In September, my son started kindergarten. Every day, Mickey gets on a bus, which takes him about a mile or two to his school, where he spends the day. He loves it. He’s met some great friends, has turned into a great reader, and two weeks ago was named Student of the Month for his class.
Mickey attends a public school, which in these days sometimes feels like an anomaly in Christian circles. Many families at our church homeschool their children, and many Christian friends outside of our church do as well. My Facebook feed is often full of parents posting pictures about their children’s daily lessons and the work they’ve put in for the day. For those who don’t homeschool, Christian school is the only other option they consider.
If that’s the path your family has taken, and you believe that is the way for your family to go, I totally support you. While it was stigmatized years ago, homeschooling is not a fringe thing, nor is it something that leaves kids unsocialized, especially with so many online resources and homeschool networks available to parents. I have had many friends and coworkers who were products of homeschooling and public schools, and they turned out smart and well-adjusted.
But as often happens in Christian community, there’s often a very vocal contingent (usually on social media) that takes a “my way or the highway” mentality and looks down on those who choose to enroll their children in public schools. Conservative pundits and writers have excoriated parents who dare let their kids enter into public schools, convinced that they are only setting their children up for corruption and persecution.
I am a product of public schools and a state university. My wife graduated from a Christian school and a Christian university, but has often talked about how she regrets not going a more secular educational route. We have decided our children will attend public schools.
I want to stress that I am not writing this to come against my friends who homeschool or send their children to Christian schools. We all do what we believe is best for our children, and the most aggravating thing about modern parenting is parents who believe their method of raising a family should apply to everyone else. There are things that concern me when discussing these other options, though, and I will address those. But I want to be clear that this is meant to be an explanation of my family’s method of parenting, not a condemnation of another’s choice.
I know my limitations
To be honest, talk of homeschooling never got far in our house because at our cores, my wife and I know we are not cut out to be teachers.
We are both educated people, but the truth is that if our children’s education was left up to us, they would be in big trouble. I dread the day my kids come to me asking for help with algebra, geometry or chemistry because those are not my A subjects; heck, they’re not my C subjects. My kids had the misfortune of being born into a family of two writers. My wife and I can probably help them along with English and maybe social studies, but when you start bringing STEM into the equation, it’s going to get rough.
We don’t have the patience to be around our children all day, every day. When I step into my daughter’s daycare class or view life at my son’s elementary school for a few minutes, my blood pressure rises and my muscles tense. We don’t have the temperament to spend all days with our children, teaching them and preparing them for a career. If they were home with us all day, they’d probably only be fit for a career in wrestling, because there would be a lot of fighting going on.
Beyond that, we’re simply not equipped with the tools to teach our kids in an educational setting. Our career calling was different. Teaching isn’t as simple as taking information and repeating it to a child. How do you engage kids? How do you acclimate to diverse learning styles? How do you get them interested in topics they aren’t “wired” to excel in?
I have friends who are teachers and I’m amazed by them. They have to do the work of educator, social worker, referee, psychologist, coach and friend, and somehow survive in a classroom of kids for several hours a day without going insane. For this, we pay them a pittance. I could not do their work, but I’m happy to place my kids in the hands of people who have studied how to impart knowledge.
Other parents are more equipped for this, and many of the people I know who homeschool have had previous training and careers in education. We simply don’t.
Rabbithole Christianity is dangerous Christianity
This is the area where I get my hackles up a bit. Because when I explain the above reasoning for not homeschooling, the follow-up question is almost always “well, why not put them in a Christian school?” or the even more blunt (and offensive), “Well, you wouldn’t send them to a public school, would you?”
Leaving aside that Christian schools are not free and often bleed families dry (and therefore also make a Christian education inaccessible to lower-income households), there’s an implied fear in the idea that a Christian school is somehow safer or better than a public school.
