Long-term and short-term homeschoolers

I wept because I was re-experiencing the enthusiasm of my childhood; I was once again a child, and nothing in the world could cause me harm.

Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage

One of the more irritating things about living in the age of social media is the sheer volume of people who fancy themselves to be instant experts or to always have opinions worth sharing. That and the tendency to regard every practice or endeavor or hobby as a lifestyle. Heaven help you if you just want ideas for remodeling your kitchen. Your kitchen has to say something about how you live. Are you the kind of person who knows what the term spatchcock means and have knives that cost more than a Honda Civic? Or do you want your kitchen to say “I make my own soap and watch shows about preppers in the Utah desert”? Are you Bunny Williams or Joanna Gaines or The Pioneer Woman? You can’t just pick out nice appliances and trendy tile anymore. You need a freaking kitchen identity.

I tell friends who are new to homeschooling that before they try to mimic the practices of any other homeschoolers, they should first ask how long that person has been homeschooling and how long they intend to continue homeschooling their children. You’d be amazed at how much this question matters. People are trying to concoct and promote homeschooling identities before they even know anything about homeschooling as a practice.

There are a lot of women out there who have been homeschooling for like five minutes and their kids are still super young, but they are out there relentlessly promoting themselves as homeschooling experts and pushing what might charitably be referred to as experimental pedagogical approaches that they themselves have not yet seen the consequences of. When I was a kid growing up among punks and skaters in Southern California, I would have called these folks poseurs. As a far less charitable and far more cynical adult, I have taken to calling them homeschooling prostitutes behind closed doors. They are out there on their virtual street corner selling the idea of homeschooling with zero substance that might actually help someone educate their kid in the real world.

I sort of get it, you are trying to make being a stay-at-home mom work financially, and you need to do something to contribute or whatever. Making your own PDFs of worksheets for guided nature walks beats a predatory multi-level marketing scheme (which specifically target SAHMs), if you did not come from an industry that allows you to work from home already or if you can’t get by on one income. Maybe, just maybe, if you are trendy and wholesome enough you will become popular online and your YouTube channel will turn into something resembling an actual income. So you start pushing ideas that other people are pushing whether they are true or not because that’s how you play the algorithms. It’s how literally all media works these days. Monetize meaningless chatter about creating an extra special reading nook and maybe the kid will somehow learn to read without boring details like phonics.

That’s not how education works. Stop listening to chipper people who can’t talk substance and who have not earned their opinions on home education.

If someone has more opinions about homeschooling as a lifestyle than the books they are using to teach their kids, run – don’t walk – like hell. Just like how Joanna Gaines has traded in her farmhouse chic for modern luxe to stay relevant (now that you’ve bought all her cheap crap from Chinese sweatshops in Target), chances are the people who are homeschooling as a “lifestyle” are going to be part of the statistic that dumps their children in public middle schools or high schools for some unfortunate teacher to bring up to speed academically. This happens all the time. Don’t let it be you because you followed false authorities around the interwebs.

There are a lot of reasons people fall into homeschooling, and those reasons lend themselves either to a long-term or a short-term commitment. Having navigated homeschooling social groups for years now, they aren’t that difficult to identify.

Circumstantial homeschoolers – People who likely would not have chosen to homeschool if other, easier options were still available, but life has thrown them a curve ball and they are doing what is best for their child in the moment, as they should be. Homeschooling is a stop-gap measure for them, and that is perfectly fine. Their kid is in a school where there is a bully who will not leave them alone. They have a terrible teacher that year who belittles them or can’t teach effectively, and the school will not let them change teachers. Officials are making radical changes to the school environment at the request of the CDC that make schools worse than prisons. Whatever. These are all (hopefully) temporary situations, and the parent is going to homeschool their kid until circumstances change.

Circumstantial homeschoolers should not entertain any kind of curriculum that diverges significantly from what the school they intend to send their kid back to again is using. That is only going to create academic problems for their kid down the line. They should find materials that are close to what the school uses or enroll in the district’s virtual school program. And kick back and enjoy having more time to spend with their kid.

New mothers and mothers of very young children – There is no one quite as enthusiastic as a convert, and so it is with young parents and the pride of parenthood. These are the people who are most easily persuaded into fads like radical unschooling because academic achievement gaps are not self-evident in very young children. You can be as lax or strict with young children as you want, but they will only make academic progress when they are ready. But they will be ready sooner than you think if they live in a stimulating environment.

But around the time a child reaches 9 or 10 years old, it starts to become abundantly clear how much effort mom has been putting into teaching a child. They can either read or they can’t. They can either write or they can’t. They can either do math or they can’t. This is not unique to homeschooling either. In traditional schools, this is the emergency intervention stage, and it’s why serious testing starts in 3rd grade to anticipate these problems. This is not the work of an oppressive government or The Man. It’s the product of empirical evidence and pretty much anyone who has spent time around kids long enough to watch trends in cognitive development.

Of the “unschoolers” I have known personally, which are many, their kids can be sorted around middle school. You have the people who call themselves unschoolers because it’s trendy and they want to fit in, or they love how libertarian it sounds, but are providing a lot more structure for their kids than they let on. Then you have kids whose parents have genuinely cut off a lot of options for them going forward because they have massive academic deficits that would take years for a kid who is not born with innate gifts to overcome.

Cultural homeschoolers – These are the long-haul homeschoolers. They started homeschooling because they are genuinely enthusiastic about education and they want their kid to have access to the best of what’s around on any and every topic. These are the parents who made an appointment for their kid to shadow a marine biologist when they were doing a unit on water. They can tell you the best curriculum for every subject for every grade.

If you have made the decision to be a long-haul homeschooler, these are the kind of people you should seek out as friends and mentors. There’s nothing wrong with counting circumstantial homeschoolers among your friends and your kids can still get together after school and on weekends as things change for their family. But it’s the cultural homeschoolers that will provide social and academic continuity for your child across the years.

These are the people who can do lab projects with your kid or create a homeschooling robotics club or organize a group prom. And that’s the sort of community you need to find to make this whole endeavor work for you. All the homeschooling flakes will come and go. Homeschooling is a shiny object for them, and in time they will move on to some new shiny object to catalog. Their kids will get older and they will rebel about being mom’s exploited Instagram muse. And they will get dumped in the public school system so mom can discover who she is now. Maybe she’s yoga mom now. Maybe she’s going to start selling holistic healing crystals.

But you get the point. If you want to succeed at homeschooling, you need to find people who take it very seriously and treat them like your best girlfriends. Share curriculum. Have your kids work together around your dining room table on dissections. Fix margaritas for each other at the end of a rough day. Be authentic and be accountable.

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