Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Homeschooling? For my kids?

Last month I concluded my post on why my kids don’t go to preschool by writing,

“I have five brief years to spend with Pip and Polly before I have to release them into the wilds of institutionalized education. That time is precious to me. I don’t want to waste it on preschool.”

Several of the commentators on this post subsequently pointed out that this idea of a fast approaching limit to my time with Pip and Polly overlooked an obvious possibility. By undertaking their formal education at home, i.e. homeschooling, I could push back that limit and gain more of the time with them that I consider so precious.

After reading these comments, I opened up the comment window to write a reply. “Yes, I know,” I started. Then as I further parsed my thoughts, I realized that I had more to say about this than was reasonable for a comment posting. I closed the comment window and started jotting down some notes instead. The process of articulating my reasons for assuming that I would send my kids off “into the wilds of institutionalized education” had created a cascade of thoughts that merited their own posting.


There are at least three significant reasons why I have always assumed that my children will not be homeschooled. The first is that when Pip was born I viewed the moved to stay home with him as a hiatus. I was taking leave of my own individually defined life for a while in favor of a hybrid collectivity wherein the interests of my children would take full precedence over my own. This sublimation of myself had a definite endpoint: the entrance of out last child into kindergarten. Once all the kids were handed off to the formal education system, I figured I would get back to my life and reclaim something of an identity apart from my children.

The second reason I have always assumed my children would become denizens of institutionalized education is a financial one. When Pip was born, the decision for one of us to become a full-time parent had a financial component. The cost of quality childcare is very high. As neither Ava nor I were headed towards a huge salary in the near term, we concluded that any second line of income would, after taxes, essentially go directly from our pockets to the childcare provider. In our minds, this made the decision to stay home and avoid the cost of childcare a financially acceptable choice.

Once both kids reach kindergarten age, the financial logic changes. If the kids can go to school for free, then other long-term financial questions come to the fore. For example, how do we save enough money to send the kids to college and subsequently retire in the way that we want to? This seems almost impossible for us to do with only one income. Of equal concern is what happens if Ava loses her job or is no longer able to work for some reason? Accidents happen and we no longer live in an economic environment where one can take their job for granted. A second income stream gives us a buffer if some unexpected were ever to happen.

The third reason my kids’ going to school is seemingly a fait accompli is that this is the pattern of life that I know. I grew up in a small town in southern Virginia. My mother was a public school teacher and just about everyone I knew there went through elementary, middle, and high school together. Even the nearest private school was a half-hour drive away so I rarely had contact with anyone who did not attend public school, much less anyone who did not attend school at all. It is difficult for me to imagine that the upper middle class, white, Methodists and Presbyterians who constituted my family’s social community ever discussed or seriously considered homeschooling their children.

Plus, the school system, with its regular events, performances, and athletic competitions, was a central organizing force for much of the town. To homeschool one’s kids and essentially reject the school system was to reject the community itself. It didn’t matter how uneven the educational quality was, such radicalism was not a comfortable proposition.


In many respects all three of these reasons are really symptoms of a general middle class ethos that continues to be a part of my cultural identity. I was not raised to become a full-time father. My role models, both male and female, were upwardly mobile people who went to work each day as businesspeople, teachers, lawyers, doctors, and engineers. They did much of their parenting outside of regular work hours and on the weekends. Even after the birth of Pip, I expected to eventually do the same.

I feel like this expectation was true for most of my peers as well. We came of age in an era where most kids from middle class families anticipated building their lives according to an established checklist: finish high school, finish college, get a job, start a family. The implications of this list, with ‘starting a career’ coming temporally before ‘starting a family,’ certainly were not clear to me when I started down that track, and I think – as evidenced by such things as the “opt out phenomenon” – many others have found it to be a less than perfect ideal as well. All the same, the dictates and assumptions embedded in this list about how one chooses to manage life and work and family are an engrained part of the default knowledge I hold about my world.


In The Agony and The Ecstasy, his novelization of the life of the Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti, Irving Stone describes the work of a sculptor in terms that for me captures something essential about how these questions fit into my ongoing experience as a full-time father. Picturing Michelangelo in his workshop, Stone imagines him approaching a rough hewn block of marble with an idea, an image in his head of what he wants the block to become. Stone then describes him picking up his tools and carefully chipping away at the rock, exploring what it can do and discovering what it is incapable of. With each bit of stone that falls away into dust, Michelangelo must subtly adjust the image in his head to fit what he has learned. In the process, his work becomes a conversation, a series of questions and answers in which the block of marble is an equal, and sometimes the dominant, contributor.

