Can’t You Say Anything Good about Homeschooling?

I’ve been fairly critical of homeschooling in a good number of blog posts over the past two years. One thing I’ve been asked a number of times is whether, looking back, there was anything about my homeschooling experience that was positive. It’s true that Sierra of the Phoenix an the Olive Branch and Lana of Wide Open Ground, while generally critical of many things about homeschooling and their own homeschool background, have both written posts outlining the things they found positive about their homeshooling experience. Can’t I do the same? So here it is, my attempt to write about the positives side of my homeschool experience, but I’m going to warn you up front that I don’t think this is going to go all that smoothly.

1. Self motivation.

I’ve always been a very self-motivated person. There were some years I worked ahead in my subjects and finished all of my schoolwork for the entire year by the end of March. I was always extremely hard working and driven, and this followed me into college as well. No one had to make me study. My parents have always chalked my self motivation up to the fact that I was homeschooled—and I used to do the same. Indeed, self-motivation is one thing I always see listed as a benefit of having been homeschooled. But I’m afraid I no longer buy this—at the very least, it’s not this simple.

Even as I was self-motivated, many of my siblings weren’t. I watched many of my siblings procrastinate and drag their feet and sometimes flat out lie about whether or not they were doing their work. I watched them work all summer trying to catch up for everything they’d fallen behind on during the school year. There were several years when my siblings literally finished their math textbooks for the previous year a week or two before the next school year started. Even today, I see this same thing happening with some of my siblings who are still at home, being homeschooled. Some of them seem to lack self motivation entirely, and will only do their work when there is the threat of losing some privilege over their head.

Now after high school I attended a state university on scholarship. Because of my grades, I was enrolled in the university’s honor college and lived in the honors dorms. I suddenly found myself surrounded by a cohort of extremely self-motivated public school graduates. This confused me. I honestly had not expected to see that level of self motivation in the products of public schools. I had thought they all just did the bare minimum to pass standardized tests, because of the way public schools were set up, and that they weren’t self motivated like us homeschoolers. I was wrong. Yes, I know that these kids were honors kids, and thus not representative of the public school population as a whole, but still, they proved to me that you absolutely didn’t have to be homeschooled to be self-motivated.

So did homeschooling make me self-motivated? After thinking about it, I doubt it. Some homeschoolers are self-motivated. Some aren’t. Some public schoolers are self-motivated. Some aren’t. I have no idea what makes people self motivated, or what part is simply innate, a chance of birth. But I can say with confidence that, if the family and homeschool community I grew up in is any indicator, being homeschooled does not automatically make someone self-motivated. So yes, I was homeschooled and I ended up being self-motivated. But does that really mean anything? Probably not.

2. Love of Learning

As a child, I loved learning. I checked out books from the library, explored the fields beckoning from my back door, and taught myself to knit. The world was my textbook, and I loved it. At the time, I was taught to chalk my love of learning up to being homeschooled. And for a long time, I thought there was a connection. But I don’t anymore, and for—I think—good reason.

For one thing, being homeschooled does not guarantee that you will end up with a love of learning. I know a guy who was homeschooled K-12, and his experience actually stunted his love of learning. For him, homeschooling consisted of sitting at the kitchen table, or at a desk in his room, filling out workbooks. And that’s it. Every day for twelve years—thirteen if you count kindergarten. Nothing interactive, nothing collaborative, just workbooks. To this day, thinking of school or any sort of formal learning gives him mild PTSD symptoms. So this idea that being homeschooled automatically makes one love learning? Yeah, that’s absolutely false.

Further, the friends I made in my honors college dorm in college all shared the same passion and love for learning that I had—even though almost every one of them had attended public school. They didn’t just study what they had to for their classes, or just do their homework because they were required to. They went above and beyond and loved learning for its own sake, whether it was required or not. And they didn’t limit learning to their academic coursework, either. For them, learning was a part of life, as natural as breathing. Once again, this confused me. I had been taught that public schools stunt children’s love of learning, and also that attending public school causes a person to divide their life into learning—i.e. formal school—and not learning—i.e. everything else. But I found that, for these honors kids at least, this was absolutely not the case.

