Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Feminist Homeschooling: Why I Don't

Student kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

As I mentioned yesterday, the Feminist Underground is running a cool series on feminist parenting. The latest post is a spirited argument by Rachel Allen in favor of feminist homeschooling, which was originally published in its entirety by California NOW. The core of her argument is that schools are basically racist, sexist, homophobic engines of conformity that magnify the most pernicious aspects of the mass media. Homeschooling offers her a way to counteract those forces while maintaining a work-at-home career as a feminist activist.

In principle, I think homeschooling can be made compatible with any worldview. In my little town, as in most of America by now, the homeschool community is composed partly of fundamentalist or conservative Christians, partly of lefty/alternative/neo-hippie families. I also know people with non-ideological reasons for homeschooling: they have gifted or speech-delayed kids who are served poorly with by their local school, or they faced a bullying problem that couldn't be resolved.

In practice, however, I think feminist homeschooling is a thorny issue, if only because it requires one parent to be mostly at home. Rachel Allen is lucky in that she works from home. I know another political activist in my neighborhood who strikes a similar balance. Most of us don't have that much flexibility.

As a university professor I have more flexibility than most workers, but I couldn't homeschool unless I had a nanny to carry much of the burden. I still have to show up for my classes and meetings. This year, I've got a rising third grader and kindergartner. With both kids in public school, I'm looking forward to going full time (and having my own health insurance!) after nearly a decade of part-time work.

For work reasons alone, then, I wouldn't homeschool unless I felt there was no other tenable solution. Of course, I realize that I'm lucky to have work that's personally rewarding and reasonably remunerative.

And this points to the crux of the problem of reconciling feminism with homeschooling: While the kids may be getting an anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic education, the stay-at-home parent is still usually a mother. If she works from home for pay, she rarely earns enough to survive financially if her marriage or partnership were to end. So homeschooling as a solution that's feminist for the children is much harder to defend on feminist terms for the parent.

I don't think that staying home to parent is inherently anti-feminist. I did it myself when my kids were little, and it's important, honorable work. It's just that the longer you stay out of the labor market, the more precarious your financial position will be - and if that situation persists for a couple of decades, the stay-at-home parent is likely to be very vulnerable, financially. Sure, there are ways to mitigate this by working part-time or from home, or by taking turns being the at-home parent. But the fact remains that as Ann Crittenden has shown so persuasively, staying at home has very steep, long-term costs.

I'm the last person to measure worth and happiness solely in financial terms (otherwise I wouldn't have spent all that time in grad school). However, I see lots of female students hoping to be stay-at-home parents without much awareness of the attendant risk of poverty, and I suspect many mothers decide to stay home with the assumption that divorce or widowhood won't strike them personally.

The calculation changes, of course, if you live somewhere with poor schools. We're lucky in that our local elementary school is quite good. The teachers are smart, dedicated, and fairly progressive. Though I live in predominantly white Appalachia, the student body is multiethnic and multinational, partly because the school serves the university's graduate student population, partly because binational families like mine gravitate toward its diversity.

Diversity is of course no safeguard against racism, sexism, or homophobia. I know of at least one incident where a racist joke was told at recess. Lunchtime conversation too often revolves around gender stereotypes. The teachers can't police all of this, and so it's up to us parents to talk to our kids after school and discuss why those things aren't okay.

Homeschooling would shield my kids from hateful and stereotypical comments. On the flip side, though, they wouldn't learn how to respond to racism and sexism, which my rising third grader already does pretty effectively. The school environment is also much more diverse than our local homeschooling community in terms of race, nationality, social class, and parents' educational level.

I fully agree with Rachel Allen that there's pressure to conform even in most progressive schools. One of our jobs as parents, I think, is to help kids learn to distinguish between mindless conformity and the necessity to get along and work well with others. So far, we're all doing okay, but I'm well aware that striking this balance won't get easier over time.

Temperamentally, homeschooling would be a tough fit for my kids. My older son, the Bear, wouldn't want homeschooling; we've talked about it, and we both know it would turn into a contest of wills, me nagging, him resisting. He also needs more stimulation than any one parent could provide, and he gets that primarily from the other kids at school, plus frequent playdates and oodles of informal teaching after school. The Bear's curiosity never sleeps. (For that matter, the Bear would literally prefer never to sleep, and he's been that way since the day he was born.) Even with all the activities that homeschooling families pursue together, we'd still come up short.

