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Homeschooled Kids Less Dependent on Peers

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.

Education System Pushes Kids to Read Too Early

Many countries including Canada and the US put an overly  high priority on teaching kids to read by age 6 or even earlier.   However, in many European countries including Scandanavia, kids are not rushed into ready until 8 or even 9 years old.  US programs such as “No Child Left Behind” force-feeds young children books and then tests them on their abilities, both of which can have very negative affects.  Children who are told to read more books, and recall them in detail are less likely to develop a passion for reading, and enjoy reading as an activity later in life.  Some young readers will even quickly see themselves as bad at reading when they fail to measure up during testing.  Brain research clearly shows that the brain of a 5 or 6 year old simply is not yet wired for recognizing letters and comprehending the association of many words in phrases or sentences.  Children who appear to be reading are often simply regurgitating sounds that they were taught to recognize.

The trend to teach reading in kindergarten is an unreasonable expectation for five year olds because they do not have the maturity of brain function needed for reading. Certain, specific visual-processing learning problems arise, as well as problems in attention and motivation. What happens when children are taught to read before all the neurological pathways for the tasks are adequately developed? The U.S. educational system has now  been given a mandate of teaching reading in kindergarten.  This is despite the fact that five year olds do not yet have the benefit of the left brain’s reading center crucial to the task. Left and right sides of the brain aren’t typically fully connected until as late as 9 years old.  They simply don’t have the capacity for fully rational thought, or reading comprehension.

Teachers are noticing difficulties in learning, behavior and socialization relating to reading. As kindergarten has taken on the task of reading, more kids are found who need to repeat kindergarten or a “transitional” first grade classroom. As kids progress through grade school, learning disabilities increase, particularly visual-processing types. The language center in the left hemisphere of the brain won’t form for most kids until they are between seven and nine, and later for boys than girls. When kids are taught to read before this, certain problems arise, particularly in spelling and reading comprehension.

Because the right brain’s language center encounters printed words in terms of the composite image the letters form on the page, a child with this understanding does not see the middle letters very distinctly.  A great deal of importance cannot be placed on deciphering letters that occur in the middle of words that begin and end the same. Because much of what we would consider a five year old’s act of reading is really a lot of guessing the middle anyway, “mean” and “moan” do not, to them, carry enough distinct difference that they can perceive. They share the same silhouette. To most five year olds, it’d be like seeing a drawing of a girl in a dress, and it makes no difference in the meaning of that picture if the girl’s dress is striped or plaid—she’s still a girl in a dress. When children are expected to spell correctly with the use of only the right side of the brain’s language center, they will experience great frustration, not understanding why anyone would care about something that, to their cognitive ability, is hardly discernable.

The Waldorf Approach: The Writing Way To Reading

Alternative Schools such as Waldorf approach reading so that learning synchronizes with child development.  Waldorf teachers actually focus on “slowing the children down”. Letters and writing starts in “Class One” where they have already been accessed developmentally to be ready for this more “directed” learning approach (vs Kindergarten which is more “imitative”).  Rudolf Steiner (founder of Waldorf Education) professed that “imagination is the key quality, and pictorial imagery is a vital factor in making learning a personal inner experience. Art and music play an important role in engaging the child’s feelings.”

Many people (familiar with mainstream/public school approaches) are horrified that children do not begin to read until they are seven. However, the pre-literacy skills which are so necessary to provide a grounding for the process of reading have begun very early on in the Steiner Waldorf Kindergarten.  In Kindergarten, the foundations of reading have already been laid in complex fairy tale story telling, imaginative play where they have time and space to play and develop visual thinking naturally.  Rudolf Steiner tells us that our writing form (the individual letters that make up words) is just a cultural convention and “the human being as such has no inner relationship whatever to the letters of modern script.  Today there is a “crisis in a lack of comprehension” where young children are expected to start decode meaningless letters and symbol that have no inner or imaginative connection to them.

An alphabet by definition consists of fewer than thirty meaningless symbols that do not represent the images of anything in particular; a feature that makes them abstract. Although some groupings of words can be grasped in an all-at-once manner, in the main, the comprehension of written words emerges in a one-at-a-time fashion. It is because of the very abstract nature of reading and writing that Steiner advocates teaching these skills in a particular way. At Waldorf, writing is always taught before reading. This is following civilization’s development of writing and reading. It is only logical to realize that pictorial symbols would have been created before reading was able to occur. In Class One, letters of the alphabet are introduced to the children as pictorial forms. In this way the whole of the child’s artistic, imaginative, pictorial and feeling senses are invoked. However, writing does not begin as soon as the children come into Class One. The physical skill of writing is prepared for by introducing the children to form drawing.

The letters of the alphabet are introduced to the children as capitals and in a visual way. In this way the imaginative form becomes the symbol for the letter. Steiner tells us that in writing, the forces of the whole being are involved in writing, versus in reading it is only the head and intellect. Steiner explains how to make a pictorial symbol represent the abstract letter by alerting the child to the initial sound of a letter and relating it in an artistic way to a word beginning with that letter. The examples that Steiner gives in A Modern Art of Education are the letters of “M” linked to the word “mouth” with the shape of the lips replicating the “M”; “W” linked to the word “water” (shape of a wave); and, “F” for the “f-f-f” sound and linked to an image of a fish. In this way we can proceed to the abstract nature of writing from the entirely concrete elements of painting-drawing, drawing-painting. We then succeed in making the child start from feeling called up by a picture; he then becomes able to relate to the actual letters the quality of soul contained in the feeling.

It is important to understand that not all the alphabet is introduced to the children in this way. It would take a considerable amount of time to introduce each letter with an appropriate imaginative story and pictorial element. Once the children have experienced the symbolic, pictorial form of some of the letters then they can begin to assimilate the other ­­­­­­letters more easily. The teacher writes verses on the board – specifically simple consonant verses to illustrate the sound and shape of the letters they are learning, verses such as “wild waves swept the windswept walks” or “sliding slowly the slimy snake slipped down the sandy dunes”. The children are then encouraged to point out the letters that they know and speculate on the ones that they have yet to learn. Once the children have been introduced to all the letters the teacher will write short phrases (linked to the stories that the teacher is telling the children in the main lesson) on the board and the children copy these into their workbooks and draw appropriate pictures to accompany them. In this way the children begin to make their own written “readers“. Reading slowly begins as the children start to listen to the teacher read the writing on the board and then begin to read their own writing. This can be described as “the writing way to reading”. The children are not introduced to printed books at this stage in the writing and reading learning process. Often the teacher will make a book (with his/her own hand writing) for the children to read.


Unlike the US approach of memorizing the alphabet (letters and sounds) in a series of drills, Waldorf  spends much more time on each letter’s form and appearance.  Children will spend a full day on a single letter, and read stories about it, draw or paint it’s form as it integrates into a scene (M is part of a mountain scape) and even walk it’s path on the floor.  They develop a clear image and importance of the letters before they even try to pronounce them.  Children are presented vowels separately from consanants in stories (5 angels who single each vowel).  There is deep understand of the letters and their visual and imaginative form before full words or even sentences are introduced in the following years.  I don’t know about you, but I sure wish I learned this way. 

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