossom and thrive as soon as he finishes school or college and is finally freed of the pressure to squeeze into a mold that doesn’t fit him? Heck, how many of us experienced this ourselves?

Sometimes people say, “Look, everyone has to learn to deal with unpleasant people sometime. One of the things you learn in school is how to put up with difficult personalities.” To which I am tempted to respond, “And you think my kids aren’t learning that at home? Have you met my husband?”

KIDDING, honey! But really. Does anyone truly believe that home educated children are growing up completely free from exposure to “unpleasant people”? Because if there are kids like this, I’d love to know where they live so I can move there too.

The “you might as well get used to putting up with bad stuff now” argument is perhaps the weakest homeschooling criticism there is. I don’t think anyone who utters it really means it, not REALLY, not for their own kids. No one wants his child bullied. No mother tucks a lunch in her son’s backpack, zips up his windbreaker, and thinks, “I hope he gets picked on today because that’ll make it easier for him to put up with jerks in the office he’ll work in someday.” No father watches his daughter climb on the bus and hopes she’ll be called names all the way to school in order to accustom her to receiving verbal abuse so that it won’t come as such a shock when her future husband inflicts it upon her later in life.

Mind you, I’m not saying that every kid who goes to school will be bullied or abused (or that no homeschooler ever will). I’m not saying anything about school at all—I’m just saying that the “learning to deal with unpleasant people” argument against homeschooling doesn’t hold water.

As for “learning to deal with unpleasant experiences“—surely life outside school affords plenty of practice at that, whether we want it or not? The dentist’s office, the doctor’s office, the death of a pet, the stomach flu…Again, I don’t believe any parent sends a child off to school actually hoping he’ll have an unpleasant experience that day in order to toughen him up for future adversity. And I don’t think the people who offer this glib statement as a criticism of home education are really thinking about what they’re saying.

What else do people mean by socialization? I’ve actually heard some people say, “How will homeschooled kids learn how to stand in line and take turns?” That one is my absolute favorite. Um, ever been to the post office? The grocery store? Or, gee, how about the line we stand in for Holy Communion every Sunday at Mass? I have to say, despite the lack of institutional training, my kids have picked up that skill just fine. As for taking turns, well: one mom, four kids—yup, plenty of turn-taking opportunities here. Then there’s the Common Room family, who until this week shared one bathroom between nine people. I bet those kids are REALLY good at taking turns and waiting in line.

I’m not out to convince the world that homeschooling is for everyone. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe it is. I have plenty of friends who have no interest in living this lifestyle themselves—and it is definitely a lifestyle choice. Mind you, I’d love to see schools enjoy the educational freedom we homeschoolers have; I think schools would work much better if they were giant resource centers where kids went because they wanted to know about stuff. I’m against grades and standardized testing; I think those things form a barrier between the student and knowledge, and most of the teachers I know (including some very close friends) spend a lot of time and energy working darned hard to get around that wall. I most earnestly wish those hardworking teachers had the freedom to spend their time lighting fires instead of filling buckets.

But modern American institutional education is what it is, and it doesn’t happen to be the choice I’ve made for my kids. Happily, the state acknowledges my right to make that choice. The grocery-store skeptics and the newspaper editorial writers, on the other hand, are uncomfortable about the choice I’ve made. If just once they expressed a concern that actually held water, I would relish the discussion. Until then, I’m savoring every juicy bite of this orange.

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34 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Mary G in Greenville says:

    Lissa — as always, a wonderful post and defense of why we do what we do….I may “nick” some of these comments (with appropriate attribution of course) to use in public.


  2. O'DonnellWeb says:

    I love the smell of a good rant in the morning

    Melissa goes off on Socialization Warriors, and other neighborhood pests….

  3. Melissa Markham says:

    Great post! You should submit this for the next Homeschooling Carnival!

  4. Love2learn Mom says:

    Great, great stuff!!!

  5. Mary Ellen Barrett says:


  6. Alice Gunther says:

    Another great post, Lissa!

  7. Cheryl Wilcox says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I love the logical thinking you expressed.

  8. Mary Beth Patnaude says:

    Excellent post! This is further encouragement for me, as I continue my serious ponderance of homeschooling next year (of another former Queens sling-baby, for whom the plethora of comments about his mode of transportation were given). Gee, I hope I know enough math!

