As a homeschooling parent I’m continually frustrated by the difficulty of talking about why we do what we do. Homeschooling is nearly always portrayed as a flight from something: bad influences, secular curriculum, bullying, drugs, violence, or simply a broken system. It’s made out to be merely an individual decision, defended (necessarily) by recourse to individual rights, a choice to exempt oneself from obligations to community for the good of one’s own children. But that seems to me exactly backwards. In fact, the homeschooling I’ve seen has produced children far less likely than the average American to see themselves as autonomous individuals, each the center of his or her own universe. Freed from the constraints of institutions, homeschooling is an opportunity to lay the foundations of community.

I’m not merely protesting that homeschooled children have opportunities for socialization — an ugly word in any case. There are “extra-curricular” classes, of course, and frequent group field trips that are part of the curriculum rather than exceptions to it. Not being bound to someone else’s schedule, kids can also, if they choose, spend more time “out in the community” volunteering in museums or homeless shelters or theater groups. But those activities have their own merits; they are not, and aren’t meant to be, a substitute for institutional peer groups, which in turn aren’t the same as community. What matters far more is the informal, unstructured time that children — and, for that matter, their parents — spend together.

Every Thursday, from early afternoon until dusk, the kids from a few dozen families gather in various numbers at one of a rotating selection of local parks. The parents sit by themselves and talk, while the kids, from infants to young teenagers, go off and play as they see fit. There is adult presence but not adult supervision, and so they make up their own games and have fun in ways we wouldn’t have thought to teach them. They have an opportunity to figure out for themselves how best to get along, without recourse to authority. Sometimes they fight, of course, because they’re kids, but they generally work through their differences without resort to their parents, and certainly without trips to the principal’s office or calls to the police. Sometimes they simply learn to leave each other alone, which is an acceptable solution in the adult world as well, but nearly always they learn to see the value and good in even those they don’t like as much.

The group is small enough that smaller groups can’t easily self-segregate by age and sex. Not that girls or boys of roughly the same age don’t tend to play or hang out together, but the groups are fluid and don’t turn into exclusive cliques. Whatever issues a child has at eight or twelve or sixteen are not given gravity by a peer group but are instead given quiet context by the presence of older and younger children: they look up to the older and nurture the younger. They are continually and quietly reminded of what they were and of what they will soon be, and so are discouraged from believing that they are the center of the universe. My own daughter, who is eight, plays most often with several girls within a few years of her own age, but when I stop by the park after work I might just as easily see her with a pair of eleven year-old twin boys or a toddler fascinated by stones at the river’s edge. Even as teenagers, the kids are wonderfully comfortable with themselves, with younger children, and adults. I’ve seen children with “special needs” blossom when they are no longer subject to arbitrary competition and aren’t in the way of institutional planning but instead are surrounded by people who make an effort simply to value one another as human beings. In that context, their needs often appear little more special than anyone else’s, and like anyone else, they adapt, grow, and find a place for themselves.

The parents, meanwhile, look out for one another’s children, not only when asked but casually and continually. And that act of community extends beyond the Thursday play groups, and beyond caring for children. The parents care also for one another, when someone has a baby or is sick or loses a job or has a struggling business. I’ve seen this go beyond friends helping one another, as I’d expect friends to do; there’s an effort among the homeschooling parents to support one another’s children or businesses even when we don’t know one another all that well. We’re all in this, we understand, together.

I don’t mean to make this group sound utopian. By any sociological definition it isn’t even a fully functioning community. However, what we have is made possible in part because having rejected a particular norm, we can assume certain shared values and interests. But those values aren’t necessarily religious ones. We’ve all simply begun with an assumption that family is more important than institutions and that we each are responsible for and to our own, and from that starting point, it’s been possible to accept at least the idea that we are also responsible for and to one another — not through schools, governments, and charities but directly and personally. That’s about as much as can be expected, I think, of a bunch of people raised in the 1970s and ’80s. But our kids? Community is the model of human interaction they’re learning to see as normal. And that, more than anything else about homeschooling — maybe more than anything else, period — gives me hope. Armed with the notion that our shared humanity matters more than our shared institutions, who knows what they could accomplish?

So forget about homeschooling as a flight from anything. We’re not abandoning our community. We’re learning to build one.

Image credit and courtesy of photographer Angie Hill and her son, Braxton.

David Walbert is a writer, historian, educator, craftsman, gardener, erstwhile physicist, sometime duck rancher, recovering foodie, and aspiring raconteur. He writes about various of those things for The New Agrarian, and also for his Compendium of Instruction and Entertainment. Read more about David here

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  1. In at least one sense, ALL schooling is homeschooling, in the sense that children derive their attitudes towards learning from their parents, and no schooling is likely to be effective without support from the home. Formal schooling is a convenience, to be abandoned when it is no longer convenient, or no longer fulfills the goals of education.

    “Freed from the constraints of institutions, homeschooling is an opportunity to lay the foundations of community.” I suggest a better way to express that is that it is a flight from some rather corrupt institutions and an attempt to build new ones. All institutions constrain some activities in the name of others, but all of our activities need to be supported by sound institutions.