So did homeschooling give me a love of learning? In the end, I don’t think so. I think my love of learning came from my parents, not from being homeschooled. They made it obvious that they loved learning, and they sought to make every moment a teachable moment—and in a fun way. We were always learning things, whether it be gardening or carpentry or zoology or the culinary arts, and my parents encouraged us to love learning, and worked to make learning fun. If I’d attended public school, my parents still would have taught me to love learning. They wouldn’t have suddenly stopped making every moment of life interesting and teachable. They wouldn’t have stopped encouraging us to learn, and teaching us to see learning as enjoyable and just a part of life. In the end, I honestly don’t think gaining a love of learning is determined by the method of education..

3. Freedom

One thing both Sierra and Lana hammered on in their discussion of the positive aspects of homeschooling was the sense of freedom it gave them—freedom to follow their own interests and study at their own paces, and freedom from the constriction of a public school schedule. When I look back on being homeschooled, this is indeed what I look on most fondly.

In elementary school, my mom set my schedule, including what I studied and when I studied it. However, homeschooling did allow the flexibility for spontaneous trips to the zoo, or spur of the moment park dates. In middle and high school my mom still set the subjects I studied each year—always asking me for input first—but I was free to determine when to study and for how long. I wasn’t required to have fixed hours, I was merely required to complete the textbooks I’d been given by the end of the year. I loved this—like I said above, I sometimes rushed through and finished some or all of the subjects early.

I loved the flexibility of choosing when to study, and in what order to study. I frequently got up early in the morning and would set myself the challenge of finishing all of my seatwork—meaning things like math and science and vocab, but not things like free reading or debate research or music—by breakfast time. I wasn’t usually able to fit quite everything into that time, but I was always finished by lunch time, leaving me the afternoon free for reading or sewing projects or digging for medicinal herbs or baking a pie.

But—and this but is important—this freedom was limited to choosing when and at what speed and in what order to do my academic work. I wasn’t free to go to the mall with friends, or free to have a part time job, or free to randomly go over to a friend’s house. I wasn’t free to go anywhere at all. Because I was homeschooled I didn’t have an outlet away from my family. Instead, I was home all of the time, both home to have my comings and goings and friendships micromanaged and home to be on call as a junior mom 24/7. As I’ve mentioned before, my parents didn’t believe in teenagers. They expected me to go straight from child to adult, and I wasn’t allowed to do the sort of things normal teenagers do. In some sense, was given the freedom of a two year old and the responsibility of a thirty year old.

I grew up as the oldest of twelve children. There was always a baby in the house, and there were always toddlers and preschoolers who needed constant attention and help. When I think back on my time spent doing school work, the image I get is of sitting at the desk in my room doing math problems while also supervising two or three toddler and preschool age siblings playing nearby, because mom needed them out of her way so that she could teach the middle ones. For several years I was also in charge of all of the laundry for the family, and for a while I was in charge of all—yes, all—of the cooking. I was also expected to teach some subjects to my younger siblings, as a sort of tutor. My mom figured that teaching the subjects would help cement them in my mind, and also that helping with the children and housework was good practice for my future, when I would be a homemaker and stay at home homeschool mom.

All of this responsibility also meant that I rarely got to actually spend time alone with friends, or out of the house—in fact, when I think back on hanging out with friends, the image I get is of chatting with a friend while making mountains of peanut butter sandwiches and watching our 15+ collective younger siblings, our mothers having gone out for lunch together. I don’t want to give the impression that I begrudge my mother these lunches out—she needed them for her sanity! And besides, by that time watching kids came as second nature, and I savored what time I did have with friends, so the memories I have of chatting over mountains of sandwiches and quick roll counts of children to make sure we hadn’t lost any are actually pleasant ones.

So did homeschooling give me more freedom? In the end, I think it was a wash. Yes, I had more freedom to set my academic schedule—when to study and what to study and how to study—and I thoroughly enjoyed that. But at the same time, because I was always at home under my mother’s watchful eye and able to be on call to help with whatever needed doing, be it children or food or housework, I had much less personal freedom than I would have had I attended public school. And when I compare my thoughts here to those of Sierra and Lana, I am reminded that Sierra was an only child and Lana was one of only four. So it’s not surprising that my experience here might be a bit different.

