Saturday, September 6, 2014
Homeschooling and Paranoia
13 years ago, when I was a young mother standing on the pro-life picket line I was in an unusual position. Because I had a baby I was treated as one of the adults by the older members of the group and was therefore privy to all of the adult conversations about child-rearing, homeschooling and the dangers of modern society. As a 21 year old I was also accepted by the teenagers who had come along with their parents, and I encountered a curious effect. The parents raved about the advantages of homeschooling, particularly how they had been able to shelter and protect their children from all sorts of malign influences – especially too-early exposure to sexual information. From the teenagers I heard about how they had to shelter their parents from the realization that actually, secretly, they knew the same stuff that the secular schoolkids knew.
It's something that I mostly forgot about as I undertook the business of trying to homeschool my own brood, but a recent blog entry on homeschooling reminded me of it. There's a lot that I agree with in this article, but there's also an underlying current of hostility and paranoia towards public schooling that I find a little disconcerting. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that I'm not really sure that sheltering our kids is always the best thing, either for their psychology, or for their faith, or for the wider community that the Church is called to serve.
I also don't think that it's necessarily healthy for relations between parents and children. I'm currently raising a 14 year old, and she informs me that I am the Best Mother Ever. But there was a period in our relationship, a little over a year ago, where there was a lot of strain and tension which ultimately led towards lying, sneaking and petty acts of rebellion. The superficial stakes were pretty low: she wanted to be able to watch Merlin and thought that her father and I would disapprove. The actual stakes were a lot higher. Like those kids that I met on the pro-life tour, she felt that she had to put up a pretense when she was talking to me. She felt she had to pretend that she didn't know anything about sex, or secular TV shows, or what it is that I write about all the time. There was a Good Catholic Daughter persona that had to be maintained, and since my daughter is not especially great at the deceptive arts this persona was frustratingly unconvincing and difficult to maintain.
Recently she mentioned to me that she explicitly sees the turning point in our relationship as the point at which I made it clear that she's allowed to talk to me about those things, that she is allowed to form her own preferences and opinions, and that I would much rather provide guidance than censorship. I strongly believe that if I had continued to try to shelter my daughter our real relationship would have deteriorated. I also believe that encountering other ideas, perspectives, and experiences within a context where she can safely ask questions and develop her own Catholic identity will leave her with a more robust faith, and a greater ability to effectively share that faith with a wider community. (Confession: I hope that this will happen. Check back in five years and I might have a different brand of wisdom on tap :) )
Now, I do still homeschool. I offered my daughter the choice to go to high-school this year, but she decided that she would rather pursue an apprenticeship in alternative medicine. She'll be homeschooling with me half the time (doing her English and History and all the humanities type stuff that I'm good at) and the other half she'll be learning Biology, Chemistry, Herbalism and Business skills from her mentor. I'm also still homeschooling my five younger children. But my decision to homeschool is no longer motivated by the fears and anxieties that I had as a younger Catholic mom.
I don't homeschool because the education system is “poison” or because I'm a mommy-martyr who has rejected the worldly-wiles of professional activity in order to give her kids the best. Yeah, maybe I would get more writing done if I didn't have five homeschooled kids jumping on my head while I try to type, but on the other hand I know that my mother put in an equal amount of work and sacrifice making sure that her eight kids got the best possible public-school education – and it was a good education. I often have folks ask me what I'm doing my doctorate in, and I have to smile sheepishly and say, “Actually, I don't even have a BA. I just went to a really good high-school.” I should really add, “and I had my mom.”
A parent who is really involved and really cares about the education of their child can make either system work and a parent who models strong moral values in the home can be reasonably confident that their kids will grow up with strong moral values. Also, there's more to morality than sex and the schools I went to did a great job of promoting social justice, community responsibility, fairness, open-mindedness, respect for other cultures, peace-making, and all of those “soft,” “liberal” virtues that some Catholics sneer at but which are, in fact, virtues (and which are, like all virtues, actually hard to teach and hard to practice.)
So I don't homeschool because I'm scared of the school system. I homeschool because I think that it's better for my kids. My kids. Not necessarily anyone else's. There are about a hundred and sixty different factors that rightly influence a decision about how to educate one's children – everything from the personality and special needs of the child to the parents' ability to effectively advocate for their child in a school setting, to the particular strengths and weaknesses of the local school, to the parents' own competence as a teacher, to the available network of support that a family has access to. A huge number of pros and cons get weighed up when deciding how to educate a child, and there really isn't a “one-size-fits-all” solution that is going to be best for every child or for every family.