Does Homeschooling Really Give Children Freedom?

After writing a post exploring (or failing to explore) the potential positives of homeschooling, I had an additional thought. Over and over again when I look at lists of the good things about homeschooling, I see “freedom” rise to the top. Freedom from the constricting schedule of a formal school, freedom to go at your own pace, freedom to choose what to study and when to study it, freedom to go on educational trips or randomly leave formal homework unfinished and head outside to a more experiential classroom. Freedom.

Here’s the thing. Homeschooling does not directly offer any freedom at all to the homeschooled child. Rather, it gives freedom to the homeschool parents—freedom to assume full control over their children’s education, schedules, and social lives. The only freedom children get as a result of being homeschooled is the freedom their parents give them.

Some homeschool parents give their children a great deal of freedom, including the freedom to set their own daily schedules, their own academic goals, and their own social calendars. These parents serve primarily as guides and facilitators. Some even take this to its extreme and “unschool.” While there are educators and others who would argue that this is too much freedom, and that children need at least some structure, they can’t deny that these homeschooled children do indeed have a great deal of freedom.

Other homeschool parents micromanage their children’s daily schedules, academic goals, and social calendars, exercising a level of complete control over their children’s lives that would be impossible if those children attended public school. Being constantly under the watchful eye of one or both parents, these children are without the reprieve that leaving the home to attend public school might allow. In the end, homeschooled children whose parents flex their ability to exercise complete control over their educations and lives are utterly without freedom.

Homeschooling in the hands of good parents can serve as a tool for children’s liberation; homeschooling in the hands of bad parents can serve as tool for children’s oppression.

In the end, the only individuals who are guaranteed greater freedom after the decision is made to homeschool are the homeschool parents. The homeschooled kids only get what freedom their parents decide to give them. Sometimes that’s a lot, but other times it’s next to nothing. Homeschooling doesn’t give kids freedom—it merely gives their parents sole control over their education, social life, and emotional development.

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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.

  • ako

    I think that’s a really good point. Homeschooling gives parents power. Some parents use their power to give their children freedom. Some parents use their power to give their children a wider range of educational experiences. Some parents use their power to give their child more individualized educations. Some parents use the power to give the students important and necessary safety. Some parents use the power to expose children to a more diverse and interesting set of life experiences. Some parents use the power to meet basic educational needs under unusual circumstances where schools can’t or won’t meet them. Some parents use the power to control their children. Some parents use the power to keep kids trapped in a dangerous home environment. Some use the power to confine kids in narrow little ideological boxes. Some parents use the power to teach kids less than is allowed and hamper their ability to succeed in the outside world. Some parents use the power to prevent girls from learning enough that they might want to do something other than marry. Some use the power to prevent shameful family secrets from coming out.

    It all depends on the parents.

  • Becca

    Libby -
    I love reading your posts. I was home schooled through 7th grade, and experienced a similar shift at about age 7 when my parents moved our family and began attending a conservative evangelical church. What had been education at home because my masters-degree holding parents believed they could teach me (and eventually my sister and two brothers) at higher standards, definitely slipped into more formally evangelical home learning.

    Part of me though, really wants to home school my children (when I have them), at least through kindergarten. I remember those years very fondly. Oodles of outdoor time, tons of family trips and special one-on-one time with my mom. I learned quickly and we spent hours each week at play groups and outside of the home. My mom is a very social person and kept us busy, while allowing for the long sunny mornings at the kitchen table and the after-12pm-freedom that makes homeschooling so enticing. I spend more time growing up, wandering through the woods outside with my neighbor friends than any child I know of…

    I hope there is a way to find some benefit in homeschooling. You are right, the weight lies squarely on the shoulders of the parent. In an abusive situation, this can be destructive. I can honestly say, although I have left the church and the conservative community, that the only resentment I hold for those years is towards the community itself and its influence on my parents, particularly my mother. She was doing so much so right until the voices of the church came along. She basically invented homeschooling for herself when we lived in Canada (no one home schooled in our area), but when we moved to the states and joined a big evangelical church, next thing you know we were throwing away our Disney movies, using Saxon math, and attending Homeschool Groups which became essentially inbred conservative breeding grounds. I’m glad, due to a family crisis, that we got out. My best friend who remained there through High School often comments: “When your family moved away when you were 11, you got out at the perfect time. I started thinking of you as the one who escaped.”

    I would love to hear more about the way the conservative community effected your parents, and what life as a homeschool family was like before that.

  • elizabeth

    I know you’re bending over backwards here to try to give balance to your critique, but the situation you’re describing isn’t balanced. (Trigger warning: I will allude to but not describe very bad things.)

    On team pro-homeschool, we have freedom and the fact that benevolent parents might use their power for good. Yeah, that can be great. I had a really great year as a child being homeschooled when my parents were working in a European country with stronger child protection laws. They didn’t know how to work the system so they were substantially less violent than usual. They took us on random roadtrips to see historical sights, museums, etc. The educational freedom was positive.

    On team home-school-bad, homeschooling is a good way to guarantee your child never comes into contact with a mandated reporter. Just think for a minute of all the bad things adults can do to children and the fact that teachers are the only people outside the immediate family who regularly interact with children and might be in the position to notice problems and intervene. It’s easy to lay off the violence a week or so before your child’s physical so the doctor won’t see any obvious bruises; it’s not like the doctor is going to do a gynecological exam on a 6 year old for no reason. That takes care of the only mandated reporter some homeschooled children will ever see; some of them won’t even see a doctor. Teachers, on the other hand, might notice patterns of behavior even if you’ve gone to all sorts of trouble to make sure the marks are all be hidden by clothes. If you want a teacher not to notice, you’d either better homeschool or send your kid to a private fundamentalist religious school where you’re paying to have the teachers look the other way.

