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.

Successful Teen Homeschooling: Two Vital Factors

homeschooling teens, meaningful work for teens, responsibility for teens, teen interests,

The teenaged years are actually the most rewarding of the homeschooling years. That’s what we’ve found with our four homeschooled children. And that’s what I was told by many of the 110 families I interviewed for my book Free Range Learning:: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. People in Ireland, Australia, India, Germany, and the U.S. described coming to this realization in similar ways. Their concerns about helping a young child master the basics or their struggles to find the right homeschooling style gradually resolved. Parents grew to trust the process of learning much more completely and, perhaps as a result, they saw their children mature into capable and self-directed young people.

Homeschooling isn’t the cure-all, by any means, for a culture that barely recognizes a young person’s need for identity and meaning. But homeschooled teens are not limited to the strictures of a same-aged peer culture or weighed down by a test-heavy form of education. They also have more time. This provides ample opportunity to stretch and explore in ways that can benefit them for life.

There are a number of pivotal elements in the period we call adolescence. Two significant ones are the pursuit of interests and meaningful work. These factors are just as important for teens in school as those who are homeschooling. But homeschoolers are freer to fill their time with what’s significant to them. That can make all the difference.


Pursuing interests builds character traits that benefit us for life.

In my family, we’ve noticed that interest-based learning builds competence across a whole range of seemingly unrelated fields. For example, as a preteen one of my sons put together a few rubber-band powered airplanes at a picnic. When they broke, he tried fashioning the pieces into other workable flying machines. This got him interested in flight. He eagerly found out more through library books, documentaries, museum visits, and You Tube. Soon he was explaining Bernoulli’s principle to us, expounding on changing features of planes through the last century, and talking about the effect of flight on society. He designed increasingly sophisticated custom models. He read biographies of test pilots, inventors, and industrialists. He won a state award for one of his planes through 4H and got a family friend to take him for a ride in a small plane. What he picked up, largely on his own, advanced his understanding in fields including math, history, engineering, and physics. All inspired by learning that felt like fun.

This particular passion didn’t last, but the pursuit of his interests continued. He built spud guns with friends, played bagpipes in a highland band, bred tarantulas, repaired recording equipment, and tried his hand at woodworking. He wasn’t always at full tilt (never missing a chance to sleep in). Now a college student, he’s surprised that his fellow students are so turned off by learning.

Interests engaged him, as they do each one of us, in the pleasure of exploring and building our capabilities. They teach us to take risks, make mistakes, and persist despite disappointment as we work toward mastery. Making sure that a young person pursues interests for his or her own reasons, not the parent’s, keeps motivation alive and passion genuine. Research backs this up. Pursuing our interests builds character traits that benefit us for life.

Self-directed young people really take off in their teen years

Long-term homeschooling families know that self-directed young people really take off in their teen years. Comfortable with their ability to find out what they need to know, they often challenge themselves in their own ways. Some add ambitious schedules to previously unstructured days, others seek out heavy doses of academic work to meet their own goals, still others don’t appear to be remotely interested in conventional educational attainment but instead create new pathways for themselves.

Children as well as teens tend to have lengthy pauses between interests. A boy may not want to act in any more plays despite the promise he’s shown, a girl may not choose to sign up again for the fencing team just when she was starting to win most of her matches. During these slack times they are incorporating gains made in maturity and understanding before charging ahead, oftentimes toward totally new interests. The hiatus may be lengthy. They need time to process, daydream, create, and grow from within. They need to be bored and resolve their own boredom.

Decades ago educational researcher Benjamin Bloom wondered how innate potential was best nurtured. He was convinced that test-based education wasn’t bringing out the best of each child’s ability. So he studied adults who were highly successful in areas such as mathematics, sports, neurology, and music. These adults, as well as people significant to them (teachers, family, and others), were interviewed to determine what factors led to such high levels of accomplishment. In nearly every case, it was found that as children, these successful people had been encouraged by their families to follow their own interests. Adults in their lives believed time invested in interests was time well spent. Due to their interests, these individuals developed a strong achievement ethic and a drive to learn for mastery.

