The decision to homeschool or unschool your child or children means you enter the ‘fringe’. You are a radical to some, a freak to others, and just incomprehensible to most. I’ve read comment boards on line in which one person called homeschooling parents ‘megalomaniacal control freaks’ who are only interested in ‘programming’ their kids. Others are convinced that all homeschoolers are part of an ultra religious sect (you pick the religion) whose goal is to keep them away from the evils of mainstream society. Still others believe we are dooming our children to a lifetime of social ineptitude. Even people who know that we are none of those things (there are always exceptions of course, so don’t start writing in about the one family you knew who had twenty kids, none of whom had ever been allowed to stray farther than the border of the family farm and who dressed in black sackcloth) think that we are slightly crazy. Who wants to spend so much time with their offspring, after all? You HAD the kids, so isn’t that enough? The even more understanding people say things like, “well you must be more patient than I am!”, or “I could never take on that amount of responsibility.” I had a t-shirt made up that says, “I’m a homeschool mom. What’s your superpower?” It is supposed to be tongue in cheek, of course, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t get the joke.
My point is that if you are not prepared to suddenly be seen as a radical, it can be a bit nerve-wracking and overwhelming. I’ve always rather enjoyed it, because it sneaks up on people. I don’t dress like a hippie or an East Village rocker and a lot of things in my life could be considered mainstream. (At least, mainstream for New York City) So when I tell people we are unschoolers, they sometimes get really uncomfortable, as though I’ve just ripped off my shirt in public and revealed a large ‘Anarchy’ tattoo across my chest.
Because of this, my heart went out to a woman who joined us at the playground yesterday and who is new to homeschooling. Her daughter is six years old and lovely, and had a great time playing with the rest of the kids, but the mother was clearly stressing. She was worried that the girls were older than her daughter and that her daughter wouldn’t have any friends her own age. She worried that her child wasn’t interested in any of the plethora of classes that get posted this time of year on the NYCHEA (New York City Home Educators Alliance) email lists. She worried about teaching her daughter a foreign language (and the child is already bi-lingual!). And she worried that her doormen were throwing her strange looks because the girl wasn’t at school that morning. (Trust me, doormen on the whole are thinking about other things, and if they do think it’s weird, they’ll ask. My daughter grits her teeth every time someone looks at her and says, “No school today?” She’s tired of having to explain it, so now she just says, “No.”) This poor woman was the picture of anxiety, made worse, I’m sure, by us seasoned radicals who calmly sat and watched our kids play together or apart, caring not at all if they do or do not want to participate in the “Coyote Tracks” class offered in Central Park this Fall.
It takes a while, especially if you’ve been a part of the school culture and then for whatever reason pulled out, to ‘de-school’. I think in many cases it takes longer for the parent than the child. Parents start thinking about school and education almost from the time the child is born. Women go right from reading “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” (a book, by the way, that my midwife told me to throw in the garbage due to the misinformation it perpetuates) to “What Your Pre-Schooler Needs to Know” (also fit only for the recycling bin, in my opinion). This cultural obsession with teaching and test scores is insidious and works its’ way into the psyche. Breaking free IS a radical act, and one that takes bravery in the face of everything from skepticism to downright derision.
My hope for this new homeschooling parent is that she will allow herself to breathe. Literally. Take deep breaths and look at her child. Let her do whatever she wants and don’t worry if at the age of 6 that doesn’t include languages, singing, math and nature studies. There is all the time in the world. Imagination and creativity begin to flow when the bonds of mainstream ideas about school are broken and float away. When my kids were younger and I found myself worrying about ‘schooling’, I would literally stop and take a long, deep breath, and repeat to myself a phrase I read in a book once, by Peace Pilgrim. “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” The rest is just details.