Who Is My Child To Be?
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Who Is My Child To Be?

Who is My Child to Be?
By David H. Albert

As home educators, we can be experimental; we can be scientists, free to figure out what works with our children, with our families, in our communities – in spite of our own preconceptions.

When it comes to education, I am a lover of everything “alternative.” For much of my adult life, I’ve read virtually everything about alternative schools I could get my hands on. I can wax eloquent about the historical importance of Francisco Ferrer’s Modern Schools, first established in Spain, and then in New York City (the historian Will Durant was the first principal!), and the little spinoffs in Piscataway and Lakewood, New Jersey. I avidly read all about Summerhill as a teenager and continue to be energized by the successes of the Sudbury Valley Schools. I am inspired by the memory of Maria Montessori’s educational work among the waifs of Rome some hundred years ago, and by Rudolf Steiner’s school serving the sons and daughters of cigarette factory workers in Stuttgart, as well as his invention of biodynamic agriculture. The Albany Free School remains a beacon to my consciousness. My Gandhian educator friends in India have developed some extraordinary “experiments with truth.” And there are so many others before whom I bow.

There have been wonderful experiments in public schools as well, and interesting, exciting charter schools. From the distance at which I sit, the successful innovations seem to have only one thing in common: dedicated, caring, and hard-driven educational crusaders (for lack of a better term) who really care about children and are often willing to put much of their personal lives on hold to be their advocates. Or perhaps to express it more accurately, caring and advocating for children has become their personal lives, and I honor them for it.

Sadly, because of this common factor, neither the alternative schools nor the public education-oriented innovations often find themselves replicated. They require very special individuals (I have been privileged to know more than my share and am proud to call many of them friends), and such people seem to be in relatively short supply. I am old enough now to have seen the same special “innovative” program, recapitulated successfully, in the same school district (and, in one case, even in the same school building!) with thirty years intervening between them, with the latter having no institutional memory of the former, and only to suffer the fate of most “successful” educational innovations – that is, to vanish without a trace. It would be difficult to argue that, in the global scheme of things, my friends have made much of a difference, even if their charges will remember them forever with gratitude. Perhaps we are all like proverbial drops of water upon the stone.

Of course, in the scope of human history, public education as we now experience it is the alternative. No civilization in the history of the world before ours subjected virtually all young people ages five to eighteen, and who were not convicted of any crime other than being young, to compulsory imprisonment in cellblocks populated by individuals of the same age, denied them basic human rights (even the right to go to the bathroom!), and imposed autocratic rule in the room, and bureaucratic control beyond it in determining what activities and routines they would be compelled to experience in the workhouse. We may have survived the ordeal (and some of us even learned to “like it” – “Rejoice, Rejoice, We have no choice,” to quote an old Crosby, Stills, and Nash song – I know I’m dating myself), but we are fooling ourselves if we believe that as individuals or as a society any of us escaped entirely unscathed. This may be a stage in the evolution of human endeavor, but it is surely one I would have been happy to have missed.

Then, here we are – homeschoolers. Yes, we are different. Really! Over the past decade, in contrast with a couple of hundred alternative education visionaries and education reformers, there have been millions of homeschooling parents. We came to homeschooling for a wide variety of reasons, and with an even wider variety of experience. Some of us remember loving school ourselves, and others hating it. Some of us came with strong interests in education and children, well-developed even before we had children of our own. Others of us had given it virtually no thought at all, until circumstances required us to do so. Some of us had planned to homeschool the day we found out our first child was conceived; others found ourselves doing so unexpectedly with our fifth child when she reached adolescence, after the other four had spent 13 years each in public education and managed to get by.

Watching and listening, and then listening and watching some more is just not the way we were trained when we were in fifth grade that education is supposed to happen, and we mistrust our ability to see and hear our own children.

But what we have in common, and what sets homeschooling apart from the other educational alternatives, is that we have all become educational crusaders, though few of us attempted to use the PTA as our venue of choice. Our kids just didn’t have time to wait. We have all had to learn to become more empathetic, and more assertive in ensuring our children’s learning quests are honored and advanced. We are not limited to a few innovators, and we don’t have to have thought it all out in advance. We can be experimental, and we can be scientists, free to figure out what works with our children, with our families, in our communities.

