Editor’s note: In case you are staring at the start of the school year and feeling anxious about it, here is a re-print of Michaelyn’s wonderful article on school options which she wrote for the spring 2014 issue of Tender Tidings magazine.
My mother always said I wanted to be in two places at once. Every time I had to choose between two (or, God forbid, more) options, I’d be stumped. “I want this, but I also want that,” I’d complain. And then I’d proceed to hem and haw until I pretty much drove everyone around me crazy.
I learned early on in life that choices cause me a lot of stress. When my son was born, I found that decisions only cause more tension when they affect the life of your child. Now that he’s beginning his school-age years, the stress and choices, I realize, only grow more serious.
Once upon a time, children reached the age of five and, as long as they made the cutoff, they were enrolled in their local public school. When I had my son, I envisioned the same simple experience. But, now that he’s about to turn five, I have discovered that the next big choice my husband and I will have to make in his life is a big one: how to approach his academic education.
I didn’t expect to have to make this decision. It wasn’t until I discovered that our local public school only offers full-day kindergarten that I realized I would have some pondering to do. See, I’m not eager to send my son to school for full days yet. He only started preschool this year, and that’s just three brief mornings a week. So, it seemed like quite a jump to throw him into a large public school for six full hours each weekday.
And I had another concern: how would the choice we make influence the Catholic faith we are trying to instill in him? Would a particular academic option pull him from everything we’re teaching him? Could we make a “wrong” choice and end up with a grown son who spurns his faith because of what he learned at school?
I turned to family and friends, who have chosen different paths for their children’s education, to settle my nerves. I talked with them about their feelings about their own choices, hoping that hearing them out would help my husband and me make a decision we could feel comfortable, even happy, with.
My husband and I aren’t alone in this struggle. Across the nation, more and more parents are facing the same decision: how to give their children the best education possible. And for strong Catholic families beset by increasingly secular public school systems and decreasingly Christian local communities, the choice is all the more weighty. For such families, our question isn’t just how to provide our children a solid education, but how to do so while still encouraging and supporting the Catholic values we foster at home.
We wonder, we question, we worry. But, at some point we have to take a leap of faith. At some point we have to think and pray more deeply on each choice, and then we have to make one.
The Catholic School Option
For a Catholic family concerned about the direction our world is taking our children, Catholic school seems the go-to path.
Jill, a mother of three, explains her and her husband’s own experiences in Catholic education. In college, she says, “I loved that religion was part of my everyday life both in and outside of class.” Her husband enjoyed more years of formal Catholic education when he attended a Jesuit high school and college. “He felt that his faith was strengthened” in these schools and “wanted the same for our kids.”
Though Jill spent years as a public school teacher prior to being a stay-at-home mom, when it came to her children’s education, Catholic school was a natural fit. Now, she and her husband see the rewards of the choice they made.
“I love that our boys go to Mass every week as a school community, that they begin and end their school days in prayer, and that our values are reinforced at school and at home. I enjoy going to church on the weekends where the boys see their classmates doing with their families what we do with our family.”
Families’ motives for choosing a Catholic education vary widely, however, and some of those motives offer some insight into why some children leave Catholic education less grounded in their faith than when they began. Indeed, Jill states she was surprised that some families chose this path so that their religion would be “taken care of at school.”
It’s a point to consider. While Catholic education offers us the opportunity to interweave our faith in all aspects of our children’s lives, it also offers us a temptation to let ourselves slip at home. While it might inspire us as parents to grow stronger in our faith, it also gives us excuses to pray less, or to miss an obligatory Mass now and then. After all, it’s easy to think, my child already went to Mass at school today, so do we really need to go again as a family?
Choosing Catholic school, then, can present an unrealized challenge to us parents to stay strong in our faith; however, it is a challenge that we should recognize and rise to, and one that we could look forward to benefiting from in our own faith journey. The example we set for our children in doing so might be the spark that ignites a religious flame in them.
The Public School Option
For many families, Catholic education, while appealing, just isn’t feasible. Indeed many families express a desire to send their children to Catholic school, but admit that the financial burden would be too great.
Shannon, a mother of three, is one such mom. She admits that while it was important to her and her husband to have their children in a school setting outside the home, they were torn between Catholic and public education.
When it came time to enroll their eldest, she says, “my husband and I wanted her in a place that would complement the religious foundations and principals we are trying to instill in her at home.” But the cost of putting three children through school was a concern that ultimately led them to choose public school.
Their worries about whether the school environment would support their religious values, however, were lessened thanks to their community. “We are in a rural, mostly Christian area. So while our children may not be getting a Catholic education, they are getting exposure to Christian values,” Shannon says.
Despite this, she recognizes it is still a public school that follows a secular curriculum. As such, she realizes the need to remain vigilant. “A Catholic family that chooses public school,” she says,” must continuously monitor what is being taught.” When something is presented that goes against Church teaching, she explains, she is fully prepared to take action by pulling her children out for such lessons, addressing her concerns with the teacher, or going to the school board, if necessary.
