Monday, May 14, 2012

Not everything is homeschooling's fault

A little while ago, I wrote a blog post about how the negativity I sometimes hear about homeschooling gets depressing. It's bad enough when the secular world looks down on homeschooling; it's worse if it comes from our fellow Catholics; but I think the worst thing of all is when I hear fellow Catholic homeschooling moms trash homeschooling, as if the only way to get any respect as a homeschooler is to agree that homeschooling is insane, difficult, frustrating, and freakish--but we do it anyway, white-knuckles, weak knees, chaos and all.

So then I got to thinking: why are there so many homeschooling moms who trash homeschooling?

Some easy explanations spring to mind: perhaps these moms want to fit in better with their non-homeschooling friends, or they have this idea that "keeping it real" means complaining all the time and acting as though nobody's ever really happy; or they're acutely aware that in our culture actually liking your kids and wanting to spend time with them is so rare as to sound like bragging if you say you do, or they're so tired of defending their choice to homeschool to critical relatives, friends, and neighbors that they've adopted this style of defense mechanism...and so on. But I think that sometimes the homeschooling moms who are relentlessly negative about homeschooling may actually mean it, and that brings with it a couple of possibilities: they may be the sort of person who really ought not be homeschooling, or their situation may make homeschooling uniquely difficult in a way that it's not for the majority of happy homeschoolers out here.

About the first, there is little to say except that it's really not possible for anyone but the homeschooling mom to arrive at that conclusion. There really are some people who due to personality type or background or temperament or similar things are not going to be happy when they try homeschooling, no matter how terrific the situation may seem to be. But nobody who is outside that family can possibly see or know that. I know moms who have happily persevered in homeschooling despite seemingly insurmountable odds, and others who threw in the towel after three months because they came to the conclusion (with relief or heartbreak or a bit of both) that they really, really, really weren't cut out for it. And that's something only one person can discern--the homeschooling parent.

About the second, though, there may be a few more things to say--but before I say them, I want to be clear about one thing: just because a particular situation might make homeschooling more difficult than it otherwise would be, it does not follow that people in those situations do or even should just give up. What is a great difficulty and heavy cross for one family might be relatively negligible for another. But my suspicion is that some of the grumbling and griping about life as a homeschooling mom may arise when one of the following situations is present:

1. There is strong opposition to homeschooling from one's husband or one's extended family. Why would this lead to more griping on mommy blogs and when in the company of other homeschooling moms? Simple: because in real life, at home, and with critical relatives the mom in this situation is constantly being tested and has to prove, all the time, that things are good. Really, really good. Amazingly, impossibly, perfectly good. Even...inhumanly good.

And nobody's life is like that all of the time. Even if kids are in regular school they can fail quizzes and misplace homework and get creamed while playing dodge ball--and homeschooled children can fail quizzes and accidentally skip over a page of a workbook and fall down while playing touch football in the back yard. The difference is, if one has a critical spouse or parents or in-laws, it's homeschooling's fault that seven-year-old Polychronius*** missed eight questions on a spelling test or left a page of his math homework blank or skinned his knees--but if Polychronius were in "real" school, the bombed quiz and missed homework and skinned knee would be chuckled over as all part of growing up.

So these moms gripe to anyone who will listen about the imperfections, because in front of people who ought to be on their side they have to maintain an illusion of serene daily accomplishment--and they have my sympathy, even if they end up quitting homeschool because once again Grandma insinuated that Polychronius' inability to locate Uzbekistan on a blank outline map she conveniently had hanging in her living room during the last family gathering is all Mom's fault.

2. There is a family crisis going on right now that makes homeschooling a grueling drudgery instead of a joyful and loving experience. Family crises come in all shapes and sizes: perhaps the marriage is strained, or perhaps a young child or one's elderly parents need near full-time care, or perhaps someone is critically ill, or perhaps Dad lost his job, or the bank is threatening their home, or perhaps young Ceolwulf has been charitably spending time with the neighbor children, or that's what mom thought until the whole gang was arrested for running a shoplifting ring targeted at the local convenience store chain...well, you get the idea.

Lots of homeschooling moms manage to get through these sorts of crisis situations. They don't do it alone--they'll be the first to tell you. Extended family, friends, fellow parishioners, neighbors, even total strangers who heard about their situation and felt moved to help did just that. People offered them everything from prayer to financial help to tutoring for the kiddies to free babysitting to anything else that was necessary, and the grateful moms (and dads and kids!) offered prayers of joyful thanks, took the aid, and kept on voyaging in English and meandering in math around the kitchen table right through the hardest times.

But other homeschooling moms may be going it alone, even in the crisis times. We hear all the time about the loneliness and isolation stay-at-home moms face in the modern age, and even though things are better for some moms in some places what's true for one area may not be true for another. That loneliness and isolation are hard enough to deal with during ordinary times, but when the whole family is in crisis mode everything about being a mom can seem overwhelming, from the supposedly simple tasks like laundry and cleaning to the complications of preparing a child to take a college entrance exam. When a mom in a crisis situation seems negative about homeschooling, it may be because it's just another huge brick in the seemingly endless and precarious stack of similar bricks that feel as though they're strapped to the top of her head, all of them wobbly, all of them in danger of crashing down at any moment. And sometimes it's easier to crack cynical jokes about how today's science lesson involved identifying and then removing the bacteria growing in the bathtub then to admit to others (which is hard) and to herself (which is much harder) that she needs help.

