Letter to a reader (who suggests that homeschooling is not the real world)

Yesterday, a reader called jensketch left a comment on my latest post that I really want to respond to. Here’s the comment:

I didn’t know you wrote about this stuff – saw it tagged from your other recent post (which was a good one) but really – you sound a little defensive about being homeschooled where I don’t think you need to be.

My kids are all in public school where they learn to line up and raise their hand just like everyone else however, it’s far more difficult to resist the indoctrination than be clueless about it. It’s far more difficult to live through the social groupings than be secluded and shielded from it like someone who is homeschooled is. I regard public school another lesson in life. The real world. With its foibles and its difficulties and it’s, yes, social groupings. Learning to navigate them and still retain your own individuality is where the real challenge lies. It’s not easy.. but the worthwhile things rarely are.

It’s really hard to write about homeschooling without starting a competition. I’m totally guilty of doing this. It’s really hard not to, sometimes, because homeschooling always stands in obvious contrast with its alternative: school. Sometimes it seems like school and unschool are wrapped around each other like a yin and a yang. But that isn’t right.

Jen leans on several popular stereotypes about homeschooling to make her points:

1. School is the real world. Homeschooling is not.

2. Homeschooling is “easy,” which makes it less valuable than school, which is challenging

3. Homeschoolers are isolated (“shielded”)

These are some of my favorite myths about homeschooling, and I’m glad that Jen pointed them out on my blog, because she is expressing things that most people seem to think about homeschooling. She is posing questions that I still get asked with some regularity, when people find out that I didn’t go to school.

So, Jen, this is a response to your comment:

First of all, I don’t want to compete. I believe that all sorts of experiences are valuable, and that there isn’t a single “right” way to live life, regarding education and everything else. I mean, don’t go around killing other people or anything, or being really, really mean. But other than that, there are plenty of options for living a fulfilling, awesome life.

Your kids are probably fine. They are probably great. They learn certain lessons and I learned certain other lessons, and sometimes we probably learn the same lessons. My education isn’t an insult flung at the choices you’ve made for your children. Our challenges are different.

Now, to address the stereotypes:

1. School is the real world. Homeschooling isn’t.

Everything is the real world. There is no part of existence that is any “realer” than any other part. But I know you’re not trying to get into a philosophical debate about the meaning of the word “real.” What I think you mean is that homeschoolers are abnormal. They aren’t experiencing the same thing as everyone else– they’re living in a minority reality that doesn’t make sense to other people. And if you’re thinking that, you’re right. Homeschoolers ARE abnormal, because we are doing something very different from other people.

But the assumption that being different is negative is a dangerous one. The assumption that something is healthy just because everyone is doing it is another unfortunate one. I won’t launch into a critique of the public school system. God knows, there is plenty of that going around. Just open the New York Times. Instead, I’ll ask you to read this post, which I recently wrote about unschooling skills in the adult world.

2. Homeschooling is “easy,” which makes it less valuable than school, which is challenging

Homeschooling isn’t easier than school, and school isn’t easier than homeschooling. They’re just totally, totally different in every way. School is so much more formal and formulaic and structured than homeschooling that comparing the two is a little like comparing the army to a writers’ colony. Making an arranged marriage work to falling in love and making a love match work. Memorizing the periodic table to teaching yourself to paint faces. Being in the army is difficult for a lot of reasons, but it’s also really complicated to write a book. They’re different sorts of hard.

You were talking about socialization, specifically. Learning how to deal with social groupings in school. That is a huge challenge that requires a lot of social savvy, subtlety, and a mastery of complex body language. I don’t in any way think kids in school have socialization easy. I think they’re put in situations that sound so complicated and uncomfortable to me that I am STILL relieved not to have experienced them. Based on the stories my friends tell about middle school, the adult world sounds a lot easier to handle. And luckily for everyone, we all end up in it! Also luckily for everyone, it’s a lot more possible to extract ourselves from situations in which people are still applying frustrating middle school tactics to the adult world.

You might say, “You can’t just run away from things you don’t like!” (Some people say that a lot.)

So true. But it’s really, really nice to have options.

3. Homeschoolers are isolated

This is just wrong. As a kid, I always thought that kids who went to school were isolated. Think about it: they’re stuck inside the same building every single day. With the same people. Sitting in the same places. Not all homeschoolers do the same stuff, but I think it’s pretty common to get involved in the community naturally as a non-schooler. You’re out during the day, when everyone else is in school. You find mentors, teachers, friends, who other kids either would never meet or wouldn’t think to get to know because they’ve learned that “friend” means someone the same age, and that teachers exist within the walls of the school.

