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The questions, the answers

I had a very polite conversation today with an adult who learned that I homeschool my kids. She was curious, but respectful, and though she asked the usual set of questions, they were asked with honest curiosity and interest. Homeschoolers always get these questions, and so here they are, with my answers. If you are a non-homeschooler who finds yourself questioning a homeschooler someday, perhaps you can be as polite and positive as my questioner was today.

1. Do you have a teaching background? aka Are you a licensed teacher? aka How can you know what to teach your kids? aka Do you think you’re better than a school teacher?

Notice that all the questions ask largely the same thing, but I liked her phrasing (the first one) the best. It’s a natural question: I am spending my time “teaching,” so am I a “teacher”?

The short answer, which I gave her, is that I was a college English teacher.

But that had nothing to do with my homeschooling, and actually has nothing to do with my qualifications to homeschool. Lots of homeschoolers were teachers—in fact, it’s notable how many homeschoolers were public school teachers who didn’t want to put their kids through that system. Hm. But the really important answer to this question is actually this: I don’t have to be a teacher. I am teaching my kids to be learners. In this day of information overload, no one can “know” everything you need to know in order to become fully literate in our society. This is a huge change from a century ago, when there was an accepted body of knowledge that one attained in order to become literate, then an accepted body of knowledge one attained in order to become educated, and finally a deeper and narrower body of knowledge to attain in one’s chosen field.

Today, the most important thing kids need to be taught is how to teach themselves what they need to know. Some teachers and schools are getting this. But most aren’t. If you look at what’s being taught and tested for in our schools, it’s certainly not how to find the answer. What’s being taught is how to know the answer, which is a whole different thing. The other thing students need to learn is how to evaluate the reams of conflicting information they will be presented with. Critical thinking skills are mandatory in this world.

Both learning how to learn and critical thinking are fundamental to what homeschooling parents do.

2. You must work hard! aka I could never do that! aka You’re crazy—wouldn’t you rather have a real job? aka What’s the point?

Again, she asked respectfully, but homeschoolers get these variations on this question all the time.

My answer was quite simple: We have a very laid-back lifestyle. This morning, for example, was unusual in that I had to get both kids to different locations because I had an appointment. So yes, I did have to call my son a few times (he’s 13, right?) and then he sat there in his pajamas and talked instead of eating. Finally I had to get dramatic on him and say You Have Ten Minutes Before You Need To Be Dressed And Ready To Leave.

The thing is, this could be seen as a replay of our mornings when he had to catch the bus. But this was taking place at….well….8:50 a.m. Our days of having to get up at the crack of dawn (unless we’re getting up to do something fabulously exciting) are over. We have a laid-back lifestyle, and we love it.

The number that homeschoolers cite is that you only have to “school” for about 2.5 hours per day to match how much schooling kids get in the average public school. All the rest of the school day is organizational stuff, getting from one place to another, waiting, waiting, and waiting. Now, I have to admit, I have never spent 2.5 solid hours making my kids do “school.” But over a day, we probably fit in that much of what might be called “school” stuff, as long as you include electives in what you call “school”!

The fact is, you could do that. You think it’s hard because you see that the job of being a schoolteacher is hard. And it is! I am awed by anyone who can spend a whole day with 30 (or more) kids. By then I’d want to go flush myself down the toilet. But I don’t spend my day trying to teach that many kids. I spend my day interacting with my two favorite kids. And it’s really not that hard.

However, I must also say that this is a “real job.” I’m giving my kids a Cadillac education for the price of a used Chevy Neon. When we do our taxes, I see what I do as “income”—finding a private school to do this would certainly cost many times more than we’re putting out.

3. So…do you have time to do anything else? aka Are you wasting your time staying home with kids? aka Are you losing your edge in the job market?

Each homeschooler is different. I know some who are lower-energy people, have higher-energy kids, or just some random combination of life circumstances who really don’t do much outside of homeschooling. But I and many of my friends do a significant work outside of homeschooling. Now, a lot of what we do is in service of homeschooling, such as the board I’m on and the homeschool program whose Site Council I’m on. But we also do things that are both professions and personal callings. (Obviously,) I’m a writer, and my writing only sometimes intersects with my homeschooling. I also sing, garden, and read voraciously, things I would do whether homeschooling or not.

Yes, we have lives. No, we aren’t giving everything up for our kids. We just happen to be in the situation where we think this is the best choice for us. At this time. In our situation. Things can change.

4. My conversation-mate didn’t imply this, because her child is grown, but probably the most frustrating thing homeschoolers get is other parents implying, or telling us straight to our faces, that by homeschooling, we are implicitly criticizing their choice to send their children to school.

Nope. Sorry. That’s your own insecurity. So don’t put it on me. I made the best choice for my family. If you are concerned that you’re not making the best choice, you’ll have to deal with it. But don’t make it my fault!

