GeekMom Debate: My Kids Hated School. So We Dropped Out (Temporarily).

Education GeekMom
Boy with shark puppet
Giving an oral report on South African sharks to the homeschool Passport to the World Club. Image: Andrea Schwalm

Welcome to the first edition of GeekMom Debate! GeekMoms are nothing if not opinionated, so we’re giving them a chance to present different sides of the same topic. For another take on the question of dealing with kids who hate school, read Alisson Clark’s post My Kid Hates School. I’m (Mostly) OK with That.

As an adult, I am a good student. I had a graduate school professor once tell me, “I’ve never had someone pay such…such rapt attention to me before. And your papers…are a pleasure to read. You make me feel like a very good teacher.”

This is in stark contrast to the twelve years of low-average report cards still archived in my mom’s bedroom dresser drawer, all reading identically: “polite student, loves to read, tends to daydream, does not work to potential,” like the droning chant of a dozen disappointed matryoshka nesting dolls. Academically and emotionally, I self-identify as a late bloomer and I am sure my experiences with education have shaped the decisions I’ve made for my children.

My younger son asked recently, seemingly out of nowhere: “That reminds me! About school: What’s wrong with laughing? Why can’t there be laughing and learning all the time?”

“You can have both laughing and learning. Just not always at the same time,” I replied. “We have to learn that not everything gets to be fun. Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and deal.”

For a long time, though, my children were neither laughing NOR learning in school. My bookshelves at home are a hard-covered testimony to our journey: The Explosive Child, From Emotions to Advocacy, Overcoming Dyslexia. All of this reading was not changing one important thing, however: my children hated school.

“I hate this place, Mommy,” they would tell me in their piping, Disney-woodland-creature voices as I dropped them off in the morning. “Back to prison,” they would moan–the one time of day these two seemed to come together to agree on anything.

And then, each night, we would embark on another two-hour, tear-filled psychological journey through the five stages of grief on our way to completing homework assignments that the teachers perkily assured me should take “no more than twenty minutes” but required hand-eye coordination and literacy and numeracy skills that my sons were just not developing at the same rate as their peers.

Ultimately, special education supports and services were provided to my children at school. But even then, they still disliked school, did not find most of the work they were asked to do meaningful, appropriate, or remotely enjoyable. To them, work was done only to avoid parent-imposed negative consequences: loss of TV, loss of video games, loss of computer time. There was no ownership or pride in what they were doing.

Was this a healthy way to develop?

I wanted my sons to develop the critical thinking skills and “positive habits of the mind” that ultimately shape personal character — to learn to be “fair minded,” “inquisitive,” “empathic,” and “confident.” Yes, I knew the dangers of allowing my children to think that the world was always an accommodating place. I believed that children thrived when working to meet high expectations. But I felt like my children, because of their learning disabilities, were giving up on learning.

So, I listened to what my children were saying and decided to homeschool them. For two years, we visited every museum, aquarium, and hands-on science program in our region, passed history books back and forth as we read together in pajamas on the couch, watched Shakespeare on video and re-enacted the best deaths, and participated in countless programs with local homeschooling collectives.

My plan had never been to homeschool indefinitely. My goal was simply to engineer learning experiences that were pleasurable and relevant, reignite this flame. Reboot our sense of joy and intellectual curiosity.

Last fall, after two years of care and growth, they returned to public school. Back to the same services and supports they’d left. They were complimented on their profound depth of knowledge on certain topics and chastised for their unwillingness to follow rules that did not make sense to them. They met or exceeded academic expectations. And they seemed … happier. More willing, more receptive, more curious.

This year they entered high school and middle school.

“How was it?!?” I asked after their first day, before they could even get through the door.

“Long, but actually very interesting,” my older son said. “Fun!” was my younger son’s more concise reply.

All right, I thought as I listened to them and laughed. THIS we can work with.

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20 thoughts on “GeekMom Debate: My Kids Hated School. So We Dropped Out (Temporarily).

  1. I was homeschooled/unschooled up until the 7th grade. I wasn’t a big fan of school, but I missed out on a lot by not being there. We plan to homeschool our son, after he gets home from regular school. (He’s still an infant, though.)

