The Road Not Wanted
Confession time: my fifteen years of homeschooling were marked by flagrant violations of the Tenth Commandment. That’s the proscription against covetousness, and I broke it in spades. What I coveted, in one way or another over the years, were the homeschooling experiences I was sure others were having and we were not. From day-to-day activities to triumphal graduations, I was dazzled by descriptions I read in books or on the Internet or photos I saw in homeschooling catalogs. You know how it is. You’re innocently trying to do this homeschooling thing right, and before long you’re convinced that other homeschooling families are gathering for family devotions every morning at 5 … after a nutritious home-cooked breakfast, the children happily scamper off to do their lessons (including classical Greek), which they finish by 11… in the afternoon, they work on various projects: performing laser fusion in the basement, practicing for their family string octet recital in the sunroom, and building a scale model of the Mayflower in the backyard … then it’s off to deliver hand-crocheted blankets to the hospital neonatal unit before coming back home to a dinner of fresh vegetables and whole grains from the back forty … and gathering again at the end of the day while Dad reads aloud from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that your family is not that family.
Come to think of it, you’re not sure you’re homeschooling as well as any of the homeschooling families you know, and it worries you. There’s a troubling disconnect between your perception of the experiences of others and your knowledge of your own homeschooling reality. You weigh yourself in the balance and find yourself wanting. Not only do you not measure up, but there are active struggles in your home that are demoralizing. At the homeschool convention you attended last year, none of the workshops related to what you’re dealing with. This is not the experience you’d hoped for.
If you’re going to compare yourself with others in a community, all things ought to be equal. But as it turns out, that’s not the case in homeschooling, because as a community it is naturally self-limiting. Families who try homeschooling and find that it’s not a good fit for them usually stop homeschooling and, in the process, cull the ranks. Those who homeschool for the long haul tend to be the ones for whom it is going well enough that they often fit a certain stereotype that homeschoolers don’t mind being associated with: close families; above-average academic achievement; one or more distinctives (e.g., athletic ability; technological prowess; artistic talent; entrepreneurial spirit); faith or a strong sense of mission to society; evidence of character and maturity. These factors are certainly not limited to homeschooled students, but they are inextricably linked to homeschooling because they are believed by many in the homeschooling community to be the fruit of homeschooling itself. The homeschooling stereotype I just described is true often enough that it is frequently cited as a universal truth. But “often enough” is not “always.” And if there are exceptions to this truth — families who are mightily, silently struggling in their homeschooling but who persevere — those families are curiously absent from the picture the homeschooling community paints of itself.
In 2011 homeschooling mother and author Elizabeth Foss wrote a blog post entitled “What I’m Never Going To Tell You,” in which she shared stories of homeschooling mothers who feel like failures because of the trajectories of their children. Foss is a devout Christian, and what she considers a negative behavior might not merit a raised eyebrow from someone of a different persuasion. But the fact that she wrote on this subject at all is extraordinary. I read many of the well-known homeschooling how-to books over the years, and not one of those authors was as honest as Foss. They wrote of “difficult seasons” or “bad days” (such as when you had a newborn in the house, or your dishwasher blew up); a “negative attitude” might be mentioned, but a frequent suggestion was that your child caught it from you. Or homeschooling troubles were breezily dismissed with reassurances such as “You’re a great homeschooling mom and your kids are going to be just fine!” (two statements that may or may not be true but are meant to make people feel better). Perhaps these authors didn’t want to scare people away from homeschooling by sharing the kinds of stories that Foss did; perhaps they wanted to engage in positive homeschooling PR to counter the negative stories that often appear in the media.
The problem is that an overly rosy slant is as inaccurate, and as harmful, as an overly grim slant. When a homeschooling mother’s experience does not match that described by the “experts,” guess what happens? She blames herself. Moms are good at that, anyway, and when you’re both mother and teacher, who else are you going to blame? Whatever the struggle is in your homeschool, no one else you know seems to be going through it, and this is your proof that you should never have homeschooled. At this point, some moms cannot bear the shame and guilt, and they abandon ship. Others soldier on, reasoning that as bad as things are in their homeschool, putting the kids in a brick-and-mortar school would usher in a whole other set of problems.
When my friend Leslie shared Foss’s post with me, the end of my homeschooling journey was in sight — meaning that I had had ample time to convince myself that everything wrong with our homeschool was my fault and that I was alone in my anguish.
A homeschooling mother who has reached this point can come to believe that there is a part of the homeschooling universe that she cannot rightfully inhabit because she has lost her homeschool street cred. Her little corner of the homeschooling universe, away from everyone else who is doing it “right,” can feel like a leper colony, with the isolating factors running the gamut from student apathy, cheating, disrespect, general immaturity, or poor decision-making, to substance abuse, sexual immorality, self-harm, mental illness, or a young adult’s wholesale rejection of the faith in which he was raised. Though the child is the one afflicted, the mother does not escape isolation; there is no dispassionate distance a mother can place between herself and what has happened in her home.
For mothers like her (and I have been among their ranks), this is the fruit of their labors. They are the lone wolves of homeschooling, their kids “the ones who got away.” You won’t see their families profiled in those “A Day In the Life” books about prototypical homeschoolers. They see themselves as anomalies who fear that they have failed their children. Staring them in the face is the outcome homeschooling was supposed to prevent, the one everyone else seems to have avoided. Are they jealous? Feeling sorry for themselves? Maybe a little of both. Mostly they’re shell-shocked. They, too, had a plan for their families, investing years of themselves in it — denying any possibility of a bitter harvest. And now here they are.
Homeschooling struggles can sometimes be a sign that this lifestyle is not right for your family. They can sometimes be a sign of the need to rethink your approach to teaching or to parenting or both. And sometimes homeschooling struggles are a sign of the magnitude of the mission you have committed to. For all of the warm memories and the fun and the time spent together, homeschooling is serious work. You are doing the work of both parent and teacher, while non-homeschooling parents have their children’s teachers to share and absorb some of the struggles. My friend Leslie pointed out that when some of us chose to homeschool, “We were choosing to take the brunt of the teen angst backlash … we just didn’t know we were.” The other thing we didn’t — couldn’t — know, she continued, is how much more difficult the struggles would have been if our kids had been immersed in school culture. Perhaps what’s significant is not that we struggle but that we don’t struggle more. Looked at that way, homeschooling becomes much more grounded in reality and much more humbling. I think we could all benefit from that.
In addition to Elizabeth Foss’s article, these books address some of the serious challenges a homeschooling family may face:
When Homeschooling Gets Tough: Practical Advice to Stay on Course (Diana Johnson) A great book in general, addressing everything from curriculum to outside commitments. But chapter 7, “Dealing with Difficult Children,” is reason enough to read it.
Engaging Today’s Prodigal: Clear Thinking, New Approaches, and Reasons For Hope (Carol Barnier) While this book is not written specifically to homeschooling families, Barnier is a former homeschooling mother and the author of How to Get Your Child Off the Refrigerator and On To Learning and several other books on home education.
Also recommended: Lies Homeschooling Moms Believe (Todd Wilson). A homeschooling father encourages mothers to examine the myths that may be driving their expectations and to put homeschooling in the proper perspective.