Article by Maya Schenwar, Illustrated by Aya Kakeda, appeared in issue Lost & Found; published in 2008; filed under Social commentary; tagged children, education, homeschooling, radical parenting.
Radical “unschooling” moms are changing the stay-at-home landscape
Not long ago, homeschooling was thought of as the domain of hippie earth mothers letting their kids “do their own thing” or creationist Christians shielding their kids from monkey science and premarital sex. As recently as 1980, homeschooling was illegal in 30 states. Despite the fact that such figures as Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Atwood, Sandra Day O’Connor, and, um, Jennifer Love Hewitt were products of a home education, the practice is still often seen as strange and even detrimental.
These days, homeschooling is legal across the country, and parents are homeschooling for secular reasons as well as faith-based ones: quality of education, freedom to travel, their kids’ special needs, or simply a frustration with the educational system. Most significantly, many progressive parents are taking their kids’ education into their own hands to instill open-mindedness and social consciousness along with reading, science, and math.
For these parents, “unschooling” is an attractive option. In this approach to homeschooling, kids choose what they’ll study and investigate their questions outside the confines of a classroom. In traditional homeschooling, parents play the role of teachers, determining the curriculum, handing out assignments, and administering tests. Unschooling parents, on the other hand, act as facilitators, guiding their kids’ explorations. Even though the diy approach may appeal to progressives who identify with the anti-establishment ethos of the punk movement, homeschooling still raises tricky questions for progressive mothers.
Namely, this one: Can women trade their careers for their families without sacrificing a few of their feminist values—the very values that inspired many of them to homeschool in the first place? It’s no wonder that punk feminist moms like Kim Campbell, who has homeschooled her kids for seven years, occasionally feel like walking oxymorons.
Despite her indie values, Campbell worries that her economic dependence on her husband could set a bad example for her daughter. “The first half year that we homeschooled, I had a complete identity crisis over the matter,” she says. “At the time I knew that I was making a great decision, but I couldn’t figure out how to square it with what I’d always considered my feminist sensibilities.” For Campbell and a growing contingent of other feminist unschoolers across the country, educating their kids has also been a process of figuring out how homeschooling jibes with their feminism.
Nina Packebush, a Washington state mom of three and self-described “radical parent,” started teaching her son at home because he was dyslexic and had ADHD, and his school wasn’t providing the personal attention he needed. As Packebush sought out teaching resources, she discovered a gaping hole in standard history textbooks.
“I noticed that women and people of color were virtually nonexistent,” Packebush says. “Don’t even try to find any mention of lgbt people in history. One thing led to another, and soon I was homeschooling because I was a feminist.” When her youngest child reached school age, Packebush chose to keep her out of the classroom solely because of its gender-biased curriculum.
Instead of using the standard Houghton Mifflin textbooks, Packebush provides a variety of mass-market books, like Freedom’s Children, for her kids. Beyond that, she follows where her kids’ interests lead; unschooling emphasizes that learning opportunities can pop up at any time. When Packebush’s older daughter became interested in zine-making, it became their curriculum. Packebush even started up her own zine, The Edgy-Catin’ Mama.
Sarah Schira, who maintains TheDenimJumper.com, a website for “sassy secular homeschoolers,” says that simply hanging out is one of the best routes to consciousness building. “One of the strengths of homeschooling is the incredible amount of time we spend together,” she says. “We listen to the news on the radio all the time, and they hear our reactions, the political discussions it raises. We talk a lot about societal institutions and the role that larger, almost invisible factors play in shaping events and free choice.”
Spending an “incredible amount of time” with your kids is great when they’re 8 and 10, like Schira’s. But what about when they’re 12…or 17? Can homeschoolers encourage the development of their kids’ social consciousness without dictating it? It seems that the answer comes back to unschooling and the notion of parents as facilitators, not commanders-in-chief. Granted, kids will always be influenced by their parents’ views, but if parents stress self-realization as a family value, kids may be more motivated to apply their lessons and grapple with important issues on their own terms.
