We are now in our eleventh year of homeschooling one of our sons, and in our third year of private Catholic school for our younger children. We have also experienced the public school system (both in the South and the Northeast,) a residential Governor's School for the Arts, and two universities and a community college with our three twenty-somethings. Each year we re-evaluate our decision to homeschool based on the needs of our family and the individual traits of our sons and daughters. Some aspects of homeschooling have gotten easier, but even though I have a degree in education and some teaching experience under my belt, some parts of homeschooling are still a challenge for me. We have tried school-at-home, eclectic homeschooling, relaxed homeschooling, school-in-a-box, and towards the end of some school years, unschooling. The bulk of this has been accomplished while homesteading/farming on our mountain, and that brings some unique joys and trials to the experience as well. I'd like to share with you what we have personally found to be the positives and negatives of formally educating our children at home.
- Customized education. You and your children get to choose WHAT they learn about, HOW they learn it, and WHEN they learn. If you have a child who loves to fish, and the beginning of trout season is only weeks away, and he can see the truck down at the bridge stocking trout in the creek, then you can take some time to learn about local fish. Perhaps some of the learning will be conventional by reading about fish in textbooks and on the Internet. However, I'm willing to bet your child will be more excited to learn by going down to the creek and observing the fish at different times of the day, talking with someone from the local Fish & Game Commission, and studying those poster-sized charts of all the fish in the state. You might be taking some trips to the local sporting goods stores where he can spend hours studying the different lures and bait and tackle boxes and fishing line. There will be comparison shopping and allowance counting and negotiating for more allowance if certain extra chores are done. All of this can occur in the evenings, on weekends, during holidays on top of regular school hours. You are not limited by time, books, tests, or lesson plans. You can explore a subject of interest as intensely and for as long as you both can stand it. This is one of the most exciting aspects of homeschooling, in my opinion.
- Protecting their innocence. While we can't shelter our children from hardships forever, we can certainly delay the inevitable exposure to cruelty, vulgarity, injustice, and immorality until we feel they are mature enough to handle it. We have been complimented many times on the sweet, loving, confident, polite nature of our children. They haven't been exposed to the "f" word on a school bus on the way to kindergarten. They haven't been bullied in the bathroom or playground. They haven't been taught sex-ed in a fifth grade classroom or been exposed to all the graphic details while in elementary school, or even in middle school, for that matter. They haven't had to choose between the values they've been taught at home and being cool in order to fit in.
- Unlimited individual attention. For a number of years, I was homeschooling five of our children simultaneously, and they were all working at different grade levels. Even so, they received more one-on-one instruction than they can possibly have in any school. Any time they had questions, I was there to help them find the answer. Sometimes they had to wait until I could get to them, but they were never overlooked in order to move the class along to the next subject or task.
- Time to pursue other interests. When we were starting up our little farm, homeschooling allowed us to spend many hours a day constructing a greenhouse, barn, and chicken tractors. We raised chicks, bunnies, goats, sheep, and fish and witnessed the births and the deaths. The children were part of feeding livestock, giving immunizations, planting seeds, harvesting vegetables, fixing fences, milking goats, gathering eggs, and even selling at farmers' markets. The life skills and lessons were endless and invaluable. The children still participate in many of these endeavors, but they are not as time consuming as they were when we were just starting out. They also had time to pursue other interests during the day such as music, art, cooking, creative writing, singing at nursing homes, crafts, Lego construction, and numerous other things throughout the year. They weren't restricted to a few hours in the evenings or weekends or summer breaks to spend a lot of time doing what they love.
- Weekday field trips and traveling. When all of our children were homeschooled and my husband had some weekdays free, we loved going on day trips to museums, farm shows, festivals and other events. Crowds were much smaller during the week, and we could take our time studying various exhibits. Traveling was much simpler too since we weren't scheduling trips around school vacations.
- You and your children are together all the time. We had the luxury of my husband being here with us daily for months at a time when we first started our farm. During that time, we were also homeschooling everyone, and we all worked together on our homestead. Coincidentally, we were also reading the series of Little House books, and it felt like a surreal experience, as if we were modern day pioneers starting up a homestead on our own frontier here on the mountain. It was a busy time with days full of outdoor physical labor and indoor food preservation. Our youngest was just a toddler then, and I was also busy keeping her out of mischief. But I will always remember that first summer in particular with fondest memories because we were all here together every day.