    One of the big problems with homeschooling is finding a sane group of homeschoolers with whom to hang out with. An awful lot of them are religious extremists, and a lot of others are crazy in other ways. My parents, for instance, would be considered “extremely crunchy” by today’s standards, and were countercultural in a lot of ways and just thought they could do better than the school system — but they mostly just succeeded in isolating me socially and giving me a leg up on a career repairing computers (but people can learn those skills at any time). It took years after the experiment ended when I was 12 before I started to hit my stride socially. They did eventually find a homeschooling group that matched my mom pretty well, but it didn’t match me. My mom still keeps in touch with some of the other parents in the group, and my younger sister keeps in touch with some of the other kids (though all of the kids have graduated from college and many are parents themselves now), but I don’t keep in touch with any of them because I’m just culturally incompatible (I turned out to be an engineer despite my mother’s best efforts, and they turned out to be artists/musicians who wanted to force their world view on me.)

    It seems far better to combine regular school with homeschooling/unschooling type activities after school to develop the critical thinking and math skills. I plan to do a lot of this kind of thing when my son is old enough — if he seems mechanically inclined, we’ll do something like convert a car to electric power together, including all of the math, engineering and research that goes in to such a project.

    Anyway, homeschooling can work — but getting it right is *far* harder then anyone thinks, even for apparently-experienced homeschooling parents like mine were. Combine that with the difficulty in finding other homeschooling parents for social activities and curriculum-sharing who aren’t nuts, and homeschooling seems nearly impossible to me.

  2. I was homeschooled/unschooled up until the 7th grade. I wasn’t a big fan of school, but I missed out on a lot by not being there. We plan to homeschool our son, after he gets home from regular school. (He’s still an infant, though.)

    One of the big problems with homeschooling is finding a sane group of homeschoolers with whom to hang out with. An awful lot of them are religious extremists, and a lot of others are crazy in other ways. My parents, for instance, would be considered “extremely crunchy” by today’s standards, and were countercultural in a lot of ways and just thought they could do better than the school system — but they mostly just succeeded in isolating me socially and giving me a leg up on a career repairing computers (but people can learn those skills at any time). It took years after the experiment ended when I was 12 before I started to hit my stride socially. They did eventually find a homeschooling group that matched my mom pretty well, but it didn’t match me. My mom still keeps in touch with some of the other parents in the group, and my younger sister keeps in touch with some of the other kids (though all of the kids have graduated from college and many are parents themselves now), but I don’t keep in touch with any of them because I’m just culturally incompatible (I turned out to be an engineer despite my mother’s best efforts, and they turned out to be artists/musicians who wanted to force their world view on me.)

    It seems far better to combine regular school with homeschooling/unschooling type activities after school to develop the critical thinking and math skills. I plan to do a lot of this kind of thing when my son is old enough — if he seems mechanically inclined, we’ll do something like convert a car to electric power together, including all of the math, engineering and research that goes in to such a project.

    Anyway, homeschooling can work — but getting it right is *far* harder then anyone thinks, even for apparently-experienced homeschooling parents like mine were. Combine that with the difficulty in finding other homeschooling parents for social activities and curriculum-sharing who aren’t nuts, and homeschooling seems nearly impossible to me.

  3. I know from experience that school can be just as socially isolating, and despite the bigger pool of people from which to choose, it can be just as hard to find others you feel comfortable with. Except for three people who occasionally make comments on my Facebook page, I don’t keep in touch with anyone I went to school with. Neither school nor homeschooling is the answer for everyone.

    Also keep in mind that the homeschool community has been growing and expanding over the past 20 years. A lot of people homeschool today simply for academic reasons, not because of religious or philosophical beliefs. Your experience might be very different if you were being homeschooled today.

    1. That was the party line when I was a kid, too. Word-for-word, including the 20-year figure. I was homeschooled from the early 1980s until 1991.

      There are cases where homeschooling can work. But my parents thought they had it all right and had the community support — but, in retrospect, they missed the mark pretty widely. I would have been better off in the public schools.

