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Authoritative homeschooling

One of the questions that new homeschoolers often ask is “how am I ever going to get my child to do any work?” Having had a child in school, they lament, “it was hard enough to get him to do homework!”

Like everything in homeschooling, the answer depends on the family, their values, the choices they make, and how they view their roles. But in general, the approaches can be broken up into three groups: authoritarian, pure unschooling, and authoritative.

Authoritarian homeschoolers are perhaps the ones that the general public is most familiar with. Most conservative homeschooling families work on some version of the authoritarian model, because that’s also the model they parent by. Authoritarian families, when they transition from school to homeschool, are less likely to have a huge change in their relationship with their children. They started out already viewing their role as parents in a way that works well with a school-based model of homeschooling: “Because I told you to” is an explanation that their children are familiar with, so transitioning to a school-based model of homeschooling can work quite smoothly.

Homeschoolers who embrace pure unschooling—child-led learning where the parents do not impose any restrictions or requirements on what and how the child learns—generally spring from families that already follow a similar model of parenting. I’ve seen plenty of parents who express an interest in pure unschooling quake at really following through when their children decide to play computer games for 36 hours straight! This model of homeschooling is as hard for parents to follow as authoritarian homeschooling, if this isn’t the way their families work already. The families that this approach works for are families that already follow something like this model in their parenting style.

What what are we left with? Most of the families I know who are moving from school to homeschool do not already run authoritarian households, and would not be comfortable with a pure unschooling approach. Immediately, they ask the question, “How am I ever going to get my child to do any work?” and it’s a complicated question for them. I think the best answer for those of us in the middle lies in translating the “authoritative” style of parenting to a similar model for homeschooling. Parenting Science offers a nicely laid out definition of what authoritative parenting is (whether or not you consider yourself “science-minded”). Starting from that definition, here’s how I would translate this approach to homeschooling:

  • Like pure unschoolers, authoritative homeschoolers respond to their children’s interests, passions, and desires.
  • Unlike pure unschoolers, however, authoritative homeschoolers offer firm guidance and structure to help their children learn knowledge and skills that the parents believe are important.
  • Like authoritarian homeschoolers, authoritative homeschoolers embrace the idea that there is a body of knowledge and certain skills that should be taught in their homeschool.
  • Unlike authoritarian homeschoolers, however, authoritative homeschoolers encourage their children to question the validity of what they are studying, argue for changes in curriculum or approach, and lead their own studies when appropriate.
  • Authoritative homeschoolers value a balance between freedom and responsibility: for us, homeschooling is about freeing our children from the unreasonable and sometimes harmful expectations of school, while not freeing them from the responsibility to become educated, productive adults.
  • Authoritative homeschoolers want to produce independent thinkers, but we also want to produce adults who have self-discipline, understand how to set and meet goals, and respect the differing opinions and goals of other people.

Here are two examples of how this works in a real-world homeschool:

I hate math!

Your 9-year-old daughter says she really hates math and wants to stop studying math altogether. You believe that not only are math skills important for life in general, but you know that your daughter’s current ambition is to be a veterinarian, and without strong math skills, she will not be able to make that goal.

As an authoritative parent, you know that your child will not necessarily have the same goal when she’s 18 that she has now, but you honor your child’s goal and support her in trying to achieve it. You are tempted to lay down the law and say that your daughter WILL learn long division NOW and she won’t get up from the table until she does it. However, you know that the result will be screaming, tears, and bad feelings that will result in no learning at all.

So instead, you back off and set a meeting time to talk about what is going to happen with math. You ask your daughter why she doesn’t like math, and you listen without criticizing her. You find out, about ten minutes into the conversation, that she actually doesn’t want to stop math—she wants to stop (for now) working on long division, which is very frustrating to her. She tells you that what she’d really like to do is some cool geometry projects. You remember a curriculum you looked at and show it to her on the company’s website. She agrees that it looks fun and that for the next few months you will study geometry and lay off long division.

You may or may not (depending on how your family works) set an official meeting time in a few months to revisit the issue.

 I’m sick of this class.

You have a 15-year-old son who agreed that it was time to try out taking classes that had assignments and deadlines. He has done some goal-setting with you and has stated an interest into getting into a certain university that is quite competitive. Together you’ve researched what that college and others like it will want to see on a transcript.

So he signed up for two classes: an online math class and an in-person English class. For the first couple of months, he was doing pretty well. There was a hump where he wanted to drop out of the class early on, but after you talked it through with him, it turned out that he was feeling demoralized because he didn’t know about something that all the other kids seemed to get really easily. So you asked his uncle, who is an engineer, to help him out, and once he understood the problem he got back on track.

But now it’s spring and he has been playing baseball and spending more time with friends. The English class, he says, is too demanding. He just can’t do the work. He wants to drop out. You don’t tell him that dropping out is not an option because you know that this will turn it into a power struggle, which will mean no one will really win. Instead, you sit down with him and look at what he’s done so far, and how much is left. He has done 90% of the reading and has one paper left. He sees already, once you present what he’s done, that he’s on the home stretch.

You ask him what he will put on his transcript for spring semester when he’s applying to colleges, and he admits that it would be good to be able to say that he completed a course. You ask him if he wants to repeat it in the summer, when he was hoping to take time off from academic work, or in the fall, when he was planning an already full schedule. He agrees that he should just put in the effort to try to finish. He asks whether you think the teacher would give him a short extension on the paper. You say that it wouldn’t hurt to ask, but that he should have his reasons ready. Well, he admits, wanting to play more baseball is probably not the most compelling argument. He asks you to help him put goals on his schedule so he can make sure he gets it done on time.

These two examples are idealized, though they are altered forms of things that have happened in our household. But I think the authoritative model offers parents a way to work through homeschooling snags without damaging their relationships with their children. I admit that I don’t always remember to follow my own advice, and there are days in our house when I attempt to force my will, or just give up altogether and let them do something I don’t agree with. But our most successful homeschooling moments follow the authoritative model, where I involve my child – and sometimes the whole family – in decision-making and goal setting.

Posted in Homeschooling, Parenting.


3 Responses

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  1. gasstationwithoutpumps says

    typo on your 5th bullet point. You meant “authoritative” but wrote “authoritarian”. The similarity of the words for two distinctly different parenting strategies is one reason I never use those words in this context.

    • Suki says

      Thanks, I’ve fixed it! Yes, the words are confusingly similar but that also points out how easy it is to mistake an authoritarian point of view for an authoritative one!

  2. Aravinda says

    Interesting ideas.

    Even those who don’t think of themselves as authoritative and who aspire to democratic learning and unschooling, will exert authority at some level – the key is to be answerable, to encourage questioning authority.



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