Guardians of Youth

“Adolescence is not the age of hatred or vengeance; it is the age of pity, mercy, and generosity. Yes, I maintain…a youth of good birth, one who has preserved his innocence up to the age of twenty, is at that age the best, most generous, the most loving, and the most lovable of men. … [Yet] I can well believe that philosophers such as you, brought up among the corruption of public schools, are unaware of it.” –Jean Jacque Rousseau (Emile, Book IV)

Every human endeavor is surrounded with pitfalls to avoid. While many of us today can see potential drawbacks to homeschooling, some parents are hesitant today to question their methods’ potential shortcomings. But why shouldn’t homeschooling families benefit from reading stories of common pitfalls?

The level of freedom in many states is cavernous. Like philosophers, modern homeschooling parents are free to question countless educational assumptions, asking questions like: Are tests really necessary, or all subjects necessary? But unlike the philosophers, the questioning is not purely theoretical: their ideas shape their children’s learning, development, and adjustment to the world. Without an eye to the potential pitfalls, how can they succeed?

The lives of the homeschooled are perhaps like a little like the lives of the rich and famous: there is a façade of success and having-it-all together that some fear breaking. And because of the overwhelming success of some homeschoolers, others consider themselves above scrutiny. Also criticism-resistant is homeschooling’s religious rhetoric of calling: as in, it’s a calling to guard and teach young minds. There is also a fear that asking for help might call a parent’s abilities, or freedom to educate their children, into question.

A Higher Calling

Parents are recruited in a highly affirming, “Anyone can do this!, or do-it-yourself language. Many have also been recruited via religious rhetoric. Yet there is also a clear thread of denial. Denial speaks in terms of “We don’t want to know,” as bad experiences are discredited as isolated and overblown. The comparison of public versus home school exists to tear down complaint: no bullies, better curriculum, etc, etc. And the disadvantages are minimized, made small and insignificant.

There is also a common thread among some homeschoolers of resistance to authority–the perception that the government cannot know best, so children are pulled from public school and parents school them themselves. While in many cases of incompetence, this might be warranted, but homeschooling, too, is vulnerable to abuses that can occur apart from the village–the accountability and checks-and-balances of others.

A Look at the Dark Side

Apart from government oversight, there is yet another alternative, and that is awareness of the common areas of problems, and as opting into increased accountability, groups that will help both parents and children. We must recognize that human beings need each other if we are to overcome the blind-spots that are easy to fall into. If we relegate experiences of those in the shadows to unknown, then we deny the problem. We must instead admit that problems can easily form in our own homeschooling groups, and even in our own houses.

The needs of a growing mind are complex. Like a natural scientist, we must look at the whole ecosystem to determine the needs of the plant. We must not allow roots to bind, too tightly, around short-sighted methods; we must see the shadows and the light, and place ourselves within the narrative of the larger potential for humanity.

A Curious Habitat

At some time in your youth, usually quite young, you learn that under a rock, life is crawling. It might not be the most colorful or loudest exhibition of life, but again and again, expectation nudges you to see if the dirt underneath is darker than the dirt that surrounds, and whether that dirt is crawling with worms and beetles and turreted pill bugs. Later you learn about something called a natural habitat. A place that encourages a uniquely adapted life. A home.

It’s within the nature of living things to seek out that which feels right. For the very small human, curiosity drives them to lift the rock—that’s what feels right. For the bug, what feels right is that cool underside of rock, moistened dirt, the protection from the sun. It’s natural to seek shelter—healthy, vital. But for darker parts of human nature, it’s also natural to hide; natural to want to maintain what is sick, to keep it hidden and not let it be discovered. And aware of it or not, this tendency places some in danger, and some permanently in the dark.

For those hidden away from scrutiny, away from critique, darkness might be the norm. Sunshine may be avoided, and in the shadows, away from the help of others, we grow sick. But there is hope–we might shine a light. It’s not impossible to be open to light where we are, by simply reading, by listening, to stories of darkness, of what to avoid. Mistakes are easy to make, and we all need outside guidance. Even if we think we’re alright.

Stories of Youth

When I think of my childhood, I think of motion, my brothers and I in the backseat of the car; if on foot, we were following closely by my mother’s side. In the big city-suburbia of Dallas, we somehow got by without really knowing anyone, without anyone knowing us to well; a string of loose connections, acquaintances at the business we regularly visited, my mother’s friends far off on the telephone in California and Louisiana. But nobody knew what schooling we really did. And I got used to being unknown, not being asked by my mom, or anybody, of my progress. And I got used to that, used to hiding, keeping what I learned, what I didn’t, to myself. I thought it would always be that way. But as Mark 4:22 quotes Jesus, Everything hidden will be revealed, and everything secret will come out into the open.”

We write our stories in in attempt to reveal these landscapes, these hidden places which have some strikingly similar pitfalls, in hopes that light might shine more completely. In the shadowy land with immense areas of of self-accountability, guardian-teachers need to see from not only their own angle, but from the light in their children’s eyes. Let the experiences of those who have been on this path before inform you. Learning how to overcome the limitation of parent’s eye-view, seeing from other angles may not feel natural at first, but it could make a huge difference in finding out what works best for the students in your care.