To a Concerned Friend: Is homeschooling for all?

This response to our homeschooling letter is from someone well known to the Jesus Creed blog,  a homeschooler, Helen Lee. Helen has impressed us all with her intelligence, Christian maturity, and thoughtfulness when it comes to missional home living.

To a Concerned Friend…

As I read the letter posted here yesterday from the concerned friend of the homeschooling family, my heart went out to all involved: the parents in question, their children, and the conflicted friend who just wants to help this family. There are numerous issues in this situation, and no easy answers. But here were the thoughts that initially came to mind for me.

First of all, homeschooling is not for every family. I recently wrote on this blog that homeschooling can absolutely be compatible with the missional life, which I believe unequivocally. But that does not mean that I think everyone is called to this form of education, or that homeschooling is the only “Christian” way to educate one’s kids. I shared yesterday’s letter with Rob Kunzman, managing director of the International Center for Home Education Research and a professor of education at Indiana University, and I’d like to quote his response, in part:

It seems clearly a mistake to insist that institutional schooling is the best choice for everyone, but it also seems a mistake in the opposite direction to make a similar claim about homeschooling. Another way to frame it, in terms of encouraging parents to sidestep the “homeschooling and nothing else” paradigm, is the idea that even when schooling happens outside the home, education is still very much a privilege and responsibility of parents, in so many ways. The best homeschoolers I know avail themselves of a multitude of outside resources (and teachers), even while retaining their profound commitment to directing and shaping the overall contours of their children’s educational experience. I’d like to think that this can happen even if parents send their children to institutional schools full time!

There is no one best way to educate children. Homeschooling is right for some parents, for some children, but not for all. Sometimes, it’s not even right for same family in a different season of life. And even if your children are being schooled outside the home, the most important “education” often happens beyond the walls of the proverbial ivory tower, in those countless teachable moments parents have with their kids, wherever and whenever that may be. In other words, you don’t have to be a homeschooler to experience many of the benefits of homeschooling.

Another important point is that effective homeschoolers do not try to teach in a vacuum. I appreciate Dr. Kunzman’s point above, that “the best homeschoolers avail themselves of a multitude of outside resources (and teachers),” which helps them to balance out the areas that are not their strong suits, gain valuable feedback and tips from others, and keep themselves accountable in their teaching endeavors. Every teacher has strong and weak points, whether in the institutional setting or in the home, and acknowledging this truth is an important exercise for homeschooling parents as well.

Thankfully, there are countless resources and groups available these days to help homeschooling families find support and assistance for whatever they are teaching. Homeschoolers who keep their families in isolation and who do not take advantage of these kinds of resources and relationships, off- and online, could be doing their children a disservice.

In the case of the family in question, there is no way for me to evaluate whether or not the mother is sufficiently equipped to homeschool, without knowing details about how and what she teaches, how motivated she is to be a homeschooling parent, and how much initiative she takes to ensure her children are learning. But I know from personal experience that while a teaching degree or experience is not required to be a homeschooling parent, a certain amount of fortitude, organization, and emotional stability, not to mention a love for learning, are desirable and even necessary for one’s children to thrive.

But homeschooling may actually not be the issue here. It’s entirely possible that the root cause of the “dysfunctional” symptoms that the children in question are displaying are related to the marital struggles of the parents, and the same issues would be present whether the kids were homeschooled or not. Kids are sensitive to the relational challenges of their parents, and perhaps what the family friend is seeing is more a function of the family tensions than of the decision to homeschool. And honestly, someone on the outside of the family looking in may not be able to truly see the whole situation.

So I would definitely counsel the family friend NOT to contact child services if her concerns are primarily related to whether her friend’s children are receiving the right kind of education (as opposed to suspicions about potential abuse or safety issues). I imagine taking this irreversible step would just destroy trust and the relationship between the friend and the family. The friend has to accord a certain amount of respect for the parents’ autonomy to make their own decisions about how to educate their children.

But that doesn’t mean that she cannot or should not voice her concerns. I would definitely encourage her to gather more information, by speaking with the mother and gaining a better sense of how homeschooling is going for them, whether the parents are getting sufficient support, encouragement, and feedback from others, and what their own impression is of their children’s progress. Since the friend is also a trained teacher, perhaps she could volunteer to help out now and then with evaluating how the children are doing, or even teaching them on occasion to give the mom a break.

Only after these kinds of conversations, prayerfully and with the backing of other friends and family, would I progress to calling into question whether the parents are fit and/or able to homeschool. It’s easy to judge what we do not understand, and as a homeschooler I have experienced the tension that arises from people who do not agree with our choice or who make assumptions about homeschooling that do not apply to our family.

But homeschooling parents, too, have to understand that removing ourselves from institutionalized schooling doesn’t mean that we can abandon accountability for ourselves as we strive to teach our children. Homeschooling gives parents a number of wonderful freedoms, yes, but with those freedoms comes even greater responsibility to make sure we are not taking advantage of the liberties to the detriment of our children’s well-being and development.

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  • MatthewS

    “In other words, you don’t have to be a homeschooler to experience many of the benefits of homeschooling.” Well said.

    I like the emphasis that parents have a privilege and responsibility to be involved in the education of their children regardless of whether the main mode is home, public, or private.

  • Holly

    I appreciate your response, Helen.

    A few quick things come to mind regarding the original letter:

    1) Not all churches are home-schooling friendly. Not all church bodies understand home education. Just because a certain body does not believe that a family should be homeschooling does not mean that this is a valid viewpoint. My husband once pastored a church which had a strong representation both in the classroom and on the schoolboard. Five of seven members on the schoolboard were members of our church. They loved us in spite of our homeschooling, and by the time we moved on (as pastors eventually do) they had a much more nuanced and informed view of home education.

    2) How does the author of the letter truly feel about home education? Many public school teachers are very biased against home education. Even if they accept it, they view it as inferior. I don’t say this to be mean, but after 15 years in home education, I say to represent reality. It is a lack of understanding. I still (after successfully homeschooling throughout and graduating two students who have wonderful academic scores and who still walk with God) jump EXTRA HIGH when I make the acquaintance of a new friend who is a public school educator.

    3) To make a completely fair analysis, I think the situation has to be reversed. If the same couple were struggling, and the children were having a horrible time in public school – bullying, not being challenged in the classroom, losing any zest for discovery or learning – would you blame the school system and advocate that they pull their children out and homeschool them? Is the method of education truly problematic?

    4) Who really likes to be told that their methodology of parenting/education is awful? Again, reverse the situation, and I think many would be appalled. When homeschoolers tell public schooled families that the public school is failing their children and that they have made a bad choice….well, no one likes that. Who would respond well to this? More than anything, that cements the decision. I like and appreciate the posters who have suggested that the author come alongside and offer to simply be a support. That’s really what most overworked/overwhelmed/distraught mothers need.

  • Holly

    I would like to add that I do agree that not everyone should homeschool. 🙂

  • Very well said Helen – thanks for taking time to write this!