Educational Choices Part 1: Homeschooling

As our children approach school age we begin to think about schooling for them, frequently not without some anxiety.  It’s certainly not a decision to be taken lightly.  Part of what gives children dignity is their vast potential for growth and learning.  In giving life, we as parents have a duty to ensure our children are prepared to live a “fully human life”.  Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, Article 36.  We must investigate our choices and pray for discernment, taking into account our child’s personality and our own goals for education.

In the U.S., we have two basic options for schooling our children: homeschooling and traditional on-site classroom placement (both public and private).  Whatever we decide, we can never forget that we are our children’s first educator.  That doesn’t mean we’re their only educator, but we’re the “first and foremost educators” of our children. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families, 16.  Thus, the state cannot prevent us from directing our children’s education if we choose to homeschool and it cannot exclude us from the education of our children if we send them to school in an institutional setting.  As parents, we have the right and duty to be interested participants in our children’s education at every level no matter the placement we choose.

This is the first in a three-part series on educational options for families.  In this post I’ll share why I have chosen to homeschool my children; in my next post we’ll explore traditional school placements and how to maintain and strengthen family bonds during the school year; in my last post I will lay out the most popular learning methods and approaches, a topic applicable to both homeschooling and away-schooling families.

What I Love About Homeschooling:

I’m a homeschooling mom.  I believe passionately in the benefits of home-based education not only for the student, but for the entire family — including Mom and Dad.

I began homeschooling my oldest son when he was about to enter kindergarten.  We thought we would try it for a year or two until we found an appropriate school for Aidan, but we loved it so much we’ve never looked back.  That was nearly 10 years ago.  I made the choice primarily for academic reasons – I had little faith in our local public school district and we couldn’t afford a good private school.  However, I soon discovered that the best thing about homeschooling had nothing to do with the quality of the education I was providing.  The greatest benefit is the quality of life we enjoy as a family.

There are so many things I appreciate about our homeschooling lifestyle it’s hard to narrow it down, but here are a few of them:

  • I love that my children are accustomed to and enjoy one another’s company.
  • I love that when my children disagree or argue, I have the time to guide them in how to handle these differences with equity and love.
  • I love the way our family has grown in faith together, exploring the Sacraments, popular devotionals, and liturgical traditions.
  • I love that my kids can be different and still feel successful.  My Dominic wouldn’t fare well in a traditional setting, yet he comes to his studies with enthusiasm and a sense of pride.
  • I love that my kids have lots of free time to slop around in the mud, read books, think big thoughts, stare at bugs, and live the kind of life all kids deserve.

Homeschooling is really a natural extension of our attached lifestyle.  We play together, work together, learn together, and those 3 activities aren’t always separated in our day.  I love that!

Can You Really Handle It?

Many parents wonder whether homeschooling is legal and whether they are qualified to instruct their children.  First, homeschooling is legal in all 50 states.  How you go about doing it legally varies by state.  Compulsory education laws exist in all states, but exemptions exist that permit both private schooling and homeschooling.

Second, parents are quite capable of teaching their own children, and in fact home-based education was the norm in our own country until the early 20th century.  Many great historical figures were home educated, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.  Remember that you are not starting from scratch.  You have many resources available to you in teaching the children.  Just in the ten years I’ve homeschooled, the resources available to homeschooling parents has exploded.

The hardest thing is to decide what your educational philosophy is – what your goals are and what you believe about the learner.  Once you decide that, there’s a curriculum available to you.  Some of them are out of the box, ready to go.  Others provide reading lists.  There are even on-line schools that oversee the student’s studies.  I have personally come to relish my annual curriculum planning sessions.  It’s like play.  I enjoy visiting curriculum fairs at homeschooling conferences, swapping books with moms at my park day, exploring educational websites, and reading books on learning and teaching pedagogy.  With all my kids to think about, I’m like a great seamstress, stitching together a quilt of learning and love.

Remember that you don’t have to be a genius to teach your kids.  Many parents armed with only a high school diploma successfully homeschool their children.  You have the most important quality necessary to communicate a passion for ideas: love.  Sound corny?  Well, maybe, but it’s also so true.

You love that child of yours more than any classroom teacher ever can; you recognize his talents, his struggles, and his passions.  You are motivated to do what is best for your dear child.  Your love is powerful.  As you learn together cuddled on a couch or sitting next to one another at the kitchen table, you pass on your enthusiasm and commitment to your children.  Pope John Paul II emphasizes this qualification of love, unique to parents, in directing the education of their children:

In addition to these characteristics, it cannot be forgotten that the most basic element, so basic that it qualifies the educational role of parents, is parental love, which finds fulfillment in the task of education as it completes and perfects its service of life: as well as being a source, the parents’ love is also the animating principle and therefore the norm inspiring and guiding all concrete educational activity, enriching it with the values of kindness, constancy, goodness, service, disinterestedness and self-sacrifice that are the most precious fruit of love.  Familiaris Consortio

Remember, too, that as children get older, they become increasingly independent.  As they approach 5th or 6th grade, homeschooled students begin to take ownership of their studies.  They are capable of longer periods of independent learning while Mom (or Dad) focuses on younger ones.  By high school, parents tend to coordinate and oversee the high schooler’s studies, but much of the actual teaching can be done by mentors, tutors, on-line teachers, or community college teachers.

Seeking Guidance

You don’t have to go it alone.  If you’re considering homeschooling, do your homework and pray for guidance.  Seek the advice of experienced homeschoolers and your priest or spiritual director.  Your state likely has an organized homeschooling support group in addition to more local groups, so check them out.  Here are just a few books to get you started if you’re considering home education:

The First Year of Homeschooling Your Child  (Linda Dobson).  This book is a basic guide to getting started in homeschooling — the why and how of that first year.

Family Matters:  Why Homeschooling Makes Sense  (David Guterson).  Written by a homeschooling father and teacher (and celebrated author of Snow Falling on Cedars).  This book is quite powerful.  It was hard to find for a few years, so snap it up while you can!

Catholic Education: Homeward Bound  (Kimberly Hahn and Mary Hasson).

Photo credit: Chris Elwell (photos.com)

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