  2. In our home school group I often observe grouping or pairing off according to personality type. My (very verbal) three year old often hangs out with an eleven year old, and has learned all sorts of “soldier” terms and games from him. I also observe a sweet patience the older middle school kids have toward the preschool and Kindergartners. They do not ignore them and are not condescending. They treat them with amusement and interest, and sometimes genuine friendship. (Sometimes the older kids get annoyed, too, like anyone would if his meticulous Lego castle were toppled. But extreme frustration is usually reserved for younger siblings. It’s harder to be charitable toward your own kin. )

  3. A lovely article! I too have an eight-year-old daughter, and we are in our first year of homeschooling. I have no regrets about this decision, and have personally witnessed the “community” atmosphere that has been created among our group of families. It is so important, in explaining to other parents who simply assume that you homeschool because there is no other option, to stop focusing on the defense of your decision, and instead proffer the question, “Why wouldn’t you homeschool?”

  4. John, I too would like to build better institutions, including educational ones, and I agree that they are necessary, though (as with most institutions) not to the extent most of us are used to believing. (I wouldn’t use the word corrupt,” because it assumes the worst of people, which I find usually unproductive.) But the sort of institutions we need and ought to have are quite different from those we do have. I would draw a distinction between, on the one hand, human-scale activities carried out via personal interactions and adaptive relationships that are supported and protected by institutions and, on the other hand, activities carried out by institutions. The former can respond to and meet the needs of individuals within a community; the latter have a tendency, increasing with the size and complexity of the institution, to meet first the needs of the institution itself. My concern with education is with the the extent to which both learning and the potential for human interaction are defined by the needs of the school rather than by the needs of the child (and the whole child). I might imagine a future in which formal schools could emerge from and in turn be bounded by those fluid, human-scale interactions, in the short term we will have to make do without them: if the purpose of an institution is to support and protect a community, then the community has to come first.

    I suppose a shorter and more practical answer would have been that I don’t have time to build a new institution: there’s learnin’ to be done.

    And Marie, that observation about charity and kin could fill a book, I imagine. Probably already has…

  5. @Educator, you are correct. I am a public school teacher and have been for more than a decade. My own children currently attend a small Catholic school. Homeschooling sounds better and better to me each day that goes by.

  6. What is striking to me is how what is described here of a homeschooling community can be described of almost any other kind of schooling community. We public schoolers, for example, also believe family is the highest human institution, are for each other, and consider ourselves in this together.

  7. Great article!
    As someone who was home schooled throughout my early education, the home school process seems much more “organic” and “grassroots” than its public equivalent.

  8. Never, damned well never, apologize for treating the home as the best school there is.

    Not that the State is incapable mind you, just demonstrably incapable, to the present day.

    Then again, them 10 minutes between classes are a curriculum I would not care to divest. I think its called “socialization”. In my case, the net result was anti-socialization. But then, of course, I have a bad attitude. I like it that way.

  9. The Rev. Robert Dabney is my good friend and mentor, although he died long before I was born. He and I do not always agree because he is a proud Southern Presbyterian Theologian, and I am a wayward Southern Baptist migrating toward the orthodox and the catholic, although as yet with a little “o” and a little “c.”

    If you can navigate his anti-papal positions in the following article, I believe that the readers of this particular thread will find his Christian musings on “secular eduction” prophetic, particularly since the piece was written well over 100 years ago.

  10. To John Medaille: You say, “In at least one sense, ALL schooling is homeschooling…” I get your meaning, but in the present context, home education is not at all like the situation in the homes of publicly-schooled children so to say that all education is homeschooling quite misses the point.

    Also, you state, “Formal schooling is a convenience, to be abandoned when it is no longer convenient, or no longer fulfills the goals of education.” This begs the question, “WHOSE goals?” As a part of the home education community we and most of our acquaintances have chosen to home educate, in part, because we have very different goals than those the government has for our children. Convenience doesn’t enter into it.

    Further, you write, “…it is a flight from some rather corrupt institutions and an attempt to build new ones.” I have seen the type of community the author highlights in this article and most of it is ad hoc, not anything like an institution and most home educators aren’t interested in creating new institutions. Not that there aren’t some that are created. My children have participated in co-op classroom experiences as well as music, drama and sports programs that could be classified as institutions of a sort, but in all these educational opportunities, the institutions are the handmaiden of the home educating community and ultimately an individual family, not vice-versa.

  11. Three institution deeply embedded in the Western tradition are ecclesia, familia and civitas (not the Hobbesian state) They are in a dance of subsidiarity. What we have come to label as schola is a formal as well as an informal interaction among those fundamental institutions for the training and learning so that children, born barbarians, can become civilized men and women by acquiring, internalizing and living out the great virtues – cardinal, capital and Christian – so that they can successfully live as creatures, with success having much to do with coming to know one’s limitations, and ultimately as Christians.