Homeschoolers choose homeschooling for their own reasons. When other people get defensive about it, they’re simply speaking about their own insecurities. We aren’t doing it to insult you. In fact, you can pretty much be sure that we didn’t think of you at all when we chose to homeschool!

5. Having met my kids, who were both polite and one of whom showed impressive knowledge in our questioner’s occupation, she didn’t even have to ask this one, but I’ll throw it in just for a laugh: What about socialization?

Hahahahaha! Heck, if my kids didn’t socialize so much, we might actually get something done. Believe me, my kids are doing fine, and thank you for your concern.

So there you have it, my answers to the questions that people ask. Please note that YMMV (your mileage may vary) is the motto of every homeschooler offering advice, so someone else may have different answers. I may have different answers tomorrow. But hopefully today’s answers were enlightening!

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

13 Responses

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  1. Tauna G. says

    Love this – going to share on Facebook! More myth-busting of homeschool myths. It’s not a difficult thing to do, and certainly the most rewarding job there is!

  2. Meg says

    “I was a college English teacher. But that had nothing to do with my homeschooling, and actually has nothing to do with my qualifications to homeschool.”

    Actually, I’ve found that managing a classroom full of undergraduates is EXCELLENT preparation for dealing with young children! 😀

  3. Suki says

    Ha! Actually, my job as a cat-herder in the mountainous region of Inner Strombolia probably provided better experience…

  4. Lee says

    Thanks for this. Very interesting. I agree completely with you re: the importance of learning how to learn and of critical thinking. But how do you teach these things? That’s one of the ‘insecurities’ that stops me from pursuing home schooling…I think, How do I even go about this?

  5. Lulu says

    Thanks for the post! I am a credentialed elementary teacher who has worked in multiple school settings (private, public, and alternative). My husband was also a teacher for a number of years, and we are definitely considering homeschooling our daughter when she gets to be school-aged. There are great intentions with many schools and most teachers are incredible people, however the sheer quantity of students and variety of interests and needs among the student body makes traditional schooling seem highly ineffective in my eyes. It is hard for the teacher and hard on the kids. I love your posting and to get a clear idea of how you go about homeschooling in your household. I have also known friends who have organized a small group setting for learning academics. One parent would teach math, another reading/writing, another art, etc. They would utilize their talents and offer variety to the kids throughout the week. They also hired specialists to come and teach things like French in this small group setting. It seemed like a great idea if one could find the right combination of families to work together.

  6. Suki says

    Lee: My personal opinion is that critical thinking is best learned the way it was learned thousands of years ago: through dialogue with others who think. One of the reasons schools are failing to put out critical thinkers is that they have to spend so much of their time on rote learning. Teachers have little time to initiate a real conversation in their classes, much less one-on-one with students. So the students who learn critical thinking in schools either are very lucky to have amazing teachers, have very supportive families, or both. Good homeschoolers just take their line from Socrates: ask lots of questions. Just today I read an account from a mom who pretended not to know the answer to a factual question, so they looked it up. And in looking it up, her child asked another question which she pretended not to know the answer to, so they looked it up. And eventually, any questioning child will come to a question the answer to which can’t necessarily be looked up, and that’s when critical thinking comes into play. You might look up which years FDR was president, then notice that it was 16 years instead of 4 or 8, then figure out why it was 12 years, then ask the question, “Why do many people believe that it’s good not to allow people to be president for life?” Yes, this type of learning is a lot messier than a lesson plan in which a certain body of information is imparted or a certain skill is learned, but it’s the type of learning that turns kids into thinkers and not just test-takers.

  7. Suki says

    Hi Lulu, Locally in Santa Cruz, lots of homeschoolers join public homeschool programs, many of which provide group learning opportunities and also communities where they can get to know other homeschoolers. I did a fair amount of co-op learning like you describe when my daughter was younger. More lately, we take part in the Discovery Learning Center, which is a non-profit homeschool center (I’m on the board, so I’m not unbiased, but I think it’s great!). We have a variety of parents with different skills who come in and offer classes for kids. I run both a book club and a creative writing club. It allows me to share my strengths with the homeschooling community and also connect my kids with other kids. Instead of thinking that children need to learn with kids the same age who happen to live near them (the neighborhood school model), this sort of homeschooling has kids with similar interests and abilities getting together in more flexible ways. I have met very few people who would qualify for the usual public perception of “homeschooler” — a family that stays at home and learns as if they are a small school. Most of us are doing a combination of activities, trying to set up “a la carte” schooling that fits our kids’ needs.

