Homeschooling: An Educational Option or an Identity?

Because I see drawbacks to homeschooling and intend to send my children to public school, I am often painted as “anti-homeschooling.” But I don’t really see myself like that. In fact, I have never ruled out the possibility of homeschooling at some point in the future. After all, if public schooling somehow goes horrifically wrong for my young daughter, I will look at what other educational options were available – private school, charter school, homeschool.

I think this is where I differ from so many of the ardent homeschool advocates I come in contact with: I see homeschooling as an educational option, but they often seem to see homeschooling as the only option or, indeed, as a mandate rather than an option. Whether they decry the heinous evils of public schools or speak of homeschooling freeing a child from academic oppression, “homeschooling” as an idea seems to become more important than the academic or social well-being of individual children, children who are, after all, very much individuals.

I recently read the following in a post on Past Tense, Present Progressive:

It seems like homeschooling went fairly well for my family throughout elementary school.  We were part of a homeschool group that had weekly park days and occasional field trips to factories, restaurants, and government offices.  My younger brother and I were very independent in our learning, with high reading comprehension, so we could complete our assignments each day with very little input from my mom.  Although there was almost no regulation of homeschooling in CA at the time, my mom still made sure that we covered the same general topics as our public school counterparts in each grade, except of course that our education was exclusively from a Christian perspective.

Years of countering criticism of homeschooling, years of being surrounded by other like-minded Christian homeschoolers….the effects on my family were detrimental.  We lost the ability to objectively evaluate whether homeschooling was still working for our family.  Things were obviously falling apart as my brother and I reached our teen years and as my younger sister reached school age, but no one could acknowledge it.  By then, our identity as homeschoolers was inseparable from our spiritual, political, and family identity.  Failure was not an option.

This is actually exactly what happened with my family too. When my parents first started homeschooling, it was for practical, not religious, reasons, and it was only supposed to be for a year or two. But a year or two stretched into three or four and then five or six and eventually homeschooling became my parents’ lifestyle and identity. They were absorbed into the Christian homeschool movement, with its Deuteronomy 6 argument that parents were the only legitimate teachers of their children and that homeschooling was therefore commanded by God, and suddenly sending any of us to public school was no longer something they could even consider.

Academically, homeschooling left me with some gaps and some misinformation, especially during the high school years, but even with that my parents did give me a love for learning that allowed me to succeed in college and beyond. Thing is, homeschooling didn’t work as well academically for all of my siblings as it did for me. In fact, for some of them, homeschooling, particularly in the high school years, was very obviously a bad educational approach.

When we first started homeschooling my parents said they would reevaluate each year and child by child. For a time I think they did. But then, like I said, homeschooling became a lifestyle – a mandate – an identity – and such reevaluation, for all practical purposes, ceased. Homeschooling was no longer simply an educational option that might work well for a specific child or for a transitional period of time. Instead, it was a lifestyle and a mandate. It was an identity.

Anytime homeschooling as an idea or ideology becomes more important than the well-being of the individual child, this is a problem. Anytime a child’s education is more about the parents and their identity than what is working best for that individual child, this is a problem. The same of course, of course, might be said of a private prep school, or of public school.

As I raise my children I will continue to see homeschooling as an option, but only as one option among many and as an option that, like any option, has drawbacks and pitfalls alongside its pluses. And if that makes me “anti-homeschooling,” I will wear the label proudly.

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On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
A Matter of Patriarchy
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • dantresomi

    I enjoyed this article. i wasn’t homeschooled but considered it for our family. We decided against it because we felt that in the end, while we had our strong points in certain subjects, we felt we were inadequate. I have many friends who homeschool outside of the Christian education community and it seems to work well for them. we support them in every way we can by tutoring and mentoring.

    I have some students who were homeschooled and are now adults. I do notice that they are better at working on their own and usually need to pushing at all. However, when it comes to group work, they seem to lag. I have also encountered many young people I mentor who have been homeschooled express to me that they feel uncomfortable in group settings or speaking to a big audience. i haven’t seen any studies on the social “disadvantages” of homeschooling, so i still hold my opinion on that.

    • shadowspring

      Thanks for your open mind on home schooling in general. My son recites his own poetry at Open Mic nights in coffeehouses around the city, but my daughter, a senior in college who has given many speeches, still hates public speaking. My son was in Gavel Club with a supportive group of secular home schooled teens for two years. My daughter joined a Christian home school Debate Class where she was judged mercilessly by arrogant peers. Even accounting for environmental influences, genetics might also play a part. My son has been gregarious since the day he was born, while my daughter was reticent in making friends her whole life. So who can really say?

