Is The Picture Of A Good Parent Changing?

Last winter, when this blog was a seed of an idea, I just thought we would be writing about homeschooling. A thing I grew up with and can comment on in a very personal way.

But 6 months after we published the first post, I would say I’m surprised how much of everything I read, and hear, and talk about regarding education is actually about parenting.  Not being a parent myself, I was surprised to realize how inseparable the conversations are.

And, what I’m realizing for the first time this year – what lots of homeschooling parents have probably experienced themselves – is that homeschooling has the power to make people (parents) defensive. Is this new? Is it a sign of the success of homeschooling?

Another adult who unschooled recently asked a friend of hers about education plans for her child. The friend replied that she and her husband had thought about homeschooling and decided it wasn’t right for them. It was the first thing out of her mouth, the first option she addressed. I am sure that was because the possibility of homeschooling was right there, staring her in the face. But the adult unschooler was surprised that homeschooling had come up at all. It was’t uppermost on her mind! Was she expected to be a homeschooling recruiter?

I’ve gotten into similar conversations. The thing is, I genuinely don’t expect my friends who went to school to gravitate towards a style of parenting and living that they didn’t grow up with. Even my friends that didn’t like school. I get it; it’s a big leap. But I am a little surprised about the degree to which talking about it makes some people squirmy. And defensive. Because if they didn’t feel like it was kind of a good option… I don’t think that would come up.

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I guess in my lifetime homeschooling has left the far margins, becoming a lot more familiar, more accepted, more plausible as a choice to more people. In my lifetime, the socio-economic landscape has changed, mostly for the scarier, and parents are faced with both more pressure and more choices for their kids’ educations…

But parenting itself is still the most important determining factor in the achievement of students. Specifically, parental involvement and income. You read it everywhere. That’s the clincher.

So, what’s so threatening about homeschooling, exactly? Homeschooling is threatening or promising because, as more of the weight of a good education falls on the shoulders of the parents, no matter what education they choose, homeschooling presents a new notion, a new model of what “good,” and dedicated, and involved parenting can look like.

Lisa Miller’s recent piece Ethical Parenting, in New York Magazine, talked about what parents will do for their kids’ advancement, even in the face of the greater good or fairness. Here’s an excerpt from that piece:

“It’s the opposite of the free-rider problem,” the Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz explains: If everybody recycles, then you can be the one person who doesn’t, and you still benefit from all the recycling that goes on. But if everybody is occupied full time making sure their kid wins and other kids lose, then taking the high road doesn’t serve you at all. “It’s a corrupt system, and your opting out won’t change it. You gain nothing, and you lose a lot.” — “Ethical Parenting,” by Lisa Miller, New York Magazine

I realize the article was mostly describing parents in a position to game the educational system, a dilemma that the unschooling parents I know have opted out of. But the article’s description of selfish parenting in relationship to education, and doing what’s best for your kid without regard for the greater community, reminded me of the old argument articulated in Dana Goldstein’s piece in Salon last year: Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids.

Goldstein questioned homeschooling from a lot of angles, but her core attack was that it just isn’t fair to make the choices that are best for your own kids when other kids don’t have the same opportunities.

So we have a conversation about education reform on the one hand, but then there’s the bigger issues… Economic empowerment of families, and parental improvement — because, those are really the clinchers. Derek Thompson addresses some of this in his article in The AtlanticCan Smart Economics Turn Us Into Better Parents? 

There are two basic ways to improve the lot of children, according to Reeves and Howard. The first tries to make bad parents less relevant. The second tries to make bad parents less bad.

You won’t find many education activists yelling “make bad parents irrelevant!” but that is, in a way, a key purpose of public education. 

So, we wanted education to step in and become the pillar of opportunity – regardless of where you come from, or who your parents are. But that’s not really working. If anything, parents are a more important and defining part of educational success all the time.

Maybe this shift has brought the role of parents whose kids go to school a little bit closer to the role of parents who homeschool. Maybe the increasing acknowledgement of the importance of parental involvement in any educational format is making the gap a little smaller. And maybe that narrowing gap makes not choosing to leap feel like a choice that needs to be defended. Especially if there’s a part of you that thinks it might actually be better for your kids if you made the leap to homeschooling.