Conference Vignette #2: On Trusting Yourself

One of my favorite parts of the VaHomeschoolers Conference is getting to meet so many homeschoolers who have just started out on their journey. I often have folks who come up after my Beginning Homeschooling session to ask me questions, usually wanting to further clarify something I said or ask about something specific to their personal situation.

One Mom came up after my session, not, I realized, to ask a question, but instead to get some reassurance. Reassurance that she was not, as some folks were telling her, going to ruin her children by homeschooling them. While this worry is not uncommon, it hit me how sad it is that our society and culture so often criticizes and makes us doubt what our hearts are telling us.

In this situation, her 6 year old son was being bullied and was often coming home crying (one time he had been punched in the stomach). They had been trying to work things out with the school for awhile now, talking with the teacher and the principal, but hitting many of the walls that come up in this type of one saw what was happening when it was happening or in some cases her son got in trouble for retaliating physically when verbally provoked. They also were finding it difficult to keep up with the homework load (yes, in first grade) and not liking how the evenings were often devolving into exhausting exercises in futility. 

They had finally made the decision to start homeschooling but were running into people who said that they were doing their son a disservice by not making him "stick it out" or by teaching him "to run away" from his problems or letting him "quit when it got rough." She did not really have a specific question, but just wanted to share her story, mostly looking for reassurance that she was not crazy for thinking that homeschooling was a better option for their family in this case.

How crazy is this? We are talking about a 6 year old boy. A 6 year old boy should not come home crying from school on a regular basis. A 6 year old boy should not have to "learn how to deal" with kids physically hurting him or verbally picking on him. A 6 year old boy should not have to learn that adults can't keep him safe. A 6 year old boy should not have to feel that solving this or keeping himself safe is up to him alone. A 6 year old boy should not have to worry about this type of thing. This should, in my mind, be a no-brainer.

We are not talking about an occasional issue here. This was something that had been going on for most of the year, something that his parents had been trying to address, something that was obviously affecting him. We are also not talking about a teen or an older child who has more maturity and life experience and might be better able to handle it depending on the severity (though I would argue that no child of any age should have to deal with ongoing bullying issues).

So what does homeschooling teach a 6 year old boy in this situation? It teaches him that the adults in his life care about him and will do what they can to keep him safe. It teaches him that when a situation is not working that he has options and does not have to learn to "accept it." These are powerful messages.

I think that too often many people try to minimize the stress that school puts on some of our kids. Most likely because so many adults "had to deal with it" when they were in school, so it is easier to pretend that it served some worthwhile purpose. Or was not "that bad." And that may be the case for some kids, but definitely not all. According to  a recent long-term study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry

“We were actually able to say being a victim of bullying is having an effect a decade later, above and beyond other psychiatric problems in childhood and other adversities,” said William E. Copeland, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center.

Bullying is not a harmless rite of passage, but inflicts lasting psychiatric damage on a par with certain family dysfunctions, Dr. Copeland said. “The pattern we are seeing is similar to patterns we see when a child is abused or maltreated or treated very harshly within the family setting,” he said.

And these parents of a 6 year old were being made to feel that they were doing something wrong by taking their son out of a school that was not working for him. Please explain this again to me?

The fact that the It Gets Better campaign resonates with so many people, both gay and straight speaks volumes in my mind. How on earth can we think that it is enough to tell kids if they can just manage to get through school then it will get better? That they have to put their lives on hold, hunker down, try to survive the best they can until they are allowed to start living their lives the way they want to, free from abuse? Yes, it is better than not acknowledging it as an issue at all, but really?  

Our culture has a habit of making us second guess our instincts. We are taught that the worst thing in the world that we can do is to nurse our babies to sleep, lest they become "dependent" on us. We worry that by homeschooling our children we are "sheltering" them from "real life." Well, I would argue in some cases (such as a 6 year old who is being bullied) that we absolutely should shelter them...and not feel guilty for doing so.  

There will always be things from which we can not shelter our kids because struggles are part of life. Our kids will struggle and from these struggles can come growth and resiliency. We most certainly don't need to choose to keep our kids in a bad situation to teach them some sort of "lesson." Especially when the lesson that our kids learn most likely is not going to be the lesson we think they should learn. We don't need to feel guilty for taking steps which support our kids during their struggles. For some families, those steps might lead to homeschooling and that is a good thing which should be encouraged, not discouraged.

I do know that for many kids, school works perfectly fine. And some kids can learn and become empowered when dealing with issues that arise in schools. But some kids can't, not because there is anything wrong with them, but rather because school is not a good fit for them. Unfortunately that is not often the message they receive and internalize.

Something is very wrong in our society when we acknowledge the damage that being in school can do to some kids, yet we do not support parents when they take steps they know in their heart to be in the best interest of their child.

For many kids, homeschooling is just an educational choice. A different way of learning. For other kids, it is a lifeline. A safety net. A way to hold onto their sense of self-worth.

There is no one "right way" to educate our children. Parents need to trust themselves when making these decisions and our society needs to stop judging families who make  "different" choices that are right for them.