I can imagine certain circumstances where homeschooling might be the least-bad choice for us: if one of my boys was getting severely bullied and was unable to learn; if he was so terminally bored that his grades were suffering (their dad dropped out of school, actually, for that reason); or if we moved somewhere that had lousy schools. But for now, I'm grateful that my kids are in good hands at their school. We've been lucky to have good, close relationships with their teachers. I'm eager to finally put more energy into my own work (feminist and otherwise) after nearly a decade of dialing back those commitments.

Not least, the kids get along better when they're not together 24/7, and for that reason alone, we're counting down to August 26. (I am that LOLcat!)

I'd love to hear what others think about feminism and homeschooling. I'd bet there are as many perspectives on this as there are parents.


Marcy Muser said...

Hmm - interesting thoughts. I'm especially interested in your reasoning for why women should work.

You say, "If she works from home for pay, she rarely earns enough to survive financially if her marriage or partnership were to end."


"I see lots of female students hoping to be stay-at-home parents without much awareness of the attendant risk of poverty, and I suspect many mothers decide to stay home with the assumption that divorce or widowhood won't strike them personally."

The one question that comes to mind is this: are we feminists simply out of fear? My feminism is rooted in the belief that women should have the freedom to make choices in which we find fulfillment and satisfaction, rather than being locked into something we don't want to do just because men want us to do it. But it sounds to me like you're saying the opposite: women shouldn't have the freedom to do what we find fulfillment in, if it means we might be dependent on the men in our lives, because if those men should fail, we will be in serious trouble.

Do we really want to make our choices based fear that the men in our lives might not follow through on their commitments? That's not the kind of life I choose. Instead, I married someone I was pretty sure I could trust, and we each made a willing commitment to the other. If he chooses not to follow through on his commitment to me, then certainly, there will be consequences in my life - just as there would be in his life if I chose not to follow through on my commitment to him. All relationships are like that. Even in working relationships, there are costs if people don't follow through (suppose my boss should suddenly decide to stop paying me!). But if we choose to live our lives in fear, rather than in trust, we'll never find real contentment or satisfaction - whether we are working or staying at home.

My own feminism pushes me to make choices I believe are right for me as a woman - choices that bring me fulfillment and satisfaction. In my case, those choices include staying home with my children and homeschooling. I'm well aware there would be serious consequences if my husband chose to flake out (with life insurance, there would be fewer if he died - in fact, we would probably be better off financially than we are now). But I'm not going to let my fear force me into getting a job I don't want, so I can live a pressured, harried lifestyle while someone else who cares less about them raises and educates my kids.

That said, I do work part-time, one day a week, in the homeschooling enrichment program my kids are also enrolled in. Over the 12 years I've been home with my kids, I've worked a variety of work-from-home or part-time jobs, just to keep up my skills, and figuring that someday when the kids are gone I will work again to pay college bills and provide for our retirement.

And I'm pretty happy with my life. I have adult interaction in my work, at church, at homeschooling events, online, and in other social situations. I love interacting with my kids and being there to see the sparkle in their eyes when they "get it"! I love the way we've gone from the conflict of the preschool and early elementary years to true enjoyment in being together (and how many parents of a middle-schooler can say that?!). I love the way my kids have had to learn to get along, because they are each other's only playmates. I love sitting on the couch together reading a good story, going to the museum as a family rather than with 30 other kids, and taking a day off to go swimming or do something special "just because." I love sharing my excitement over a given time in history or a science concept or a great book. I love seeing my junior higher begin to adopt the values that are important to me, and to ask questions that show she's thinking about significant issues in her life.

I refuse to allow fear to keep me from that kind of fulfillment. I choose to trust, with full awareness of the possible consequences. And if my husband should choose not to follow through, I will then make the choices I believe are right for me as a woman under those circumstances. My belief in a woman's freedom demands nothing less.

Laura said...

I second your sentiments, and will add a few of my own:

1) Reason for homeschooling not compelling - I live in a very progressive community. In fact, I moved here because of my community's values. I have no interest in shielding my sons from public school. Of course, he'll be exposed to that which is politically incorrect. But there's a word to describe those who wish to impose 100% politically correct orthodoxy on others - fascist.