Did that sound too harsh? Maybe your kids don’t think that way. Even if they do, it’s not the end of the world. My husband thought that way, and he’s an incredibly successful adult by any measure.

I now realize that kids who go to school aren’t as isolated as I first suspected. But it certainly seems harder for them to interact with the broader community. Often because they just don’t have time!

Let me make it personal, which is always safer: Unschooling for me was never about staying inside. It was about learning everywhere I went. It was about taking a different class every day, getting to know different groups of people, competing in competitions that represented many different interests, and having the time to have a job that meant a lot to me.

Being able to survive and flourish in the normative environment can be critical to succeeding in society. Kids learn to do that in school. Or they learn to do it in college, after having been unschooled. Or they can just pick it up, from being around other people.

I think we have to also be careful not to underestimate how capable people are of learning things quickly.

Here’s a little story, to conclude:

I was out with my husband and some of his high school friends last night (I’d never met them before). One of them asked me what I write about, and I mentioned that homeschooling is a topic I keep coming back to.

“Oh, wow, you were homeschooled!” he said.

Someone  else at the table said, “I won’t even ask you about socialization. I used to think these really ignorant things about homeschoolers. And then my college roommate was homeschooled, and he was like the most social guy I’ve ever met. He grew up doing so much more stuff than we ever did in school.”

“Kate, too!” said my husband.

“Not really,” I said, a little embarrassed.

“No, you did,” Bear said. “Anyway, I think we all know which one of us is the better socialized one…” And everyone cracked up. (Everyone loves Bear for being sort of bumbling and brilliant.)

Later that night, at home, Bear looked at me and said, as though it had just occurred to him, “You were homeschooled.”

“Yup,” I said, stuffing the clothes from the floor back into the drawer.

He looked thoughtful for a long moment. And I realized how strange it was how little it mattered, and how similar we are. There are a lot of ways to get to happiness.

22 comments to Letter to a reader (who suggests that homeschooling is not the real world)

  • Thank you so much for addressing this. I saw the comment left by Jensketch on your previous post, thought briefly about saying something, but realized that it would take a lot more space than should be used in a comment. Totally agree with you : )

  • Great post. It can be so frustrating to have to explain to people that there isn’t some cosmic battle between homeschooling and schooling. Everyone’s experience is different. Kate and I grew up together as homeschoolers but our experiences were completely different. Our parents had similar views on how to homeschool (and yes there are many many different ways), we spent lots of time in the same homeschooling groups, working on the same kinds of projects, even having the same kinds of goals, but our lives, personalities and social interactions have been worlds apart. That alone should tell you that there is no single outcome to homeschooling.

    I recently found out that a friend of mine was also homeschooled. We met randomly at a coffee shop in the town where we are both graduate students. We started up a conversation in line. Soon we realized that we were both plugged into a larger network of shared friends. We both know a lot of people. We can easily socialize and spend lots of time working with people who grew up in the “real world” of school.

    It was some time before it came out that we had both been homeschooled. We were talking a party, and suddenly “what, you were homeschooled? me too”.

    When I meet another former homeschooler now, as a 25 year old PhD student, we share a moment of understanding. The understanding that it doesn’t matter anymore. No one can tell us apart from the school kids, we are all just adults who made it somewhere in their life. We socialize, we work, we goof around, we plan out our days… nothing seems to differentiate us anymore… and that seems strange given what a big deal everyone was making out of it when we were growing up.

    Sometimes homeschooling is just about what works for a family. I don’t know if I would be in grad school right now if I had gone to school. I had a lot of instincts towards popularity and viciousness. I might have become a mean girl who spent who spent her time climbing the social ladder instead of spending her time writing, thinking, and creating.

    Maybe I would have been the same. What I know, is who I am, which is someone who is completely capable of living in the “real world” and has been living in it all along.

    Hopefully people can stop putting their insecurities about parenting into an attack on homeschooling. If you send your kids to public school, you probably have reasons for doing it. Homeschooling parents have their reasons too, and they are creating some awesome people for the world.

    Just know that the attacks are not falling on deaf ears. Someone will hear it, the kids who are homeschooling right now, and feeling awkward – not because they are abnormal, but because people keep expecting them to be.