  • Mara

    I wouldn’t homeschool my kids because I don’t have the temperament for it! Quite frankly, it’d be a tough call whether I’d strangle them first or they’d strangle me.

    I’m also not anti-homeschool in all cases. I think with some kids and some parents it probably works great but I do tend to think that most kids could use at least some time working in groups and getting practice in group situations. I’m concerned about the ability of most parents to teach complex subjects, also. If I had the temperament, I could teach my two bright kids basic math and science, but once they got past algebra, I’d be far out of my depth. I don’t know if I could ever relearn calculus.

    And then there’s things like learning disabilities. I have a wonderful bright son who is perfect in every way…except that he wasn’t learning to speak. At all. And my husband and I couldn’t figure out how to get him to talk. If it was up to us, I guess he would have learned at some point, but he’d have been incredibly delayed. Happily, our county has great services and a wonderful educator came to my house once a week and taught my son how to speak and me how to help him.

    • Libby Anne

      “I think with some kids and some parents it probably works great but I do tend to think that most kids could use at least some time working in groups and getting practice in group situations.”

      I agree completely. This is why I wouldn’t consider homeschooling all the way. Let’s say that middle school was making my child suicidal due to bullying, and there was nothing I could do to stop it or help her while she was still in the situation. I might take her out for the rest of middle school and then put her back in in high school, or even take her out for just a year to help her build confidence or something. For me, homeschooling would be a stop-gap sort of thing.

      • JeseC

        I’m curious what you think of some of the “part-time school” programs? We had a few in our area where children went to classes one or two days out of the week and then were expected to complete the rest of their work at home. I think I was in one of these programs for most of high school, at least for certain classes.

        I suspect it was probably the right choice for me…I’m one of the classes of people that public schools just don’t deal well with (gifted/disabled), and we didn’t have the money for private school. Apparently advanced classes and accommodations were mutually exclusive. I guess that’s the flip side of the coin that Mara mentioned; a lot of schools have trouble with students who are too far outside the norm. I do definitely see the issue you are raising, about families who homeschooled so as to shelter their kids from the evils of the world!

  • Karen

    This will sound weird coming from an atheist, but I got a really good education from Catholic schools. From my parents’ perspective, though Mama was Catholic, the real purpose in going to Catholic school was to get a good education in a city that was well-known for the revolting state of its public schools. But those sneaky liberal nuns also gave me a thorough grounding in the liberal values that support my atheism, and taught critical thinking. The education was good, too; I was very well-prepared for college. YMMV; this was a long time ago and the experience might not be nearly as good today.

    • Rach

      I only graduated from Secondary school (high school) last summer, and I can relate to your experience of Catholic school. I got a great education, developed a strong passion for social justice and I really learned to think for myself (which naturally led me to agnosticism and eventually atheism, pretty sure that’s not what they intended!). I live in a country where almost every school is a Catholic school though, so perhaps the religious element isn’t as strong as it would be in the US. Either way, I wouldn’t hesitate to send my kids (if I have any) to a similar school. The emphasis was always on being a good person…I just ignored the ‘or you’ll go to Hell’ bit!

  • Rod

    Do homeschooled kids ever participate in Science Fairs? I am chair of my local SF and though homeschooling is not common in eastern Ontarion, we never see any HS kids at our Fair.There is always a significant part of SF that involves speaking to adult experts… how would a HS kid manage that?

    • shadowspring

      My children took part in home school science fairs in elementary school, but I was not too happy with the results. This was in Florida. Now I live in a big city in North Carolina, and home schoolers participate in the regular county-wide science fairs. I know one girl who won for her experiment involving orb-web spiders and caffeine. My guess is that it all depends on which part of the country you live.

    • Libby Anne

      Yes, there are homeschool science fairs. However, in my experience, they’re not the best quality. The ones I’ve been to have always included all age groups, so you have little kids as well as big kids, and that may be why. If it were just high school students the level of intellectual difficulty in each project might be higher. Also, there has always been a strong creationist feel at the ones I’ve attended. In fact, some science fairs require, for instance, that each display include a Bible verse. I’ve never heard of requiring students to consult experts when putting together their projects.

      • Rod

        Any bible verse other than “Beware the false prophet” would not work for me!
        When I refer to experts, I mean the local judges who are engineers, chemists, doctors, and computer experts to whom the students have to present and explain their projects….. if a student has not had exposure outside the home/church atmosphere, I wonder how well they would do with that.
        Our Fairs are for Grades 7 – 12, as that is what Youth Science Canada accepts.