  9. The LLama Butchers says:

    That one’s going to leave a mark

    Melissa Wiley, in an excellent essay discussing how she has dealt with criticism for being a home school mom, levels the boom: Sometimes people say, “Look, everyone has to learn to deal with unpleasant people sometime. One of the things…

  10. meredith henning says:

    In a word: Brilliant!! Consider yourself linked! M.

  11. Brian B says:

    You are my hero.

    I’m 100% sold on home schooling, and am even willing to be the one to take on the responisbility, but my wife is not convinced yet. And her big concern? Yup — socialization.

    I rememember high school. I’ve discussed this with my best friend, and he has the same memories. Cliques, bullies, social ostracism for the most petty of reasons, promiscuity, irrational levels of peer pressure — these are tje socialization skills my child will be missing by home schooling?

    Sign me up!

  12. Sandra Wallace says:

    Great post. The anti-homeschooling comment that amuses me the most is “Do you really think it is in the child’s best interest?”. The snarky part of me is always tempted to reply “No, that’s why we do it!”.

  13. Beth says:

    Oh my goodness!!! The lines!!! I just started homeschooling my 7yo and one of my friends actually told me she thought my son was missing learning how to “stand in lines waiting to go somewhere”. So I told her I could line my kids up each time we left the house 😉

  14. Ron says:

    Good one 🙂

  15. S.J. Dupuis says:

    I’m a recently homeschooled kid myself (relatively speaking, anyway- I’m 23) And I just want to say that was a great read.

    For a time in my life, I thought I had in fact missed “socialization” by not attending public schools (college was rather awkward at first). But I’ve come to learn that I’m just naturally an introvert (read: shy-guy) and don’t really socialize much anyway.


  16. A Slower Pace says:

    Homeschool rant link…..

    While perusing the Llama Butcher’s site (for links to the previous “Llama, llama, duck….” post), I came across a link they had to a homeschooling mom who goes on record to set some of the “socialization” crowd straight. Read it here.

    I love the “not

  17. Karen E. says:

    Wonderful, Lissa, as always!

  18. Theresa says:

    This is by far the most elegant defense of homeschooling I have ever read. Beautiful! Thank you!

  19. Rebecca says:

    Hurrah Lissa! Thanks so much for the excellent food for thought…

  20. hmSkooledKid says:

    I was home schooled and I always wondered “am I normal?” how do you reassure your children? Because no matter what my parents said I still felt different then the world, and that question always ate away at me. As an adult I still struggle with it everyday.

  21. Melissa Wiley says:

    hmSkooledKid, your question brings several thoughts to mind. I went to public school but I too grew up wondering “am I normal,” feeling keenly aware of the ways in which I did NOT fit in with others. I was not alone in this. Many, many kids, especially adolescents, experience those feelings, no matter how they are educated. Certainly I know scores of adults whose school memories are suffused with a sense of being an outsider. There’s no guarantee you wouldn’t have felt that way if you HAD gone to school. You might even have felt it in a more painful manner.

    As far as how do I reassure my children on this score, well, my oldest is not quite eleven, so we haven’t yet reached the age when the desire to be like everyone else is an issue. Right now, my kids are very aware of the ways in which their life is different from their public- or private-schooled friends and relatives, but so far I can honestly say they are nothing but delighted about the differences. They are incredulous about the notion that their neighborhood pals spend all day in school and then have to come home and do homework before they’re free to play. There have been snowy, sunny mornings when my kids hurried outside to get in a last bit of sledding before the snow melts, and they feel bad for their friends who are missing all the fun. Or on gorgeous fall or spring days when we go out for tramps along the nature trails, they’ll rejoice in the freedom and compare it to their friends’ situations. Because they have close friends who are in school, the topic comes up often, and always, always, my kids express a wish for those friends to “get to do what we do” rather than the other way around.

    My oldest daughter is also very interested in the ways people learn, and what her homeschooled friends’ educational experiences are like in contrast to her schooled friends’ experiences. It’s a frequent topic of discussion, and I think the fact that we have an open and frank discourse about pros and cons has helped her to form her own judgments about what she perceives as advantages to her situation.

    Another thing your question makes me aware of is how very much the homeschooling movement has grown in the past ten years. Because we know so many, many other homeschooled children, my kids don’t seem to see it so much as “being different” from the rest of society–they see it as “normal” that some kids are homeschooled and some kids go to school (just as it’s “normal” for some kids to go to public school and some to private). They have plenty of friends in each category.