2) Is there a negative inference about teachers in this message? I subscribe to the belief that education is a profession. And I'm not a professional.

3) Homeschooling in this context is a childcentric parenting taken to the extreme, not unlike attachment parenting. As a species, we're going from "it takes a village" to "it takes one superhuman mother." We're not supposed to do it all. It's not natural or healthy.

4) As you point out, homeschooling comes at a huge sacrifice to the parent - a sacrifice which, for the reasons you outlined, is not necessary or desirable. About that sacrifice and in response to Marcy's comment about the impetus to work - for me, work isn't just what I do. It's an integral part of my identity. Yes, I'm a mother first and foremost, but my professional identity is a also a very big part of who I am. Without it, I'd feel a massive void. To suggest I carry on with a massive void to unnecessarily impose politically correct beliefs on my children is anti-feminist.

Sungold said...

Hi Marcy! Thanks for leaving a comment. I was starting to think everyone was lulled to sleep by the dog days of August. :-)

No, I'm not at all advocating a politics of fear. If you read my archives, you'll see posts where I upbraid both Obama and Clinton for giving in to precisely that. (I don't bother with McCain, as it's a given that the Republicans don't have any other tricks in their repertoire.) I don't want to live that way as an individual, either.

Instead, I want to engage a debate on healthy realism. You can trust your mate on every level. He still might surprise you. Heck, you might surprise yourself. All of us change over the 20+ years we spend in active childrearing.

More to the point in my own life: Even the most devoted, loving, generous mate can't be sure of evading death. My husband is a two-time cancer survivor. The first time, he nearly died on two different occasions before he completed treatment. He and I got "lucky" but I also know people who didn't. If you would truly be better off financially as a widow, then your situation is exceptional indeed.

So yes, we should seek fulfillment - absolutely. But we should also make sure we're not at the mercy of the fates, or that we're totally deskilled when we do seek to re-enter the workforce.

As I think I made fairly clear in my post, I've worked part-time for the past decade and enjoyed a lot of flexibility. Before that, I spent many years pursuing a Ph.D. My choices are actually a lot like yours, except for the homeschooling part of it. I definitely left the academic fast track. But I can see that if I stay part-time for the next 10 years, I'll be in a pickle financially - and that could happen even sooner if my husband's health were to fail again. He's doing well now, but all the treatment he underwent can cause secondary cancers.

Finally, I should say that I'm not at all taking the Linda Hirschman position; I'm not suggesting that women who leave the paid workforce are basically gender traitors. I support your right to make your own choices. I think homeschooling is the right thing for some families and some *mothers* too, under some circumstances. I'm just expressing concern about the general applicability of Rachel Allen's argument. There are trade-offs, and we can certainly choose to make them; but it's only an informed and conscious choice if we recognize those trade-offs in the first place.

Thanks for your thought-provoking commentary. I wish you all good things with your children, and with your own happiness, too.

Sungold said...

Hi Laura. First, although I appreciate your agreement, let's agree to ban the F word. No, not feminist - not even fuck - but fascist, because it just pisses people off and shuts down debate. You can use it the next time I blog about German history, OK? :-)

That said, if your kids are in a basically progressive environment, I think you (and I) are well placed not to shield them from the world's ugliness, but to help them deal with it. I know my older son has sometimes told other kids that it's just silly to generalize about "boys are all stupid" or "girls can't play sports" or whatever stereotype is getting trotted out. In fact, he set my parents straight last month when they both started going off about how boys are just so much more active than girls. He informed them - nicely - that many of the girls in his class have a harder time sitting still and behaving in class than he does!

Some schools are failing, and some teachers aren't up to the job. Sometimes a school is just a bad fit for a particular child. In that case, parents should be able to switch schools or work to improve it. If all that fails, then of course homeschooling may be the best option. But as you said, Laura, my husband and I have made choices that are apt to keep us in university towns where the school are usually decent.

It's not the case that we leave it *all* to the schools either. Unlike what Marcy suggests, you don't delegate it all. The way I see it (and believe me, I'm plenty disposed to be critical!), my children are enriched by the skills and knowledge of smart, caring professionals for 6 1/2 hours per day. The rest of the time, they are pretty relentless about engaging us on everything from how does electricity work to why people have to die. Uff da!

