Many American readers will gather this week around Thanksgiving tables with rarely seen relatives, only to have their parenting choices roasted right alongside the turkey.
When you’ve made a different education choice for your kid(s) – whether homeschooling, unschooling, or one of the many emergent alternatives – one of the greatest challenges will be dealing with skepticism or criticism from other adults. Below, you’ll find rebelEducator’s best advice on how to handle these conversations, at the holidays and all year round.
Assume Good Intentions
The most painful of these philosophical conflicts tend to be with other people who sincerely love your kid. They are operating from an understanding of schooling – and a set of values – that you might not share.
Despite your best attempts to show how traditional public schooling is outmoded and even damaging, two centuries’ worth of propaganda is working against you.
Generations of us were raised to sincerely believe that presence in institutional classrooms was synonymous with learning or success. Someone who insists your kid has to be in a traditional school may only be expressing a desire for good life outcomes, from inside that old school (literally) mentality.
Show Some Humility
All humans suffer the curse of knowledge, a reliable cognitive bias in which we find it difficult to imagine other people don’t know what we know. It’s even hard to relate to the old version of ourselves who didn’t yet know what we know now.
Students who learn a new piece of trivia dramatically overestimate how likely other people are to answer the same question correctly—even though the student himself didn’t know ten minutes ago. So if you’ve deconverted from standard schooling, or committed to an alternative model of education, you probably overestimate how obvious the facts and theories are that led you to that choice.
Most people unschooling our kids were traditionally schooled ourselves. We’re the children of parents who chose the traditional model. We’re siblings of others who accepted those choices, where we questioned them. Try to relate to the person you used to be and how you saw the world, before you were exposed to novel ideas about child development and learning. That same benign cluelessness may be staring back at you over the mashed potatoes.
As a last resort, you can detach from the questions of “should,” and “the good of society.” You are your kid’s parent. You might not know how everyone (or anyone) else’s child should be educated, but you can speak for your own family’s experience.
Be okay with saying, “I won’t tell anyone else what to do, but this is the right choice for my kid.”
Be Firm in the Facts
For “just-the-facts-ma’am” Uncle Frank and “kids these days” Grandma Sarah, you might make the best case by recalling empirical research.
Tell them what we know doesn’t work: Traditional public schools are producing kids who are underprepared for adult and professional life. Mental health among middle and high schoolers is appalling. Record numbers of students are being medicated to keep them in classrooms, while record numbers of skilled teachers are abandoning the field.
Tell them what we know can work: Unschooled kids have no trouble learning to read. Alternative schoolers are sought-after by colleges. Homeschoolers are just as socially adept and conversational as traditionally schooled kids, and often moreso. Self-directed learners have entered the most demanding professional fields. They’re people you’d like to spend time with, whom you’d be proud to call a friend.
If you haven’t familiarized yourself with the research lately, brush up. You might even find some reassurance in there for your own nagging doubts.
If defending your beliefs to family is draining, you may find yourself spiraling into doubt or defensiveness. In these times, it’s useful to have a community of support around you. If your experience over the holidays feels very disconnected from your day to day life, you might benefit from checking in with those you engage with all year long.
Do you know other parents whose opinions you respect, who’ve opted into alternatives like yours? Do you rely on certain blogs, podcasts, message boards, or groups? It’s okay to take a break from holiday chatter to check in with people who share your values, to draw strength from the similarity of stories, or the breadth of experiences. Chances are you’re not the only one who wants to hide in a closet between courses. While you don’t want to be stuck in an ideological echo chamber all the time, it can be useful to have allies when you’re doing friendly battle on the family homefront.
Agree to Disagree
The holidays are ultimately about community and a sense of shared identity. If you’re making radically different choices for your kids than your family—especially your parents—made for theirs, they may experience that as a rejection of what brings you together.
Reassure them (if you can) that you value their opinion, and you know that they made the best choices they possibly could to give you every advantage in life. If you feel like your education and your upbringing were assets to you, say so. Be gentle in expressing that you’re improving on what you were provided.
In any case, it’s okay not to come to a consensus about educational choices. Honor others’ rights to raise their own children differently. After all, “there’s only one right answer, and it’s in the back of the book, but don’t look!” is exactly the mindset we’re hoping to avoid.
Don’t fall subject to pushing your choices on others with kids, and invite them to share your tolerance of difference. The world is wide enough for lots of answers, and kids are astonishingly resilient. Detach from the debate and enjoy your family. Nothing needs to be settled before pie is served.