Lunch with … my mother (and my father comes along for the ride too)- Spotlight on Home Ed Alumni

Lunch with … my mother (and my father comes along for the ride too)

By Yi-Shuen Chan


My seven-year-old son, not known for mincing his words, hits her with a doozy the moment Mum sits down, ‘Which is better, home education or school, and why?’

‘Sammy,’ I tell him gently, ‘you know she’s basically preaching to the converted, right? Everybody who’s going to read this has already drunk the Kool-Aid.’

‘How much time do you have?’ asks my mum. ‘I could talk about this for a few days. Home education is better, of course! For starters, I feel that school is an unnatural environment in which to learn. Don’t you find it weird that someone is telling you to do maths, when you might not be feeling like doing maths, but then when you get into the flow of things, a bell rings and then you’re supposed to suddenly switch your brain to science?’

Sammy nods understandingly. ‘Oh, I see,’ says he. ‘There is no flow.’ Then he proceeds to demonstrate said flow by tucking into his lunch as the main course of mushroom risotto is served.

My mother, Peck-Woon Chan, was a home education trailblazer in some ways, having drunk her own Kool-Aid way back in 1990, in a small town in New Zealand. Dissatisfied with the primary school my brother and I were in, my parents were inspired by a farmer friend and decided to withdraw us from school when I was seven and my brother five, and home educated us until adulthood. Even in a semi-rural place where home education was not unheard of due to children living on farms, too far away to travel daily to the local school, my parents still had to jump through many hoops to take us out of school. Thanks to their hoarding tendencies, I still have the application letters – no, essays – they wrote to the NZ Department of Education, requesting permission to homeschool us, giving reasons and proposed lesson plans. No handy template for them! And, my mother points out, we got reviewed every single year (an event I remember as a chance to show off to the nice lady from the department and eat biscuits).

Peck-Woon describes her style as ‘experimental,’ focusing mainly on ‘the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic.’ Learning was child-led, with only maths and writing mandated, as she believed that with a high level of literacy and numeracy, we could then learn other subjects on our own (for example, the few months we spent in 1995 solely reading about the All Blacks and NZ rugby history). 

It must be a testament to her success that both of Peck-Woon’s children decided to jump on the bandwagon and go down the path of home educating the next generation. I am finding, however, that the view from this side is quite different to when I was a carefree kid, enjoying my relaxed life and swearing I would also home educate when my turn came (my kids are definitely not saying this). So who better to ask a few questions than my nearest available guru?

I begin by asking about the differences between home educating now versus then. Firstly, there were much fewer resources then, and definitely no online ones. But there also wasn’t the distraction of highly enticing screens or social media. ‘The screen is a scourge!’ my father, George, announces between bites of risotto, but immediately launches approvingly into an anecdote about a home  ed kid they knew who got their SATs by studying entirely via Khan Academy. It becomes difficult to identify which differences could be attributed specifically to changes in home education, instead of generational change experienced by all parents, and also the differences in our experiences in a small town, versus that of my children in a city like Melbourne, full of activity.

So I go and get the apple pie, and, eyeing my dining table strewn with half-finished drawings and other home education detritus, ask what my parents would recommend for a good home educating set-up. They note that the dining table would generally be the main workspace, but stress that a special home educating space isn’t really needed. Better to collect resources and items for projects, mentioning strips of leather, bottle caps, ice cream sticks, corks, etc., from such places as garage sales and even eBay. Learning happens everywhere, as we are all finding out. For example, a visitor to the house, responding to a hard waste ad, taught my nephew all about bluestone as he went around harvesting unwanted blocks. Tap into such opportunities, my parents urge. Learning doesn’t just happen in a class or similar formal situations, but in conversation with someone passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. Part of this is also allowing our kids to see us parents pursuing our own hobbies. (I breathe a sigh of relief and in my mind alter tomorrow’s intended maths worksheet session to a games day). All this helps teach our kids to develop passions of their own. The skills learned pursuing these passions will show kids that they can learn anything they like, now and in the future.

Both my parents cite seeing kids developing according to their potential and interests as a high point of home educating for well over a decade. But I wonder about the low points. At first, they struggle to think of any, but then their faces darken as they talk about other people, particularly friends and family, pushing their views about the benefits of school on them. This still continues to happen even now, when their kids are grown up and fully functioning members of society, so we current home educators have plenty more years of this to look forward to! ‘I just had to tell them that it was a philosophy, a life choice, that we have chosen for ourselves, and fortunately they did respect that,’ Peck-Woon says.

So, what would she change in hindsight?

Peck-Woon doesn’t have to ponder for long. ‘I can’t really think of anything,’ she says. ‘As long as you do everything with the right intentions, and to the best of your ability, then you can’t expect any more from yourself. I feel that every decision I made was the best one I could at the time, so I probably wouldn’t do anything differently. Every parent will have their doubts, since you are going against the norm. But don’t base your expectations on school because the system is broken.’

Maybe it’s the ice cream, but my mum warms to the subject. ‘There is no normal, really,’ she says. ‘My advice to home educators these days would be to define your own norm, since there is no norm. You can, therefore, set your own standards (but don’t set them too high), which will then eliminate pressure on you. You’ve opted out of the system already, so why compare against it? In fact, you should question the status quo, and don’t follow popular wisdom. Change happens when people question. You know you’re on track when your child is happily learning.’

She sets down her spoon, the apple pie but a smattering of crumbs in the bowl. ‘Hmm,’ Peck-Woon says, looking mildly surprised. ‘I had more to say on this subject than I thought I would.’

Otherways 175 (Feb 2023)

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