The moment I become a full-time father, I shaved off a piece of the marble that is my life in such a way that the sculpture I am carving no longer cohered with the image that exists in my head. With that chip, some of the fundamental assumptions I held about who I was and who I was going to be became suddenly not quite true. This has left me somewhat in limbo, scraping away at the block and trying to get a handle on what is there, what is possible, exactly where the image I carry of myself meets the evolving trend of choices I make, and how those two entities can become conversant again. It is a frightening and exhilarating position in which to be.

The question of homeschooling brings this sense of limbo between artist and art, identity and practice, right to the fore. Given the sensibility that I laid out in my November post, it seems like I should engage wholeheartedly with the idea of homeschooling. I should test it out and see what it would mean for me and my family. But I’m not there and I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. It’s a direction and course of life that leads me radically away from what I ever envisioned my final sculpture would be. Before I can even get around to the technical questions of how or why, I have to address this issue of identity. Am I a person who would homeschool his children? I don’t know. I guess I am just going to have to keep chipping to find out.

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Nat West said...

Sure you need to identify if you're the type of parent to homeschool, but you also need to identify what kind of homeschooling you can do. There's a HUGE range from no-curriculum free-range radical unschoolers to classroom-at-home types.

Ange said...

It took something forcing my hand into homeschooling to melt the ice cleverly hiding the sculpture beneath what I thought my life was supposed to be. I have a radically new vision ([miserable] 3 figure earning power woman to [peaceful] homesteader.) I still freelance to make ends meet, but otherwise I'm happiest making bread [the kind you eat!], reading to my boys, teasing my husband, not having to make decisions like "who should call in or should we just send our kid in to school sick?" etc. I would never say our life is ideal, but it works for us (or we're making it work for us?). We have so much more freedom now to discover who we REALLY are/want to be.

Jake Aryeh Marcus said...

Twenty years ago when a graduated from law school I had a relatively clear view of my future (financially stable, childless, career focussed) and some fears about what might happen if my career plans tanked (cocktail waitress, pole dancing, drug addict). Had anyone suggested that I would become the mother to three home schooled sons, putting the practice of law on a burner so far back it may be on someone elses stove, I would have thought such a suggestion came from a deranged mind. Even after I had the kids and did go part time, then no time, I was just waiting until they were all in school. Then school was *not* working. It was not a comfortable or reasonable continuation of the relationship we had made. And homeschooling really was. So we have made it work. And it is okay. It was right for us. I'll likely work full-time outside the home again some day and the one thing I know for sure is I am now too damn old for pole dancing. ;)

Daddy-O said...

Homeschooling has been a blessing for our family, though it's surely not for everybody. In my case, we were already homeschooling when I got laid off for the third time in four years, leaving me with no choice but to freelance from home. I've enjoyed the extra time with my family. In our case, we do a combination of morning classes through our local school and independent homeschooling. Ultimately, you just do what's best for your child.

Katie Aaberg said...

I am facing the same conundrum. My oldest child turns 5 in January, and my plan before I had him was to send him to Kindergarten. Now, though, I am 90% sure we will be homeschooling. I have two younger sons, so we (my husband and I each work part-time) are still at home caring for them as well. I figure we can try out homeschooling for now, and if it doesn't work, put him in school. The time/financial issue doesn't really come up until the youngest child is ready for school, so we'll make a decision then. said...


Loved your post -- even though I am going to disagree it.

My wife and I thought about homeschooling, but have had poor experiences with it when we've encountered it in reality. I also have some theoretical and historical issues with the premisses for it. These issues have been reinforced by our experiences. We sent our children to a Montessori school. Montessori is considered an “Alternative” model for education. You should spread you net wider then just “institution” and homeschool.

My historical issue with your post is the obsession with “White-Middle-Classdom”. The sending of children out for education is a pervasive component of any State level society, not just “Whites”. The Aztecs did it, the Egyptians did it, the HIndu States did it, nobody did it like the Chinese. So it has nothing to do with being white. As for being “Middle-Class”, again, not so much. You’re combining Middle-Class with the Educated-Class, though they have always overlapped, they aren’t the same. For example, Rome kept highly educated slaves, who were definitely not Middle-Class, and largely uneducated but still well off merchants, who were Middle Class, who often owned the fore-mentioned slaves. The educated class, who are the majority today, which is new historically, typically had their children educated by professional educators. As a rule writing and teachers appear at the same time.

I think it is well past time we got over this obsession with post WWII early TV America. It’s over. To say you weren’t raised to be a full time Dad doesn’t seem to matter much, it is what you are doing. You were raised to think for yourself, and to be adaptive to new situations, because that is what you are doing. I think that is a goal you should look for.

I do have one reservation that may not be on point here. Jeff and the other posters seem to be spending a lot of time talking about themselves, and their feelings. I think the question that should be asked is “How is it better for my children to be home-schooled over x, y and z options”. In the end you should pick what is best for them, not for you.

The Texas Trio said...

We see homeschooling as an option if public school and/or private does not work out. My main issue against it is the same that most people use against public school... it messes the kids up.

Many (not all) home schooled kids do not know how to wait their turn, are challenged with group dynamics and have a myopic view of things as they usually only get their parents' perspective.

Merry Christmas!

Jeff said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I appreciate hearing how other folks end up negotiating the kind of circumstances and emotions I am experiencing.

RTD.INK - Thanks for another challenging comment. That you can enjoy reading the post while feeling some disagreement with its content is a high compliment. In turn, your thoughts are pushing me to clarify the ideas I am trying to get at. In this case I have three main responses:

First, I agree fully with your final point that a decision on homeschooling or any other option is ultimately a question of what is better for one's children. But that evaluation is made by the parent(s) and is subject to their expectations, interests, experiences, values, etc. The point I was trying to get to in this post is that before I can make any kind of reasoned comparisons between different educational options, I have a set of culturally embedded instincts that make it difficult for me to approach those various options in an equivalent manner. As much as I try to intellectualize this kind of comparison, I am becoming more and more aware of how irrationally/culturally inclined I can be towards one option over another.

Second, a couple of thoughts on your point about the history of education.

(1) I agree with your comments on the historical pattern of education, though I would emphasize your note that the idea of state-funded, 'universal' education for those without significant wealth has a much more recent provenance. To me, these historical patterns are one more obstacle to my ability to even think through the idea of homeschooling. Most parents of any financial means gave up that idea a long time ago and now with 'universal' education even those who historically have been unable to educate their children (due to expense or labor demands) send their kids to school.

(2) My reason for briefly touching on my whiteness was to highlight one more factor that makes me instinctually hesitant about the idea of homeschooling. Historically in the US 'whites' have defined the normative course of action at the levels of public services and public policy. Sending my kids to school would be the normative and socially most acceptable course. Homeschooling them places me at odds to this norm - i.e. why would a white family in a good school district not send their kids to school when statistically whites tend to have the highest levels of measurable success in this system?

Lastly, I disagree with your statement that not being raised to be a full-time father doesn't matter much. While I am doing it, I do not have a long history of cultural logics, practices, and expectations to interact with in the way that Ava would if she were the kids primary care-giver. In many respects, this is positive in that Ava and I are constantly evaluating our own habitual practices with respect to how we parent our children. At the same time, it means we (and others) are constantly judging how we parent our children which adds another layer of complication to our efforts. It is easy to say that this doesn't matter but in subtle ways it always does.

Anonymous said...

I recently read a book called "De-Schooling Our Lives." It is a collection of essays from different perspectives, all with the common theme of preferring an alternative to institutionalized school. It was an interesting read, and while I don't agree with many of the beliefs of the writers, it gave me a lot of food for thought about what will be best for my 2 year old when she is of age for formal school. In my career, I have volunteered and worked in a wide range of private and public schools and currently work in a public school, so I'm definitely not selling any point of view- I think it has to be based on your child's individual needs. Though one mistake I've seen a few homeschool parents make is rejecting the "school system" without knowing what specifically it is that does not meet their child's needs, mostly because they've made assumptions about their local school based on the media, their own childhood education experience, etc, rather than actually going and seeing for themselves what their local school is all about. That being said, I've known of some families that do a wonderful job homeschooling because it's a carefully thought out decision that they have the time and resources to commit to. I look forward to reading more on this topic!

BigLittleWolf said...

I'm new to your blog via JustAddFather. What a fascinating and thoughtful post. Love the sculpture reference.

As a long time parent (at this point), I think "conversation" and art are far more a part of the process of raising children - and their raising us - than we ever realize.

As for homeschooling, I have known a few who have done it. I never considered it for many reasons (not just yours), but among others, because being part of a community with public schools has required me to participate actively in those schools, as an engaged parent. And I think that matters. I think public schools that offer quality on so many levels are of vital importance. And need our help.