    The Hobbesian state is an abstract corporation with a monopoly on coercion, with the ability to define the limits of its own power, and with the animation of a strong will, be that will one of a classical tyrant, an oligarchy, or a “democracy.” Its “citizens” are autonomous individuals as per Rousseau, outfitted with abstract Lockean and later Jacobin “rights.” Acquiring character, learning to live within the limits of a creature, and living Christianly are not goals of the Hobbesian state and its hapless allies – the collective of would-be Promethean selves who are actually alienated, estranged and shriveled selves.

    Whether it is a private school, a parochial school or a home school, if one has Hobbesian goals, one is still a Hobbesian school by another name.

    I am quite wary when on the one hand someone calls for a retreat from institutions, or on the other someone calls for the creation of new institutions. Implicit in the former is that we can go it alone: at bit too much of modernity in that. Implicit in the other is that we are so much the subjects of history that we can create new institutions: a bit too much modernity in that as well.

  12. My elementary education was in one- and two-room schools that had some of the benefits described by Mr. Walbert, in that all ages were together. You didn’t have that unhealthy separation of age groups into different classes, different buildings, and even different campuses that you get in larger schools. Especially in the one-room school, older kids helped the young ones; young ones feared and looked up to the older ones, etc. And in these schools, parents were much more involved in running the place. Not that they were always present, but they had actual influence.

    At the two-room school where I spent most of grades 3-8, we had one-hour lunch breaks during warm weather, during which those of us who lived close enough went home for lunch. I even have a photo of the hayfield across which we would run home. It helped make for a closer connection between family and school life.

    But around 1960 there was a big school consolidation push, and bitter battles over whether small rural schools like ours should be shut down. My parents were on the side of keeping ours going. Ours stayed open for a while. But I suppose rural depopulation would eventually have closed it if nothing else did. The building has been gone since about 1980, I think.

    Partly because of the bitter feelings over consolidation battles, I ended up going to high school not where my elementary school classmates did, but to a school on the edge of the Santee Indian Reservation to the north. That was a good experience.

    And I have learned in more recent years how a lot of Native Americans still have bitter memories (sometimes passed down a couple of generations) of how children were taken away from their homes and families to be educated in a different culture at missionary schools or other boarding schools. The purpose was to destroy the influence of parents over their children. It’s pretty much the same battle as the battle over consolidation of schools, and in both cases parents lost out in the end.

    A similar process took place in Siberia, where the Russian Soviet government tried to eradicate family cultures by sending kids of Native cultures in Siberia away to boarding schools. And it left a lot of the same resentments as in our country.

  13. I should also mention that for several years I would volunteer a few Saturday mornings a year to help with a science program that in its last few years was dominated by a local home-schooling group. Parents, their elementary-aged children, and a few volunteers like myself would spend Saturday mornings together working on science projects. There was some structure to it, but a lot more flexibility that you would have in a classroom setting. It gave some of us a different look at home-schooling than the stereotypical view that seems to be bandied about in a lot of places.

  14. I like this essay. Our daughter and stepson are home-schooled.

    He has been for a total of about two years, while he had been in government-schools for eight years and in a Christian school, the best we could find in all of the “City of Churches” and the surrounding area, for two months—terrible influences in all of them, which were beginning to turn him into one. Now, his behavior is greatly improved and he’s setting a good example for the younger kids in church and in Tae Kwon Do, who, especially the youngest, tend to gravitate to him. He’s fourteen, but is in adult-level Tae Kwon Do lessons and leadership classes.

    Our daughter has been home-schooled from the start, at age three-and-a-half when she begged for reading lessons. The McGuffey Reader I rated at fourth-grade level at the beginning (by using Lexile) was the first of all the traditional reading books that had any words she didn’t know how to read yet, so that’s where we started. About that time, she started learning how to add by putting groups of Thomas engines together. By four-and-a-half, she was begging for Latin lessons and in six months we got to indirect objects in Getting Started with Latin and stopped only because she couldn’t hold four concepts in another language in her head at once (who can?) and couldn’t write yet. What is a bad situation (institutional schooling) for ordinary kids would have been utterly disastrous for her. She’s thriving in home-schooling, at age six, having nearly finished the first of the three levels in Latin Rosetta Stone, working on multiplication by double digits, also just joining the kids’ level of Tae Kwon Do leadership classes, where one kid is half a year older but all the others are at least three, and one other kid is two ranks above her but all the others are black belts and red, i.e. almost black, while she is only orange, the second level.

    Home-schooling is a neverending blessing for us; our children are doing just wonderfully.

    I have one correction for you: Your essay is about, not socialization, i.e. the teaching of social skills, but about socializing. Both are necessary, of course.

  15. Great essay! We’re somewhat new to homeschooling but I find a warm inclusive community, as you describe. My kids are exposed to much more diversity than they would be in school, not only because the playmates in our homeschool group are multi-aged with children whose abilities include developmental delays, Down’s Syndrome, as well as musical prodigies and kids who have been reading since they were preschoolers. Learning in the context of family and community, guided by a child’s ability and interest, is how humans have learned (successfully!) throughout nearly all of history. I read that and much more in a book I keep advocating, Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything.

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