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Getting together with the tribe

As my daughter and I were preparing to attend our local homeschooling conference last weekend, she asked a very good question: “Why don’t school families have a fun conference to go to?”

It was a little hard to answer. The immediate quip that came to mind—”because they’re boring?”—wasn’t fair to school parents, many of whom are fabulously creative and fun just like homeschooling parents. And “because they don’t want to do things with their kids” isn’t fair or accurate either.

The complicated answer, I think, is that it’s harder for school parents to find their tribe. They have friends, of course, and networks of people that they connect with through their work, their creative pursuits, and their families. But few school parents have what homeschoolers have: a tribe that welcomes their whole family.

A tribe is not a group of people who all know each other. A tribe does not have to include only people who like and approve of each other. People in a tribe are not uniformly similar.


Not actually a photo from the conference because I forgot to take photos! But weaving using t-shirt loops on hula hoops is exactly the sort of thing one does at a homeschooling conference…

But a tribe is an affiliation that somehow transcends daily concerns: people in your tribe are not necessarily people you’d want to have over to dinner, but still, they’re your tribe. People in your tribe may differ quite a bit from you in how they run their lives and make their decisions, but still, they’re your tribe.

Homeschoolers are a tribe by choice, but once we join, we become insanely protective of each other. Dare to write a blog against homeschooling? Expect us to pass it around Facebook and inundate you with tirades about why you’re wrong. Are you a homeschooler needing support? Just get it on your local e-mail group and other homeschoolers will show up at your home, or offer you a space in theirs.

Homeschoolers vary just as widely in their social and political views as other families, yet we are still part of the tribe. The conference we went to doesn’t check your homeschooling credentials at the door—they just open it wide and expect that we’ll all be one big happy family.

And we are. Those of us who homeschool with curriculum and expect our children to meet standards hang at the pool with our dedicated unschoolers who pursue child-led learning. Those of us who homeschool with religious conviction build boxes next to those of us who teach evolution and moral relativism. Those of us who voted for Obama learned about emotional intelligence next to those who voted for Romney or even further right. When you’re a member of a tribe, you don’t have to agree.

So what makes our tribe so tribal?

For one, homeschoolers, though we homeschool by choice, feel like an oppressed minority. Sometimes we need to be around each other so that we can feel something like normal. One of the participants in my From School to Homeschool talk said that she knew that once she started homeschooling, all her neighbors would think she was weird. “You’re a homeschooler now,” I replied. “Welcome to being weird.” In our tribe, we celebrate weird together.

For another, homeschoolers are doing something incredibly difficult. Like salmon swimming against the flow of a mighty river, we look over our shoulders at each other and pant out, “Good job! Keep it up! Don’t listen to that guy who just floated by downstream on his raft!” With a daily flood of pressure to go with the cultural and educational mainstream, we form a pretty fierce bond with each other, even if we don’t agree on the particulars of how we do things.

I’m sorry that school parents don’t really have anything similar to our conference to go to. Yes, they can attend events with their kids, but there is no tribal bond with the other families to draw on. Homeschoolers at our conferences are bound together in an inspiring, creative, energetic mass. It’s a great time when we get together and re-energize ourselves, drawing on the group’s strength to keep swimming against the tide.

Posted in Homeschooling, Parenting.

2 Responses

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  1. gasstationwithoutpumps says

    I’m not sure I agree with you, Suki. My son did 10 years of school before starting home schooling, and I found just as much bonding among school parents as among homeschool parents. The biggest difference was that the school parents tended to have enough numbers to bond at the school, and not need state-wide or national conferences to find critical mass.

    Not all parents are active at the schools, but for those who want to be, there are plenty of opportunities. Some schools push parents away from the students, asking them mainly to be fund-raisers and party-planners. I was less happy with those schools than with the ones that encouraged parents to run after-school clubs and volunteer in the classrooms.

  2. Suki says

    Well, my son was in four schools, and my daughter in two schools, before I started homeschooling. I was deeply involved in the parent community in all of those schools but one, and I can assure you that there was nothing to compare with what we find at the homeschool conference. The schools never attempted to do anything larger than, say, a festival day, and there was almost always a fundraising aspect of those that made them seem more like work and less like community. There was never, ever a chance for the families to share their talents and passions on the level that happens at a homeschooling conference. There was always a deference to the teachers as the ones in control, and parents were just “helping out.” And never, ever do a bunch of unrelated schools have a get-together where they do something like this.

    I’m not saying that there weren’t wonderful things about all these schools. But fundamentally, parents think of schools as places that educate their kids. As community-minded as a school might be, it’s hard to build a community where everyone gives and takes part. And I’ve never found a school like that. Not like at the conference, where parents were in some rooms, sharing information with each other. An adult in another room might be sharing an academic or artistic interest with teens. Outside, a mom-now-grandma comes every year with a truck full of wood and tools and teaches carpentry. In the grove, at least three large tables at a time were taken up by people who brought art projects or activities to do with families. A large portion of the people at the conference was at one time giving and at another time receiving. Not all these people know each other – in fact, most don’t. They come from all over the state. They have different ideas about pretty much everything. But when they get together, it’s a weekend of mutual giving and receiving. I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it in the schooling world. The most community-minded schools don’t expect their parents to take part this way (and frankly, probably don’t want them to).

    It really is a difference between homeschooling and schooling, and I believe that the character of homeschooling conferences comes directly from the fact that there is no hierarchy in the homeschooling world. No one is in charge, no one is ever permanently on the giving or receiving end. It’s really a special thing that I haven’t seen an equivalent of in the school world.

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