My 6-year-old gave me a heart attack this morning. I went into his room, as usual, to wake him up for school, but he was gone. At first I thought, “Cool, he’s already up! I don’t have to drag him out of bed.” But when I couldn’t find him anywhere in the house, I had a mild freak out. Logically, I should have known he was somewhere in the house. All the doors were locked. But I still went into a panic, frantically calling his name as I searched, convinced someone had somehow entered our home and stolen our son. I enlisted the help of my older daughters and dialed my husband’s cell number. But my 9-year-old knew just where to look.
Under the bed. There he was. Hiding. The first words out of his mouth:
“I don’t want to go!”
Even as he dressed himself and finally came out for breakfast, he repeated, “I don’t like school!” His sister promptly told him, “No one likes school!” As we sat in traffic, driving to the dreaded locale (since we missed the bus… again), he said, “Mom, I feel sick.” I knew he wasn’t physically ill. I dropped him off, and all the way home I started composing this blogpost in my head.
My kids are model students, their teachers rave. They are obedient, kind, studious, and smart. They don’t get into trouble. They are socially successful and well-liked. They have, for the most part, had great teachers. As a whole, they are happy, healthy, and remarkably stable (considering the pool of poor mental health they were spawned from). But this battle about school is something I have traversed with each of them at various times. Each have asked more than once throughout the past six years, “Can we homeschool?” And I have wished over and over that we could.
During last week’s rage-fest about school, I was talking with a friend. She has been homeschooling for several years now. At one point in our conversation I told her, “I’m already ‘anti-establishment’ in pretty much every other area of my life [birthing, wellness, parenting]… why not school?” She confessed that she always thought it was strange that I ever actually put my kids in school to begin with, given my other mothering philosophies.
This got me thinking… why? Why have I been so loyal to the public school system? First off, the public school system puts food on our table. My husband has been a school psychologist in public schools for almost a decade now. But my public school loyalties began long before I even met my husband. In my first semester of college, in my “Intensive Writing” course, our final assignment was a research paper. My topic? I kid you not: public school is superior to home school. Where was this stuff coming from?
While talking with my homeschooling friend, I was able to vocalize one possible explanation. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of things going for me. My family was pretty broken. My parents were mostly unavailable, both physically and emotionally. I spent a lot of time alone and afraid and desperate for approval, particularly from adult females. One place where I consistently found that approval and praise was in school. I was compulsively obedient and a model over-achiever. I savored being the teacher’s favorite… not because I was competitive, but because I needed to know that I was accepted and approved-of. This pattern continued for virtually all of my years in school. I was exceptionally good at navigating the school system… figuring out what the teachers wanted and delivering exactly that. [Truth be told I did this in virtually all of my relationships.] I could cram for tests with the best of them, and it “worked.” I had a pretty flawless GPA. School provided me with a place to feel good about myself. So, I suppose, I have remained loyal to the school system in part because the school system was “there for me” when I needed it.
Also, I suppose, there are some vestiges of my childhood gaining satisfaction from watching my children follow in my footsteps. They are, as I have mentioned, model students and beloved of their teachers. Seeing them succeed in the arena where I myself found so much success is very validating. That scared little girl inside of me gains a lot of peace from knowing that “we still got it.”
But at what cost?
Did all those years of jumping flawlessly through the system’s hoops make me better off? Well… in some ways it did. I had money thrown at me to go to college. I graduated debt-free. That was a great gift. But in the end I really wasn’t much of a thinker. I was, instead, a well-oiled regurgitator. Most of what I had crammed into my brain for the previous sixteen years didn’t stick. [If you want a hilarious if slightly irreverent treat, watch this Gotye parody about high school.] It wasn’t until I was done with school and started learning for myself that I really came to discover what I (sans teacher-approval) really thought about… everything. I relished the discovery and excitement of forming my own opinions. It was thrilling while simultaneously a bit disillusioning to discover that the scripts I had been fed for years weren’t the only “valid” points of view or philosophies out there to explore. Real life (coupled with Internet and book research) has taught me more in my years post-college than I ever learned before.
Don’t get me wrong. I feel deeply grateful to all my teachers for teaching me. Some were extremely influential in my growth as a person. But it wasn’t so much the class content they taught me that made the impact… it was that they saw the potential inside of me and encouraged me with their belief that I had gifts for the world. I don’t remember what I wrote on my exams, but I do remember select conversations in which my teachers made themselves immortal in my memory.
So here I am… dragging my kids to school every day to jump through the hoops I jumped through. They are not, as I was, desperate for validation or approval. They do not “need” the acceptance of their teachers in the way that I needed it. And day in and day out they are filling out worksheets and tests full of stuff that has little-to-no relevance to real life. Why? Why do we waste so much time drilling information that our children are almost guaranteed to never actually use (outside of the school setting)? Why is education so utterly impractical? Conspiracy theories aside, why do we as modern societies rarely stop to ask whether the things we are teaching children are actually meaningful?
I’ve been making my way through The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing by Alfie Kohn, found at Bookman’s (a groovy second-hand store) last week. Here’s a sampling of the stuff I’ve starred and underlined:
> “When a school requires the amassing of many facts which have little or no significance to the child, learning is so slow and painful that the school is obliged to turn to the home for help out of the mess the school has created” (p. 5, quote from Parents magazine, November 1937 issue).
> “A study published in 2002 found a direct relationship between how much time high school students spent on homework and the levels of anxiety, depression, anger, and other mood disturbances they experienced” (p. 11).
> “Ironically, the sorts of relaxed, constructive family activities that could repair this damage are among the casualties of homework’s voracious consumption of time” (p. 12).
> “If we fail to appreciate the significance of children’s reactions, how those reactions color the way they think about learning and about themselves, we’re not just being rude. We’re being foolish. The evidence demonstrates that we can make students do things they don’t want to do, but we can’t make them want to do those things. And whatever we may think about the fact that they don’t want to do them, people of any age are less likely to derive value from doing what they experience as unpleasant or simply worthless” (p. 59).
One homework researcher emphasized the importance of maintaining “students’ intentions to accomplish academic goals in the face of competing (such as socioemotional) goals and other distractions.” Kohn pierces right to the heart of the matter with his response: “This is a rather stilted way of saying that we need to figure out how children’s own goals and preferences can be overridden rather than taken seriously” (p. 62).
What does it mean that my son was so desperate to avoid going to school today that he hid under his bed and gave me a heart attack? How does my son’s behavior demonstrate the way he feels about learning, and what does my reaction say about whether his feelings and thoughts are valid or significant? What is he really learning here?
I have spent the better part of the past four years trying to repair the damage that was done by my decades of self-abuse through over-achievement, chronic stress, and sleep-deprivation. I don’t want my children to follow in those footsteps. I truly take Kohn’s words to heart:
Indeed, it would make sense to revisit our basic objectives, to stop asking, ‘How do we make our kids more self-disciplined?” in favor of a question such as, ‘How can we help our kids to be psychologically healthy?’ Of course we want them to look beyond instant gratification, but we also want them to experience real pleasure–in general and from learning in particular. Moreover, we’d want to help them develop outside interests so all their waking hours aren’t devoted to work, either now or as adults (p. 63).
My husband’s job depends on families participating in the public school system. He is, understandably, resistant to jumping into homeschool. At present we have decided to give the kids’ school another month-ish before we do anything drastic. But I don’t even know if I could handle the pressure of being totally responsible for my children’s education. I’ve been kind of torn up inside.
I don’t know what to do.
But life usually settles into place sooner or later, right?
Come on, Neutral Mind. We got this.