      One additional factor: in my case, the school that I attended was a small rural school and so the majority of the students had known each other since kindergarten. Being crazy hippies from out-of-town really didn’t help anything when I joined them in 7th grade — though I did make a couple of true friends. If you already have the ties, or if you live in an area with a lot of turnover in the schools (like a college town, or a military town), then this might be less of an issue.

      I could see the “you’re that sometimes/visiting/foreign kid” thing happening when I watched my 7-year old nephew (who is being homeschooled) being dropped off at Sunday School… And his parents are at that church whenever the doors open.

      The fact remains that I haven’t met a single secular homeschooler outside of that group my mom found. Every homeschooled kid and homeschooling parent that I’ve met in my adult life has been motivated by religious zeal.

      Anyway, please take my comments for what they are — I’m a disgruntled former-homeschool-kid with a little bit of an axe to grind. I did turn out just fine (happily married, father of one, college-educated, good job, healthy relationships, etc) — but there are *much* easier ways that I could have gotten here.

      1. @Luke: Believe me, I have no party line to promote. But your homeschool experience ended before my oldest child was even born — and before the Internet made connecting with other people, and accessing so many wonderful resources, so easy. On my local homeschool email list I can announce a field trip to hear a local scientist speak — or a meetup at a local park on a nice day — and get 20 families responding within hours. Or pick the brains of other parents homeschooling high schoolers from around the country. We can stream foreign language lessons online or use our library system’s online catalog to request a history DVD from another library 40 miles away and have it sent to our local branch down the street.

        In my group there single parents, parents with disabilities, kids with health issues or special needs and kids taking college classes. Almost everybody also brings in some income — some work from home, some alternate shifts with their spouse. Some involve their kids in their work — I’ve taught afterschool classes for the public school system while my kids took a different class, helped in my room or volunteered for another teacher. Everyone does it their own way, and nobody judges. It’s a new world.

  4. I know from experience that school can be just as socially isolating, and despite the bigger pool of people from which to choose, it can be just as hard to find others you feel comfortable with. Except for three people who occasionally make comments on my Facebook page, I don’t keep in touch with anyone I went to school with. Neither school nor homeschooling is the answer for everyone.

    Also keep in mind that the homeschool community has been growing and expanding over the past 20 years. A lot of people homeschool today simply for academic reasons, not because of religious or philosophical beliefs. Your experience might be very different if you were being homeschooled today.

    1. That was the party line when I was a kid, too. Word-for-word, including the 20-year figure. I was homeschooled from the early 1980s until 1991.

      There are cases where homeschooling can work. But my parents thought they had it all right and had the community support — but, in retrospect, they missed the mark pretty widely. I would have been better off in the public schools.

      One additional factor: in my case, the school that I attended was a small rural school and so the majority of the students had known each other since kindergarten. Being crazy hippies from out-of-town really didn’t help anything when I joined them in 7th grade — though I did make a couple of true friends. If you already have the ties, or if you live in an area with a lot of turnover in the schools (like a college town, or a military town), then this might be less of an issue.

      I could see the “you’re that sometimes/visiting/foreign kid” thing happening when I watched my 7-year old nephew (who is being homeschooled) being dropped off at Sunday School… And his parents are at that church whenever the doors open.

      The fact remains that I haven’t met a single secular homeschooler outside of that group my mom found. Every homeschooled kid and homeschooling parent that I’ve met in my adult life has been motivated by religious zeal.

      Anyway, please take my comments for what they are — I’m a disgruntled former-homeschool-kid with a little bit of an axe to grind. I did turn out just fine (happily married, father of one, college-educated, good job, healthy relationships, etc) — but there are *much* easier ways that I could have gotten here.

      1. @Luke: Believe me, I have no party line to promote. But your homeschool experience ended before my oldest child was even born — and before the Internet made connecting with other people, and accessing so many wonderful resources, so easy. On my local homeschool email list I can announce a field trip to hear a local scientist speak — or a meetup at a local park on a nice day — and get 20 families responding within hours. Or pick the brains of other parents homeschooling high schoolers from around the country. We can stream foreign language lessons online or use our library system’s online catalog to request a history DVD from another library 40 miles away and have it sent to our local branch down the street.

