Confessions of a home-schooler

Call us crackpots, but our kids spend their days at beaches and museums, not in school

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 28, 2009 7:15AM (EDT)

Desmond and Nini, the author's homeschooled children, during an "archaeological dig."
Desmond and Nini, the author's homeschooled children, during an "archaeological dig."

It's a Sunday night at the tail end of summer, and I've dragged two squawky kids out of the minivan and into a half-closed rest stop on the Garden State Parkway in search of non-dreadful dinner options. Leslie, their mother, is catching some precious zone-out time in the car. After we sit down with our unadorned burger and fries, I notice the woman at the next table, the one who's making eye contact and smiling.

"Are they twins?" she asks. "How wonderful!" Then she talks to Nini and Desmond: "Wow, you guys are 5. So big! Are you starting kindergarten soon?"

Here's where the fun starts.

My son and daughter regard me in grave silence, faces stuffed with processed meat and fried potato product. They field this question themselves fairly often, but they're going to let me take it this time. For an insane split second, I consider a full-on lie, just some total invention about where and when they're going to school this fall. Instead, I take a swig of fizzy fountain Pepsi and bite the bullet: "Actually, we're home schooling."

After various tense conversations with friends, family members and strangers, Leslie and I have concluded that earnest, heartfelt discussion of exactly how we're approaching our kids' education and why we're doing it is a bad idea. For reasons I can about halfway understand, other parents often seem to feel attacked by our eccentric choices. I guess this is what it's like to be a vegan, or a Mennonite convert. I can certainly remember having a weirdly defensive response ("You know, I hardly ever eat red meat"), one where I reacted to someone else's comment about themselves as if it were really all about me.

At the risk of gross generalization, there's a hierarchy of responses when you drop the home-school bomb in conversation. Childless men don't much care; the question is too remote from their consciousness. Childless women are often curious and even intrigued; the question is hypothetical but possesses a certain allure as a thought experiment. As for men with children, they may or may not be sympathetic, but they don't experience the subject as a personal affront. Let's be honest: It's almost always mothers who react defensively when the subject comes up, as if our personal decision not to send our kids to public school contained an implicit judgment of whatever different choices they may have made.

As I say, I understand this a little bit better than I did at first. For one thing, I'm not sure any man can really grasp the competing and largely incompatible demands faced these days by American women, who are expected to be providers, power brokers, nurturers and sex symbols, either all at the same time or in rapid succession. Whether they're working-class or middle-class, most working mothers feel fundamentally torn between home and the workplace. They get shunted into mommy-track careers if they seem insufficiently devoted to their corporate overlords while getting grief from mothers-in-law for not spending enough time with the kids. They're doing the best they can and it's not that much fun, and the last thing they want to hear is somebody telling them, in effect, that they must have missed the latest memo on hip 21st-century motherhood: You're supposed to quit your job and spend your days reading your kids "Oliver Twist"! Home schooling is the new black!

Other stuff is involved as well. Some people seem genuinely disturbed by our decision, on philosophical or political grounds, as if by keeping a couple of 5-year-olds out of kindergarten we have violated the social contract. Specifically, we have rejected the mainstream consensus that since education is a good thing, more of it -- more formal, more "academic," reaching ever deeper into early childhood and filling up more of the day and more of the year -- is better for society and better for all children. This is almost an article of faith in contemporary America, but it's also one that's debatable at best and remains largely unsupported by research data.

In a related vein, some people suspect we have a hidden ideological or religious agenda we're not telling them about. We may look like your standard-issue Brooklyn creative-class family -- two 40-something parents, two kids, two pet rabbits and a battered Chrysler minivan -- but who are we really? Home schooling has become a lot more mainstream and diverse in recent years, but familiar stereotypes endure. As Alicia Bayer, a Minnesota home-schooler and blogger who's one of Leslie's online mentors, puts it, "People think we're all conservative Christians who hate the government and wear denim jumpers."

In order to avoid one or more of these discomfort zones, we try to answer all well-meaning interlocutors with bland, diplomatic and totally unspecific generalities. Not quite lies, but well short of what you'd call the truth. This is a phenomenon known to almost all home-schoolers, from Mormon separatists to off-the-grid hippie anarchists, and a frequent discussion starter in online home-school groups. So it was in my conversation with the nice Garden State Parkway lady in that fluorescent cavern between Burger King and Sbarro.

