Homeschooling (also called “home education” in the UK or “home learning” elsewhere) is exploding in popularity in North America.  Some factors include more “stay at home” families who work remotely, and have more flexibility with travelling while checking in via Internet.  Others say this is a reaction to help children avoid the peer pressures of sex, drugs and alcohol which is more pervasive at a younger age in the public system.  Whatever it is, academically and socially, it’s benefitting children who school at home.

Internationally, 9 to 10 years of compulsory education is required in most countries, starting from age 5 or 6.  One notable exception is Germany, however, where homeschooling is illegal (and has been since 1930).  This is somewhat ironic, since Germany is the homeland of Rudolph Steiner and Waldorf Education, a very grass roots age-appropriate approach to education which a strong emphasis on the arts.  There is also a movement in the US towards unschooling and natural learning, which is a curriculum-free philosophy, coined in 1977 by American educator and author John Holt in his magazine Growing Without Schooling.  These approaches are more of a “learn by doing” approach which integrates real life into child experiences rather than using textbooks as a basis for education.

Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute explains why US homeschooling families now include more than 1.4 million children. Ray reports the typical homeschooled child is involved in 5.2 social activities outside the home each week. These activities include afternoon and weekend programs with conventionally (typically publicly) schooled kids, such as ballet classes, Little League teams, Scout troops, church groups and neighbourhood play.  And with respect to book learning, homeschoolers, on average, score 30 to 37 percentile points higher than conventionally schooled students on the most commonly administered K-8 standardized tests.

Homeschooled children are much less preoccuppied with peer dependence.  Emotionally, homeschooled children tend to draw their main social identity from their membership in their family rather than from their peers.  And as Gordon Neufeld reinforces in his book, “Hold Onto Your Kids.” his 35 years of child development experience (plus 5 kids of his own) point out  ”Why Parents Matter More than Peers”.  His book explores the pivotal importance of children’s relationships to those responsible for them.  Neufeld  highlights how devastating child’s lives can become when they get their teachings from peers rather than parents or adult role-models. His book also confronts such relationship devastating devices as time-outsand using what children care about against them. Neufeld essentially offers an attachment parenting perspective, offering strategies for preserving and restoring the child-to-parent relationship.  Home-schooling can really help foster strong parent to child bonds.

David Guterson talks about the issues around peer dependence in his book, “Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense,” (Harcourt-Brace Jovanovich, 1992). Guterson reports that the kids in his conventional school often have difficulty navigating the turbulent social scene at school, with “its cliques, rumors and relentless gossip, its shifting alliances and expedient betrayals.” Guterson says that their preoccupation with peer acceptance often encourages young people to become “acutely attuned to a pre-adult commercial culture that usurps their attention (M-TV, Nintendo, fashion magazines, teen cinema)” and frequently fosters a sense of alienation from people of other ages.  Many parents of “distant” or “aloof” teens often wonder what they’ve done to deserve this treatment.  Children who receive home education don’t get a chance to sever this important bond with their parents.

I see elements of peer-influenced mass media when my kids interact with others in the playground. When another child talks about the latest Disney or shoot-em-up action hero movie, my kids are often caught off guard.  Being a no-screen family, my kids listen with mouths open as other children describe the various violent scenes that their adult action hero has making mince-meat of whatever villian they are facing.  I am happy to shelter my kids from this kind of school-yard discussion of passively absorbed media.  I have a friend who’s child’s play was changed forever after watching Star Wars. Some families take young (age 5 and under) children to movie theatres where they are blasted with wall sized ads, violent cartoon scenarios and general over-stimulation. Any child development specialist will tell you that child brains simply can’t handle this at a young age.  Simplicity Parenting founder Kim Payne highlights the emotional similarities between media ravaged kids and children raised in from war-torn third world countries.  He also points out a direct correlation between children diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and their hours spent in front of “the box”.  It’s sad to hear school yard banter talking about gossiping characters in the latest reality TV series vs what they actually did themselves last weekend.

Educational researcher Susannah Sheffer of Cambridge, Mass., says facilitating peer-dependency is part of “how schools shortchange girls”. In a recent study of self-esteem among adolescent girls, Sheffer found that unlike their conventionally schooled counterparts, homeschooled girls did not typically lose confidence in themselves when their ideas and opinions weren’t embraced by their friends. And we know that it’s not just self-esteem, but an increasing importance on self-compassionwhich makes girls and boys more emotionally confident and mature.

Learning at home never stops.  Not only can it be tailored to the individual child (vs a classroom of 30+ kids), but it can mostly happen outside the classroom.  There is also more time to study subjects in depth, without the worry of a bell ringing (Pavlov’s Dog anyone?) or lunch arbitrarily stopping a lesson exactly at noon.  Homeschooling strengthens the most important bond of all, the family bond.  Interestingly, 30% of homeschoolers in the US do so because of religious reasons.  I found this shocking, maybe just being Canadian, but it does make the point that many parents want to share their own personal, spiritual or religious beliefs with their children, and not have them be force fed someone else’s ideals.

Homeschooling means also that children are not just exposed to others their exact same age, but are also integrated with younger and older children and elders constantly.  From a health perspective, being in a low stress environment with home-cooked meals is much more desirable to many families.  And most importantly I think, is the ability for children to engage creatively in their own play.  Free and active play has always been heralded to being key in any healthy child.  They need time to digest their own learnings, experiment, pretend and be creative on their own time.  Many feel that this play is when the true learning occurs, and what better setting for that to be than in their own home.