My partner and I are both professional teachers, and I've been involved with the homeschooling community for years, offering outdoor science programs for kids. After three years of research, and given our backgrounds, we decided to homeschool our own children, too. As you can imagine, people have some questions, and opinions, about that, and you can bet moms who homeschool have some things they want non-homeschooling moms to know, too.
I've often wished I could carry around a basic FAQ about homeschooling for non-homeschooling parents, so when the topic comes up I could just hand it to them and then we could fast-forward through all the basics and have a perfectly lovely conversation based on mutual understanding. Because, unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions about homeschooling, and such a wide variety of families who homeschool that it's impossible to generalize the experience. In fact, it sometimes seems there's more variety among homeschooling families than similarity.
Whether you are a homeschooling parent, or you have a friend or family member who is homeschooling and you're curious, or maybe you're deciding about homeschooling for your own kids, here are some basics about the world of homeschooling that many non-homeschooling parents may not be familiar with.
1. All Kinds of Families Homeschool
More often than not, when we tell someone we're homeschooling our kids, they say something like, "I didn't know you were religious," or, "You don't look like homeschoolers."
What do homeschoolers look like, though? According to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education statistics, a reported 1,689,726 children were homeschooled in 2016. That is a lot of homeschooling families, and I can assure you they're not all the same.
Many non-homeschoolers think that homeschooling families are all white Christian fundamentalists. Yes, many homeschooling families are religious, and the majority of those religious families are Christian. However, an increasing number of homeschooling families are non-religious, atheist or secular families, or families whose religion doesn't play a part in their desire to homeschool. For example, we're Jewish, but our practice is pretty low-key, and most other Jewish families we know send their kids to public school with Hebrew school on the weekends, so for us it's not about religion.
Some families homeschool because their children have disabilities that make it difficult for them to attend a traditional school, ranging from learning differences, sensory impairments, or mobility impairments. While homeschooling may mean that your child doesn't have access to resources from the school district to support their learning, many districts support homeschoolers with special needs. Of course, districts vary widely in the resources they have available for students with disabilities.
Not all homeschooling families are white, either. More Black families are homeschooling, often (but not exclusively) to protect their children from racism in traditional schools. "As people of color, we see the urgency in learning how to prioritize an understanding of how to provide for ourselves and contribute to our communities without relying on someone to employ us, or to fund our school district, or to see value in our lives," says Akilah S. Richards, a Self-Directed Education activist and Black unschooling mom who hosts a weekly podcast about decolonizing education through unschooling. Homeschooling is on the rise among Asian households in the U.S. and in China, too And there are queer homeschooling families like ours, who don't want our kids subjected to rigid gender stereotypes and heterocentrist dogma in traditional classrooms.
2. Homeschooling Is Legal In The U.S., Canada, & Much Of The World
Depending on a state or community's specific laws, homeschooling parents may have to fill out more paperwork, incorporate as a private school, prove that they're meeting certain standards, or join a homeschooling-friendly umbrella school. But homeschooling is not illegal anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.
If you are considering homeschooling, or just want to be informed about the subject, you should check the laws of your state, province, or nation to find out what the requirements are. Generally speaking, most homeschoolers are responsible parents who want to support their children to the best of their ability, so they often jump through more bureaucratic hoops to make sure they're doing everything right. Asking, "How are you getting away with that?" when a parent tells you they're homeschooling is impolite at best.
3. Not Every Homeschool Parent Is Anti-Vaxx
Another homeschooler stereotype is that homeschoolers don't vaccinate their children. It's true that, in some parts of the country, there's a high overlap between parents who don't vaccinate and parents who homeschool — particularly because laws require children who attend public and most private schools to be vaccinated unless there's a medical reason they can't be. Again, the legal requirements vary. But many homeschoolers know that vaccinations are medically important to protect children from dangerous diseases. As a biologist and a science teacher — and as a responsible member of a community that includes vulnerable elders, babies, and people with immune deficiencies — I'm definitely vaccinating my children.
The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, an advocacy organization supporting policies intended to provide oversight of homeschooling in the US, states: "We recommend ... that homeschooled students be required to meet the same requirements for regular physicals or other medical examinations as public schooled students in their state, and receive the same benefits... We further recommend that homeschool families be required to comply with their state’s immunization standards, filing proof of immunizations or exemption along with their notice of intent or enrollment in an umbrella school."
4. Homeschooled Children Can Have Thriving Social Lives
There are now many more opportunities for homeschooling families to get together with other homeschooling families to play and learn together. Music classes, swim, dance, sports, drama, writing workshops, outdoor playgroups, scouting, STEAM clubs, robotics... you name it, and there's an opportunity for homeschooled kids to plug in — at least so long as there are any other families with kids around. If there are only other school-going kids in your area, there are probably after-school activities where those kids hang out, and it's possible to get involved even if your kid doesn't attend the same (or any) school. And in some states, public school districts are required to allow homeschooling families to sign their kids up for extracurriculars provided through the local public school, such as band or athletics or clubs, even if they're not attending for classes.