Our kids begin with three great educational gifts that kids in the box almost never experience: love, listening, and time. I don’t imagine we’ll see large, compulsory institutions incorporating these gifts into their book of business anytime soon.

Most of us were not trained as scientists (thank heavens not as educators!), and so much of this is so new to us (at least initially) that this new venture can give us a sense of walking a tight rope without a net, or simply falling free before we have learned to fly. Watching and listening, and then listening and watching some more is just not the way we were trained when we were in fifth grade that education is supposed to happen, and we mistrust our ability to see and hear our own children. So, if you are like most homeschoolers, at some point you grasp for tethers.

You’ve been bombarded with curricula. Maybe you’ve even tried a couple. Some of them worked okay, or so you think, and some made you and your child’s homeschooling lives together miserable. Maybe the one you liked best is one she hated most. Or maybe the curriculum your older son just loved gave your daughter stomach aches. Perhaps a classical approach might be the way to go, but then you thought that maybe with all your Hispanic neighbors, Spanish might make more sense than Latin, and Jimmy really wants to learn about auto mechanics. And maybe now you’ve become convinced that curricula are not a good way to learn, and you’ve decided to swear off them (at least for now; you reserve the right to change your mind, keeping the spare in your back pocket.)

Now you’ve learned all about learning styles. Maybe your child’s kinesthetic and tactile, while you’ve been assuming visual-spatial. Actually, you didn’t know about either until two weeks ago. Then someone told you about convergers and assimilators, but you can’t seem to keep them straight in your mind. You found out that there are seventy-one different theories of learning styles! As soon as you’ve learned one system, there’s another, all claiming to be “neurobiologically based.” Then you realize that you don’t enjoy thinking of your child as diseased, and that (maybe) she’ll learn everything she needs to learn in time, at her own pace, and maybe, since her brain will change, her learning style will change too – just about the time you think you’ve figured it out. You wish she were reading better, and maybe she’s dyslexic like her friend in gymnastics, and then you remember learning that the folks at the Sudbury Valley School claim never to have met a true dyslexic in forty years. And wasn’t there some famous brain scientist knighted by the Queen of England (Dr. Susan Greenfield) who said that from a neuroscientific point of view, the learning styles approach to teaching is utter nonsense? But even if it is nonsense, perhaps it is a good thing that schoolteachers might have to pay at least a little more attention to each individual child. However, your child isn’t in school, and you are uncomfortable with all the labels, and after awhile they make your head hurt.

Then you came upon all this wonderful material about multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner’s revolutionary though all-too-obvious notion that there is more to intelligence than what they measured on all those tests. Whew! You always knew you were smarter than what they said! And you were always good at art. But what do you actually do with this multiple intelligences stuff? For awhile, you thought that maybe you should organize the homeschool day so as to encompass each of the eight-and-a-half intelligences, but then you realized that it began to look like a day at the local middle school. Perhaps you should stress those areas where Stevie isn’t particularly adept, but then you heard this great homeschooling speaker who said you should always work with and from a child’s strengths. But what exactly are his strengths? All you can come up with for sure is bowling. It’s not “kinesthetic intelligence” – he doesn’t run really well, isn’t particularly agile, doesn’t climb trees or hit a baseball or jump – it’s just, well, bowling. Someone gave you an article about a homeschooler in Missouri who got a four-year bowling scholarship to college. Maybe bowling intelligence is the key, but how does someone learn literature through bowling?

All of this keeps you completely spinning and feeling inept and maybe even a little frightened. Certainly, the schoolpeople haven’t figured it out. Your little experience of them, through your son Mason, suggests that it has probably gotten worse since you were in school thirty years ago. Perhaps you should unschool, not out of any special commitment to unschooling philosophy (some of the folks you’ve met who do so seem particularly scary!), but maybe it means fewer decisions to make. But how then do you fill out all the forms?

But who is my child to be? Not simply her own individual characteristics or proclivities or “intelligences” or learning style or uniqueness which, above all else, must be attended to with the full respect they deserve. But rather, how do you conceive of the real interests of the child you choose to serve so that she will become the resourceful, self-satisfied, life-affirming person you imagine? Who exactly is this person you are educating and how do you conceive of the outcome you are seeking? And what approach (or, really, approach to an approach) might help her get there?

No one ever said this was going to be easy. I don’t know anyone who chose homeschooling because it was easy, but rather because, as the most important people in our children’s lives, we choose not to semi-blindly abnegate responsibility for any part of them.

