“And the Skylark Sings With Me…”
Newborn songbirds, writes Meghan Cox Gurdon in her book, The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, need instruction in order to learn the songs they were created to sing. A bird raised in isolation will still be able to sing, but the lack of a “tutor” with a personal connection to it will forever alter the structure of its song.
Newborn humans, she continues, are the same way. Learning to communicate involves not only hearing the sounds of their own language but the give-and-take of talking with others and interpreting facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. Gurdon writes, “What millennia of human experience and innumerable modern studies show is that they learn from us. They need us to pay attention to them, to talk and play and read with them. … Babies don’t come into the world destined to express and master themselves. They need people around them to kindle their little brains and show them the way.”
Reading this, I was struck with the (admittedly simplistic) thought that for all of the progress we benefit from in the twenty-first century, we are losing sight of what is truly necessary in nurturing the next generation. We have tried to make ourselves replaceable by others or by machines, outsourcing our roles in the lives of our children and believing that it will not alter their song.
Raising children thoughtfully has never been easy. For most of human history, survival itself was the priority; children either participated in that fight or succumbed to it. Nor did parents have the benefit of modern-day research on the best ways to interact with their children so as to foster optimal development. And yet the human race survived and grew and thrived. Whatever it took to nurture the next generation, it was happening — and it was happening in the context of parents (most often, mothers) spending time with their children, talking with them, playing with them, telling or reading them stories … in short, teaching them the songs they were created to sing.
Homeschooling pioneers Chris and Ellyn Davis once wrote that at no other time in history have families been so sundered. Instead of working on the family farm or in the family business, fathers now spend their days working away from the family; mothers now join them. Children are in institutions called “schools” because, we say, this is what is best for them; but aren’t they there in part because there is no one at home to teach them, to be with them?
The economic reality is stark. Many, probably most, career decisions of parents are made based on the need for a certain income with which to pay the bills. And many of those bills are incurred for the purpose of ensuring a successful life for their children. It’s not necessarily rank selfishness that motivates parents to find other teachers for their children.
Nor are parents the only entities who can play that role in a child’s life. Sending your child to school does not necessarily consign him to psychic impoverishment incurred by the loss of you.
And yet … we are letting economic forces tear our families apart, forcing a cataclysmic change in our roles as parents. We have allowed ourselves to believe that we do not have a unique part to play in our children’s lives … that anyone can do what we do … and that even electronic devices can show them the way as well as, or better than, we can.
What does this have to do with homeschooling?
Let me start by saying that homeschooling is not the universal answer. Our world is what it is, a world that has created a need for two-income families and commutes and mortgages and car payments and healthcare deductibles and daycare and schools and lessons and student loans. Homeschooling is not always possible. It’s not even necessarily necessary. 😉 There will always be families who can engage and thrive while living a mainstream life.
But homeschooling is one answer. It is a path back to the primal connections for which we are designed. It is a way to resist the forces that tear our young from our sides, from our homes, too soon. It is a gift that allows us to live out more fully our irreplaceable role in our children’s lives, to create more time, to walk with our young and teach them their song.
The title of this essay is taken from the poem “The Schoolboy” by William Blake.