  • Robert

    I think the socialization fallacy is rooted in the assumption that homeschoolers don’t spend much time with their peers. When I was small, most of my social interactions were in the context of my homeschool support group, which held a variety of events. Later, I did lots of things with my 4-H club. And that was just peer-oriented activities. So much for anecdotes.

    At the end of the day, the concern is that pupils are prepared for the experiences that they will have as a grown-up. But the fact is that grown-up experiences are quite heterogeneous. So much so that I don’t think any one school experience can properly prepare you for every contingency. The blessing is that, as you say, people are capable of learning things quickly. It’s what we do.

    The thing to avoid is placing pupils in a school where that natural ability to learn is not crushed. This is not a risk specific to any kind of learning environment, and it is not the norm by any means. It can be crushed at home. It can be crushed at a government-run institution. It can be crushed at a private school. But most kids make it out the other side with their ability to learn intact. This is a good thing.

  • Melissa

    I recently stumbled upon your blog (can’t remember exactly how) and immediately bookmarked it. I am enjoying reading about your experiences with and your insights on homeschooling. My family is just embarking on our homeschool journey. I have pulled my oldest two kids (ages 9 and 7) out of school and will be homeschooling them along with my younger ones (ages 5, 3 and newborn). I just wanted to drop a note saying how much I am enjoying reading your blog and feeling encouraged and empowered in what, at times, can feel like quite a daunting undertaking. Thanks and keep it up! 😉

  • i am so grateful for you and your sensibility! Thanks for helping those that are in the trenches of homeschooling and raising our families…

  • Joanne

    My children started off in school and each began homeschooling in their first year of high school; my husband and I grew up in the school system here in Australia so now that we’re a home-ed family I feel we’ve seen both sides. I believe that the ‘lessons’ jensketch is referring too are often too hard, especially for a child who is still developing mentally and emotionally. The fact that some children come through relatively unscathed and lead highly successful lives (however you define that) doesn’t mean that its good for all children. It can be crushing. Some children don’t survive it at all and the crisis of confidence for those that battle through can last a lifetime.
    The anecdotal evidence and studies coming mainly from the U.S. and Canada, show that homeschoolers as adults integrate fully into society. It makes sense really; if you have children who are loved, nurtured,, allowed to mature at their own pace and have not had it routinely drummed into them by peers that they are ugly, stupid, weird, nerds and what-all else goes on, they may just reach adulthood confident and liking who they are which makes them better equipped to stand up for themselves when problems arise in the workplace.
    As to individuality, a child raised with homeschooling will still have to establish their own amongst their family and wider circle of friends and acquaintances. This will still have its difficulties as children don’t always meet parental expectations.
    As Robert points out there are plenty of social opportunities for our kids. Too many, at times! Our children are aware of current events and societal problems.
    Its funny, but if a blogger wrote about their experiences at school, they would be unlikely to get comments from homeschoolers defending homeschooling over public school. Like if I say I’m tired, my friends say things like “Yes, well you do have a lot on your plate” which obviously means ‘you took on a lot by taking your kids out of school’. But if they say “My child is tired and cranky and always fighting with his brother,” I don’t say “Have you thought that it may be the pressure and attitudes from school that are contributing to that? If you homeschooled, you’d find him a lot happier and easy to get along with,” even though I may be thinking it!
    Keep up the good work, Kate! I like your comments on the ‘real world’. Our kid’s lives are just as real, just different in some respects.

    • kate

      That’s so true, Joanne, about the fact that homeschoolers never seem to comment on people’s accounts of school and point out the differences/inadequacies. Even when my friends share stories about really bad experiences related to school, I can’t imagine saying, “Well, if you’d been homeschooled, that wouldn’t have happened!”

      But homeschoolers get treated the way many minority groups have been and continue to be treated– as an inherent threat to the majority. It’s pretty silly, since, like most minorities, we’re just living our lives!

  • Julie

    Great post! I am new to your blog, I hs my two children, and you addressed those points really well. I don’t encounter a lot of people anymore who really think hs’ers aren’t socialized, it is becoming so commonplace, but when I do, I explain exactly what you said about not being forced into a samea age group of kids every day all day. My kids get exposed to a much larger diversity of people from our varied everday experiences than they would if they were in school. They also are very comfortable playing with kids much younger and older, as well as socializing with adults, something they would not learn as well if they spent their days in school. Homeschoolers are all about family and you really get to know entire families well, not just their one child who happens to be born within 12 months of you. I think people sometimes assume that different is negative as you said, nothing could be further from the truth in my book. The last thing I would want for my children is to grow up thinking they had to ‘fit in’ with the norm. I trust that they will create their own fulfilling future in large part from being allowed to find it as a kid, not waiting until someone lets them loose at 18.
    Enjoying your blog!