And if she doesn’t catch such lessons ahead of time in order to properly protect her children? Well, such experiences offer teachable moments. Our children, she says, must learn to live in the world, but not be of it. A public school education offers our children the chance to learn how to do that while still nestled securely under the wing of a strong Catholic family for guidance.
Additionally, Shannon finds that because she knows her children aren’t having their faith routinely reinforced in school, it has caused her and her husband to live their faith more actively in other ways. Her children attend CCD regularly and participate in their parish Bible school every summer. She also recently involved her daughters in Little Flowers, a Catholic girls’ club.
Public school doesn’t mean parents must compromise their values; rather, it invites us to work a little harder as a family at making sure our faith is a very vivid, daily part of our children’s lives.
The Homeschooling Option
An increasingly popular educational option is one that doesn’t involve an outside school setting at all. In a world that tries daily to steal our children’s minds, bodies, and souls at shockingly young ages, the choice to educate our children at home is ever more appealing. Of course, for many, this is not an option. Parents’ work requirements and schedules might not allow for a parent to be at home to school the children. But, when homeschooling is an option, it is an appealing one.
For my husband and me, however, homeschooling was a last resort for a different reason: we have an only child. As a teacher turned stay-at-home mom, I understand that children learn valuable lessons from both teachers and peers, and that sometimes they might actually learn better from other kids. I felt it important that my son not only learn the three R’s, but that he also learn how to navigate various relationships. I wanted him to learn lessons he couldn’t learn as a single student educated in our home: how to work as a team, how to share, how to wait his turn. Lessons, in other words, that would help him to realize that it’s a big world and he’s not the only one in it.
But when I found out this past fall that my husband and I are finally expecting a second child, my mind about homeschooling changed. Those worries, I found, wouldn’t be such concerns anymore. And so I turned to Jamie, a stay-at-home mother of four who homeschools her children.
While Jamie and her husband knew they didn’t want their children in public school, they attempted an outside academic setting first by sending their eldest son to Catholic school. However, the stress added up quickly.
“We had struggles with our son leaving for school, dealing with the work that was required of him, and handling the strict policies of the school,” she explains. In the afternoons, “he came home tired, worn out, and with a backpack full of homework. Toss in siblings waiting to see him, and it was a recipe for disaster.”
She and her husband decided the stress was too much. After a good deal of prayer and discernment, they turned to homeschooling. Now, she says, “I don’t have any stress in the mornings. When there is a math problem that needs more attention, I can focus on helping right away to work it out and listen to my son’s cues if he needs a break. We can also spend hours on experiments in science. We’ve been able to move over material that the boys grasp quickly to keep school interesting.”
That’s not to say homeschooling is without its stresses. “My kids are always home,” Jamie reminds me. “If I’m feeling under the weather,” or other emergencies occur, “school isn’t productive.” She cites her recent bout with morning sickness during her current pregnancy as one such example.
And what about juggling a toddler, a preschooler, and two school-aged boys? It’s a challenge, she admits, but one that can be overcome. Jamie explains the importance of being able to keep to a basic daily schedule but also being comfortable with changing it up should things go awry.
As with Catholic and public school, homeschooling parents who hope to raise children to be strong in the Catholic faith are equally challenged. Even if a Catholic curriculum is chosen, parents need to take extra steps to ensure that the Catholic lessons being taught are also being lived on a daily basis.
And what of my worries about homeschooling an only child? Jamie put those to rest, too, explaining it’s possible to over-socialize your homeschooled child. “Between co-ops, sports, and other community activities,” she explains, you might find you actually need to rein your children in a bit. Though perhaps it requires more active searching of your local community for such resources (or starting some yourself), homeschooling an only child can be just as successful as homeschooling half a dozen.
What to Do?
Though all three options have their distinct differences, every mother I interviewed offers a common thread of advice. Each child is unique; what is best for one might not be best for another. As such, they stress the importance in considering each child’s individual personality, needs and desires, and being willing to tailor their education accordingly, even if that means that each child follows a different educational path.
From my end, I noticed another common thread. No matter which option a parent chooses, the decision need not be set in stone. Each mother I interviewed was willing at any point to alter her child’s educational path if needed. They take their children’s education year by year. It’s a way, really, to remain closely attuned to our children, especially at ages when their increasing independence makes it easy for them to slip away, however slightly.
In the end, I’m not sure my interviews helped me move closer to a decision just yet, but they did something better. They helped me reach an encouraging realization: our educational choices are not going to make or break our children’s steadfastness in their religion. What’s more important in keeping our children steeped in their Catholic faith is a strong Catholic family. And that is knowledge that in the midst of this decision-making storm offers great peace.