  8. Daily Citron says

    It seems like by homeschooling you become an ambassador for homeschooling, whether you want to be or not. I experienced similar questions when I was pregnant and planned a homebirth- the implicit, “Are you crazy?” the explicit, “Isn’t that really dangerous?” the defensive, “Well, I’m sticking with a hospital” (as if I tried to convert them)…
    It sounds like you handle all of this gracefully, which I’m sure at times takes a lot of patience!
    -Viva recently posted 10 Ways To Save On Groceries

  9. Suki says

    Well… I always hope to be graceful, but sometimes I trip over my own toes and fall flat on my face… 🙂 I try to remember what it feels like to be on the other side. I am, for example, one of your hospital birth apologists. I am very happy that I chose hospital birth for both kids. With the first, we would have ended up in the hospital anyway (he liked it very well, thank you, in the womb and had no plans to come out on his own), and with the second, she might have died on the way there. I don’t mean to disparage the other choice, just to say that my experience is different. But your note reminds me that those on the other side don’t necessarily think of themselves as criticizing in their responses – they see themselves as staying true to their own experiences. In any case, I try to make sure I’m clear that I don’t think everyone should homeschool. As one friend from an abusive family has told me, school can be a refuge for some kids. And as many parents know, school can be a lifesaver for some parents!

  10. Nanasha says

    There’s only one question here that I am actually fairly curious about, but is probably fairly taboo since in our society talking about the economics of things is kind of…well…iffy at best.

    How do you tend to budget/financially plan to afford to not work outside the home as well as enrich your children’s lives with the best activities and materials? In traditional private and public schools, there is at least the funding that is pooled together to help purchase materials in larger quantities and therefore it cuts down on the price, but many museum admissions are quite expensive, especially if you’re paying for several people to go in (even kid tickets are expensive these days). So I guess I’m just wondering how one can manage to pay for high quality educational experiences without going into debt or having to eat ramen every night (neither are good things, I am sure you will agree!).

    In my situation, my husband and I are barely able to make ends meet without going into debt (and saving a little “rainy day” money which seems to disappear the second the car has trouble) and we work opposite schedules and live in a tiny one bedroom apartment with our daughter and soon to be born second child! Plus, I’ve found that it’s really hard for me to get my daughter together with other children around her age (she’s 3) outside of structured class-type situations or weekends at the park because I work during the day and my husband is a zombie from being on graveyard shift and gets home at 7:30 AM, so he has no way to get out of bed at 8AM-9AM for the average SAHM playdates and no one seems to have any activities that happen after 5PM with their kids. I really worry that my daughter will be severely socially stunted because of this- she interacts well with us, but she doesn’t seem to know how to play well with other children her age.

    I didn’t mean to write a novel, but yeah, the problem for me seems to largely be scheduling/time constraints with a touch of financial infeasiblity.

    I do envy moms who have the choice, though….

  11. Suki says

    Hi Nanasha, I wrote an article about how homeschoolers afford it here: . There are a lot of ways, from signing up with charters that give a stipend for educational expenses, to working at jobs that can bring in some money from home, to finding out how to access lots of materials and services for free.

    But really, it is hard. It’s also hard for families that could be well off if both parents work, because they go from a very comfortable life to having to scrimp, and they see their working friends not doing that. (My husband in interviewing with someone at a well-known corporation asks “Is the company family-friendly?” and she answers, “Oh, yes. If the nanny has to get off work early, either my husband or I can usually take flex-time!” Those of us who choose to live on one income can’t afford nannies!)

    But the question always comes down to this: Are the sacrifices you make worth it to you as a family? For some families, not being able to afford cable TV, going to the movie theater, expensive tickets to shows and theme parks, etc. would be a deal-breaker. For homeschooling families, we just say, well, that’s not going to be part of our lives. We’ll make do in one way or another. Depending on the family’s income, the sacrifices will be different, but there are almost always sacrifices.

    Your scheduling problem does sound difficult. You should wait a bit, of course, before deciding that families never want to do things later in the day. Once you get out of the preschool years, you’ll find that activities are not all at 9 a.m. In fact, getting homeschoolers to any event at 9 a.m. is usually impossible! But it is also hard to get us out at the end of the day. By then, we’re usually burned out and ready for downtime. So perhaps you would intersect mostly in the middle of the day. I know that some families homeschool in the evening because that works for them, so you could just use a little creative thinking to find time.

    In the end, though, it’s really up to whether it works for your family. Homeschooling isn’t a choice you make for one member of the family – you are all affected by the choice. If it’s really important to you, keep making connections with your local homeschoolers and see if you can find a way to make it work. If it doesn’t work for you, though, there are other options. Parent participation charter schools offer a sort of halfway option, where parents are welcome at the school and are active in their kids’ educations.

    Good luck!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. All in a week’s play – Avant Parenting linked to this post on May 22, 2012

    […] I posted a month ago, the things that people say to homeschoolers don’t always get received as they might imagine. It’s possible this person didn’t […]

  2. Worthy Reads and Blog Business | Mama of Letters linked to this post on August 16, 2012

    […] The questions, the answers – Avant Parenting […]

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