Like you, Laura, I see work as an integral part of my *personal* identity. I also know I'm a better parent when I have some degree of professional fulfillment. But that means-to-an-end argument shouldn't even be necessary. As I was writing this post, I actually thought about addressing the suspicion of "selfishness" in women who work for more than dire financial need. The post was so long, I decided to leave that out. But no one questions the parental devotion of dads who "choose to work." As long as my kids are doing well - and I get a good chunk of time with them, even if it's not 24/7 - I don't think selfishness is a relevant category. Or at least it *shouldn't* be.

I also share your uneasiness about attachment parenting, for the reasons you note - even though I did most of the things it advocates when my boys were very small. But that's really a post for another day.

Thanks for making me keep thinking about this!

Laura said...

*peers out of doghouse* ha! that's fair. Sorry for using the f word.

Agree that means to an end shouldn't be relevant. I'm also with you on Linda Hirshman. I supported Clinton, as you know, but I don't think that all the would be Clintons out there owe it to Feminism to pursue career.

I think I'm a little prickly because I don't know what's in store for my little one. Like when he's preschool-ready. He attends so well one on one, but in a group, he seems pretty lost. Of course, he's only 2.5. But I know I have a lot of challenges in store for me. From what I recall, the Dispenser of Late Talking Advice recommends home schooling. I don't have a crystal ball, so I'll just take it as it comes.

Sungold said...

Heck, there's no doghouse here. This is strictly a cat-oriented blog. :-) Dog lovers (and even Republicans) are still welcome to visit.

I suppose I should write a rant about Hirshman one of these days, but I mostly just feel like she's not worth the energy.

As for the official "late talking advice" - neither Dr. Camarata nor Dr. Jim has a one-size-fits-all recommendation. Dr. Camarata cautions against seeing preschool as the solution for *all* kids. Apparently some school districts push that, largely because it's easier to deliver services in a centralized setting. But really, I think it's fair to say that both of them would advise watching how *your* child is doing in his particular daycare or preschool or at-home environment, and don't be afraid to make changes if you feel something is not right.

And you know, 2.5 is still *so young*! You've got oodles of time to see how the group thing unfolds. I have great confidence (based on what I've read of your blog) that your son is going to do very well as time goes on.

Habladora said...

I have to say, I'm a little uncomfortable with homeschooling in general, probably because I've only seen it done by fundamentalist Christians who want to keep their kids away from evolution and... well, ideas about gender equality and the like. Yet, I also say that the number of hours it would take for any homeschooling to really work would be astronomical. While we're all experts in our own fields, in order to help our kids with all their subjects we'd probably need to do some serious reading as they advanced. I'm not saying that it can't be done well, just that doing it well would require almost every waking hour of at least one parent - most likely the mother.

Sungold said...

Hi Habladora. Thanks for your comment, and for giving my post a little boost on your site.

I used to think it was only a subset Christians who pursued homeschooling (for the reasons you site) but in my progressive little university town, there are really quite a few left-winger, neo-hippie, alternative types who do it. They may even be in the majority, although I don't really know the homeschooling community from the inside. It seems to mostly center around the library, which is also a very secular, progressive institution in my town.

As for the amount of time required: I think this varies greatly. There are prepackaged curricula available, and many people use them to avoid reinventing the wheel. If you have a fairly compliant kid (this is where I'd fail!), you set them to work while you do some of your own stuff. You need to be home with them but not always intensely engaged. Most homeschoolers also get involved in lots of community stuff to ward off isolation for both parents and children. Some people do "unschooling" (and these are virtually *always* neo-hippie sorts) which basically lets the child decide what to learn - or not.

I'm skeptical, too. Some homeschooling parents aren't very bright themselves, and I cringe to think of the ignorance they're imparting. Ditto for the creationists. I do know some very bright people who homeschool, and they probably don't have to work too hard to stay ahead of their kids. But even they will eventually hit their limits. That said, I expect to have to relearn all the math from algebra onward in a few years, just so I can help when my older son gets stuck with this homework!

Marcy Muser said...

I appreciate the honest dialogue going on here. So often it seems we have a tendency to rip into other women for making life choices that are different from those we'd choose. As a homeschooling mom, I am sensitive to the criticisms of those moms who work; as working moms, I'm sure you are equally sensitive to the pressures from those who think staying home is the only "right" option.