3. There is a battle of wills over discipline going on with at least one child, and it has spilled over into homeschooling. Perhaps teaching little Begga at home was a joy for the first couple of years, but then Begga got a bit willful, and then she started being sassy and disobedient, and then she started getting angry, and now pre-adolescent Begga is whining every day about everything Mom tries to do, resisting, refusing, storming off and slamming doors, and acting as though homeschooling is a slow poison to her soul (a phrase she actually used. On the Facebook account she set up without permission. And on which she posted an unflattering camera-phone picture of her mom with a rude caption, and shared with over a thousand people, only ten of whom Begga actually knows in person).

Some moms in this situation will blame homeschooling for the discipline problem, which really isn't fair (I mean, seriously, is every public or private school child you know a paragon of disciplinary perfection?). Other moms will work to fix the discipline issue while still homeschooling, and still others will send a child in this situation to school to remove one point of contention while addressing the underlying discipline issue apart from the question of homeschooling. And all of those are great approaches.

But the approach that lets the situation continue to fester while Mom writes increasingly snarky blot or Facebook posts about the myth of homeschooling and how she's learned the hard way that homeschooling doesn't improve one's relationship with one's child, etc., is an approach that isn't doing anybody any good: not Mom, not Begga, and not the people scared away from even considering homeschooling by stories like this.

I'm sure there are a lot more hypothetical situations out there that can turn homeschooling from a delight into an almost unbearable (or fully unbearable) cross. But I sort of can't help wishing that moms experiencing these things would be just a bit more forthcoming about the fact that right now for them personally homeschooling is rather a drag (and maybe even ask for that help that we all need from time to time) instead of presenting a vision of "real" homeschooling as thinly-concealed perpetual chaos and non-stop junior amateur home demolition. Sure, it can be like that sometimes, because life can be like that sometimes, especially life with children. But I have to say exactly what I'd say to Polychronius's grandmother when she scoffs at his inability to recite Pi to seventeen decimals on command: not everything is mom's, or homeschooling's, fault.

***Hypothetical names for children from the Patron Saints website, because we have some really awesome saints' names out there, don't we?


Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity; what if your child told you they no longer wanted to be home schooled? My Aunt had decided to keep homeschooling my cousin even though she wanted to go to a public school. Needless to say, things got difficult.


scotch meg said...

Thanks for the smile today. We had some tough times when we started homeschooling, mainly because dh saw back-to-school as a cure-all, and constantlly questioned homeschooling. Now he is an advocate.

We have been at it for eleven years, and still have two at home. What I have learned, especially from seeing two kids go back and forth in high school: kids are who they are, and I am who I am. School or homeschool doesn't change their study style or subject preferences, nor my strengths and weaknesses as a guide.

Listening to the radio yesterday, I was depresssed to hear a push toward longer school days. I wondered how kids learn to love to read if they are in school all day. When do they have time for reading, writing, and working problems? Will schools be restructured to include these skills? These skills which were homework for my school-based high school kids.

Liz said...

I think that sometimes the problem comes about because of the method of homeschooling the family has chosen. While boxed curriculum has its proponents, and while it can sometimes make some mothers' work easier, it also has a rigid structure that doesn't work for everyone. On the other hand the electic approach or semi-unschooling is a challenge for mothers who have babies, etc. I think if families realized that homeschooling doesn't come in a one size fits all package, and that family life needs to come first, they might manage to complain less.

I think that moms put a lot of pressure on themselves (I certainly did initially) to have the kids finish every page, do every problem, make the same amount of progress in every single subject, joyfully at every minute. It's unrealistic. Kids are going to have gaps (sometimes huge ones) the kid who's great at geography may balk at writing a 10 sentence composition. The kid who loves to write may not know up from down on a map. You know what I had both of those, they both went to college on scholarships, they both graduated (one of them magna cum laude). The one who graduated magna cum laude still has trouble with maps, and the geography whiz still doesn't really love to write (although he's such a grammar whiz that I use him to proofread the newsletter I edit--he's a better editor than I am).

In retrospect,I can say is that boxed curriculum learning really never worked well for us, and even textbooks were a trap until I realized that the textbooks were supposed to be our servants not our masters. The most meaningful learning my kids did after I taught them to read was mostly self-directed.

I've seen families tear their hair out using Seton, and I've seen families who loved it. I've seen families who could have used a bit more structure and discipline, and families who seriously needed to loosen up a bit.

It's possible to homeschool successfully even if the extended family is not 100% behind it, but it sure helps to have a homeschooling community to be a part of while you're doing it. I think what kills things for moms and kids alike is isolation. However, too much group stuff can be a killer as well. It's all in the balance and in putting family needs first.

At the end of the day you'll know you're a success when your kid grows up to want to homeschool their own kids.