        In my group there single parents, parents with disabilities, kids with health issues or special needs and kids taking college classes. Almost everybody also brings in some income — some work from home, some alternate shifts with their spouse. Some involve their kids in their work — I’ve taught afterschool classes for the public school system while my kids took a different class, helped in my room or volunteered for another teacher. Everyone does it their own way, and nobody judges. It’s a new world.

  5. I pretty much hated school as a kid but even if my mom had considered homeschooling, it wasn’t really an option. She was a single parent and had to work and there were three kids & her salary certainly wouldn’t have covered babysitting or other adults to cover during school hours.

    I take that back. I didn’t like the social issues I had at school. I did like the *learning* and interacting with teachers. I’ve always loved classes and the intellectual stimulation.

    It’s a really tough choice as to what to do. But I do think some families simply aren’t in the position to pull kids out of school either, mostly due to economic circumstances.

  6. I pretty much hated school as a kid but even if my mom had considered homeschooling, it wasn’t really an option. She was a single parent and had to work and there were three kids & her salary certainly wouldn’t have covered babysitting or other adults to cover during school hours.

    I take that back. I didn’t like the social issues I had at school. I did like the *learning* and interacting with teachers. I’ve always loved classes and the intellectual stimulation.

    It’s a really tough choice as to what to do. But I do think some families simply aren’t in the position to pull kids out of school either, mostly due to economic circumstances.

  7. In writing this, I wanted to encourage people who were considering “temporary homeschooling” to believe that it was a viable option. I would never say that it was the perfect solution for everyone, just that it was something that worked for us. One possible tool in a vast toolbox.

    Luke, I hear you. I found the social component–the search for community–the most challenging aspect of our homeschooling experience. Not impossible. But something that always required attention. And homeschoolers can be intense types, definitely! But my experience was also that there are a great many secular homeschoolers out there…I’m outside of New York City though–so perhaps that is a regional anomaly?

    And Corrinna, there *are* single moms who work and homeschool–but frankly, I don’t know how they do it. Financially, logistically, physically…

  8. In writing this, I wanted to encourage people who were considering “temporary homeschooling” to believe that it was a viable option. I would never say that it was the perfect solution for everyone, just that it was something that worked for us. One possible tool in a vast toolbox.

    Luke, I hear you. I found the social component–the search for community–the most challenging aspect of our homeschooling experience. Not impossible. But something that always required attention. And homeschoolers can be intense types, definitely! But my experience was also that there are a great many secular homeschoolers out there…I’m outside of New York City though–so perhaps that is a regional anomaly?

    And Corrinna, there *are* single moms who work and homeschool–but frankly, I don’t know how they do it. Financially, logistically, physically…

  9. We decided to do temporary homeschooling for fifth grade because the students in my son’s classes were, to quote him, “preventing me from learning.” He had too many kids with special needs or the inability to be still, or the rest of them needed the classroom to be completely silent. Taking kids out of school for awhile is becoming more and more accepted. Check out Kevin Kelly’s article in the New York Times recently (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/magazine/19FOB-WWLN-Kelly-t.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=home%20school&st=cse) or Laura Brodie’s Love in a Time of Homeschooling about homeschool one of her three daughters during fifth grade. There are positives and negatives about any kind of school situation. But what I think public schools do not want everyone to realize is that not all kids can adapt to public school’s education style. One size does not fit all. Parents have a lot more options, particularly with the internet, than they once did. Homeschooling has changed dramatically just in the last 5 years.

  10. We decided to do temporary homeschooling for fifth grade because the students in my son’s classes were, to quote him, “preventing me from learning.” He had too many kids with special needs or the inability to be still, or the rest of them needed the classroom to be completely silent. Taking kids out of school for awhile is becoming more and more accepted. Check out Kevin Kelly’s article in the New York Times recently (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/magazine/19FOB-WWLN-Kelly-t.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=home%20school&st=cse) or Laura Brodie’s Love in a Time of Homeschooling about homeschool one of her three daughters during fifth grade. There are positives and negatives about any kind of school situation. But what I think public schools do not want everyone to realize is that not all kids can adapt to public school’s education style. One size does not fit all. Parents have a lot more options, particularly with the internet, than they once did. Homeschooling has changed dramatically just in the last 5 years.

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