It seems to me, though, that the whole point of feminism is that we believe women ought to be free to make the choices that are right for their families. There was a time in America when women did not have the freedom to get a decent job, even if it would have been better for their families and for their own sanity. I'm so thankful that day is past. I am a little concerned, though, that our culture is making it unacceptable for women to choose to stay at home, even if it would be better for their families. When I was in college 20 years ago, and I expressed a desire to stay at home with my kids, I frequently encountered the question, "Do you really think that's realistic in this day and age?" Now that I've been at home for 12 years, I can say definitively that yes, it WAS realistic - and that it's also very satisfying for me.

Linda, I understand about your work being part of who you are. I worked for 9 years before my older daughter was born, and I LOVED my work. It was very much part of who I was - and today my part time work is similar. It is also true, though, as I'm sure you've found with your little guy, that once you have children, your family becomes an integral part of who you are. We as people are adaptable - who we are changes as we go through life - and who I am today is not the same as who I was 15 years ago. And in no way am I suggesting that you "carry on with a massive void"; in fact, I was commenting more on the acceptability of my own choices than on yours. What I've found, though, is that I have incorporated the professional part of who I am into the whole picture: I've found ways to use at home the skills I learned working and the things that fulfilled me there. Managing a home and homeschooling demand everything I've ever been - all my organizational skills, all my teaching abilities, all my social and relational skills, the majority of my academic knowledge (especially as we move into junior high and high school!), and more.

Also, to both Linda and Sungold, you miss a critically significant part of homeschooling if you believe it involves, in Linda's words, "it takes one superhuman mother." There is no way I could possibly provide my children with everything they need - even academically, let alone socially or in other ways. Most homeschooling parents don't try to provide everything; rather, we retain the responsibility for organizing, co-ordinating, superintending our children's education, rather than passing that off to someone else who cares less about them. So I bring together every resource I can to provide my children with all they need: books, CDs, DVDs, but also outside classes (art, music, gymnastics); "extracurricular activities" like swim team; club programs; field trips; online classes (sometimes including video presentations, live chats, etc.); interactions and mentorships with people who have skills I don't have; and anything else I can think of that will enrich their education. Homeschooling doesn't have to mean sitting at home with a textbook and Mom for a teacher - my children have a rich variety of activities and teachers, and are internalizing the value of learning anywhere and everywhere they are.

Linda, I agree with Sungold - when the time is right for your little guy, you'll know what you should do. Part of the reason I started homeschooling was that my older daughter at 3 1/2 was not a very good candidate for preschool. I checked out the scope and sequence for the best private preschool available to us at the time; she already knew everything they were teaching in kindergarten. She was also a very strong leader in group situations (such as Sunday School). I wasn't willing to put her in a class with 15-20 other 4-year-olds where she would have nothing to learn and little to contribute except being a ringleader into trouble. I figured that wouldn't be fair to her or to the teacher. So I continued teaching her at home (as I had already been though I didn't realize it until I started looking into homeschooling). And though we've reconsidered the issue each year, homeschooling has always made the most sense for us.

Your son is still little, though, as you said, and he is going to change a great deal in the next year or two. (There's a reason why 2-year-olds often don't go to preschool!) ;) Taking it as it comes is a wise course. And deciding to homeschool for preschool doesn't mean you'll still be homeschooling when he's in junior high, either - you can continue to take each year as it comes, and put him in school whenever it seems right for your family, too.

I wish you both all the best, and I thank you for the thought-provoking discussion. :)

Sungold said...

Marcy, I insist people treat each other nicely at my blog. *Especially* when they disagree. I'm glad you appreciate that. I also think the "Mommy Wars" are mostly a media creation, and most mothers have a heck of a lot in common - even when we disagree on some pretty fundamental things. Myself, I sit on the fence, since I've been working half-time and so I don't really fit neatly into either category.

You're right that so many of our skills are transferable. One of my many frustrations about the way the labor market works in the U.S. is that too few employers appreciate the skills that former at-home parents can bring when they re-enter the workforce. This is so unnecessarily punitive to those who roll back their careers for some years when their kids are small. And it deprives all of society of their talents. Talk about a lose-lose deal!