    • Teri

      I mentored a homeschooled high school student who decided to enter the local science fair. The grand prize was a trip to California to compete in the international science fair. She picked a difficult topic (erosion) that required math, physics and computer skills beyond the high school level. I spent a lot of time instructing her in the advanced statistics and physics that she needed to complete her project. Because high school students have to discuss their project with judges, it was important for her to have a good understanding of the science.

      She won the grand prize twice and I accompanied her to California each time. At the international science fair, she won a complete four year scholarship to an expensive private college. She enjoyed the science fair experience so much she decided to become a doctor and she is now completing her freshman year.

  • shadowspring

    Omg, yes, yes, YES! “When we first started homeschooling my parents said they would reevaluate each year and child by child. For a time I think they did.”

    When I started researching homeschooling in the late 1980s, it was sold as an educational OPTION that had the POTENTIAL to be amazing: world’s your classroom, move at your child’s pace, build a program around your child’s interest, incorporate elements for all learning styles: auditory, kinesthetic, visual. Everyone said they would re-evaluate on a yearly basis. Clearly I was not the only one, but things have changed so much this article was like a little pinch to show I was not dreaming that things were once like that in the home school world.

    That never changed for me. Never. Not surprisingly, I was increasingly marginalized and excluded from home school support groups through the years, though I started out organizing curriculum fairs and held a variety of offices: membership chairman, president, legislative liason, etc. I really couldn’t understand why people were so stand-offish, except that they were too weird in their religious views and maybe being around normal people convicted them of that unhappy reality.

    Too late, I have discovered that the families whose right to home school I championed, have in too many cases switched gears. They are no longer striving for educational excellence in their home education programs. They are attempting to create moral perfection in their students, education and reality be damned. I am so naive! I really thought everyone else was still interested in education.

    This recently hit home when a friend on mine filed for divorce from her emotionally abusive husband. She thinks he should pay alimony, child support AND that she should get to continue to home school her children (youngest is 12) whether they like it or not, AND whether they are keeping up with the 50th percentile on the Iowa test. God is going to make this happen because he is the one who mandated she raise her children this way.

    Wtf??? I have been so shocked since she admitted to me that her real fear about putting the kids in public school is that they will be held back. THEN WHY HAVE YOU CONTINUED HOME SCHOOLING/RUNNING A HOME SCHOOL SUPPORT GROUP? If getting helping your child acquire the best learning environment, resulting in the best learning outcome possible is the goal, then WHY oh why ARE YOU STILL HOME SCHOOLING WHEN ITS NOT WORKING!?

    I get sosososo frustrated. I love the option of home education and these idealogues are ruining it for everyone. I am 100% in favor of greater accountability for home education programs. We need it to ensure America’s home education movement is still focused on education.

    *getting off my soapbox now, thanks for the venue for letting off steam

  • Ruth

    I considered homeschooling when our prior district wasn’t coming up with a good IEP for my Aspie daughter. Our new district had such great special school district teachers that we stayed in public schools, but added lots of projects at home(I keep a microscope in the kitchen). I’m Catholic, so your site has been an eye-opener to the evangelical world.

  • Jesse (Great Grandmother’s Kitchen)

    Very good ponts!

    I grew up in a family where things slowly grew more and more conservative, as well. I also suspect that there were emotional and/or psychological issues at play for my parents, such as possible PPD, that led to us becoming more and more secluded. We didn’t even participate with other homeschooling families, and so by the time I was 9 or so I was very much alone all the time. After that, the more problems surfaced, the harder my parents tightened down against “the world”, and it became an ugly circle.

  • Gordon

    I’m against home-schooling. I see it like home-dentistry or home-coal-mining. There’s a reason people are trained to do certain jobs. They are not for amateurs.

  • seditiosus

    …they often seem to see homeschooling as the only option or, indeed, as a mandate rather than an option.

    Ain’t that the truth. I find it fascinating that the people who criticize schools for not meeting the individual needs of children will then turn around and uncritically praise homeschooling as a one-size-fits-all option that works for all children.

    Full disclosure: I was unschooled for a few years (and I really do mean unschooled. In fact, CPS probably would have called it neglect.) It actually worked well for me, though a lot of that was because I did attend high school.