But who is my child to be? Not simply her own individual characteristics or proclivities or “intelligences” or learning style or uniqueness which, above all else, must be attended to with the full respect they deserve. But rather, how do you conceive of the real interests of the child you choose to serve so that she will become the resourceful, self-satisfied, life-affirming person you imagine? Who exactly is this person you are educating and how do you conceive of the outcome you are seeking? And what approach (or, really, approach to an approach) might help her get there?

Now, please, don’t suggest you don’t have any preconceptions. I’ve never met any parent who didn’t. What I hope to do here to do is help you unearth them, allow you to hold them up to your own scrutiny, and hence help you clarify your own values as go about your life learning journey.

These have all filtered down to you, I suspect, from one place or another. As you hold them to the light, you will now join an entirely new circle of educational philosophers! My experience is that if you can just step back from the day-to-day process to understand what you think you might be doing with your kids, both your insight and your practice will deepen, with great benefit to both parent and child.

With thanks to the holistic educator Ron Miller who first suggested the usefulness of this kind of typology (though not necessarily tied to homeschooling), I want to offer seven different educational “lenses” by which you might view your “child to be,” and the beginnings of “pros and cons” of each, especially as they relate to possible applications in the home education setting (to which I am sure you will be able to add).

My Child is to Be:

The Carrier of Cultural Tradition

For some of us, the central purpose of education is to convey to our children our cultural, religious, ethical, or other traditions. Indeed, they are to be the carriers of these traditions into a future we ourselves will never know. Of course, times change and there is a great deal of uncertainty and falsehood in the ways of the world, from which it is best to protect our children. But more than that, it is our belief that real truths are timeless, not subject to change, and must be the center of any education truly worthy of the name, and toward which all efforts should be directed.

For others among us (and the groups may overlap), our cultures and traditions are under threat, and the only hope we may have of sustaining them is through our children. This can even be in the manner in which these traditions – through education – are to be transmitted. Some of us, and I am thinking particularly those of us from Native American traditions, may even find ourselves in a position of recreating a traditional educational culture which had already been eviscerated, if it had not vanished entirely.


  • There is a subculture of adult community support.
  • Desired outcomes are clear.
  • There are clear modes of transmission (specific books or sources of authority).
  • Recognizes that some truths may be universally true across time and space.


  • Requires obedience which, for the child, is at least semi-blind.
  • There may be no real role assigned to childhood.
  • It may leave little room for individual or unique proclivities that are not valued within the culture.
  • By definition, it is culturally insular.

The Progenitor of a New Future

To others of us, the history of the world is the hard-won story of progress, often tentative but nonetheless relentless, from darkness to light, from oppression to liberty, from superstition to reason. And we see it as our highest duty to educate our children to be part of this march, not only as individuals, but as part of a larger community.

Our children are the agents of social transformation. As such, our job is not to transmit knowledge and preserve cultural traditions, but to help them develop a spirit of inquiry into the conditions of their culture and society – and their own condition – and begin to provide the critical tools to transform them. Although the world has experienced progress, we still see it beset by violence and oppression, exploitation, and the devastating ecological and societal impacts of corporatization and globalization. Academic skills are not neutral; they are to be taught in order that our children can become morally aware, socially responsible, engaged and active citizens ready to take their place on the platform of history.


  • Begins from the premise that the future will not be the same as the present.
  • Roots education in the reality of the child’s daily existence as the center of inquiry.
  • Encourages social engagement from the youngest possible age


  • Requires a community of learners similarly engaged, and a ready field for action, both of which may be difficult to find.
  • Requires teachers and facilitators very well versed in social, economic, political, and cultural affairs.
  • Methods of inquiry may be somewhat limited in scope.

The Bearer of Society’s Laws and Norms, and a Builder Upon a Bedrock of Knowledge

Change in the world is slow, and hard-won, and the reality is our children are born to fit into it. And it is a good world! There is an authoritative objective body of facts that is outside our children’s direct experience, and certainly beyond their personal preferences. In addition, there are preferred ways for such knowledge to be acquired, to be transmitted from those who know to those who don’t yet know. Our children are born tabula rasa (“blank slates,” a concept conceived by the philosopher John Locke who, it should be noted, didn’t have any children), and it is our job to ensure that only the proper information and understandings are written upon the slates, and in the best possible handwriting!

