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Living Outside the Cultural Norm: Explaining Home-Based Education

Living Outside the Cultural Norm:
Explaining Home-Based Education
By Marty Layne

Home-based learning has become recognized and legitimized. Home-educated students attend Harvard University, win spelling bees and tennis championships. There are even cartoons about it.

Yet, it is still different and outside the cultural norm. We live in a time when the phrase “surprise your family with a home cooked meal tonight” used in a radio ad assumes that most families spend very little time together. They hardly have time to eat together, much less make a meal from scratch. For many parents the thought of school closing for the summer is enough to give them the jitters. Why would anyone want to homeschool and be with their children the whole year long?!  

This can be a difficult question to answer. I found it important to frame my answers in positive ways, i.e. “I want my children to develop a relationship with their siblings, to have time to play together and to learn about each other.” The problem with this answer was that sometimes my questioner felt that I was accusing her of not wanting this kind of relationship to develop among her children. If you say something like “I don’t want my children subjected to playground bullies,” you will also get a negative reaction. Most parents have at one time or another heard a variation of the refrain: “Life isn’t easy. They have to learn that not all people in the world are good, kind, etc.”

So there you are trying to sail yourself between the proverbial rock and a hard place and finding yourself smashed from both sides. If you look at the difficulty as a conflict of values, it may take some of the tension and emotional dynamite out of the discussion for you. Forewarned is forearmed. Conflicting values have led to wars but they can also lead to a decision to agree to disagree and a mutual decision to respect each other’s choices.

I find it helpful to use the shoe store analogy when I try to describe to someone why I chose to help my kids learn at home. When buying shoes for a child, everyone knows that not every child is going to wear the same size or style of shoe. We look for a shoe that fits the child and the family budget. Educational choices are like that – finding the best fit for a child and family. And like shoes, the education a child receives changes and grows to accommodate a child’s needs. For some people who question your decision, this may be enough. However, human nature being what it is, some people will not hear what you have just said and feel threatened and become either defensive and apologize to you for not home educating or attack you and tell you how your children are being deprived.

It is important to keep in mind that you do not have to convince anyone of the rightness of your decision to help your children learn at home. It is legal in all fifty of the United States and all the provinces and territories of Canada, as well as a number of other countries. Most people don’t really want a long drawn out philosophical treatise of why you are home educating, even if they have asked. It is okay to answer with just a small bit of information. “I wanted to be there as my kids learned things. I wanted the pleasure of seeing their excitement and new found understanding” is an answer I’ve used that often ends the discussion. It may also lead to more questions like “What did you do about chemistry in the high school years?” There are times when I want to answer flippantly “nothing” but most times I control that urge and respond with something along the lines of: “My children didn’t show an interest in learning more about chemistry than I was able to help them learn.”

You may have a budding scientist and have found a tutor for your child or you may be a chemist and shared your knowledge and love of this field with your children. You might then be asked about the arts. You can try to explain to someone but be prepared for confusion. The concept of children learning about the things that interest them is a concept that is difficult for most people to accept. It’s like speaking a foreign language.

And that is what places home-based learning outside the cultural norm. A home educating family begins by redefining what it means to educate children and in the process, we observe how our children learn. Families discover that each child has interests and learning styles that take place within the child’s unique time frame. One child may be reading at age five and another at age twelve. But just like no one asks adults when they were toilet trained, the question of how old one was when he or she started to read doesn’t come up once a child reaches adulthood. It is irrelevant.

The next time someone asks you why you’re home educating, you can answer:

1. briefly – “Because I want to.”

2. with a question – “How much time have you got? ”

3. with empathy – “It concerns you that my children are not going to school.”

4. or with your usual answer.

Just keep in mind that whatever you answer, it is okay not to say more than you feel comfortable saying. Remember, homeschooling is the fastest growing grassroots educational movement in North America. Although you are not part of the cultural norm, you are a part of a fair-sized group who have decided for various reasons to educate their children at home. You’re in good company.

Marty Layne is the mother of four successful young adults who never went to school. As a result, she wrote and published Learning At Home: A Mother’s Guide To Homeschooling, Revised Edition and recorded and produced a children’s music CD “Brighten the Day - songs to celebrate the seasons.” She also speaks at conferences in Canada and the US. You can read more about her at

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