Conclusion

So, are there positive things I can say about my homeschooling experience? Sure. But every time I locate one, I end up find a negative flip side. And maybe that’s why I haven’t spend a lot of time trying to draw out the positives. I simply don’t feel that I can discuss them outside of the more nuanced context.

Homeschooling can help students develop self-motivation and a love of learning—or it can limit both of these. Some kids simply work best with formal teachers for each subjects, and with the firm academic deadlines formal schools provide. I’ve also seen cases where homeschool kids end up well educated in the subjects their parents find interesting, and not well educated at all in other subject—and this is something having the variety of teachers formal schools offer serves to counteract. Homeschooling frees kids from the formal schedule of the public school—but it also places them 24/7 under the complete control of their parents, who may give them personal freedom or may, well, not. And besides that, some homeschool parents—like the parents of the young man I mentioned—simply reconstruct the formal schedule of the public school at home, just without the same level of peer interaction.

In the end, it’s complicated.

  • machintelligence

    I would have to agree with you that there are pros and cons to home schooling. Indeed, self motivation seems to be a personality trait, rather than something learned.I would also be willing to bet that it has a high heritability as well. Both my children attended public schools, and both got high quality educations that I doubt that my wife and I could have provided. (Since my son wanted to learn Japanese, who would have been able to teach him? The International Baccalaureate program at one of the local high schools had a 2 year language program, which he was able to attend, although it wasn’t his regular school, and the public schools picked up the tuition at a local community college during his last two years of high school.) Neither child had any problems with motivation.
    It strikes me that your parents did you no favor by brain washing you against public education. Other people that work with home school children in the Destination Imagination program (a creative ,team based, problem solving competition) have noticed a similar nervousness on the part of some kids. They felt it was worse in families that home schooled for religious reasons. DI is open to all, be they public, parochial or home school. The tournaments are held in high schools or on college campuses, and are great fun for the kids, in addition to encouraging creative thinking. At the most recent tournament which I attended , about 25% were home school teams, and some school sponsored teams had some home school members.
    Here in Colorado the Charter schools sort of bridge the gap between public schools and home schooling. Parental involvement is usually higher in the Charters, although that tends to siphon off some of the more involved parents from the public schools. None of the Charters are religion based (yet.)

    • The_L

      I would argue that it is possible for some students to have their love of learning stunted by their school environment, though. I went to a VERY strict private school, as a gifted student, in a rural area that had no clue what to do about gifted children. Sure I was well ahead of other kids my age, but I was still forced to sit there and hear things repeated over and over for the benefit of the average student long after I’d picked up what I needed to know. By 4th grade, school was drudgery and I hated it. For several years, I focused my “learning” on video games, cartoon series, and other trivia when I wasn’t at school, and still managed to retain a fair amount of what I was being taught. More than once, I tried to sneak library books into my backpack so I wouldn’t get as bored in class, and Mom would catch me and make me put the books back.

      This was even worse because in 1st grade, I’d had a wonderful, very understanding teacher who knew how to handle ADHD and gifted students. When I finished assignments early, I was given a HS geometry textbook to read and learn from. When I got up from my desk, I was played-along-with. (“Dr [lastname], please return to your patients.”) And to keep me from acting up while other kids were doing their reading, I was basically in every reading group in the class.

      My 2nd-grade teacher didn’t try any of these things, preferring to keep things as traditional as possible in the classroom, and suddenly school became a lot less fun. I started being in detention almost every day.

      I finally figured out that the teachers didn’t assign us every story in our reading/literature books, and just started reading from them when I finished my other work. I occasionally was reprimanded for having “the wrong book” out, but since I wasn’t disrupting the rest of the class, a lot of teachers let it slide. I also doodled a lot.

      • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

        That was my experience as well. I just had bad teacher after bad teacher after bad teacher, and there were points in high school where I very seriously considered just dropping out. I ended up going to university mostly because my parents made it clear that I would shame them if I didn’t, but I HATED to read, I HATED studying, I HATED school.

        All of that quickly changed once I was exposed to some really good professors and an environment that encouraged self-motivation (rather than external motivation).

        All of the complaints Libby Anne and others bring up about homeschooling just strike me as issues with the religious beliefs of their parents. A parent can be a terrible teacher, but so can teachers in public school. A parent can be a fantastic teacher, and so can teachers in public school. A kid can grow up completely lacking in social skills in either environment. A kid can suffer abuse and bullying (and all the trauma that comes with it) in either environment. A kid can grow up intolerant, sheltered from opposing viewpoints, lacking in critical thinking, etc in either environment.