    Freedom is nice, but it’s not like public school students don’t have fieldtrips. And it’s not like parents can’t do extra enrichment activities with their children during summers, odd days off for teacher development, weekends, or after school. And the price of this freedom from oversight is allowing other children to grow to adulthood in environment filled with violence by removing their access to the only safety net that might catch them. Because giving people a flexible schedule is totally worth that price.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      I know that this is a very emotional subject for people who have been homeschooled and who saw that sheltering/closeting be a huge player in the length and severity of their abuse, but as someone who was bullied at school, this is a very emotional subject for me as well. Despite being around mandatory reporters my whole life (day care from about 6 months, then school from 4-18), no one ever took me seriously, treated what I was going through as abuse, or tried to help me. I was blamed, I was shamed, I was told to “stop being a baby” and “just deal with it.” And that’s not even going into the number of abusers (sexual and otherwise) who are teachers, sports/activities coaches, etc.

      I get what you are coming from, and you are certainly right that increasing the visibility of a victim increases the chances that someone will notice and interfere. But it frightens me when we talk about public schools as a protection from abuse when, for so many kids, it’s where the abuse happens.

      • UrsulaL

        It’s a matter of checks and balances.

        If a child is in school, then if the parents are abusive, there is a chance that someone at the school will notice and intervene. If there is someone at the school who is abusive, there is a chance for the parents to notice and intervene. And in either case, if one is abusive, the child has access to adults in the other setting to ask for help. It isn’t perfect, but it does provide backup in both settings.

        If the child is homeschooled, and the parents are abusive, the child is out of luck, as the parents pretty much have complete control over who has access to the child to know what is happening, and who the child has access to in order to ask for help.

    • Brynn

      As someone who has worked over decade in public schools, and whose husband still does, I can tell you that I have been that mandated reporter. Both of us worked/work with extremely at-risk kids because we wish to help struggling populations. Mandated reporting doesn’t work the way you all are speaking of. Those are some serious rose colored glasses you are wearing. We loose at least 2 and usually 3 kids a year (in a school of only 150ish) where we are mandated to report. Most all of those are suicide. Most of the suicide is due to really, really bad parenting. Damn near each of those kids has been reported on – multiple times. The truth is, even in situations that are horrible, if the kid isn’t pregnant at 10, or being burned with an iron regularly, or comes to school with so many broken bones it is hard to tell they are human, CPS and DHS can’t do much. Their case loads are too high.

      Your post was awesome. I have no complaints there at all. I’m no longer teach formally because I homeschool my son. We are those massively large amounts of freedom parents, and we know abusive-control homeschool parents. It is scary. However, we also know publicly schooled kids whose parents supply them with heroin. As well as, publicly schooled parents who pimp out their kids. Likewise, homeschool parents who are emotionally destroying their children with no boundaries and create serious behavioral disorders. The truth is, it has nothing to do with school. Most CPS/DHS seizes happen when a child is under the age of 6 and not in school yet. After that, the state rarely steps in because the family is masterful at hiding it.

  • Alice

    I completely agree with this post. I also think that many home-schooling parents would not have a problem with “Freedom means freedom for us, not for our kids.” Like you wrote in a post a while back, there are a number of home-school parents who believe children do not have rights and that the government should never interfere.

  • Anonymouse

    I’m in my final year of homeschooling, which we did for high school because we had a child who was very advanced in some subjects and average in others. We homeschooled for high school only (which is usually backwards of the way it’s done in our area), supplementing online courses from an accredited school with college courses. This year was 15 credits in college (5 classes) and 2 classes in high school, and next year we’re transitioning to all-college-all-the-time.

    My area is starting to attract other secular homeschooling families, but the majority are still religious folks who faithfully tithe to HSLDA and faithfully parrot all the usual paranoid tinfoil-hat lines about FREEDOM!!!! There’s a new academic push on the horizon that will focus on a core curriculum (not sure if this is nation-wide or just state-wide) and it has their panties in a soggy wad. As near as I can tell, this “core curriculum” is just a rehash of the educational systems used for decades in Europe, Japan, Singapore, the UK, the Scandinavian countries, and other civilized places…basically it says that each grade level will be exposed to the same concepts. The International Baccalaureate program and the Advanced Placement program have been doing this in the USA for years. The big benefit is that a student with a diploma and/or test scores from these programs matches up all across the nation with similar counterparts. The university or employer knows what the student was exposed to and mastered.

    The very idea of academic accountability is just putting the homeschoolers around us into a hysterical tizzy. In part because much of the “homeschooling” in my neck of the woods is really a fundagelical Christian madrassah to impart the “correct” flavor of Christianity, with learning a far, far distant goal.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    From a child’s perspective, your freedom is always going to be at the whim of an adult to give or withhold no matter what. The only real difference between homeschooling and “brick and mortar” schooling is that in the one case your freedom is in the hands of 1-2 people, and in the other your freedom is in the hands of 2-3+ people.

    I think, though, that to argue with the idea that “homeschooling = freedom” is a bit disingenuous since what is meant by the phrase is that homeschooling allows for the possibility of doing specific things, or making certain choices. In other words, I don’t think that the point is that homeschooling is what gives kids the freedom to make their own educational choices, but rather that homeschooling allows for the possibility of giving kids that freedom.

    I mean, obviously, I’m not inside the rhetoric, so maybe I’m wrong. But as I am considering homeschooling, the “freedom” argument is a huge part of the appeal, and it has nothing to do with the idea that it would just magically grant my child with freedoms. Rather, it’s that it would enable me to provide my child with those freedoms, and it will give the family, as a whole, increased freedom of choice (to travel, for example, at off season times when it would be cheaper and when my husband isn’t competing with every other parent at his work for vacation time, or to take our lessons outdoors when the weather is nice).