Homeschool Worries: Erased With Research & Experience

school versus homeschool, homeschooling research,

I never planned to homeschool. I am the daughter, niece, and granddaughter of excellent public school teachers. I cheerfully volunteered in my children’s classrooms and worked on parent committees. I believed in doing my best to change a flawed system from within.

Yet I kept seeing school wasn’t a good fit for my children. Our four-year-old already knew how to read, but had to practice sight words in preschool anyway. Our sweet but inattentive second-grader was deemed a good candidate for Ritalin by his teacher. Our fifth-grader could do college level work, but due to cuts in the gifted program had to follow grade-level curriculum along with the rest of her class. Our freshman was an honors student but detested school, not only the hours of homework but the trial of dealing with a few teens who were harassing him.

We became homeschoolers overnight when those teens pulled a gun on my oldest in the school hallway, telling him he wouldn’t live to see the end of the day. School officials, who had done nothing to ease the harassment, didn’t even call the police. The next morning every reason I had to avoid homeschooling stared me in the face. So did my kids. They were eager to learn on their own terms.

Here are a few of the misconceptions homeschooling erased for me.

growth mindset, homeschool, children's self-regulation,

1. Education that counts happens in school. My kids were growing up in an enriching home. We read aloud every day and enjoyed wide-ranging conversations. We went to parks, museums, and plays. But I was raised to believe that formal education is something separate and measurable.

Still, I saw that my kids learned most eagerly when filled with the aliveness we call curiosity. That’s true of all of us: learning sticks when we’re interested. When we’re not, much of what we learn tends to become inaccessible after the grade is earned. Hard as it is to believe, studies show that that shallow thinking is actually related to higher test scores. (Maybe we acknowledge this reality when we prepare kids for tests by saying, “Don’t overthink it.”)

When we’re curious we not only retain what we learn, we’re also inspired to pursue the interconnected directions it leads us. I saw this the summer before we began homeschooling. My eight-year-old, the one who barely paid attention in school, was playing with balsa airplanes brought to a picnic by a family friend who piloted his own plane. Other kids gave up after the planes broke, but my son worked to fashion the pieces into newly workable aircraft. This gentleman showed him a few modifications and the unlikely looking planes flew. After that my son was on a quest. He loaded up on books at each library visit, telling us about Bernoulli’s principle, aviation history, and experimental aircraft. He begged for balsa to make models of his own design, each somewhat more sophisticated as he overcame earlier mistakes. The next time we met up with this friend my son was offered a ride on his Cessna. It was the highlight of his summer. His interest in planes eventually waned, but not the knowledge he gained. He’d taught himself history, science, math, and more importantly, shown himself just how capable he was.

His pursuit is what researcher Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, calls a growth mindset. It’s the understanding that achievement comes from purposeful engagement, that talent and smarts are not fixed traits but are developed through persistence. A growth mindset is linked to resilience and accomplishment throughout life. That’s education that counts!

late reading, early reading, homeschooling,

2. Kids have to follow grade-level standards. I once thought homeschoolers had to follow conventional school standards. You know what I mean, if it’s second grade it’s time to learn about ancient Rome, multiplication, and adverbs. For my family, an overly school-ish approach never made sense. I can give dozens of reasons, but here’s one that springs to mind.

Kids develop unevenly. They may be way ahead in reading and struggle in math, able to make up imaginative stories but not coordinated enough to easily to write or type them. If they don’t advance evenly in school, quite a bit of attention is focused on where they’re lacking (extra help, easier and more repetitive work, labels, poor grades). But outside of school it’s easy to emphasize their strengths while other areas are mastered gradually without ever being considered “deficiencies.” This has a basis in current research which shows that children are remarkably good at self-regulating. They’re cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex, but instead are drawn to learn from situations that offer the right amount of challenge.