I'm well aware that few homeschooling families try to go it alone. In my response to Habladora (which might have crossed with your comment), I mentioned how this works in my town. Even so, homeschooling would preclude me doing my work; it would be an either-or choice *unless* I hired a nanny for part of the day, which would break our budget and defeat the purpose of homeschooling as you see it! So I choose to let the professionals deal with my kids' formal schooling for six-and-a-half hours per day. The rest of the time, their dad and I are their informal teachers - and I am pretty sure they learn at least as much from us as they do at school. They sure never stop peppering us with questions. :-)

Laura said...

Delayed response to Marcy:

I follow, and I do absolutely respect your choice. Maternalism and feminism have to be compatible. It's just a matter of finding that right balance, and being whole. I think we agree on that, and I'm glad that you've found that right balance.

On the issue of being "superhuman", I was just reacting to the extremism that's starting to bubble up in modern parenting. For example, some parents don't believe in strollers. Nurse them, sleep with them, carry them everywhere in a sling, etc. That, in my mind, is superhuman. So what does that have to do with the instant subject matter? I dunno - I see common themes of physical presence, protectionism and the parent not being able to let go, and in so doing, failing at the job of fostering independence. That having been said, obviously it's possible to foster independence in a home schooling environment - I'm not saying it's a bad thing. But it, in conjunction with other extremism, can ultimately be to the detriment of the child. That was my only point.

Sungold, you indicated that you bought into attachment parenting, in part. So did I. I did the nursing, and co-slept for 5 months. But it's a slippery slope, isn't it? I started to feel like if I kept going I'd lose my self and my sanity.

Sungold said...

A great book on "superhuman" mothering is Sharon Hays' Intensive Mothering, which really makes clear how our current commitment to children is historically unique. It's an academic book, but fairly readable with lots of anecdotes from the mothers she studied. After reading it, I still do a lot the same as before - but with a little less of a sense of inadequacy. :-)

Oh, wearing babies! My first-born nearly doubled his weight within the first two months. He weighed around 15-16 pounds at a time when he was still super needy and wouldn't sleep (gee, I wonder if there was a connection?!). I had a really tough recovery from his birth, and so I'd carry and wear him as much as I could - but doing it 24/7 would've been martyrdom.

That problem kept me from buying into attachment parenting in any wholesale way. I always thought that their ideas were good - but had an expiration date on them. So for instance I breastfed each baby until they were 10 months old. They each seemed to lose interest around then - they were also getting a couple of bottles of formula each day at that point - and so I seized the opportunity. Co-sleeping I did for the first few months, gradually moving them out of the same bed and then out of the same room.

But the problem is this: With attachment parenting, as with mothering in general in modern America, you can always do more. And there are always "experts" - which now include other mothers online as well as in daily life - who will tell you that you *should* do more. In the end, we're all responsible for figuring out what works for us and our kids. I just wish I could push the mute button on all the blaming and shaming!

Thanks for your thoughtful comments again, Laura.

Marcy Muser said...

I can relate to the attachment parenting issues! I was never able to successfully nurse - I never produced more than a very small amount of milk, and was quickly forced to supplement due to a starving baby (in spite of having my mom, who was a Labor and Delivery and Special Care Nursery nurse for many years, staying with us for several weeks). When I tried to "wear" my baby in a sling, I discovered those slings were not designed for under-6-pound babies, and in my daughter's case the sling "crunched" her body to the point that she couldn't breathe. So I gave that up too.

But somehow both my daughters are turning out fine in spite of all that! :)

Sungold said...

There's so much unnecessary shaming around this, isn't there? A good friend of mine attributed her nursing troubles to the pressure she was under professionally when she had her first baby. With her second, she'd already earned tenure and took a nice long leave - and what do you know, she *still* had just as much trouble with her milk supply.

I do feel a twitch of judgment when a new mother doesn't try nursing, though that's usually quickly replaced by sympathy. (Where I live, it's usually the poor, rural, often very young mothers who are bottle-feeding their newborns.) But I just know too many people who did do "everything right" and still needed to supplement.

Maybe next Mother's Day, someone should launch an awareness campaign celebrating the "good enough mothers" rather than the "perfect mothers" among us! Especially since that perfect mother is a myth, anyway. :-)