  • Yes! Many people feel so threatened by the existence of anyone who opts-out of school, or pretty much any other thing that society accepts as “given.” Like making our decision to opt-out is an assault on their choices.

    And it bothers me when people say “you can’t just run away from things you don’t like.” As an adult, I certainly can and do avoid unpleasant things whenever possible. It must be terrible feeling like there are no options when there really are.

  • Hey Kate, I’m working on a short opinion article about my experience as a mom with a new homeschooling kindergartener and I wanted to know if you’d consider publishing it. I’ll try to finish it today. How can I send it to you? Thanks, Kristin

  • Anytime someone comments on how homeschooling isn’t “real life,” the first thing I think is, “They really don’t know what homeschooling is like in the 21st century.” That’s like when people who don’t have kids hand out parenting advice.

    A really good example of real life homeschooling can be found in the book “Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg.” In the book, the family hires a pig butcher to kill and prepare one of their pigs. The butcher asked where the author’s six-year-old stepdaughter was because he said this will be an important lesson for her. The young girl is brought to the scene and she is transfixed by the whole process of butchering and learning about pig anatomy in a real-world setting. It wasn’t gory or disgusting, just very matter-of-fact and instructional. The stepdaughter learned much more at the age of six than she would’ve in a high school biology class dissecting a smelly fetal pig that’s been soaking in formaldehyde.

    What could be more “real world” than learning about animal anatomy from a butcher?

  • Val

    My kids aren’t isolated either, and most people realize they’re socially normal, and are actually pretty fun and nice.

    But once in a while someone will ask, and I tell them the truth, “I don’t want them socialized there! No, thank you.”

    Usually what people are commenting about is how normal they are, and how did we manage that without school.

    I dunno. Park and rec sports? Music? Maybe? We didn’t set up activities with an intentional socialization plan, so we’re not sure.

    And you actually can figure out what to do about things you don’t like–how to change the situation or what to do instead. Adults do this all the time. That kids are capable of it too isn’t surprising.

    That’s not as simple as running away, although running away has its place.

    At one point, one son had no friends other than his brother and one other kid. I asked him how he felt about that, if it bothered him. He said, “Not really. I’m pretty good company all by myself. I’d sure rather be alone than with any jerks.”

    He was 12. I probably couldn’t have said that until I was well past 30. He’s an adult now with an interesting circle of friends, a nice wife, a cute child.

    Homeschooling works. love, Val

  • Jason

    I went to school and now my kids are 2 and 4 and my wife is working on homeschooling them. There is an aspect to this discussion that is competitive – not particularly because one is better than the other, but because any time we make decisions we have to pick what we think is best or what we like best. If I buy a ford and you buy a chevy there is a certain competition between competing brands and choices. Making decisions for our kids is even more important. Even though there is no single correct answer, it is obvious that some things will always be better for all kids – feeling safe for example.

    All I can add on my school experience vs my real world experience – I am so glad the real world is nothing like school. I am a fairly successful engineer and have been in out of school for 15+ years. School is a freaking nightmare of cliques and artificial tests and trials that is very little like real life. Trust me – the captain of the football team is probably running a landscaping business and the constant stream of memorization homework is nowhere to be found in the real world.

    Comparing public school to real life is a bit like comparing a stint in an Iraqi prison to real life. I would not go back to high-school for anything and I’m so glad I can give my kids the opportunity to bypass that experience. I agree that real life can suck sometimes and so can school, but I think when things that suck can be avoided they should be.

    • Val

      The captain of the football team my husband was on turned up at a Little League game my husband was umpire-ing.

      He called him over to the fence between innings and asked him about his high school and so forth, trying to figure out how they knew each other. (We went to a big city high school, graduating class over 1000.)

      The high school HUNK was now balding, with a middle-aged bod, and had gone on to a brilliant career as a piano tuner.

      I have NOTHING against piano tuners, believe me.

      But my husband is a plumber.

      Unglamorous also, though perhaps not as tedious as tuning pianos.



