A couple months ago, our family went out to eat at a tiki-style restaurant on one of the canals in Cape Coral. We had a long, hard day of work and wanted to sit out by the water to unwind. It seemed like a simple ask.
As we approached the restaurant, our nine-year-old daughter – who is quite an extrovert, we call her our ambassador – met a young boy who was out playing by the docks. They hit it off immediately, and she asked if she could play with him while we waited for our food to arrive. Of course, I replied, as long as you stay within sight and away from the water’s edge.
The boy’s mother thanked me for allowing them to play together. She explained that the family had fallen on difficult times and they had moved in with her female friend, who was sitting across the table from her. Her friend lives in a community that is mostly older people (these are common in South Florida) and he has no other children to hang out with. He was desperate for companionship.
Trying to be polite, I told her that we had recently moved away from a gated community that was mostly seniors because we wanted our daughter to be around more children. She’s an only child and she’s homeschooled, so it is important for us to live around kids.
“Are you serious?” the woman’s friend interjected. “Homeschooling is awful for children! You do realize you are ruining your child’s life, right? You need to get that child in a proper school so she can have a proper education.” (No, I am not exaggerating her comments.)
I am certain my contempt for the woman registered clearly on my face. I cannot even contemplate being so uncouth as to make such a spectacle in the middle of a crowded restaurant, to a complete stranger, insulting an innocent child that’s within earshot. Social media has conditioned people to behave like barbarians, however, and I feel like I am encountering people like this more and more. And when one does (rarely) meet up with a vocal opponent of homeschooling, they do tend to be the online troll personality walking among us, willing to defend any indefensible position to the bitter end. Her husband likely felt the same, as he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away from the table to scold her on the fringe of the establishment.
Her mortified friend apologized profusely and said the woman had no children and no idea what she was talking about. “She does not,” I agreed. “Our daughter is a bona fide prodigy. At nine, she is working through curricula intended for high school and college students. Encouraging that is our highest priority. We would not consider putting her in most private schools, let alone public schools that are now openly hostile to the needs of gifted students. Even ‘good’ public schools have a large fraction of students who do not perform at grade level. We can provide our child with the best education money can buy, and this is what we have chosen.”
I am accustomed to responding to rote, superficial, generally politically-motivated talking points about homeschooling. Typically the aggressor is an older (retired) liberal woman who is very proud that she outsourced motherhood to have a career. She does not understand that, in the digital age, women can easily be present mothers and professionals simultaneously. (I am one of many American women who have chosen this path, and I absolutely would not characterize it as a personal sacrifice.) But what about socialization? (As if reporting to a brick-and-mortar building is the only way to meet people now. “Welcome to 5th grade. Look around, because these are the people you are fated to be friends with for the rest of your life.” That’s arguably never been how socializing works.) Or my personal favorite, how do you – a former economist and portfolio manager, now owner of a financial technology company – feel like you are qualified to teach math to a child? (They always go with math, too, because they think that I think math is hard. I truly believe not having other women trying to convince my STEM-loving and naturally analytical daughter that math is a chore is one of the best reasons to homeschool. But, as it is, if I can assign a value to interest rate derivatives, it should be fairly obvious that I can handle teaching algebra to a kid. YMMV.) Don’t you know you need to get a four-year degree in making bulletin boards and offering trigger warnings? Heck, my daughter can already pass the tests required to become a certified teacher… Why are we still debating this?
(I have always wondered what these women ultimately expect as a response. “Sure, we have been homeschooling our daughter for several years and she’s clearly flourishing, but now that I know a complete stranger has political opinions about education we are going to upend our life to do it your way.” Like I said, they are just trolls and malcontents.)
But criticism of homeschooling is now taking a wildly different form. It now comes with the impression that homeschooling parents do nothing at all, which is just mind-blowing to me. Social media, the traditional media, the online chattering class, etc. endlessly conflate homeschooling with distance learning – i.e. taking public school classes online. I’m really starting to wonder the degree to which this is taking hold.
That is, in fact, what fueled this woman’s tantrum. Eventually the friend returned and continued to opine loudly about education, even after I had turned my back to them and asked our daughter to return to the table. It became clear that she was not hostile to homeschooling at all. She did not even know that some parents pull their children out of the school system and direct their educations themselves. That possibility had never even occurred to her. What she thought she hated – passionately hated – was the idea of distance learning. She had heard all about distance learning on cable television and Facebook, about how it was making children miserable and they were entire grades behind on learning. She had seen all the posts from “homeschooling” mothers about how they have to pound liquor all day to put up with their bratty child and how they think teachers should be paid a million dollars a year to babysit their hellspawn.
It is a fact that many public school systems failed children during the pandemic, and that much of that was driven by malicious political brinkmanship. Many kids are sacrificing their summer break right now to try to learn the stuff they should have learned during the normal school year. Many districts are taking a vacation from standardized tests because they do not want to risk quantifying learning loss. Some kids effectively dropped out of school – and, frankly, that’s on all the shitty adults in their life.
I am sure there are many government officials, consultants, and union folks who would love to have the narrative be about how impossible and undesirable “homeschooling” is, rather than about their failures and motives in keeping schools closed forever based on a web of lies about the health risks.
Unfortunately, this confusion pre-dates the pandemic. Homeschooling groups online are full of people who are not actually homeschoolers, but doing virtual school. And that used to be fine and made some measure of sense. Their kids need meet-ups, too. Many of the kids in virtual school have amazingly active and attentive parents – indeed, two of the big reasons to do virtual school are to indulge a child with a strong extracurricular interest or to be able to travel (which is an educational activity, in my opinion).
Homeschoolers have enjoyed reputations as being tiger moms for decades. Their kids consistently perform better on tests than public school (and even private school) students. Homeschoolers are often sought after by colleges and universities because they do well, have many outside interests, and are already used to working independently. Severing any connection to the poor academic outcomes associated with distance learning should be a top priority for the homeschooling community to preserve its reputation, not disingenuously gloating about how many people explored a home-centered life because they were literally forced to do so by the government. No good can come from that.