For example, it’s well known in the homeschooling community that many kids aren’t ready to read at five or six. Some aren’t ready until they’re several years older. In school that’s a crisis, because every subject is taught using reading. The child who can’t read not only grows disheartened, he also feels stigmatized. But as a homeschooler he remains immersed in a learning-rich lifestyle whether he reads or not because homeschooling is infinitely adaptable. Stories abound of homeschooled children who move quickly from non-reading to zipping through Harry Potter books once they’re ready. A recent study showed that homeschooled children whose parents don’t push them to learn to read, but instead emphasize the joy of reading, end up with kids who are avid readers no matter if these kids started reading early or late. In our family, we found our kids eagerly accomplished far more in a whole range of subjects over time. “Grade-level” expectations were, to us, limitations.

easy homeschooling,

3. The parent has to be teacher/coach/principal. Being a mother to my children has always been richly rewarding (okay, maybe not in the colicky phase). I didn’t want to take on other roles. Turns out I didn’t have to. We found homeschooling to be an immediate stress reduction. My kids got enough sleep, woke rested, and don’t have to rush through the day. Instead they had ample time for conversation, reading, indulging in art projects and experiments, finding the answers to questions, and going on adventures. Our live were guided by fascination, not bells. Much less control on my part was required.

I found that our cultural emphasis on adult-led activities is somewhat counterproductive. We assume children benefit from the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports, lots of lessons, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these advantages although there’s limited evidence that all this effort has value. We do this because we believe that learning stems from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more children will benefit.

But studies show that a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems is actually impeded when adults provide direct instruction. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less innovative thinking.

Research also shows that a child’s natural motivation tends to diminish in adult-led activities. Unless they’ve been raised on a steady diet of ready-made entertainment, children are naturally drawn to free play and discovery-based learning. They make up games, daydream, pretend, and launch their own projects–freely seeking out adults for resources and guidance when necessary. They are naturally drawn to achieve mastery. My kids have shown me how motivated self-direction can go into high gear in the teen years. They’ve earned their own money by shoveling stalls, which they spent to buy and restore a vintage car, go on a month-long backpacking trip, and build a bedroom-sized recording studio. And they have stick-to-it-iveness, devoting years to pursuits like a bagpipe band, wildlife rehabilitation, farming, and their own intensive scholarship. Homeschooling has helped us foster a young person’s growing need for independence while providing useful guidance.

hands-on learning, homeschooling,

4. I can’t afford to provide a decent education. Like many new homeschoolers, I thought I’d have to replicate everything from music class to chemistry lab. I knew I’d never have the time, energy, or money. But we quickly discovered we can activate our own knowledge networks and that the community around us is filled with people eager to impart skills and knowledge to the next generation, almost always for free.  They’re found at ethnic centers, museums, libraries, colleges, churches, service organizations, plus clubs like those for rock hounds, ham radio enthusiasts, and astronomy buffs. My children’s lives have been illuminated by spending time with biologists, potters, engineers, geologists, entrepreneurs, archaeologists, organic farmers, model railroaders, meteorologists—the list could take up this page. People seem honored when asked to share a little of what they know. It’s sad that young people are customarily segregated from adults doing fascinating things right in their own communities, especially in the teen years when they so desperately want more role models.

We’ve also gotten together with fellow homeschoolers for countless field trips, enrichment programs, game days, clubs, and learning co-op classes. My kids have re-enacted Shakespearean duels, toured factories, sheared sheep, raced sailboats, learned chemistry from a Ph.D chemist, debated Constitutional challenges, competed in robotics tournaments, built a hovercraft of their own design, learned fencing, calculated the position of the stars, played with world-class musicians, and spent an afternoon with an astronaut after winning a science contest. All free or practically free. When certain subjects got really challenging we easily bartered with an expert or found a community college class to cover it. And we’ve saved thousands by relying on the remarkable resources of our library system.

Sure, I envy those homeschooling families who learn while bike riding in Ecuador or rambling through European castles. But I realize my kids haven’t missed anything despite my penny pinching, especially since surveys indicate two-thirds of school kids say they’re bored in class.   Deep scholarship and hands-on learning are simply another homeschooling perk.

homeschool socialization, peer segregation,

5. Homeschooling will deprive my kids of friends.  I realized the school day isn’t really set up for socializing, although we’d come to rely on school as a source of same-age friendship. Sadly, according to Beyond the Classroom by Laurence Steinberg,
less than five percent of school kids belong to peer groups that value academic achievement, while pressure from prevailing peers steer young people toward underachievement. Even high-achieving students, when asked, say they’d prefer popularity over academic success.  That comes at a price, because members of those lower achievement groups are more likely to demonstrate negative behaviors like conduct problems and drug use. Not the kind of influence parents expect.

