July-August 2007 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Strengthening Families Through Homeschooling
Many people, especially those who have not had personal experience with homeschooling, focus on the academic aspects of homeschooling. However, many homeschoolers value the ways homeschooling strengthens families even more than the learning opportunities. Although this is not a new idea, summer is a good time to pause and contemplate the idea that by strengthening our families, we are benefiting our children, ourselves, and our society. This column will review the importance of family and some of the challenges it faces, consider why and how homeschooling strengthens families, and explore ways we can take even greater advantage of the opportunities homeschooling offers.
Why Strengthening Families Is Important
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of families both in the lives of individuals and in a society, any society. Families are the basic unit of every known society and its most powerful institution. However, the prevalence of families does not mean that we can assume they will always play a strong and healthy role in a society. In fact, the role of families in our society is currently endangered.
One key threat is the increasing emphasis on money and material possessions. Think what happens when we make earning money the basic goal and building block in our society.
• People tend to focus on a time 5, 10, 15, or more years in the future rather than on the time they have now, with their children and in the present. They worry about things like saving money for college and enrolling children in the best preschool so they can get into Harvard so they can get a prestigious job.
• Often both parents work outside the home for pay.
• Family members spend less time together.
• Families may be forced to move to follow the job instead of building community and maintaining social continuity.
• Some go into debt to live in the best school districts and pay for the clothes, cars, and other material possessions that are expected in that locality.
• Families expect children to leave at age 18 and celebrate when they start the cycle of
--debt from college and other sources that drives one to follow the job;
--distance, both geographic and interpersonal; and
--focusing on career rather than family.
Here are other examples of things that are increasingly disrupting and undermining the strength of families:
• Institutions and professionals disempower parents. Increasing emphasis is being placed on "experts" in child development, education, mental health, socialization, etc. rather than parents as the ones who are in the best position to care for, support, and guide the development of children. And although professionals are not claiming that they are better at loving children than parents are, at least not yet, one can only wonder how parents are supposed to love their children when they have little time with them and have been told they are incapable of raising them properly and that their children probably have problems or will soon.
• Changes in the economy and in employment practices are making it more difficult for parents to earn a reasonable amount of necessary money in a reasonable amount of time.
--According to the Economic Policy Institute's Briefing Paper #184, February 22, 2007, "Millions of American's working families do not have the necessary means for basic self-sufficiency. And it looks no better for the next generation. In 2000, average high-school educated workers age 25-29 started out earning about $5,000 less real income and could expect slower growth in earnings than those who entered the labor force in 1970. Workers with some college started about $3,500 behind their 1970 counterparts."
--A college education does not guarantee a "good job" or economic security. Among recent college graduates, 25-35% will not be able to find jobs that require a college degree. In addition, according to Princeton University economist Henry S. Farber, the typical laid-off college graduate now suffers a 30% loss of income (up from 10% in the 1980s) because of foregone pay raises in the old job and lower wages in the new one.
--Job stability and security is decreasing. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1978, a middle-aged American male could expect to remain with the same employer for 11 years. That expectation has been reduced to seven and a half years. During the same time, the average length of unemployent has increased from 13 weeks to almost 20.
--Outsourcing is moving many jobs overseas.
• Many other countries have tax laws and employment practices that are more supportive of families than those in the U.S., including paying new mothers a substantial portion of their salary to stay home with their children for several years and granting generous maternal and paternal leave. Recent U.S. tax reforms favor the rich at the expense of families and others with less money. Increasing tax deductions for dependents would be an easy, simple, straightforward, and fair way to provide support and more financial resources to families.
• Stereotypes of young people presented in the media and other places indicate the extent to which our culture is at war with its youth, despite the fact that youth are increasingly asking for more time with their parents. In addition to helping young people, it would be in adults' self-interest to develop better relations with the people who will be responsible for their future.
Developments such as these make it imperative that we work to strengthen the family. In addition to the benefits we receive by strengthening our families, the work we are doing to strengthen our families makes an important contribution to our society.
We parents need to take responsibility for strengthening families ourselves. It is unrealistic to expect the government or corporations to do this. In fact, the government often contributes to the problem rather than helping find a solution or even staying out of the way. Examples of current government actions that undermine families include the following:
• Since the early to mid 90s, decisions made by social workers, counselors, courts, and guardians ad litem have focused on the "best interest of the child" rather than the previously used "best interest of the family." Whereas previous decisions based on the best interests of the family had emphasized the importance of strengthening the whole family, the new focus on the child may or may not take the family as a unit or as an institution into account very much at all. The new emphasis on the child simultaneously strengthens the hand of social institutions and social workers and other professionals at the expense of the family. It also disregards the strong influence that family members have on each other and extensive research that indicates that the most effective way to help children, including children in distress, is by strengthening their families.