- You and your children are together all the time! No, this is not a typo. I know I listed this as a positive thing above, and it can be, but it can also be a negative. Especially when all my children were smaller, and I couldn't even go to the bathroom without someone on the other side of the door calling for me, I craved time alone in my house. With no extended family nearby to give me a reprieve and other homeschooling mom friends in the same boat as I, some days felt very long and noisy indeed. Even now with only a teenager home with me all day, there are times I daydream of having this big farmhouse all to myself. During the summer break, no matter how chaotic and aggravating the day might be, I know that come September, our youngest four will be back in school for a good portion of the day. Some days that is what keeps me sane and patient and cheerful. I'm sure there will come a day when I am much older, that this house will seem too quiet, and I will miss the noise and chaos and the activity that comes with a home full of children. However, when you are a homeschooling mom of a bunch of youngsters, those days seem very far away.
- Homeschooling requires a lot of energy. While energy is no problem for the students, it can be in short supply for the parents. When I was pregnant with our youngest, there were weeks that every time I moved, I thought I was going to be sick. I remember lying on my side on the living room sofa while reading to my younger children and helping the others with math or grammar. During the early years of homesteading, I was so busy with a couple of toddlers/preschoolers, homeschooling the elementary aged children, cooking almost everything from scratch, food preservation, farm chores, and volunteering in our homeschool group, that I literally fell into bed at the end of each day. I never had any serious illnesses, but I did get a lot of headaches, including debilitating migraines every three or four months, and it was a serious challenge to homeschool on those days. It certainly gets easier as the children get older and can work independently, but it still requires some mental and physical energy on my part to be available to answer questions, keep a certain boy focused, facilitate learning, and take him places to enrich his learning.
- One parent must be home. This is another one that I could also place in the "Pros" section. When my husband and I married, we made the decision to have a big family and to not put the children in daycare. The original plan was for him to work 30 or so hours a week, and I would still work about 10 hours per week. That way someone would always be home, we could both still do something in our professions, and there would be time to be together as a family. As it turned out, our roles very quickly became traditional as he worked full-time, and I stayed home with the children. During the last four years, we have managed for him to reduce his hours away from home, and I have been able to work a little outside the home as well, but for the most part, he is still the main breadwinner, and I am the stay-at-home mom. It gets more and more challenging each year to live on one income, especially as the children get older and need braces, want more expensive clothes, eat more, and are involved in more activities. While I was homeschooling everyone, both of us working full-time was out of the question. If we worked opposite shifts, we would rarely be together as a family. Once the youngest four started Catholic school, I did think that I might return to teaching full-time, since our schedules would be the same. However, with a homeschooled teenager in the house, it just doesn't feel like the best idea yet. I think this might be the biggest challenge for many families since it gets increasingly more difficult to live on one middle-class income today.
- A very "lived-in" house. While housecleaning is not my thing, I am by nature a very neat and organized person. Living in a large household is hard enough, but when you add homeschooling to the mix, you can count on a rather messy house. There are projects and experiments, papers and books, art and craft supplies, musical instruments, and just lots and lots of stuff. Once we started farming, seedlings and sprouts, barn jackets and Muck boots, chicks and goat kids, bushels of produce, juicers, dehydrators, canning jars, and sauce makers also adorned my kitchen. And that's just my kitchen! Homeschooling means all those things you see filling up the classrooms in your local school are now filling up your house. At some point I had to surrender my notion of living in a Pinterest picture-perfect farmhouse. That has been one of the most difficult aspects of homeschooling for me, and it still is. I am always striving for a Martha Stewart looking farm---without the staff. Not sure that's ever going to be a reality.
- You pay for your own materials. Unless you are cyber-schooling through your local school district, you're on your own for curriculum, supplies, lessons, and field trips. While there was some bartering and trading within our county's homeschool group, we still paid for just about everything ourselves. This is still less expensive than tuition at a private school, but it is something to consider each year.
- Less socializing with peers and activities during the week. For a lot of people, this is a plus. For my children as they reached adolescence, this was the main reason they wanted to go to school. We live in a rural area, so it is even a bigger challenge for us to find other children their age to hang out with. There are virtually no activities during the week to participate in unless it is an occasional outing with a homeschool group. Private lessons can be done during the day, but that's about it. Once they reach their teens, all the sports in this county are played through the local high school. There are Church youth group functions some weekends, but there are few opportunities for my son to spend time with other teens outside of a school setting. When my children were younger, they all just loved hanging out with each other. It was also easier to arrange playdates or go to a park with friends. As they are getting older, they are developing their own interests and their own friendships. Our teenage daughter, especially, now wants to talk to her female friends from school, and not discuss her feelings with her slightly older brother. For an extrovert like me, I always worry that our homeschooled son isn't getting enough social time with other boys and girls his age. I am constantly on the lookout for opportunities for him to engage in activities with peers, but this is a challenge and requires a lot more work on my part than it would if we lived in a suburban area or if he were in school. Until this year, he wasn't concerned at all about having friends. He was fairly content to see peers on the weekends and to just hang out with me and our farm animals during the week. Now there is an interest in girls, however, and he's eager to get out and meet new teens. This is a new development, so I'm not sure yet where it will lead.