“Know yourself before you attempt to get to know children… First and foremost, you must realize that you too are a child, whom you must first get to know, to bring up, and to educate.”
~Janusz Korczak

There is a specific body of knowledge that our children need to acquire, from the alphabet to Shakespeare. (For Locke, the idea that child could truly be said to be educated without proper Latin and Greek was an absurdity.) In order to participate effectively in society, individuals require a background of cultural (and scientific) literacy so as to be able to engage fully with the world round them. It should be noted that what is necessary for that cultural literacy is a matter of intense debate. To engage fully with your neighbors across the street or across the globe, do you need familiarity, for example, with Plato, Chaucer, Thomas Aquinas, Keats, and T.S. Eliot, or with Advaita Vedanta, the Dhammapada, and the Koran, or the writings of Lao Tzu, Hafez, Chinua Achebe, and Pablo Neruda? Should our children learn Greek so they can eventually read Aristotle, Sophocles, and the New Testament in the original, Russian so they can take part in the national effort to defeat the Soviets in the arms and space races (that’s what happened to me), or Chinese in order to be able to engage the most populous (and perhaps, in the future, most productive) nation on the planet? Or maybe Spanish so they can talk to their next-door neighbor?

The transmission of knowledge is the role that education is to play, and to do so efficiently requires a mode of transmission that is also not a matter of personal preferences. In order to participate in the world as we know it, and join the march, our children need to be able to acquire knowledge in standardized ways, regardless of their own proclivities or idiosyncrasies, because that’s just the way the world works. And when they are themselves ready to transmit knowledge, they will be prepared in how to do so.


  • Generally recognizable and understandable by society.
  • The mode of transmission is clear, with information transmitted from teacher to student.
  • The knowledge to be transmitted is defined by the past and by tradition, and may be easily determined.


  • There is little room for a child’s individual choice regarding what to learn, or when to learn it, or for the expression of individual proclivities.
  • Emphasis is on teaching, not necessarily upon learning.
  • The specific body of knowledge that children need to acquire in a changing world is neither fixed nor obvious and is a matter of intense debate.

The Fullest Possible Expression of Freedom

Our children are born with everything they need to know and an unquenchable desire to make sense of and master their world. Left unfettered, this desire and the ability to fulfill it will unfold in the fullness of time. Our job is to (minimally) protect our children from that which would do them harm, provide them with the maximum space for their autonomy to find expression, and then to get out of the way! Left to their own devices, they will explore what they need to know, what is relevant to their lives, and such experience of free exploration will drive them to further learning. The only way to educate for freedom is to allow people to live and learn freely, and to trust that they will find their own way. And this must start with our children.

Children are individual and unique, and so are their families, and so are their circumstances. Our individual differences are to be acknowledged and, more than tolerated, they are to be celebrated. For, as we learn in science, individual diversity is nature’s way of caring for the species.


  • Education is child-centered.
  • Allows the child to decide what to learn, and when to learn it, and hence learning will simply be a part of living, taking advantage of the child’s own interests and inner resources.
  • Enables the expression of individuality and uniqueness.
  • Does not disrupt the natural relationship between parent and child by interposing the role of educator.


  • May confine a child’s interests to her immediate surroundings, or those of people immediately around her.
  • While respectful of a child’s individuality, may not take advantage of what is known more universally about child development.
  • Requires much more trust than most parents are accustomed to giving children, or that they may have experienced themselves; it therefore may require some special discipline among adults to resist “teaching.”

An Unfolding

You crawl before you walk, you walk before you run, and the biological requirements for each are different, as is what you can see while engaging in any of these forms of locomotion. The butterfly develops through its four stages, each of which requires different food and a different environment in order to flourish.

Children, like butterflies, develop from the inside out. And so while the child requires the freedom necessary for her inner spring to uncoil and for new energies to find their necessary objects, we know enough about this development (together with our listening to each individual child) to provide the necessary framework, structure, environment, and materials for this to happen effectively. To ignore the truths of this unfolding, either in the name of freedom, the transmission of knowledge, or a higher historical or cultural purpose, is to undercut the needs and potentials of the child, and ultimately to sabotage the ends for which education is designed.

And what shall be the end? We have faith, as the truly great educators have had, that it will itself be known through unfolding in the fullness of time.


