In the time that my husband and I have been home-schooling our 6-year-old son, not once has anyone asked us about our curriculum.
Not family members, friends, our pediatrician or parents at the playground. Not even strangers in the grocery store, who wonder out loud why my son is there at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday when he “should be in school.”
No one wants to know when we plan to educate him on addition and subtraction, parts of speech, the U.S. presidents or foreign language. No one asks about the time, effort and energy we expend each year dreaming up unit studies and supplemental activities. No one wonders about how many hours per day we spend on actual, sit-down instruction vs. more interactive learning.
What they do want to know is when my son will go to school, not if: “I’m sure this is fine for now, but you’re going to send him eventually … right?”
Most people express the predictable concerns about socialization: “How will he learn to play with other kids?”
Or they wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier on us to send him out of the house every day: “Don’t you have enough on your plate with the other kids?”
Finally, a few people doubt the quality of the education he might be receiving at home: “Teachers go to college to learn how to teach! How are you qualified to do their job?”
For the most part, I understand the worry and confusion that drives these questions. Home schooling is not the current cultural norm. My husband and I know that we are choosing to go against the grain by opting out of the traditional educational system.
What I have a harder time understanding is why so few people think to ask the one question that would address most of their concerns and satisfy nearly all of their curiosity about our choice to home-school: “What are you learning about?”
Notice that I said “What are you learning about?” rather than “What are you teaching your son?” There’s a big difference, and it lies at the heart of our decision to home-school.
For our family, home schooling is about what we are all learning, together. It’s a joint effort and a lifestyle choice, like deciding to be a family that travels regularly or exercises together. The benefits are far-reaching: My younger sons, though not officially old enough to be home-schooled, are absorbing a surprising amount just by observing and participating at their individual levels. Even though we’re the educators, my husband and I are learning, too — and this communal participation in our son’s education allows us to cultivate a home where learning is both exciting and organic to our day-to-day routine.
For example, my son likes maps, castles and dragons. Out of necessity, I’ve become reacquainted with some basic geography, history and mythology facts that never quite stuck when I was in school. When we decided that raising backyard chickens would be a good way for our kids to learn about life cycles, the food chain and doing chores, my husband learned about animal husbandry. (He is now our resident chicken expert). My 4-year-old knows the difference between crocodiles and alligators because his big brother is obsessed with reptiles. And even my 2-year-old can appreciate a funny Shel Silverstein poem when he hears it.
In our home-school, we all learn from one another — and from many different resources. We explore online tutorials on everything from mathematics to architecture, take days off for museum and aquarium field trips, borrow bags full of books from the library and spend days immersed in the forest. Necessarily intertwined with those activities are opportunities to socialize with others, follow our natural interests as far down the rabbit hole as we can go and apply what we’ve learned in real-life, hands-on settings.
Home schooling is less something that we do to our son and more an integrated part of our family life. It’s how we plan to show our kids that learning can happen anywhere, not just inside a school building, and that the process of learning something — rather than simply the outcome — is valuable in itself.
This reasoning is largely responsible for why we’ve chosen to home-school in the first place. Little by little, our public education method is transforming the act of learning into something that must be scored, carefully dictated and comparatively measured. It doesn’t really matter what or how a child has learned, as long as he has learned enough of it and in the right amount of time. Learning is becoming a means to an end.
With home schooling, learning is only the beginning. It’s not a ruler to measure success, but a key that opens doors. My husband and I think there will be plenty of time for our kids to learn about multiplication tables and proper nouns and persuasive essays. But we believe there is a smaller, more fragile window of time when we can teach them something much more important: that learning can, and should, be a source of joy.
How many traditionally educated kids will tell you that learning makes them joyful? Probably not many. But when my son cracks open a new book and discovers how big a blue whale is, his face is full of joy. He wants to know more. We look up blue whales online. We watch a nature documentary about ocean animals. When it’s over, he belly flops onto his bed and swallows up imaginary krill. He asks if we can go on a whale watch someday, visibly bouncing with excitement.
He loves to learn, but more importantly, he doesn’t see learning as something separate from the rest of his day — his learning looks and feels a lot like living. It feels like being a kid, in the best way possible. Asking endless questions and being encouraged to find the answers. Having the whole world stretched out in front of him, with infinite time to explore it, and parents who say: “Sure, we can set up a superhero obstacle course in the back yard. We’ll call it gym class!” Living and learning at the same time, in the same place, and finding joy in doing both — that’s why we chose to home-school this year and why we’ve elected to do it again next year.
It’s our family’s right to make that choice, though I know it’s a little bit strange. It’s not for everyone. It’s certainly unconventional. I understand that most people have questions about what home schooling actually looks like for the families who do it.
But the next time you cross paths with home-schoolers, skip the inquisition. Whoever they are and whatever their philosophies might be about home schooling, they’ve probably spent plenty of time worrying about socialization and time management and how in the world they’re going to teach their kid algebra. (Spoiler alert: They probably won’t, because that’s what math tutors and home-school co-op classes and Khan Academy are for.)
They don’t want to talk about that stuff. They’re home-schoolers because they love learning, and their entire family life is centered on all the unique ways to learn just about anything their hearts desire to know.
Instead, ask them what birds they saw on their morning nature walk. Ask them where they went on their last field trip or what chapter book they are reading together. Have them tell you about their coolest science experiment, their messiest art project, their favorite sea creature.
Ask them what they are learning. I guarantee they’re dying to tell you.
Sarah Bradley is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher. She is mother to three wild and wonderful boys, and wife to one extremely patient husband. You can see her attempts at finding a mother/writer balance on Instagram.
More to read: