By Cynthia McStephen
If you are new to the whole idea of DIY education, you may be wondering what this home education stuff is all about. Of course, life varies wildly between different families anyway. So, by extension, home education, like every other aspect of family life, covers a huge spectrum. Instead of a catch-all definition, here’s a list of some of the things home education is, as well as some of the things it’s not.
And a general disclaimer so as to stave off the hate mail. (Hey, if I received some, would that mean I’ve made it into the big time?) I genuinely don’t have any idea of the ‘right’ way for you to either educate or parent your children. I’m just an opinionated home-edder who happens to enjoy raving on about one of my favourite topics. If you read anything in this list which makes you think, ‘she means doing lots of lessons…or no formal work…or being strict…or being relaxed’, then you’re wrong. Do whatever you like.
That may seem like an easy thing to say, but it’s true. It’s also true of many choices in life, just as being a farmer is more than a job, or being healthy is more than having regular checkups. Of course, being a school family is also a lifestyle, and many people with children in school spend a lot of time and energy on their children’s education. Both methods of educating children have a way of both widening and curtailing your lifestyle in many ways. However, you can be sure that choosing to educate your children out of the school system will define your lifestyle, both publicly and privately, in a major way.
Another glib statement – but let’s think about this one for a moment. It’s a huge concept for many people. I wish I had money for every time someone has assumed that my kids aren’t learning because they aren’t attending a formal course of education, or who assumed that I ‘teach’ my kids. We discuss, check various resources, read a lot, and – yes – I give them things to do, but I don’t ever teach like a teacher does. I don’t have to. My children are well and truly learning whether they are doing something ‘educational’ or not.
I was going to say ‘without comparison’, but I don’t think that’s true. Comparison is everywhere (as well as being odious). Unless you pop off to an isolated cave for the duration of your children’s youth, you will find that people will compare your child with others. But think of the comparisons they are missing out on, too. They won’t have to deal with people working to get them up to a ‘benchmark’ or rating them against the average of their age-related peers; and they won’t spend large amounts of time in an environment where their strengths and weaknesses are played out publicly.
Schools are interesting places. I’m not anti-school, and in fact I have a child enrolled in school part-time (for a specialist subject at secondary level). But the school part of our lives is characterised by different power relationships than any other area of life. It doesn’t matter how flexible, understanding or respectful a teacher or school is (and our daughter’s teachers score highly in this regard), the entire system is based around a culture of ‘you are not ok as you are, and my job is to fix you or at least to facilitate your path from not ok to ok’. It affects the relationship between teachers and students who operate within this system.
Although I don’t like generalisations, one common characteristic of many home educated children is that they relate well to other children of different ages and also adults from many different life stages. This may be due to a number of different factors. Of course, home educated children don’t spend time in a class of similar-aged peers on a frequent basis, and some may hang out with older and younger home educated children, but I feel there’s more to it than that. Because of the assumptions which underpin the operation of schools, which I mentioned in the point above, students in that system often develop an ‘us and them’ attitude to adults. In contrast, home educated children are usually happier to interact with adults and differently-aged children in a more confident and open way.
Your friends and extended family are now far more likely to have been exposed to the idea of education without school than they would have been even a few years ago. The numbers of registered home educated children almost trebled in the years 2008-2010 [and its doubled again since then], and more families are choosing home education over school education every week. It is far more likely that someone you meet will already know, or know of, other home educators than would have been the case even relatively recently.
Many new home educators find the variety of home ed styles quite daunting. It’s scary enough thinking of taking a new step in education, without having to choose between different approaches which may or may not mean anything to you. But many people never actually choose one of those styles, just as many children attend schools that don’t have labels like Steiner or Montessori or Reggio Emilia. You are free to simply do whatever seems to work best for your family.
Like life, really! Beware – many home education magazine articles specialise in romance. Who doesn’t want to read glowing articles about ‘unconstrained joy-focused children gazing in wonderment’ and so on? However, a child gazing in delight may well start to cry with frustration the next minute. It is simply not worth taking on board everything you read on a forum or in a magazine, not because anyone is out to deceive you but because any piece of writing can, by definition, only give you a summary of a situation, a mood, or a path that someone else is following. It doesn’t show you the complete picture, because it can’t. Yes, our family has had joyful home ed discovery moments, and difficult and messy home ed moments, and the full spectrum of family life in between. Please don’t make the mistake of believing that every other home ed family is living some simple, peaceful and joy-focused life, because the reality is that everyone else’s life involves just as many compromises as yours does.
In fact, it gives you the space and time to actively parent your children in whatever style and form this takes for you (please note the disclaimer above). It is not enough to remove the constraints and conditions of school and declare that your child’s life is now all that it should be. Likewise, home ed – like anything else you care to name – is not a ‘cure-all’ for any woes your child or you may be experiencing, unless those problems are caused by being at school. If your child is experiencing issues of any sort, or if you are, you won’t necessarily find that home education will solve them.
Home ed is not a guarantee of happiness or a great education.
Home ed carries no guarantees. Let’s not pin too much on it. It’s a valid educational and life path which has been chosen by a very large (and growing) number of families both here and overseas. And just as a school prospectus will paint a glowing picture of a school and highlight the many happy and successful adults that have been educated by that system, so too will many home educators point to the successes and happiness of themselves and other home edders. If you are a home educating family, then by all means enjoy the impressive body of research backing up your choice, but be aware that you can never guarantee that your children will make good choices or be happy in their lives. Neither, of course, can schools.
Despite appearances, not all home educators are long-established group members who all know each other from ages ago. We are an incredibly diverse group, and if you choose to venture down to your nearest home ed group, I can guarantee some things. Firstly, you won’t be the first new person to come along to the group – every group has new families coming along regularly. (Some decide that they enjoy the group, some only come back occasionally, and some surface once and never return. No problem.) Secondly; we don’t always talk about home education. In fact, in our local group, we don’t often talk about home education. No, we rabbit on about heaps of subjects, just like any other group of people who get together. And believe me, there’s nothing like hanging out with other parents who are also doing the DIY version of education. They really understand that children develop at different rates, and you definitely won’t be quizzed about how your children are learning or growing.
Which again, is just like any other group. If your child were at school, there would be parents at that school who you would become good friends with, and others with whom you’d have very little in common who will end up on your periphery. You can’t assume that everyone you meet who is home educating will be compatible with you, just as if you were a keen gardener or car racer or line dancer you wouldn’t be compatible with everyone else who was interested in those areas as well.
Now, notice that I’m not guaranteeing that you will never be stressed. You will, but you would also be stressed if your children were in school. Every life path involves stresses at times, and parenthood seems to specialise in them. However, many of the usual assumptions about home education and stress are simply not true, like the ones which assume you need to know everything that schools teach, that you’ll have to have special skills to impart that knowledge, and that you and your children will go crazy because you’ll be at home day after day and will turn into social misfits. None of these are accurate. If you are comfortable with your children at home during school holidays, and you could throw in a project or two for you to do with them during that time, and you would enjoy some interest-based activities outside of the home when it suits you, then you know what life can be like as a home educating family.
Cynthia McStephen is opinionated, enjoys raving on in print, and is keen to let the world know that there is no One Right Way to home educate. She’d love some hate mail to bolster her opinion of herself as a writer.
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