And it turns out studies show homeschooled children have better social skills and fewer behavior problems than their demographically matched schooled peers. Homeschooling families also tend to be more active in the community. Initially it took me a while to get used to homeschool gatherings where kids hung out with a wide range of ages and abilities. Sure, they’re kids and not beacons of perfection, but I was pleased to see so much overall good cheer.

As for friends, my kids kept many of their school friends. They also made more as we widened our circle of acquaintances. Many of their new friends were around the same age but some were decades older, bringing perspectives shaped by widely varying experiences. They offered my children a route to maturity they couldn’t have found in school among kids similar to themselves. Their friends include a Scottish gentleman in his 70’s, a group of automotive restoration enthusiasts, a wildlife rehabilitator in her 60’s, fellow backpackers, people with differing physical challenges, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, Wiccans, well, you get the idea. These friendships happened because they had the time to stretch in all sorts of interesting directions.

homeschool success, homeschool misconceptions,

6. Homeschooling is an experiment. Like any other parent, I’m driven to provide my children with the essential ingredients that lead to life-long happiness and success. Late at night, unable to sleep, I’ve entertained my share of doubts. What if homeschooling will limit their chances?  I finally realized I was looking at it from too narrow a perspective. Schooling is the experiment. For 99 percent of all our time on earth, the human race never conceived of this institution. Our species nurtured children close to extended family, within the rich educational milieu of the community, trusting that young people would grow into responsible adulthood. Worked like a charm for eons.

Taking my kids out of school liberated them from the test-heavy approach of today’s schools, one that actually has nothing to do with adult success. Instead of spending over 1,200 hours each year in school, they could devote time to what more directly builds happiness as well as future success. Things like innovation, hands-on learning, and meaningful responsibility. That doesn’t mean I lost all my doubts. Some days, all right, months, I worried. It’s hard to unlearn a mindset

Now all four of my kids are in college or launched into careers. I sat at a recent dinner with my family, appreciating our closeness. My kids take on challenges with grace, react with droll wit even under pressure, and haven’t lost their zest for learning. We laughed as their lively conversation covered Norse mythology, caddisfly pheromones, zeppelin history, and lines from new movies. I’m not sure how much I can credit to homeschooling, but I know it’s given my kids freedom to explore their own possibilities. That’s more than enough.


Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

19 thoughts on “Homeschool Worries: Erased With Research & Experience

  1. I love the way you share your homeschooling experience and wisdom with us, I for one can never get enough of positive stories to help balance out all the fearmongering which is thrown at me now my daughter is getting older & I’m still insisting on homeschooling.


  2. It’s amazing, Laura to think that we focus so much on school based learning in the west – where, as you point out, historically and world wide that is such a small tiny part of learning. I recently had a few ‘conversations’ on line with a man who was hugely successful in the state school system and yet, every time I challenged him…and I have challenged him three times in three separate conversations, he has resorted to either excuses or name-calling, and not in a fun way. This drove home to me how maturity and school-smarts don’t often go hand in hand and I suspect it’s the way we are taught in school that does this. I love the idea of teaching ‘how to think, rather than what to think’ and I believe now, if the boys’ school wasn’t delivering this key aspect – I would and could homeschool.


    • You’ve really hit on something here Karyn. I’ve read a number of studies showing that what we consider real success—positive relationships, community leadership, career advancement—has much less to do with test scores or grades and much more to do with emotional intelligence.