        Simply drawing a line in the sand between homeschooling and public schooling is not particularly helpful or informative, imo. It’s much more useful to look at the particular traits of each as they apply to each individual child and each individual parent/school. Which, as Libby Anne points out, just means “it’s complicated.”

  • BabyRaptor

    This is something I’ve noticed as a recurring theme over a multitude of topics…People will always assume that a writer is focusing on the negative aspects of their chosen topic, be it to criticize, or to cause drama and thus page views, or whatever.

    Sometimes, there are just situations where there *aren’t* any positives. It’s possible for things to suck that bad, or for our views of things to take that course. I don’t think Libby really WANTS to say all this horrible stuff, and I’m sure she wishes she’d had a better experience. Bad experiences suck. But she’s writing about what happened to her, so as her readers, we should support that and let her say what she feels she needs to say.

    /off soapbox

  • http://wideopenground.com Lana

    Ah, self-motivation was good for me ONLY because I was studying what I wanted. I had no motivation at science or the fiction part of literature. But I was very self-motivated at everything I liked to study – theology, economics, music, world history. My introverted sister was very motivated drawing pictures because she’s an artist, and would draw and paint sometimes 4 or 6 or 8 hours a day. My extroverted sis (btw, the younger two aren’t actual siblings, but we helped raise them for years), who could have gotten into college on a basketball scholarship had homeschooling not held her back, was motivated practicing basketball for hours, even waking up before dawn to run. She never had an inch of motivation at anything related to academics, but boy was she a self-motivated individual.

    So I don’t think its fair to say public schoolers are not motivated, and homeschoolers are motivated. Rather more homeschoolers are spending their time studying what they love. Sounds like your siblings are getting a much better education than I did. My parents didn’t want to rock the boat, so I had a lot of freedom, too much. An AP or an IB program in public school would have served me a lot better. Because I’m academically competitive, I would not have let anyone beat me, even in my weaker subjects. At home, I just studied what I loved. I’m even convinced I would have had a different major if I’d gone to public school.

    • ako

      I had a public-school education and I was much more self-motivated on some topics than others. A lot of it was that with certain subjects, I was interested and enjoyed the work and would pick things up quickly, so I could accomplish a lot with a relatively small amount of enjoyable effort. However, with other subjects I would put in far more effort to accomplish much less, and that would make things more stressful and unappealing. (Plus, organization and consistency were never my strong suits. I always did a lot better in classes with a few big assignments and was at my worst when teachers gave a lot of short assignments and weren’t flexible about accepting late homework.)

      Some of my public school teachers didn’t understand that generally smart wasn’t the same as good at everything, which, in some situations, is something that homeschooling could do better. But my parents also had trouble grasping where my strengths and weaknesses were (my mom, in particular, is extremely good at math and never understood why I struggled so much even though I was startlingly advanced in certain other subjects), so homeschooling wouldn’t have helped in my case. (I actually think I was better off in public schools because some teachers understood my strengths and weaknesses and were willing to be relatively flexible, while my parents tended to chalk my difficulties up to me not trying hard enough at things I didn’t like.)

      • The_L

        “Some of my public school teachers didn’t understand that generally smart wasn’t the same as good at everything,”

        Oh gods yes. I remember my father being disappointed and angry with me because I wasn’t getting 100 in everything. (Not just an A–I had to get perfect scores, or it meant I wasn’t trying at all.) Several of my teachers didn’t understand that gifted students don’t act like the model student and sit passively while you cram their heads with knowledge. And when I finally got into a charter HS for the gifted, none of my teachers or classmates could understand how I was so culturally ignorant and insanely sheltered. After all, they were all gifted, and they were used to hearing both sides of the Culture Wars issues.

    • The_L

      I actually became addicted to fantasy/sci-fi at an early age because of the non-fiction people had me read as a kid. People assumed that “gifted” meant “wants to read dry, adult-oriented history resources instead of the kids’ stuff.” I remember getting a reprint copy of McGuffy’s 3rd Reader from one of those touristy old-time schoolhouses, and thinking that non-fiction sections of textbooks hadn’t changed one iota.* I even stopped reading the much-more-exciting kids’ non-fiction from the library, because I had become convinced that non-fiction was boring and fiction was always going to be more exciting and fun.