This makes sense. We recognize that young people gain immeasurably as they pursue their interests. And not only in terms of success. When caring adults support a teen who loves to play baseball, study sea turtles, and draw comics, he’s likely to recognize, “I’m okay for who I am.” The interests well up from within him and are reinforced by those around him, so there’s coherence between his interior life and exterior persona. This reinforces a strong sense of self. All of us need sturdy selfhood to hold us in good stead while so many forces around us emphasize unhealthy and negative behaviors.

Interests have a great deal to do with promoting a young person’s feelings of worthiness. There’s an enhanced quality of life, a sense of being completely present that’s hard to name but recognized by those who “find” themselves within a compelling pursuit. A girl may love speed skating, or writing short stories, or designing websites. When she’s engaged in her interests, she knows herself to be profoundly alive. That feeling doesn’t go away, even when she has to deal with other tasks which are not as entrancing. Everyone needs to belong, contribute, and feel significant. The teen who knows his or her interests provide fulfillment is already aware that self-worth doesn’t come from popularity or possessions.


Teens want challenges and the accompanying responsibilities.

A group of homeschoolers touring a rural historical society noticed that storage areas were stuffed with uncataloged documents, some crumbling from age. They offered to digitally scan and reference these materials with the museum’s coordinator. Several other teens researched the requirements for a dog park in their suburb. Working with a group of interested citizens, they petitioned city council for a permit and eventually won a grant to construct the dog park. Another teen started a business fixing and modifying bicycles. He also earns revenue from videos of his mods. These examples from my book indicate how young people eagerly take on challenges and the accompanying responsibilities.

Throughout human history teens have fully participated in the work necessary to help their families and communities flourish. They were needed for their energy as well as their fresh perspective, and they built valuable skills in the process. Working alongside adults helped motivate them to become fully contributing adults themselves. Most of today’s young people are separated from this kind of meaningful work. They have fewer opportunities to encounter inspiring people of all ages who show them how to run a business or foster a strong community. Now that teens aren’t needed to run a farm or shop, they also don’t get as many real world lessons in taking initiative, practicing cooperation, deferring gratification, and working toward a goal.

Ideally young people have taken part in real work from an early age. Many studies bear out the wisdom of giving children responsibility starting in their earliest years. In fact, having consistent chores starting in early childhood is a predictive factor for adult stability.

Although work is largely valued for monetary reasons in our society, the kind of meaningful work I’m talking about has inherent worth. Chances are it is unpaid. (Here are dozens of service ideas for kids.)Through this work young people learn that it’s the attitude brought to any task, whether shoveling manure or performing a sonata, that elevates its meaning. Often an endeavor that’s inspiring doesn’t always feel like work. It may include establishing an informal apprenticeship, developing a small business, traveling independently, or volunteering with a non-profit.

It’s the attitude brought to any task that elevates its meaning.

What is meaningful work may be different for each person. A homeschooled teen may put up a shed for a neighbor, make a documentary with fellow parkour enthusiasts, perform puppet shows at a nearby daycare, help a zither club record their music, become a volunteer firefighter, assist an equine therapy program, coach a kids’ chess team, tend beehives, walk puppies at a dog shelter, or help a chemist in the lab. Through such work they tend to get more involved in their communities and connect with inspiring role models.

Meaningful work may not always be interesting, let alone fun. It has to do with putting in sustained effort to get results, even when the hours become long and the endeavor doesn’t feel rewarding. Through this work young people gain direct experience in making a valuable contribution. They know their efforts make a difference. That’s a powerfully rewarding experience at any age.

  Learning of the highest value extends well beyond measurable dimension. It can’t be fit into any curriculum or evaluated by any test. It is activated by experiences which develop our humanity such as finding meaning, expressing moral courage, building lasting relationships, channeling anger into purposeful action, recognizing one’s place in nature, acting out of love. This leads to comprehension that includes and transcends knowledge. It teaches us to be our best selves.

Originally published in Lilipoh Magazine, Winter 2012