    Mum took me out of school for academic reasons, not religious ones, but the HS network we belonged to contained a lot of religious homeschoolers. I thought it was wingnut central even at the time (actually found it pretty entertaining in a let’s-laugh-at-the-idiots kind of way), but mum is Christian and I firmly believe that being in close contact with these wingnuts had a negative effect on her mental health. Thanks to the wingnuts’ influence she went through a fundamentalist Christian phase and became socially very isolated, which made her mental health issues even worse. And, because through this process she also got suckered into faith healing, alt-med etc., she wasn’t going to get medical treatment for those mental health problems. Or allow me to get real treatment for my own severe mental and physical health problems. Take it from me; prayer =/= Prozac. Homeschooling, and the CP-like religion that got packaged up with that, became such a big part of mum’s self-identity that she lost the ability to see outside it, or see how narrow and unhealthy her world had become.

    My conclusion here is that while homeschooling was probably the right educational choice for me, it came at a tremendous cost. The homeschooling ideology that my mum became immersed in was incredibly unhealthy, both for her and for me.

  • Comrade Svilova

    I’m late to the party here, but I definitely appreciate the distinction that you make between homeschooling as an educational option and an identity. My family were very much secular homeschoolers, and then unschoolers, but we certainly started to see homeschooling as a significant part of our identity, something to defend against all costs and criticisms. But perhaps that is because we DID have to defend our educational choices. The criticism and the judgment and the assumptions we encountered and constantly had to address were both frustrating and humiliating. Even today, as an adult who is not only well-educated but very involved in my community, I have people who learn that I was homeschooled immediately make harsh and insulting assumptions about my childhood social skills, my family, and my “ignorance” of things of which they presume themselves to have greater knowledge. (Sorry, yes, I do know about sex; since most of my friends from college are gender studies majors turned sex educators, I probably know more than you do!) It’s incredible to see how these generalizations are unthinkingly applied to me today, and as a child, it was very difficult to have adults constantly insult and quiz me about my intelligence, my ability to make friends, and other even more personal matters.

    As I read these comments, I felt that familiar constriction in my chest as people assume that homeschoolers only participate in inadequate “homeschoolers” versions of activities (my brother and I were both involved in various musical groups that had state-wide acclaim and were unaffiliated with homeschooling or with specific public schools), as people assume that homeschoolers don’t learn to work with others (thirty of the homeschoolers in our area created and ran a theater company for ten years without any adult control; better practice for real life than working together on any group assignment). Etc. Etc. I’m tried of having this compulsion to defend my life and who I am, and I’m tired of feeling that every conversation about homeschooling is about me and my identity. It’s very freeing to think that I need to reframe the conversation in terms of homeschooling being not *who I am* but simply an educational choice.

    And I realize that it’s probably the outside pressure rather than anything else that created my identification with homeschooling. The problem is, the outside pressure wasn’t from people who were checking in to make sure that my brother and I weren’t neglected or abused — that kind of pressure we obviously need MORE of, given the situations of some homeschooling families. It was from people who refused to see homeschooling as simply our educational choice/option, and who framed it as something that was deficient, perverse, and inadequate about who we were. For me, homeschooling as an identity developed because others saw it so clearly as something that would not only shape me intellectually, but something that marked my identity as both public property (how will you ever learn how to make friends? really, who asks another person that immediately upon meeting them?) and as unavoidably Other.

    Thanks for reading this comment. I guess I just needed to work out for myself a few things about how I conceptualize homeschooling; I am frustrated that for so long I have allowed those who would frame it as something unchangeably flawed about my identity to make me take on a position of uncritically defending homeschooling. In a way, this is the reverse of what you discuss, Libby Ann, and it’s also from the perspective of a secularist homeschooler who was very active in the community with people of many (and no) faiths. So I hope this isn’t too tangential.

  • Libby Anne

    I appreciate your comment. I think one thing that happens with A LOT of homeschoolers regardless of why they homeschool is that they so feel the need to defend their choice (or identity, or whatever) that they lose the ability to view homeschooling critically. As you point out, homeschooling can work, but it can also fail, and even when it works there are gives and takes. But if you’re so used to only defending it, you lose the ability to admit that, like any other educational option, there are pros and cons. Instead, you begin to defend it as thought it has no flaws – as if it is some sort of cure all panacea – and I think this is extremely unfortunate.

  • Comrade Svilova

    Thanks for your response! I agree that there’s also a problem in homeschooling evangelism, whether religious or secular, and the assumption that one’s own choice is best for others. My parents are still operating from that perspective, though my brother and I have come to recognize that no matter how well we were served by our education, others are served best by public schools, and that supporting public schools and working to improve them is an important part of citizenship.