      * Well, almost. At least my school’s readers had the story of John Glenn’s first Earth orbit on the Friendship 7 as part of the non-fiction. It’s hard to make a story like that boring.

      • machintelligence

        I suspect it doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you keep devouring books. The ability to distinguish fact from fiction is also useful, and is improved by exposure to both. I would usually read through the reading textbook in the first few weeks and then spend a lot of time reading library books in class. Since I was a good student (except for spelling) this largely went unremarked. I think the quality of non-fiction has improved quite a bit lately.

  • Christine

    One thing that I think gets forgotten with the idea that in public school you learn because they put it in front of you and force you to is that even if you’re going to public (or private) schools, you’re not getting academics only at school. Even if both parents work outside the home, then the kids normally have to go to some sort of camp (actually especially if both parents work outside the home, but I’m trying to explain what happens if you don’t have a parent at home to say “hey, let’s pick an ancient culture to learn about”).

    I’m not trying to say “oh, everyone is homeschooled, so everyone gets this advantage.” This could actually be a bad thing – if you learn all about stuff you’re interested in at home, then when they cover it at school it’s boring because it’s so basic (assuming it’s not wrong), and so you never learn about anything interesting at school, and you lose your love for academics.

    I think that this is a really good example of how some students will do well no matter what, and of the large role that parents play in this. You don’t have to tell your kids “You should love learning!” (In fact, this might be counterproductive), but you do have to teach it to them. Maybe it takes too much time and energy to be able to teach it to the 6th kid, the 7th kid, and they would have suffered academically anyhow. That said, homeschooling requires a love of learning more than public school does, and requires more input from the parents in the first place, so perhaps you are still able to teach this sort of enthusiasm to your 8th and 9th public-schooled children.

    • Lizzy

      I’m not so sure that home-schooling requires a love of learning at all. In many cases it only requires a fear of secular forces. I know one home-school family where the mother may not have even graduated from high school. She is the sole educator of her 5 children and from what I can see the adult children have the equivalent of a public middle school education. They have deplorable grammar, minimal science and social studies, and seem to struggle with finding and maintaining employment, although 2 of the older girls married quite young and are already having children of their own. I don’t see any evidence that there is a love of learning from either the parents or the children, simply a fear of public schools.

      • Christine

        Sorry, I meant that for a child to learn through homeschooling requires a love of learning.

  • JetGirl

    I was never homeschooled, but would likely have done okay had I been, since like Libby, I was self-motivated and loved to learn. However, there is one subject where I badly needed someone to work with me, and that’s math. It’s not that I can’t learn math, or that I’m even bad at it. I just need someone to explain it to me — books and workbooks are not enough. What if the parent teaching you (sounds like it’s usually mom) has a math phobia? Are you out of luck?

  • Rilian

    It depends how you do it. There could be school buildings that foster real learning and freedom, and there can be homeschooling parents who stunt their children’s mental growth. I have attended 7 different government schools and they were all terrible. I would have been better off do WHATEVER I wanted than being at those places. But I have heard of some non-standard schools that are pretty good. And I think with homeschooling it will vary a lot. Anyway I go for unschooling.

  • Carys Birch

    Ako and the_L, I was much like you. If you hybridize your two stories, it could be me. I started school in a small, rural, public school. I was in the mainstream classroom, but received special gifted classes for several hours a day… Until they were cut for funding reasons. My parents tried to get me advanced into the next grade, but I was (guess what!) extremely sheltered and rather socially stunted, so the district wouldn’t approve my skipping a grade. I learned to pretend not to be gifted as a coping mechanism, after I learned that being the already socially stunted smart kid was a recipe for constant bullying and having no friends. This came to a head in middle school when I finally managed to achieve truly mediocre grades for the first time (I think class size was finally big enough for me to fool my teachers into thinking I wasn’t advanced in their subjects. It certainly wasn’t because i was being challenged academically). That plus the added factor of my “falling in with a bad crowd” (translate: having a normal social life for the nerdy d&d crowd) was enough to cause my parents to pull me out of public school and enroll me in “private Christian school” which consisted of essentially a homeschool group meeting in our church basement.

