I joined an auditorium full of parents and teachers last week to hear psychologist Madeline Levine talk about where we’re going wrong in our education and our parenting.
For me personally, the auditorium full of people was like a village meeting. I saw and spoke to parents from almost every school my children have been to, from preschool on up to high school. And though we think of Santa Cruz County as a relatively populous place, when it comes to parents we’re truly a small town. My son’s current homeschool program teacher knew the preschool parents who in turn knew the mom from the private school who in turn knew other homeschooling friends.
Homeschoolers ahead of the curve?
But on to Levine’s talk: As I sat listening in my little pod of homeschoolers, I thought, we are definitely not her target audience. Everything she said was part of why we are homeschoolers. For example, she pointed out that our education system forces students to think that in order to be successful adults, they have to be good at everything. On the contrary, she pointed out, “You don’t have to be good at everything, you go to your strong side,” illustrating it with the fact that she always has to ask for help from the audience when figuring out percentages. This is a fact of human development that drives many a student to homeschooling: our educational system makes them feel like failures for their weaknesses, and doesn’t offer them the opportunity to build on their strengths.
Another thing Levine pointed out is that plenty of parents are dissatisfied with their local schools, but they always say there is no community support. But, she says, when she’s signing books, “Everybody in line says I’m the only one in my community.” Again, we homeschoolers have found each other largely because homeschooling is nearly impossible to do well without community. School parents are given a pre-formed community, but they are seldom forced to take advantage of it the way we are.
Another point Levine made was allowing children to have “successful failures”—failures that teach them to reach higher to attain their goals. She points out that today’s “helicopter parents” try to pad their children’s lives so that all they do is succeed. The problem is, those children eventually leave home, and are often devastated by their first small failure because they have no experience in it. This is a situation that is much easier to bring about in homeschooling. In school, if a child fails the consequences can be relatively severe (from their point of view), such as a bad grade or in some schools, losing privileges like recess. In homeschool, we can allow failure in a more natural way. My son, for example, had a bad experience with an online class where he didn’t pay enough attention to the way the grades were being calculated. He ended up doing pretty poorly, even though he’d turned in good work. He learned, with no longterm consequences, to pay more attention to things like due dates and late penalties.
She also spoke about how public education has not kept up with our changing workforce. Our public education system was designed to produce dependable factory workers, people who can follow directions and produce consistent results. Our current work world is quite different; factory workers have lost their jobs to automation. Levine points out, “Every school should have project based learning because it’s collaborative – in the real world we’re collaborating all the time.” Again, this is something that homeschoolers are able to do so much more readily. Since there are no grades and it’s all about enjoyment while learning, collaborative projects are natural to incorporate.
What we really want for our kids
Levine reminded the audience that when she asks parents what they want for their kids, they almost never mention income or status. “We want to raise people who are happy and find meaning in life,” Levine reminds us. And our educational system simply is not geared to do that. As a psychologist, she is seeing more kids who are stressed out about school. In the past, she said, kids would suffer from other life stresses—a divorce or bullying, for example. But now she gets kids who get a B and worry that they won’t get into Harvard and their lives will be ruined.
Many homeschoolers are what we call “public school refugees,” people who didn’t come to homeschooling on principle but instead because they were saving their children. I have known former school children who came to homeschooling after attempted suicide, devastating bullying from peers, debilitating pressure from schools to raise their test scores, and absolute loss of motivation and love of learning.
I always hold out hope that the homeschooling movement will get serious attention from people who make educational decisions in our country, but I know that often we are dismissed as ignorant or worse. It’s heartening to know that people like Levine are coming at it from the opposite direction, giving legitimacy to basic principals that homeschoolers have been acting on for years.