  3. I agree with so much of what you say, it seems churlish to focus on one nit. However, my defense screen lit up when I read, “Unless they’ve been raised on a steady diet of ready-made entertainment, children are naturally drawn to free play and discovery-based learning.” My daughter consumes as much “ready-made” entertainment as she can, swallowing whole seasons of TV shows from Netflix, playing and replaying “Radiolab” and “The Truth,” and engaging in computer “games” involving customizing an avatar’s makeup. In addition, she makes the coolest Sculpy miniatures, writes songs, creates clothing out of socks for her Barbies and stuffed animals, swims like a fish, and performs in plays. I’d say that in my experience, even though my daughter adores ready-made entertainment, she has more than one mode of learning and engaging with the world — and I appreciate the choices she makes, since she is the one making them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You got me at “churlish.” I love words that are too rarely used. And that you describe yourself as having a “defense screen.” I’m absolutely going to zip over to your blog to see how else you use language because this small taste entices me.

      Okay, back on point.

      Actually, I agree with you. I had in mind pretty young children when writing that sentence. I’m guessing by your daughter’s taste for science podcasts like RadioLab that she’s well older than six or seven. In my experience, too much ready-made entertainment in the very earliest years is the problem. But that’s my opinion. I’ve seen far too many preschoolers who seemed entirely unable to engage in make-believe, insisting on replicating the scenes from movies they watched over and over every day and far too many four and five year olds who absolutely refuse to play outside because they prefer video games. It made me an extremist with my own kids who watched only the occasional public television show or movie from the library when they were small. That said, my bar for ready-made entertainment lowered each year as they got older. They listen to podcasts, watch streaming movies, talk to friends around the world via online forums, play D&D, and otherwise amuse themselves without my scrutiny.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this well-written article that gives us newbie homeschool moms a beacon of hope! We started homeschooling because we WILL be that family who teaches while on the road (as we travel the world for 2-3 years with our 10-year-old twins) but I truly believe that even without world travel, homeschool can afford our kids a fantastic learning experience rich with culture and diversity!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Educatia acasa in Romania – Homeschooling | seizeyourcourse

  6. Hello Laura,

    I just recently ready our homeschooling experience and loved it. My 13 year old is completing primary school here in South Africa and I have decided to not send him to High School as he has been battling school for 4 years and just getting nowhere. He is really bright, very creative and cannot do maths. He has lost complete interest and school is just not working for him. He has been talking in class since the first grade and I have been advise to take him to be tested for ADD twice, which I have done and the results were negative. In searching for alternatives I cam across Unschooling. I was about to let my son do Cyberschool, but have since changed my mind because the subjects are the same as school and so boring. I have decided on a complete break and experimenting with some free courses for next year, especially focusing on his talents.

    I would like to know what methods of schooling you used to get your children through the standards they needed to qualify for college, were they formal homeschooling standards? Please advise me as I am collecting information from as many resources as I can. I want to give my son the freedom to choose.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome to homeschooling, Sharon!

      We’ve never used any particular “method” with our kids. Some parents have really specific definitions of what unschooling should look like, others do a lot of searching to discover that unit studies, or Charlotte Mason, or Waldorf homeschooling, or Thomas Jefferson Education, or any number of other approaches really work for their particular families. That’s wonderful. I’ve always been too frugal (cheap) to buy curriculum, too traditional to be fully considered an unschooler, too easily entranced by all sorts of ideas, really, to stick to any one approach. I guess that makes the homeschooling approach with my kids eclectic. We’ve always been a bit more inspiration-based, with a lot of reading (kids’ choice of what to read), time in nature, and a heavy focus on real-life experiences.

      In our state, there aren’t any specific homeschooling standards nor a particular bar set for college acceptance. That hasn’t hampered my kids or any kids in our homeschooling groups from getting in to college, vocational school, apprenticeships, or good careers. Mostly they’re told by their professors and eventual bosses that they’re far more motivated, self-directed, and critical thinkers than their peers.

      I’ve written a 300 page book on natural learning, the second half of it entirely made up of open-ended ways to approach any subject so it’s hard to give you a complete picture. Here are some things I’ve been writing about lately that may help.

      Getting Science on Everything

      Beyond College: 22 Resources (Many of the ideas here are also suited for teens.)