Mrs. Garden State Parkway: Well, you guys live in the city, right? I guess the public schools are out of the question.

Me: No, that's really not true. There are some perfectly good schools in Brooklyn.

Real answer: There are, indeed, and in any other municipality you care to name. Now, it is true that the zoned public school in our multiracial, middle-class neighborhood has, let's say, a checkered reputation and is mainly attended by children bused in from other parts of Brooklyn. It's a uniform school run on a paramilitary model, ruthlessly devoted to driving up the test scores. Oh, and last semester the principal was arrested for assaulting a teacher. But, honestly, that stuff played only a marginal role in our decision making. There are numerous pretty good to very good schools in nearby neighborhoods that we could have applied to but never did.

Both Leslie and I went to public school and had the usual assortment of excellent, mediocre and bad teachers. We're not zealots with some animus against public education. We're glad it exists and relatively happy to pay taxes to sustain it. As I said earlier, though, we feel dubious about the ideology that seems dominant in public education these days, and especially about the idea that sending kids to school virtually all day for 10 months a year, beginning at age 3 or 4, is the healthiest mode of delivering it.

Home schooling sneaked up on us, or at least on me -- Leslie has been mulling it over far longer. About three years ago, she started to burn out on her low-paid, high-stress job as a political organizer for a lefty nonprofit that was working to end the war in Iraq. At the time, we were in the not-so-unusual New York position of spending her entire income, and then some, on paying a nanny to spend far more waking hours with our children than we did.

Leslie decided to untangle this conundrum by quitting her job, ditching the nanny -- who promptly got a job with a much richer family on Park Avenue, if you're wondering -- and handling the childcare herself, at least for a little while. She had read a lot about alternative approaches to education and was in touch with the "attachment parenting" online universe, which tends to overlap extensively with the home-school world. She started hosting a weekly playgroup in our Brooklyn backyard and writing a blog, and before our kids were even 4 years old she'd gotten hooked into the New York "home preschool" network, a bunch of smart, high-powered, Type A women who've taken on their kids' education as a challenge.

This struck a chord with Leslie in several different ways. She's a hardcore nonconformist -- yeah, she's a lifelong lefty, but one closer to anarchism than socialism -- and home schooling dovetailed perfectly with a bunch of other DIY interests she's developed in recent years. She tends a large vegetable and flower garden every summer at a family house in central New York state, where Desmond and Nini help her grow peas, beans, lettuce, carrots, pumpkins and enormous sunflowers. In the basement she has a workshop where she makes furniture out of recycled wood and fallen branches, and she hoards piles of sewing projects for the cold winter months. Her interest in unconventional education goes back to her beloved grandmother, a renegade schoolteacher in an Indiana small town who gave her a copy of A.S. Neill's legendary "Summerhill School" more than 30 years ago. Compared with all that, public school never had much chance.

Mrs. GSP: Do you use a curriculum?

Me: Oh, sure! Absolutely.

Real answer: Give me a break! These kids are 5 years old. What curriculum was involved when you were in kindergarten? As I recall, it was mainly scissors and paste. My wife will talk as long as you want her to about the fact that there's no real evidence to back up the recent move toward "academic," full-day kindergarten, and plenty of evidence that young children need more unstructured playtime than most of them get. The real purpose of all this formal schooling is to get the kids out of the house and train them to stand in line and follow instructions while mommy and daddy get back to their ultra-important lives as economic production units. If you break down the impressive-sounding, bureaucratically adumbrated federal list of kindergarten standards, a whole lot of it amounts to learning to count from 1 to 20, learning the alphabet and the months of the year, and learning to tell time.

All-day kindergarten is clearly a boon -- or more like a necessity -- for working families who have few other options, and where the alternative is likely to mean parking the kids on the sofa all day with Nintendo and Noggin. Nini and Desmond are fortunate human beings, and we have an unusually flexible home life. I get that. I'm not stressed about when or how they learn that March comes after February.