  22. Karen E. says:

    Lissa — funny: we were posting in response to HmskooledKid at the same time. 🙂

  23. Karen says:

    Great post, Melissa. Thank you for putting into words what many of us have longed to say for years.

  24. Melissa Wiley says:

    Karen E.–your response doesn’t seem to have come through! I’m eager to see it.

  25. Melissa Wiley says:

    Aha, I found it at your blog! Great post, Karen. Here’s the link: http://karenedmisten.blogspot.com/2006/03/skip-over-to-bonny-glen.html

  26. Maria says:

    Melissa, I have finally had tome to sit down and read this. I loved your socialization comments. I haven’t heard them lately but when I do again I will rememeber your responses.

    btw I am an avid reader of your (and other Little House books) and now have my daughter hooked on them as well

  27. Love2learn Mom says:

    As a homeschooled mom (now in my mid-thirties), I agree that some homeschooled kids wonder if they can be normal – my youngest brother, in particular, found this very frustrating. He spent very little time with other homeschoolers and admired many people who had attended “regular” schools (he gives our dad as an example). But, as Melissa said, this is true of non-homeschooled kids as well. I think when homeschooling was more unusual – particularly if you didn’t know many/any other homeschoolers – it was more of a natural reaction. Like Melisssa, I don’t see this in my children at all.

    I do think it helps for homeschooled children to associate with both homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers – it’s a good idea for a lot of reasons.

    My personal experience is kind of funny. I was pretty “geeky” in grade school (I was only homeschooled for high school) – kind of a loner and never felt like I fit in. I was teased quite a bit, but it didn’t bother me that much – I was kind of tough, I guess, but also, reacting against that teasing didn’t necessarily help. It made me more stubborn in my ways, if anything.

    I think homeschooling had a “normalizing” effect on me. I think it’s partly the way peer things work. School kids break up into small groups with whom people generally associate. If you don’t fit into these groups or don’t like being “stuck” in a group, you can be sort of an outcast.

    With other homeschoolers you spend time with, friendships are more likely to span age-ranges, personality differences and other things like that. This is a very healthy thing and can have a balancing effect!!!

    I didn’t have a lot of homeschooled friends my age, but the one I spent the most time with is still a good friend today. I probably would never have gotten to know her if we had been in the same class at a local school. We probably wouldn’t have “belonged” in the same “group.” Dang! I would have really missed out.

  28. Emily says:

    I just discovered your blog, and wow, what a great post! My husband and I plan to homeschool our children, and we really appreciated your insight and humor. Thanks!

  29. Tom says:

    I read your enthusiastic post with great interest and pleasure. I do not homeschool my children and I do not come close to fully understanding what goes into homeschooling one’s children. But I do understand your reactions to prejudices against homeschooling as they are based on suppositions and inexperience, and I imagine your experiences easily dismiss them for what they are. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who homeschool, perhaps mainly because I know those folks are doing something I could not do, at least not do well.
    I do want to comment on one point you made a few times in your excellent post. I have been an English teacher in a private school now for twenty-three years and my wife has been teaching culinary arts for twenty years in a large public school system. My comments below are based on my own experiences, but I doubt my wife, who is taking a student culinary team to a national competition next month having just won at the state level for the second year in a row, would disagree with much in relation to her teaching experiences.

    I have never had a day that began with the knowledge that I would spend it filling a bucket, and while some days have surely been difficult I have had none that ended with my thinking that’s all I accomplished either.
    What a dreary couple of decades I would have had, had that been all I thought I had accomplished, experienced and shared with my students.
    Teaching is exciting, thrilling, and rejuvenating work. It is more than that. It’s a way of life, an identity. I do not see myself as teacher morning through afternoon and then another person in the evening. I am a teacher and the fires that keep that burning come not so much from some stubborn force within me but from experiences shared in the classroom.

  30. Melissa Wiley says:

    Tom, thanks, it’s really good to have your insight here, and encouraging to hear about the fires burning in your classroom. What I’m wondering, and I’d love to hear from more teachers on this, is how your experience as a private school teacher (and your wife’s as a culinary arts teacher) differs from the experiences of public school teachers. (I’m assuming, and please correct me if I’m mistaken, that as the teacher of an elective your wife isn’t bound by the same curriculum and procedural restrictions as teachers of core subjects.) I have one other friend who teaches at a private school, and his description of teaching is much like yours. My friends who teach at public elementary schools (one in NC, one in CO, and one in VA) describe an altogether different experience. They are repeatedly and intensely frustrated by the limitations imposed on them—mainly by standardized testing and NCLB. They don’t walk into the classroom thinking “today I’m going to fill buckets,” but they describe a struggle to light fires under the constraints of mandatory bucket-filling, if I’m not stretching the metaphor too far. I read similar complaints on the blogs of public school teachers.