• Increasing emphasis on using tax money to provide screenings for child development beginning at birth, preschool screening, mental health screening, etc.
• Increasing violations of basic civil liberties by collecting, storing, sorting, and retrieving all sorts of data about families.
• Increasing use of public funds to provide public education for younger children and to pressure parents to send their children to four-year-old kindergarten and preschools for children three and under.
How Homeschooling Strengthens Families
Although it's obvious to homeschoolers that homeschooling strengthens families, it is helpful to consider ask why. Among the reasons:
• Homeschooling gives families more opportunity to spend time together. This sounds so simple, so cliched. But when it comes to building strong families, there is no substitute for time, lots and lots of time. Time is so important because it's really a shorthand, umbrella term for much more than seconds, minutes, and hours. Time together offers opportunities to learn, explore, enjoy, laugh, cry, create special traditions, and more; in other words, to live.
• Parents communicate values, principles, and beliefs very effectively in ordinary ways, like how we talk, eat, greet others, work, etc. We can "walk our talk" each day. We can act on principle rather than convenience. We can take stands and be politically active.
• What members of homeschooling families give each other is time, support, skills, knowledge, a listening ear, and other things that are more valuable than expensive material gifts.
• Homeschooling by its very nature empowers parents, young people, and the family as a whole. Demonstrating to ourselves and others that we can handle what many consider one of the most important tasks in our society (that is, helping young people learn and grow) greatly increases everyone's confidence, offers proof of the advantages of exploring alternatives and taking responsibility for oneself and one's family, increases the number of questions one asks, increases realism and skepticism about what large institutions can and cannot do.
Ways Homeschoolers Can Strengthen Their Families
Throughout the modern homeschooling era, homeschoolers have been increasing the ways homeschooling strengthens families. Among the possibilities are the following.
• Many homeschoolers expand the extent to which they take responsibility for their own lives and the number of alternatives in which they are involved. Families frequently raise their own food. They take responsibility for maintaining health and for at least part of the health care they need.
• Time together is not necessarily a given. Sometimes we have to make conscious choices to make family time a priority and say "no" to many enticing activities that would split the family daily.
• Many homeschooling families find it especially helpful to continue to spend time together after young people are older than 18. This allows them to forge family relationships that are adult to adult rather than parent to child, to work out ways of getting along that will serve family members well for the rest of their lives. It gives young people strong support at a time when society is pressuring them to hurry up and decide what work they are going to do, who they are going to spend time with, and other key decisions that are best not rushed. It helps parents through "midlife crises," "empty nest syndrome," and preparations for aging.
• Many families focus on interdependence instead of independence. They question the value and emphasis our culture puts on independence as measured by physical distance. Toddlers don't have to prove that they are "mature" enough to go to daycare without crying. Family activities often include teens and their friends. Young people are welcome to continue living with other family members when they are past 18. Older people are welcomed into our families when possible. Many families have as a goal to turn their family into a community where individuals cooperate and support each other rather than needing to prove they can do everything by themselves. Instead of claiming that living alone is a demonstration of strength, there's the realization that people need each other and solitary confinement is one of the most severe forms of punishment.
One way to foster interdependence is by involving children and young people in the organization and running of the family as soon as they are able. We can listen to their ideas about how our home should be organized ("Where should we keep the scissors so everyone can find them?"), how some discretionary money will be spent ("Would it be more fun to go out for pizza or go camping?"), how we can expand our circle of friends ("Who would you like to invite over next Friday?" "How can we make our home more welcoming to guests?"), how problems can be solved ("What could we do to make it easier to keep the living room picked up?"), and many other things. By taking these small steps over many years, we can strengthen our families and make a smooth (well, at least relatively smooth) transition from a family of parents and young children to a community of young and older adults.
It is worth asking what messages we are sending our young people about our expectations for the years after they are 18. Are we directly or subtly sending them the message that we want or need them to take responsibility for themselves and be fully "independent" by the time they are 18 or 21 or some other arbitrary age? Or are we letting them know that we would be willing to continue sharing living space with them until they are ready to live elsewhere? Are we aware of the possibilities to explore the world and options for work that young people can pursue when they are welcome to use the place where they grew up as a base while they spend days, weeks, months, or even years in another place and then return? And finally are we making it clear that there are many advantages to maintaining close family ties and geographical proximity to parents and siblings during their adult lives? The advantages include personal support, social opportunities, a helping hand when needed, and knowing there are people who will be there for you just as you will be there for them, whatever should happen.
• Homeschoolers look for, share, and celebrate confirmation we find of the importance of parents and family. Sometimes we have to produce our own confirmation, through perspectives shared in informal conversations and articles like this one. After all, families are stronger and more powerful than any other social institution, including schools.
(c) 2007 Larry and Susan Kaseman
© 2007, Larry and Susan Kaseman