Some things we accept as truth because they are all we’ve ever known. And there are a great many things about education and about learning in general that have been affected, (i.e. tainted,) by a century of compulsory school attendance laws.
And since a remarkable number of people have no idea what “compulsory school attendance” is, let me explain. Until the middle of the 19th century, children in the United States were not forced by law to attend school. Massachusetts was the first state to enact a compulsory school attendance law in 1852, 76 years after our nation’s founding, requiring parents to send their children ages 8 to 14 to public schools for at least 12 weeks per year. Each of the 50 states would eventually follow suit with the last such law being enacted in Mississippi in 1917. Over time school days and years lengthened until now the average public school day is 6.5 hours long; the school year 180 days.
Until these laws were put into place, children were generally taught at home by parents, sometimes by tutors, and occasionally in private or community schools. Public education and, to a large extent, schooling outside of the home were fairly foreign concepts in the United States.
So why do I bring that up? Because when all-day-long, Monday to Friday, away-from-home-and-parents-schooling is the norm for over a hundred years, anything that dares step outside of that education box is sure to raise eyebrows. When we, our parents, and maybe even our grandparents have all been educated in a certain manner, accepting anything other than what we’ve known is a struggle for us. That is both predictable and completely natural.
But it’s also sadly narrow-minded.
The particular issue I’m addressing today is one of those homeschooling skeptic points-of-view that I wholly believe is the result of years and years of compulsory school attendance as the accepted norm. Honestly, the logic violates good sense, but when it’s all people have known, it’s easy to accept it as truth and dismiss anything else as strangely inconceivable.
So let’s have another imaginary conversation between the traditional school supporter (TSS), and the homeschooling mom (HM)…
TSS: I could never homeschool! I just don’t think my kids would respect me as their teacher.
HM: Really? Why not?
TSS: Because I’m their mom! To their minds, I’m supposed to do their laundry and fix their supper and shuttle them around from one activity to the next, not teach them math and science!
HM: So what is your role as a mom?
TSS: (She pauses, surprised and momentarily stumped by the question.) I care for my children. Love them. Try to protect them.
HM: You don’t teach them?
TSS: (Arching a brow, puzzled.) I told you, I don’t homeschool.
HM: No, I mean you never teach them anything? Like, who taught your child how to talk?
TSS: (With wide eyes.) Well, they just…learned.
HM: From whom? The mailman? The guy next door?
TSS: No! From my husband and I.
HM: Yeah, because you repeated words to them again and again and pointed at things all the time and said things like “cup” and “ball” and “dog”. And later you probably started adding words like “green cup” and “red ball” and “brown dog” until they were learning their colors, too, right?
HM: So you were teaching them. From the time they were very young you were teaching them. What about manners? You taught them to say “please” and “thank you” and “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir”. And what about safety? You taught them that touching a hot stove is painful and that playing with matches is dangerous. You taught them to make their bed and taught them to clean up their toys. You’re teaching them things all day long every day!
TSS: But…but those are just things they need to know to get along in the world. They’re just life skills! It’s not math and science!
HM: Math isn’t a life skill? How will they ever know how to balance a checkbook or count out correct change without math?
TSS: I just meant…I mean…
HM: But that’s beside the point. Listen, you were arguing that your children could respect you as their mom, but not as their teacher. But isn’t that a mom’s primary responsibility–teaching? Isn’t teaching them a huge part of caring for and loving them? And if your children can’t respect as you teach them math and science and language arts, (and you’re already teaching a lot of that to them now, whether you realize it or not,) then what makes you think they’re respecting you as you teach them manners and safety and all these “life skills” you’re talking about?
TSS: (Sighing in response.)
HM: So tell me. Where is the dividing line between what a mom should teach and what a schoolteacher should teach? And who drew the line? And what gave them the right to draw it? And who decided that your children have to respect you when you’re teaching them morals and manners and “life skills”, but they don’t when you’re teaching them math?
TSS: Their teacher is really good. She’s a very experienced teacher.
HS: But she’s not more experienced with your child than you are is she? Did she teach your child how to walk?
HS: How to go to the potty?
HS: How not to hit her brother or throw food at the table?
HS: How to say thank you to Aunt Martha for the ugly socks she got for Christmas?
TSS: No, no, no.
HS: My friend, there is no one more experienced with your child than you are. No one.
TSS: Okay, okay. It’s just that…my kids know their teacher is trained to teach. I haven’t had that training.
HS: So you think the teacher’s training is what earns them your child’s respect? Your kids are really concerned about their training? They want all the info about the diploma and the certification and when they have that, well then they’re ready to…
TSS: (Rolling the eyes.) No, no. I guess not.
HS: Then where does that respect come from? How does it develop?
TSS: I don’t know. I guess the teacher earns it by taking authority in class. Showing interest in the kids. Being patient with them. Being kind.
HS: Aha! All the sorts of things you’re supposed to do as the mom! Take authority. Show interest in your kids. Be patient with them. Be kind to them and love them. You’re teaching them already! Homeschooling simply broadens the scope of that teaching until educating them in math and science and English is as natural and seemless and as much a part of mothering as teaching them to tie their shoes!
TSS: (With a shrug and a shake of the head.) I just don’t think the transition could be that easy.
HS: It isn’t. Years and years of being taught that only a schoolteacher can teach our kids isn’t an easy thing to unlearn, for parents or children. But that thinking can be undone. But it has to start with a brave mom who recognizes that her primary role as a mom is TEACHER! And as a teacher, she deserves respect and can absolutely have it with her children whether she’s teaching a child to always buckle their seat belt or to do fractions or to explain the life cycle of a gypsy moth.
Virtually everyone who doesn’t homeschool and never has is convinced they can’t do it. And some who are doing it aren’t so sure they can do it, either! I’m sympathetic because I was once of the same mind. But as I came to look at things more objectively, I began to see a lot of my questions and my uncertainties and my criticisms were rooted in what I was accustomed to, not what made the most sense.
It’s not the educated stranger who makes the most effective teacher, but the child’s earliest and most natural influence. It is she who has the potential for the greatest affect in her children’s lives. And if she’s able to teach her children the subjects of greatest gravity, like honesty and wisdom and character, why on earth should she be intimidated by the lesser things like math and science and history?