    I hold teachers in very high regard, especially public school teachers who persevere to kindle sparks of enthusiasm in their students despite the relentless drill required by teaching to the test. I wholeheartedly admire the men and women who pour themselves into this work. It is important work.

    But what I’m hearing from public school teachers is that it is frustrating work as well. In my post I wrote about the barriers that institutional education can place between the teacher and the student, or between the student and knowledge. I really do wish those barriers could be removed. Every student and every teacher deserves the kind of exciting and thrilling learning experience you describe.

  31. Tom says:


    You asked whether or not my wife, in her culinary arts program in a large public school system, was “bound by the same curriculum and procedural restrictions as teachers of core subjects.” Of course she is, though neither she nor I would choose the word “bound” to represent a teacher’s relationship to curriculum.
    My wife utilizes the National ProStart Program and with that comes tests on national standards at the end of the 11th and 12th grade years.

    I do not want to get into any sort of comparison between homeschooling and teaching in public and private schools. As I said in my earlier posting, I don’t know much about homeschooling. I only know what I have heard from people who do it, websites I have read, and online curriculm I have investigated regarding teaching writing at home, and that in no way is a substitute for the experience of teaching in homeschool. Any opinion I would have would be immediately invalid because of my lack of real experience. The same applies to teaching in public and private schools. Unless you have actually done it, any opinion you form is just based on the experiences of others which is a hollow and useless substitute for the real experience.

    As an example, like you,I am no fan of grades, yet I issue them. I in no way find that a barrier to my relationship with my students or their relationship to knowledge. I don’t find them a particularly useful way of evaluating a student or a particularly enlightening way for a student to demonstrate his learning, but I don’t find them barriers either. I also teach the International Baccalaureate. If you know that program, you know that at the end of it students face comprehensive oral and written exams based in a large part on work done in 11th and 12th grade. I in no way find those looming exams barriers or restrictive. I teach as I teach and the exams take care of themselves. My wife, I assure you, does much the same.
    My son and daughter attend public school, though they are in a different public school system than the one in which my wife teaches. The county curriculum is highly structured and the students do have to take state standardized tests, but I see none of the relentless drill you reference above, and I follow their curriculum very closely.
    But back to barriers… My experience is that the most intrusive barriers are those set by teachers themselves, not by boards or administration. Any good teacher can make any curriculum exciting. And frankly, if a teacher doesn’t believe in what he is teaching, he shouldn’t be doing it. Curriculum doesn’t come as a surprise. Anyhow, all good teaching comes not from a teacher’s relationship with his curriuculm but his relationship to his students. I know I have wanted to take my students places they were not willing to go and I either forced the issue or could not find a way to make the trip exciting, and I should have backtracked, started over, abandoned ship, so to speak, but on and on I went. In such cases these were times when I placed an unnecessary barrier between my students and me, between my students and knowledge, and I had to find a way to sort that out and of course my students assisted in that process even during the times I let them down.

    Lastly, I do not view teaching in public and private school as being institutional. Institutions may set curriculum. Insitituions may make demands. But individuals teach. Institutions do not. There’s a huge difference.


  32. andrea says:

    Hi Lissa. I just happend upon your blog here and I am going to add it to my favorites. This was such an informative post. I have two children (so far) under 2 and we are consitering homeschooling for their future. For a long time I really opposed the idea and was completely closed-minded to the whole idea and I didn’t know why. It came down to selfishness. I think that our Lord is calling me to something that I didn’t want to do, and at first I was really unhappy about that, but the more I learn about homeschooling the more excited I get! I think you make some great points about socialization because I think that people in general are just unaware and uneducated, I know I was. Thanks and God bless!

  33. Petits Haricots says:

    Breathing in the Sky

    Nursery day today, so kids have been there moslty. Last day tomorrow.
    It was Stringbeans last Ballet clss of the term, turned up there a found that it was a session for parents to sit in on while they should us the sort of things they ahd been d…

  34. Cara Fletcher says:

    I support homev schooling and when I have kids I am thinking of using this type of schooling.My husband is thinking the same too.