That said, you could argue that Leslie has developed a fairly demanding curriculum. But that word comes with certain expectations that don't fit here. It isn't written down, it doesn't run on a set schedule, and it isn't based on lesson plans, piles of worksheets or a fixed rotation from subject to subject. It's tough to make generalizations about home-schoolers, because there are so many different flavors, from the aforementioned denim-jumper Christians to back-to-the-land types who live in sod houses without electricity. But hardly any of them structure their time and space so it resembles conventional schooling. That's exactly what they're trying to avoid, after all.

"If you grew up in the school system, you can't imagine how totally different this looks," says Alicia Bayer, who home-schools her four kids in Westbrook, Minn., a small town about 160 miles southwest of Minneapolis. "I didn't go buy desks. We don't sit in rows. We don't spend an hour on one subject and then move on to another."

Bayer tells me she began her "grand adventure" by teaching her eldest daughter to read at age 4. When she first met another home-schooler online, she began to understand how different it was in practice from what she had envisioned. "She told me that one of her daughters was asleep at noon, because she'd been up all night studying the constellations," Bayer remembers. "Another one was across the street taking soil samples from a vacant lot that she was convinced was contaminated with toxic waste, and a third one was someplace in the house curled up with a book. It sounded like what I was doing, and what I wanted to do."

Leslie has loosely coordinated her grand adventure with her closest home schooling pal, the novelist Joanne Rendell, whose son Benny is a year older than Nini and Desmond. In practice, that means they read a lot of the same books and take a bunch of museum expeditions together. Given that one of the main reasons we're home schooling is to give the kids more unstructured time to play and explore, they also grab every opportunity they can to get outside in nice weather. (I'll have a lot more to say about Leslie and Jo's shared curriculum in a future installment.)

Jo found out the hard way how eager other people can be to judge one's parenting choices, having been virtually flogged in the public square after writing what I thought was a sparkling, funny home-school confessional for Babble last year. I suppose it was impolitic for Jo to admit, all at one gulp, that Benny sometimes accompanies her and her husband to bars and other adult social situations, that he goes to sleep much later and wakes up much later than most kids, and that she uses the freed-up morning hours as writing time.

Perhaps it was Jo's descriptions of Benny's dirty socks and unwashed hair. Perhaps her breezy, dry English wit was akin to sticking a fork in the haunches of the angry and puritanical razorback hog that is the American Internet-reading public. Be that as it may, her article provoked an explosion of outraged name calling and numerous suggestions that Benny's terrible predicament be reported to Child Protective Services. One commenter's post, in its entirety, read: "What an awful human being you are. You're creating a freak."

Mrs. GSP: What do you do about socialization?

Me: Oh, we've got a nice support network. They have a circle of friends. They do lots of classes and activities. They go to birthday parties and stuff.

Real answer: My public answer is OK, as far as it goes. But hang on a minute, lady: What do you mean by "socialization"? In a legendary Internet screed called "The Bitter Homeschooler's Wish List," Deborah Markus answers this question by observing, "If you're talking to me and my kids, that means that we do in fact go outside now and then to visit the other human beings on the planet." Ordinary schools tend to socialize children by way of enclosed, age-homogeneous pods, while home schooling tends to socialize children through a wide range of interactions with older kids, younger kids and adults, as well as peers. It's not up to me to decide which is better, and I'm pretty sure both methods have their pros and cons. We like the sound of option B, at least for now.

Looking at the bigger picture, being a home schooling freak isn't what it used to be. We aren't Bible-thumping Christians or off-the-grid hippies, and we definitely don't feel isolated. You certainly encounter both of those groups in the home-school universe, a fascinating realm in which social dissidents from the left and right margins of society struggle to communicate and coexist. But home schooling has become a broad and diverse phenomenon found at all socioeconomic levels and in all regions of the country, and it can't be summarized with easy demographic labels.

At the time of the 1970 census, there were a reported 15,000 home-schoolers in the entire United States, nearly all of them presumed to be members of religious minorities who objected to the contents or method of public education. By 2007, the Department of Education estimated that there were 1.5 million home-schooled children in the country -- almost 3 percent of the school-age population -- but admitted that the real number was likely higher. Furthermore, in the same DOE survey, only 36 percent of home schooling parents picked a desire to provide "religious and moral instruction" as the No. 1 reason for their decision.