    For me, all school really taught me was that I cold slide academically and excel without effort. I carried that mindset (successfully) through undergrad (with honors) and into grad school (2/3 academic scholarship). It’s an attitude I wish I had NEVER learned though, as it had served me extremely badly in the workplace, and the habit of 30 years is incredibly difficult to break.

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  • Ladypenelope

    Being a mom of 10 children and the educator of 6 children currently, I have an opinion on this issue. I have a 2 year degree in Science Laboratory Tech and my husband has a 4year Bachelors degree in Computer Science with a Minor in Mathematics. When the kids are stuck with Math, they can go to see Dad who makes it all clear to them when mom can’t. I think moms are tempted to let their kids in their school, pass even though they don’t deserve it. I think that this is the reason for poorly educated home schooled kids. My children might fail and repeat the grade if they don’t pass all their subjects. Let them FAIL! Now is the best time for them to learn to get up again, mature emotionally and intellectually in a loving environment. Moms don’t coddle your kids, love them in a Christian way and they will turn out alright!

    My Kids?
    My oldest son will be graduating from our school next year. He is self-motivated, learned Latin in 7-8th Grade and is thoroughly Catholic. Not all of my children fall into this mold but they all have good hearts and are trying to be good Catholics. This is our primary objective for if we succeed, then all the other subjects will be absorbed in their own time if we are consistent and allow our children to fail and try again next year. Sometimes they need to grow intellectually and emotionally a little more. Then they will be ready. In a home school, I can allow them more time to grow without being bullied by others or pushed through when they are not ready for more complex subjects.

    We also have the blessing of a Christian home school co-op that has helped our children on their educational journey also. Mom gets a rest from teaching a few subjects, the children receive a different teacher and they get to interact with other good kids who love to learn and have chosen to attend that class. They are building friendships in a peer group just like they would in a public school. They are not forced to take any class so they enjoy it!!

    Sounds like the above author has some serious angst against her parents because they were too restrictive and relied too heavily on her to help with the household. In our household, we have tried to spread the chores around to all members of the family and expected the small children to be quiet during school time so the older children can study. Mom needs to be an excellent manager of time and chores and I agree that not all home school instructors are that way. The older children need the freedom to be away from their families so they can be social with other kids their own age at regular intervals. This is important for their well-being and allows them to transition to a balanced, productive member of society when they leave for college.

    My impression is that these home school graduates had less than ideal school settings. Kids, it is time to forgive your parents and try to give them the benefit of the doubt. You could have had a less than ideal PUBLIC SCHOOL EDUCATION also. I know of one child who was beaten regularly by the school bullies. Maybe your parents saved you from that bully or that child with a troubled life who decided to come to school with a semi-automatic weapon and take his anger out on others by cutting their lives short. The current options for home school education are much more exciting and varied for every home schooled child to not only survive but to thrive.

  • Alice

    It is great that you are holding your kids to academic standards and letting them spend time with other kids; those things are very important. About the last paragraph, I would argue that those of us who grew up being home-schooled can do those things (forgiving parents, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and realizing things could have been worse), and still be able to speak about the potential risks of homeschooling. I’ve been reading ex-home-schooler blogs for a long time, and I do not get the impression that Libby Anne and others are writing to complain about their childhood and attack their parents, BUT rather to raise awareness of current problems and to let others know they are not alone. It is hard for us to have a voice because this issue is sensitive and home-schooling is a deep part of identity, but if we say nothing, then there is little hope for current and future generations to avoid the problems we faced. Awareness is the first step to change. Not all home-schoolers face the problems we did, everyone’s story is unique, but there are some serious risks that need to be addressed.

    It is important for people who grew up home-schooled to share their stories, both positive and negative, because we are one of the first generations in recent history to grow up this way, and therefore have a unique perspective from those who did not.

    Finally, yes, bullying happens a lot, and it is terrible. I am thankful that did not happen to me. However, the statistical odds of being shot or even witnessing a school shooting are extremely low. The odds of dying in a car accident or an accident at home are far higher, and yet we still live in homes and drive. Tens of thousands of people still decide to physically go to college instead of choosing an online college because they are afraid of school shootings. It is a legitimate fear for parents and children, but there are so many other decision-making factors as well.