The truth is, though, just like their traditionally-schooled peers, some homeschooled kids are very socially active and have tons of friends, and some homeschooled kids have only a few friends. One major difference is that more homeschooled kids report age-diverse friendships. In traditional school classrooms, kids are accustomed to only socializing with students who are only a few months older or younger than they are. Homeschooled children, however, often form friendships not only with children several years older and younger, but with adults in their community. With a wider array of potential interactions with older and younger people, they may acquire different social skills and at a different rate than their traditionally schooled peers. This leads homeschooling advocate Dianne Flynn Keith to point out that, yes, homeschooled children are often seen as "odd" because they don't follow the rules that traditionally schooled children adhere to. "They haven't been indoctrinated in the same way. They have not been steeped in the popular consumer culture to the degree that most schooled kids have been. They are not adult-phobic and peer-dependent." She adds, "What part of any of that is typical? Why would anyone expect that such a marked divergence from the norm would produce a person who is so common or usual — or so 'well-socialized' — that they fit right into the mainstream?"
5. Homeschooling Can Look Different for Different Families
Homeschooling looks different for every family. Some families follow a structured curriculum, and their homeschooling might look just like, you know, school. Some families do radical unschooling, where there's no distinction made between learning, play, work, and life. Most homeschooling families probably do a mix. Even the most conservative and traditional homeschooling families incorporate some project-based learning, although they might call it something like scouting or 4H. And even if radical unschooling looks completely structureless from the outside, parent-educators bring creative intentionality into how they connect their children's learning experiences and opportunities.
Some unschoolers say that all parents are educators — we've all been homeschooling our kids since they were born. That doesn't mean we all feel equally qualified to tackle algebra, chemistry, or cultural geography. But many parents who say "I could never do that" when another parent tells them they are homeschooling aren't thinking about all the ways they have already "homeschooled" their own children. Teaching them to talk, walk, and feed themselves was no small pedagogical feat!
6. It's Not All About Shielding Kids From the World
Homeschooling isn't always about aspects of the world you want to keep out of your kids' lives. It's also often about what we want to expose them to. When almost every day is a field trip, kids get more exposure to learning about the world. My homeschooled 5-year-old learns math today through weighing produce and counting money at the grocery store. He also learns a little about employment law when a worker on her lunch break is getting her sandwich at the deli, and a little about social inequality when the mom in front of us is paying with EBT and there's not enough on her card for her small number of items. Next week we'll most likely go to a political demonstration about an issue that matters to us. We might also go to a local farm where adults with developmental disabilities work. There are any number of museums to visit. And then he'll still have time to learn to fix things around the house with me and Grandpa.
Worldschooling is a mindset that the world is the best school, and families who identify as worldschoolers often homeschool their children while traveling the globe. But the philosophy of using the world around us as a classroom can be applied even if you don't have ambitions to take your family overseas for months or years at a time. Many families "school in the world" by making sure their children's education consists of regular opportunities to engage with diverse people in real world settings. Most of the world does not look or function like a traditional classroom, these educators point out, so how useful can it be to train children to function in a classroom setting for 12 or 13 years, if we expect them to be functional citizens of the world at age 18?
7. Homeschoolers Can Be Just Fine
Homeschooled young adults can go to college if they want to, and many have high rates of success thanks to their education portfolios and history of self-motivated study. Some choose trades or careers less dependent on traditional measures of academic achievement. Many are very happy and well-adjusted people by any measure. Some homeschooled adults do feel that homeschooling limited their options, and it largely depends on the parents' willingness and ability to connect their children with resources.
Homeschooling parents should not isolate their children or attempt to make their children think just like them, but the same goes for parents of traditionally-schooled children. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education points out that, "Because each homeschool operates on an individual family basis, with all of the variation that comes along with that, homeschooling is perhaps better characterized by the diversity of the homeschool experience than it is by anything else."
8. You Can Support Homeschooling Parents & Also Support Public Schools
Many homeschooling parents choose to homeschool because they have philosophical differences with the public school system in their area (or in general), or have had bad experiences with public schools themselves. But many support their public schools with their votes and their advocacy, even if, for whatever reason, it just is not the right option for their families.
You can support homeschooling parents by staying curious and open, sharing information and resources, cultivating your children's friendships, and in every other way you would support non-homeschooling parents. You can also support your public schools by advocating for policies that fund public schools and protect the rights of teachers.
The more we can support all kinds of educators and learners, the better!