      The Great Equalizer. love, Val

  • I have to agree with Jason. School is so NOT the real world. As an adult, I’ve never had to avoid or appease the cliquey “in-crowds” (they lost their power the minute we all graduated and entered the Real World). I have not had to do meaningless homework, raise my hand to use the bathroom, been restricted to interacting only with people born within one year of myself, nor have I had someone else interrupt one work project by ringing a bell and sending me on to another project.

    Some people do work in crappy jobs where they have a boss they must obey and submit to, do work that is unfulfilling or boring or repetitive, and must follow restrictive rules for fear of losing their job. But if this is what school prepares us for (and I would argue it does by design, and succeeds very well) then I want no part of that world. The Real World is where success means following your passions regardless of whether you make a six-figure income or just enough to get by. It’s about being a leader, not a follower. It’s about standing up for what you believe in, and finding friends in people of all ages. I think homeschooling teaches these lessons far better than school.

  • I posted a quote and link from this one to Facebook. The “Army vs. Writer’s Colony” comparison sold it. I am soooo not Army and am glad my kids do not have to be. Like you said, it’s nice to have options.

    Love your work.

  • Thanks Kate. It gets really, really boring after a while to keep responding to people who bring up the ‘real world’ time and time again. More power to you!
    Here is a link to a post I wrote in 2007 about my take on the real world. There are many worlds.


  • Carla

    Hi Kate,

    Laura, from Walnut Hill Homeschool, directed me here. I really enjoy your writing. I am not a homeschooling mom past pre-K only because I feel that I am not capable. I taught kindergarten and first grade for many years and feel I have an affinity for the younger grades. I would be in a panic if I had to teach the material covered from 3rd grade on, much less teach it to my children at home!! I think I would be doing my children a disservice because I lack the confidence. However, I give you and many homeschooling moms like yourself, tremendous credit. It certainly IS “the real world”, simply a different path. In fact, I think homeschooled children are exposed in depth in certain subjects that public/private teachers just do not have the time to delve into, which is sad. Our society is very closed-minded, in a myriad of ways…it saddens me. I love that quote from Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” So…hold your head high and do what you feel is right for you and your family. Everyone else needs to mind their own business.

    • kate

      Hi Carla!

      A couple things-
      First, thanks for stopping by!
      I am not a homeschooling mom. I’m a twenty-five year old former homeschooler. I definitely plan on being a homeschooling mom one day, though.
      I’ve heard a lot of women talk about how they’re not confident enough to homeschool their children, and also how they wouldn’t know how to teach them. But you don’t really have to “teach” your kids. First of all, they learn on their own. Second of all, being a homeschooling parent seems to be more about networking and resourcing than teaching. No one can teach their kids everything. And why should they? That would be way too hard and way too boring. My mom wasn’t my teacher. She was a good facilitator, though. And I had a lot of fun coming up with my own projects.
      This is not to say you should homeschool. Only you can make that decision. It’s just to say– don’t NOT homeschool because you think you can’t do it. You definitely can.

  • liz

    I am just taking my kids out of school and I have just found your blog and it is great. I did want to add a caveat though. Sometimes homeschoolers do actually go toward immediately critiquing schoolers, in my experience. This is unfortunate, as one presumes we all want happiness in our children, and in society. For the record, every teacher my daughter had at elementary school was open to if not downright encouraging about our decision to homeschool. Thanks for being there! Lots of inspiration and food for thought. I admire your guts for writing about your life so publicly. All the best, Liz

  • Hi Kate, just found your blog and am enjoying your writing and particularly your experience of unschooling.

    As a former high school teacher who had her two kids in school for a number of years before we all started homeschooling this year, I think I have a broad view of the “real” world, or at can compare the world of schooling with the world of homeschooling.

    Yeah, sure, we are different! But you know what, we were different even when we were “in” the system! And the system sure didn’t know how to handle us. The adult world seems to be a lot more tolerant of different, and we can choose who to be friends with, where to work, and if something isn’t working for us, we can make a decision to change it. Those things don’t really apply to school.

    I have “taught” a whole bunch of teenagers who were very socially “savvy”, but unable to request something from a shopkeeper (Miss, can you go ask for me?). I have seen a whole bunch of kids who struggle to fit in and in some cases have huge levels of anxiety and depression. Just because you attend that institution known as school, doesn’t mean you have successfully negotiated social situations.

    Anyway, just wanted to add my comment of support for your writing and let you know I’ll be reading with interest!

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