And btw, if I had it to do over again I'd send at least one of mine into an apprenticeship program rather than college. Especially in today's market college degrees are becoming far too expensive for what they actually provide in marketable skills.

Red Cardigan said...

Liz: with you on the college thing!

Scotch Meg: that's why there's no "one-size-fits-all" approach when negative situations happen. To homeschool through them or quit for a bit or even permanently--nobody can figure that out except the family! I'm glad your dh got on board! :)

Emily, that's a tough one. If the child has lots of public school friends or has been to school before homeschooling, I'd be more inclined to consider accepting that request. If the child has always been homeschooled, though, there's a chance that he or she may have some "dream" of public school based on TV or whatever that might be highly unrealistic. A compromise of allowing the child (if the district allows it) to take a class or two might be a good option.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, maybe it's as simple as you don't have a vocation to teach. It seems to me that on certain blogs/online forums, a homeschooling mom will express some serious doubt or reservations about her ability to do the job, and a chorus of homeschoolers will prod her on with "don't give up" "it's the best thing ever" or "God will give you all the grace you need". And I think, my golly, if I was forced to be a scientist or a musician (two things I have no aptitude for), I think I would be miserable too. If I had to spend the majority of my time doing something that made me and the rest of my family miserable, I would surmise that I should be doing something else. I'm not talking about an occasional bad day here or there, or a family crisis that passes, but it seems like to me (an outsider) that homeschoolers get so much pressure from other homeschoolers to keep at it.


M.Z. said...

I think the simplest explanation is that the huge time investment that is homeschooling must be justified. Whether it is worth it will be a prudential calculation each family will make. It is not however surprising that on certain days even people who homeschool make the calculation that it isn't worth it. This reminds me of stay-at-home mom and working husband communication issues that arise in marriages. The husband thinks the mom hates being at home because she complains about things she doesn't like about staying at home. The stay at home mom gets to think the husband's life is all fun social gatherings and new interesting things at various times. Of course during other times, the opposite perception exists. Mom is with the kids at the beach everyday and husband just deals with difficult people all the time. Generally a little indulgence smooths things over. Stay-at-home moms are allowed to have good days and bad days, as are husbands.

beadgirl said...

Right on, JMB. That's one of the problems I have with some people's attitudes towards homeschooling, and mothering in general. No one would ever expect all men to be doctors or plumbers or musicians and like it no matter what, yet we sometimes seem to expect all women to be take the same approach to motherhood (say, being a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom). And if some mom hates being a stay-at-home mom, or is just no good at homeschooling her kids, she's just not trying hard enough and praying enough. That attitude can be destructive, and instead we should be encouraging parents to figure out the best way for them to be moms and dads, whatever that way is.

Dawn Farias said...

This is timely for me as we've just decided to put our kids into school this coming fall. I'm due with child #5 in October and I'm just not up to homeschooling through the baby and toddler years again.

Having said that, and commenting towards your post, I am not going around telling everyone how awful homeschooling is. I tell people that I still believe all the good things I believed before about homeschooling.

Dawn Farias said...

Oh, and nice to "see" you again. I've taken a long break from blogs/blogging, but am dipping my foot back into those waters again. :)

naturalmom said...

I'm seeing this a few days late. (My first visit to your blog, I think!) But I wanted to comment anyway.

I just came home from a mom's night out with my homeschool group. There was lots of talk about our kids peculiarities and frustrating habits, but after reading this post, it strikes me how good-humored it all was. We laughed *a lot*, and I didn't hear any trash-talking of homeschooling in general. This was a religiously inclusive group of women who largely homeschool for pedagogical and/or social reasons, rather than religious reasons. We have a number of faithful Christian families, for sure, but they tend not to be the variety that approaches homeschooling as something God expects of them. (They may feel it's God's will for their family at this time, but it's not at the same level I hear from more staunchly conservative Christian homeschoolers.)

I don't know many Catholic homsechoolers, but I do know quite a number of fundamentalist Protestant homeschoolers. I sense a more weary attitude toward homeschooling among them than among secular and non-fundie religious homeschoolers. They talk like it's a burden they bear -- how they need so much prayer to keep going, how hard it is. I sense that a lot if that comes from the fact that they seem to feel heavy pressure to turn out a certain kind of kid: not just a "good kid" but a nearly perfect kid. For example, when I mention that my son would play on the Xbox all day if I let him, they identify with that, but then comment on how much it *distresses* them that their son likes video games so much, as if it's a sign of a terrible character flaw. (As opposed to just accepting that many boys love video games and will over-indulge without limits.) They also tend to stress more than my more relaxed homeschool friends about doing it "right." There seems to be an underlying assumption that there is a God-approved way of ordering your homeschool and if they could just get their act together enough to do it that way, all would be well.

I'm generalizing here, of course. I know some Fundamentalist homeschoolers who do not put this kind of pressure on their families, but I sure hear a lot more moaning and groaning about how hard homeschooling is when I'm in an uber-religious setting. I'm curious of others who have experienced a variety of "types" of homeschoolers have found anything similar. My *impression* was that the Catholic homeschoolers were a little more laid back, but maybe not. Or maybe they are in my community but not in yours.