I’m not going to pretend that some private schools don’t offer a much better education than public schools. When they’re flush with money, they can hire the talent and take some risks. I get that. But much of what’s implied in preference of keeping kids out of public schools — be it through homeschooling or private schooling — is that public schools are dangerous. It’s where kids will be exposed not only to more bullying but to the dangers of secular thought.
First, let’s not pretend that kids in Christian school or youth groups are any less likely to bully than kids in public schools. It was in my church youth group where I heard some of the most severe racial slurs, the most homophobic insults and saw the most divisive cliques — I probably also participated in them. I became a self-righteous prig in high school because of a youth group that stressed fear toward non-believers and treated them only as targets for evangelism, not as people to love and befriend. The same risks exist in Christian schools, homeschool networks and public schools.
But let’s talk about the exposure to secular views. Because I lived in fear of for most my life that I would be exposed to people who didn’t share my faith and would influence me away from the beliefs I most held dear. The first time a high school teacher mentioned evolution, my defenses went up. I went out to the flagpole every September and prayed for the students I “knew” were going to hell because they drank, swore and had sex. There was an “us vs. them” mentality instilled that made it hard to have a friendship with anyone who didn’t share my faith or to consider that someone whose beliefs didn’t mirror my own might be intelligent or that, gasp, I might be wrong.
That’s not a great way to live.
I want my kids to grow up and claim the faith I do. I believe it’s the truth, and I want them to be part of it. But I don’t feel the way to do that is to surround them with so much Christianity that it blocks out the rest of the world. We try to model our faith in our home and keep our children involved with church. And we believe that our faith is strong enough that its truth and beauty shines even in a culture that doesn’t cling to it.
I don’t care if my kids are taught evolution in school; 20 years after graduating high school, my views on it have changed and I believe evolution is a valid belief for Christians to hold. I don’t want my kids shielded from friends who don’t share their beliefs; I want them to be involved with and befriend them. I don’t want them to be scared of the world outside the church but to engage it and flourish in it as Christ-followers. I believe our faith thrives when we have to wrestle with it, compare it to other options and see if it still holds strong in the world.
I grew up in a church that preached “rabbithole Christianity.” Basically, the gist of it was that you’d hop out of bed, say your prayers, rush through your regular day interacting only with other believers, and then rest secure in bed knowing that you hadn’t had to encounter any sinners. It’s a horrible mentality. It allows our faith to become nothing more than a culture that insulates us from the outside world, not something that we have to keep going back to, testing, and wrestling with. My greatest growth as a Christian came when I was working with people who didn’t share my faith, and learning from professors who presented options I hadn’t heard before. Engaging other viewpoints, listening to diverse views and then seeing whether our faith can flourish is how we begin to make our faith our own, not just something we hold to because our parents did.
We’re all in this together
There’s also a flipside to this. We believe that we are called to love our neighbors and show them the hope of the gospel. How can we do this if we’re isolated? We’re called the salt of the earth, but salt is only useful when it comes into contact with something. Pulling up our stakes and hiding ourselves in our Christian enclave keeps the salt in the shaker.
I don’t deny that public schools have problems. They are plagued by low budgets and overcrowding, and they have the same threats of bullying and violence that exist in private schools. I know that, and there are times it worries me. But I strongly believe that to pull my kids out (were I able to afford it) would be to say to my neighbors, “You’re on your own.”
If I believe that we have a faith that is beautiful and life-giving, I don’t just want my kids to have it. I want to teach them to take that beauty and life into the classroom with them. I want our family to welcome in the friends from broken homes. I want my kids to show love, kindness and service to classmates who don’t look or believe like them. And if my politics champion empathy and support public education, I am not going to pluck my kids out; I’m going to keep them there and say, “I have skin in this game.”
We’re not just preparing our children to be smart and ready for careers. We’re preparing them to live in a diverse global society, and one of our greatest problems right now is that we’re divided and isolated. I want my kids to learn now how to be friends to those who don’t share their faith, show hope to the hurting, love the people who don’t look or act like them, and learn how to navigate their faith in a world of millions of differing perspectives. That is why their participation in public school is so important to me.