Now, I suspect that response fails to capture the full extent of faith-driven home schooling, but it does suggest that the phenomenon is more complicated than many people suppose. A rough but reasonable guess might be that one-quarter to one-third of home-schoolers -- say, 450,000 school-age kids -- come from more or less secular backgrounds, and that proportion is probably growing. Just as important, not every home-schooler who happens to be religious is home schooling solely or primarily for religious reasons. There's a vibrant African-American home schooling scene, for instance, and while a lot of the folks involved are Christians, many say their top concern is the destructive culture they see in public school.

Our support network in New York is diverse in many ways, but it definitely lacks the extraordinary racial, ethnic, religious and economic heterogeneity you find in the city's public schools. Our home-school cadre mostly consists of creative professionals with flexible work lives -- writers, actors, artists, musicians, academics -- both because those are people who can conceivably accommodate home schooling in their lives and because those are people who share a nonconformist attitude toward work, authority and institutions. Do we regret not exposing our kids to the intense cultural melting pot of New York's school system? Sometimes, sure. But we're also not exposing them to bullying, arbitrary systems of order and discipline, age-inappropriate standards of behavior, and the hegemony of corporatized kid culture. Desmond and Nini have never heard of "Transformers," and we're OK with that.

Mrs. GSP: God, I could never do that! Why in the world are you doing it?

Me: [Polite laugh] It works for us, for now. It's not some lifetime commitment. We're not sure about anything beyond this year.

Real answer: I'm not here to recruit you, and I'm not sure what the ritual pronouncement "I could never do that" -- which comes up in almost all these conversations -- really means. Does it mean you're not interested? Fine. Does it mean you feel envious, but you couldn't pull it off for financial, logistical or psychological reasons? (Leslie and Jo have had women tell them this explicitly.) Does it mean that at some level you don't feel too certain about the way you've lived your life and raised your children and what the point of it all was? Yeah, me too. That part doesn't have much to do with home schooling, I don't think.

As for the "why" question: We're not ready to surrender our kids, and ourselves, to a 10-month-a-year, all-day institution whose primary goal, at least at this age, seems to be teaching kids how to function within a 10-month-a-year, all-day institution. Our kids are learning plenty -- not exactly the same things other kindergarteners learn, I suppose, but plenty. They're making friends and having fun. They can go to the beach on gorgeous fall afternoons, or hit zoos and museums on crisp winter mornings, when other kids are sitting at desks doing worksheets about the letter B. Hell, I wish I could do it.

If I really felt like spilling my guts to Mrs. Rest Stop, I'd tell her that home schooling can be a difficult and draining way to live. Leslie gets overloaded and loses her temper sometimes. After a day as home-school mommy she can be so exhausted that she makes it halfway through a glass of wine and passes out at 9 o'clock. I get distracted and irritable, torn between my demanding work schedule and my desire to unplug the computer and spend time with my weird, adventurous family. I could also assure her that we wouldn't be doing this if it didn't come with a host of unexpected delights.

This is just the beginning of what could be an extended experiment, full of surprises and pitfalls. If I told you I knew how it was going to turn out, I'd be lying far worse than I lied to Mrs. GSP. Legally speaking, we're not even home-schoolers yet. In New York, as in most other states, kindergarten is not compulsory; we don't have to notify any bureaucrats or file any paperwork until next year. I think home schooling has brought Leslie and me closer together, after a difficult period in our marriage. (By definition, having twins from birth to age 4 constitutes a difficult time in one's marriage.) The four of us are a pretty tight unit -- it's not us against the world, but us in the world, trying to experience the days as they come.

We've planted seeds and watched them grow into sunflowers taller than Daddy; read books about Alexander Calder and Squanto and the warm-blooded, egg-laying Maiasaura; told stories about how our beloved bunny Picaro made his final voyage into the Egyptian Land of the Dead. We say goodbye to the setting sun (when we remember to) and greet each new day with tremendous enthusiasm, often much closer to dawn than the adults would prefer. I'm not saying that other families don't do that stuff too. I guess I'm saying what I said already: It works for us.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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