  • Education is child-centered.
  • Recognizes that children (as well as adults) experience stages of development, and that learning opportunities/challenges can be attuned to this development.
  • Makes use of best available research.


  • May inhibit recognition of an individual child’s specific and unique gifts and proclivities outside of expected developmental norms.
  • Requires a substantial commitment to understanding and implementing the findings of contemporary research.
  • Requires a high degree of sophistication in teasing out the interrelations between biology and culture, as understandings of child development may be culturally constrained.

A Meaning-Maker Who Joins the Community and World Around Her in Meaning-Making

The world around us is socially constructed. Our children are born into a world where they take part in the dynamic construction of knowledge through collective inquiry, collaboration, and creative problem-solving. Really, when you come right down to it, there is no such thing as “individual intelligence,” only community intelligence. While our children may have some innate abilities, those abilities can only find their truest expression in the context of a supportive and cooperative learning environment. It makes no real sense to talk about cultural traditions, expressions of freedom, societal laws and norms, and the transmission of knowledge outside of the context of the child’s ever-expanding sense of community, from family outward as far as she can go.

In this conception, the singular emphasis in education is to assist our children in finding their place in the world. There is no essential core of knowledge outside of a community context and one’s role within it, and there is no standard way for obtaining the knowledge necessary to construct meaning for oneself. Even stages of development are culturally based, with expectations and understanding of children mostly a function of the roles children are assigned in the context of their own particular community or culture. Every child must be assisted to help find her own way, and to understand that this way will be valued so long as she gives back to the community as much or more than she takes.


  • Focuses on the goal of community, as opposed to individual, intelligence.
  • Does not assume that all individuals need to learn the same things, nor is it advantageous that they do so.
  • Fosters a deep appreciation of the contributions of others, of group problem-solving, and collaboration.
  • Brings forth a sophisticated view of what makes for a good family, good community, and good society.


  • There is a heavy emphasis on group learning and group activity.
  • Poorly applied, may encourage ‘group think’ rather than individual difference or initiative.
  • Can be culturally insular.
  • There is no standard for ‘truth’.

A Vessel of Compassion

There is another possibility, perhaps only ancillary to the others, or perhaps the only one that really matters.

I am reminded of the Third Century philosopher Plotinus who, searching for the source of human happiness, finally concluded that happiness consists of “aligning oneself with the highest good.” And hence the purpose of life (and of education) is to find that highest good for ourselves, and to hold true to it.

After my own long consideration, my still-tentative conclusion is that the only true purpose of education is to learn to treat each other better. For while as individuals we may only have a cloudy notion of what constitutes “the highest good,” our best hope of getting there is to seek out the highest good in others, and to learn to serve it, and to educate our children as the vessels of compassion they could turn out to be. Imagine what the curriculum would look like! Imagine how we would rewrite the history books! Imagine the examples we would use in the application of mathematics! Imagine how we would seek to harness the spirit of scientific inquiry!


  • Focuses on ‘highest good’, rather than viewing education as simply instrumental.
  • Provides for outward orientation, yet encouraging of individual difference and initiative.
  • Family context is critical.
  • Learning has immediate application.


  • It may not account sufficiently for the ‘stages of moral development’ in children.
  • Difficult to be accomplished without continuous preaching, in families, without significant community support.
  • A curriculum – for history, scientific inquiry, mathematics, etc. – is only in its infancy, and thus may require unusual and sustained levels of parental creativity

Well, here are seven possible conceptualizations. I’m sure there are others. Which ones rock your world? It is likely that you uneasily carry around in your subconscious more than one – and until you were homeschooling, you may never have given it much thought.

So, my invitation to you all is to become philosophers. The world needs more philosophers. But as I do so, I will enjoin you to consider the words of Janusz Korczak – doctor, director of orphanages, educational innovator, lover of children, who ended up running an orphanage inside the Warsaw Ghetto, and who finally led two hundred children to the trains to be taken to Treblinka, never to be heard from again:

“Know yourself before you attempt to get to know children… First and foremost, you must realize that you too are a child, whom you must first get to know, to bring up, and to educate.”

David Albert is a homeschooling father, writer, and speaker. He is the author of a number of books, including And the Skylark Sings with Me, Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery, and Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Love. Life Learning Magazine's publisher Life Media published his book What Really Matters. He lives, works, and writes in Olympia, Washington.

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