      40 Ways Kids Can Volunteer, Toddler to Teen

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have a 2 year old toddler who started pre-school around 21 months. I kind of thought I would home school (though I turned my nose up at my uncle when he home schooled his kids back when I was a teen) but mostly I thought I would try my best to get him into a Montessori. Even now that he is in school I keep saying I have to find him a Montessori; however, deep down I know I really want to home school. I’m very active with my kid from day 2 (I don’t say one because I had a slow healing process after birth) no seriously, from the beginning. I read and still do read almost every day, I do vocabulary with him from early-verbally. We go out and play and explore, we’re always at zoos, parks, museums, movies, playgrounds, any and everything! I spent last summer as a street vendor selling children’s summer novelties and toys so that I could spend my day with my child. Where ever mommy went he went and even if I was working I made/make sure he is entertained. If I have to spend 4 hours in the county office I have a bag full of books and flash cards and drawing supplies and I chase him with a smile and play-I refuse to force him to sit down because other people think he needs more control. Any way, all of this to ask for guidance and advice. We do not have stable housing but soon will and I intend to get back to my massage career and more importantly pursue my acting and writing career. I so desperately want to take him out of school though-he’s only 2 and I know formal school is just not it! Any tips?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Unique, you’re already opening up the world for you little boy in all sorts of ways. Like all of us, he’s primed to learn through every every experience, every conversation, every story told, every game of chase. Homeschooling/unschooling is simply a way of acknowledging that real learning extends fully into every corner of our lives and isn’t confined to a curriculum or classroom.

      Tips? Here are two posts you might find relevant.

      Observe the Goldilocks Effect in Action

      Educating Too Early


  8. Since this is from 2013, I’m a little late in the game, but this is just wonderful! I had to comment and say so. My family is just starting out in homeschooling and we haven’t had any negative school experiences because we haven’t gone…I only have very young kids! But I feel strongly that this is the best path for us, especially after seeing public school through the eyes of my highschool teacher husband. 🙂 Great post. I have a feeling I will be sharing it over and over.


  9. Weighing in late to the party, and after-the-fact. We concluded our homeschooling journey this past May when our youngest asked if he could graduate a year early and continue his learning at community college. It seemed to be a good choice for him, and so ended 16 years of exploring life together as a family.

    Your writing has been a well thought out and reassuring voice through the past few years, and this piece addresses most homeschoolers’ (and their critics’) primary fears and objections.

    As an encouragement to those still on the journey, we practiced delight directed learning along with waiting for developmental readiness to introduce the three R’s. This was not without repercussions as my eldest did not read fluently until age 10 1\2, while our youngest taught himself to read by age 3. There were many pointed opinions on what we should do for our eldest by those in and out of the homeschool community. This same young man built and sailed his own boat at age 10, under the guidance of a great mentor, and experienced a breakthrough in reading weeks later. He’s now pursuing a degree in engineering with no difficulty reading highly technical material.

    Both young men have assured me that homeschooling all the way through high school has left them with no regrets. They each have shared that it made the transition to college seamless, being accustomed to block scheduling, following their own interests, and experience with interacting with people of all different ages and backgrounds.

    Best of all, our young adult sons still like hanging out with their parents when schedules allow. Building mutual respect for one another over the years is a lasting gift that we believe was enhanced by our homeschooling experience.


    • Thank you so much for sharing your family’s experience, Patricia. What a marvelous example of delight-driven exploration, mutual support, and family connection. I wish parents in the middle of doubts and concerns had more opportunities to learn from those who have been where they are now. I hope readers get a chance to reflect on what you’ve shared. Thanks again!


  10. I wish I could have homeschooled my children for part of their education but it was next to impossible. It may be worth noting that it is only possible if one parent is bringing in an income to support the family and the other organises the homeschooling… or if both work for themselves. I was a single parent, had to work full time, and was solely responsibly financially. I am a primary teacher as well, and I was happy that my children were educated in Germany and Switzerland. For the most part, they enjoyed school, they did very well and I supported them at home as much as I could. Single parents have the hardest job. I believe we need to change the traditional school methods as they are no longer relevant and cause so much damage, however there still needs to be options for the majority who cannot provide homeschooling.

    Liked by 1 person

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