Sometimes I think where you send your kids to school is as contentious in the 2010s as becoming a vegetarian was in the late 1980s. I remember many a dinner party where I casually left meat off my plate only to incur the wrath of other diners telling me how my being a vegetarian was silly and hurtful to them.

People launched into tirades about how I wasn't going to get enough protein and would wither away (um, no one in my family has ever withered away) or that somehow I was hurting the US economy or that carrots scream when you pull them. It wasn't that I walked into the room and announced "I'm a vegetarian! Follow me and I shall show you the path to true salvation!" I just sat down at my grandmother's on Sunday and didn't eat the meatloaf.

Passing Judgment on Education Choices

Fast forward 20 years. Vegetarianism is so commonplace, I have to defend eating meat more than twice a week by protesting "Hey! At least its organic!" If vegetarianism hasn't taken over, it is at least as commonplace and — I can buy quinoa at the corner store.

In place of judgment about food has come judgment about our education choices with our kids.

As a mom who sends her kids to a tiny hippie school in the mountains full of project-based learning, one-on-one attention and a curriculum that caters to my children — I'm happy with my decision. For recess my kids walk down to the local campground. They examine fossils, raise and release trout, go on great field trips and have a healthy, curious interest in the world around them. My kids love reading and creating things and I couldn't ask for anything more. They have assessments a few times a year, but there's no teaching to tests because there are very few. When my kids master something, they can move on at their own pace. They don't have to wait for other kids to catch up.

Somehow, this really, really bothers people in our community. People come up to me all the time from the public school in our area and say strange things like:

  • "You know Taylorsville School (the public school) has excellent test scores."
  • "You're hurting the public school by not sending your kids here."
  • "The kids need diverse playmates. You can't keep them locked up. They won't know what the world is like."
  • "Aren't you worried that your kids will not be accepted to the college of their choice?"
  • "Well, WE don't have the money to send our kids to private school."

Sigh. Same thing. I'm not attacking public school parents for sending their kids to public school. My husband works for a school district. I'm a community college instructor. I've done my time in public education. Most of the time I just smile and keep it to myself. Sometimes, behind closed doors, I rant to my friends. What I want to say and don't say is that where you want to send your kids really has to do with what you value.

The Case for Alternative Schooling

I don't claim to speak for all non-public school parents of the private/unschooling/homeschooling variety, but this is what I can say:

  1. I don't care about test scores. Public school education was designed to train a civil service workforce. It's not something I want for my kids. I want them to think about breaking rules. I want them to be innovative and creative. I've had too many students that can fill in a bubble and tell me that the character in the above paragraph was wearing a red sweater but they can't tell me what that paragraph was actually about.
  2. As a parent who does not get a tax write-off but still has to pay taxes for public education, we could argue who is really being hurt here. Public schools could cut waste and order themselves like parochial schools and Japanese schools do — sharing administrative and custodial responsibilities.
  3. It was in the public preschool in town that my kids first heard about prison, meth, and teen pregnancy. I think they can wait till junior high for most of that. Shouldn't they also know of the great potential the world has to offer? Shouldn't they know about nature, too?
  4. My kids are in first and second grade. Not high school. Besides, I have a feeling all their creativity and self-guided projects might turn into something some day.
  5. People spend money on what they value. My neighbors all value off-road vehicles. We are a one, paid-off car family. We have no more money and probably a lot less money than many people around here. We chose to spend it on our kids' education.

Like those who choose tofu over steak, parents who choose homeschooling, private, and unschooling often face a barrage of questions that say more about the asker than the asked. Go with what you believe in. If testing is your thing? Hey, go for it. It's not mine, though.

Homeschooling and Unschooling Are Valid Choices

My kids, however, do go to a school. I can only imagine the kinds of things that get said to unschoolers and homeschoolers. One homeschool mom told me that people will constantly go up to your children and ask them questions to 'test' their knowledge. No one would ever do that to a random public school kid.

Last week my friend Bonnie and her two sons came to visit our family. They are embarking on a year of 'unschooling.' After a disappointing year of watching her kids fill in bubbles and regurgitate information in a top notch school district in the Pacific Northwest, she decided enough was enough and it was time to try something new. So she is taking to the road with them. They got rid of their apartment, put their things in storage, and are out exploring for the year. We were one of their first stops. I have to say that no matter what the activity was, her kids were asking questions. Good to see.

So what is unschooling? And why is it rising in popularity? The soundbyte definition might just be a real recognition that children learn in a natural way. The movement believes in real world experiences and child directed learning. In unschooling, the curious child figures out what he or she wants to learn because he or she is naturally predisposed to learning. It's not quite homeschooling, though certainly related. Homeschoolers by and large have set curricula and state standards to meet. To me, unschooling seems to be the Trancendentalism of school trends. I picture Emerson and Thoreau out there teaching kids to just be kids and wonder in awe at it all. (I could totally be wrong.) Why is it popular? I think instinctively we know that we do need to do something to preserve kids interest in their own education.

While I marvel at this very notion and am in complete awe of my friend Bonnie, I can't picture doing it myself. I am a teacher after all, as my daughter says. It's hard for me to get through an outing or vacation without giving a lecture on something. Though sometimes I do think about it. Summer is winding down. And what is a great kid summer if not unschooling? Still, it can't be an easy life, to be that involved in your child's education. In that sense, unschooling is very much like homeschooling: It takes the time and effort of the parent.

I have a few friends who homeschool as well — also something I can't seem to figure out how to do successfully. I ran a camp out of my home this summer and exhausted myself. Twice now my daughter has asked to be homeschooled. She thinks she'll get a lot out of it. (I also think she thinks she'll get to wake up later.) Some of my friends do it because their kids' needs aren't being met. Some think the local school is not rigorous enough. Some want to see their children's learning styles addressed more appropriately. Always I hear them having to defend their choices.

It's not an easy route to choose something a little different. Rest assured, there is always a reason for choosing something else. Parenting is the ultimate in trial and error. Acknowledge what you do value and find an education for your kids that matches that. We make a thousand choices a day. Let's not feel the need to defend them. Let's just live them.