That doesn’t mean that freedom can’t be a hard pill to swallow, even for a radical parent. At 18, Packebush’s son Jason announced that he planned to become a porn star and asked what she’d do to stop him. “Well, I won’t see your movies,” she replied, biting back cries of rage. Eventually, Jason lost interest in the porn-star dream, and Packebush chalked up a couple of coolness points. “It’s important to trust your kids,” she says, “even if they choose something that hits you right in the guts.”
As challenging and rewarding as homeschooling may be, some don’t see it as real work. A slew of recent books, including Leslie Bennetts’s bestseller The Feminine Mistake, argue that while stay-at-home moms, like homeschoolers, may believe they are choosing to leave the workforce, their decisions are actually influenced by insidious patriarchal forces. Many homeschooling moms counter that removing themselves from the marketplace means freeing themselves from its many sexist influences. If they have the financial means—or the ingenuity—to opt out, they’d rather live outside the workforce. Schira says that by rejecting the idea that success is all about money, she’s reconceptualizing what happiness means. “I have come to recognize that I don’t want the kind of life being offered by our culture,” she says. “I don’t want things. I don’t want status. I want interdependence, harmony, new solutions to old problems.”
Of course, resorting to one income brings out the five-ton mammoth in the room: most homeschoolers are women and most of their income providers are men. Packebush, who was married when she began homeschooling, says that even in her “hip, alternative, feminist marriage,” she was the one doing most of the childcare and teaching. “The vast majority of the people doing homeschooling are women,” she says.
Often, that’s because moms want to be their family’s primary teachers. But raising radical, revolutionary children isn’t feminist if the mom’s individuality is getting lost in the lives of her kids. It’s tough for homeschooling mothers to maintain their free time. Forums for homeschoolers abound with tips for dealing with burnout. The workload can be overwhelming, and even with a “fuck money” attitude, it’s natural to feel undercompensated at times. Homeschooling mothers must negotiate a fine line between protesting capitalism and becoming unpaid labor.
Considering progressive parents’ efforts to break with capitalism—spending less, living alternatively, working cooperatively—it makes sense that many homeschoolers don’t want their kids going anywhere near the mainstream school system. For Coleen Murphy, a New Orleans mom who was homeschooled herself, the negative social aspects of public education are a major reason she homeschools her two young boys.
“I see the school system as largely reinforcing the very worst aspects of societal norms, such as classism, racism, sexism, and good old mean-spiritedness, while limiting or removing access and opportunities to experience the best of what happens when human beings come together—acting with compassion; helping others because your help is needed, rather than to win some gold stars or other false rewards; asking questions because we want to know the answers rather than in order to display which of us knows the most how to please authority figures.”
Along with the question of self-expression comes gender expression and unschooled kids are prone to ignoring (or at least toning down) the gender distinctions that rule most schools. Take Diana, a homeschooled 17-year-old from New Haven, Connecticut, who swears by Kate Bornstein’s book Gender Outlaw and is very grateful to have missed out on the school social scene. “Not going to high school or middle school, I’ve never had that onslaught of pressure to do all sorts of pointless competitive things, like lose my virginity before I wanted to, or be sexy so men will like me, or be queer for the enjoyment of an audience,” she says.
Avoiding homophobia is central to many parents’ decision to homeschool. Packebush thinks queer, feminist homeschooling is on the rise because parents see it as an escape from the rampant sexism, homophobia, and transphobia of public schools. “Gender construction is one of the biggest reasons I keep my kids out of school.”
Unschoolers’ conceptions of gender are shaped not only by their open-minded parents, but also by their immediate environment. Having fewer kids around may mean less of a tendency to stereotype by gender or other handy labels. On the other hand, most schools also bring together individuals from different backgrounds, and although the routine clashes based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation can make a mainstream school a shitty place to be, that diversity can also be instructive. It’s easy to be color-blind when you’re not exposed to racism; it’s easy to “ignore” gender when you’re not confronted with sexism. Getting to know a varied group of people at a young age—and seeing how discrimination impacts everyone—could build awareness of the conflicts inherent in our society.
For this reason, many feminist homeschoolers make a concerted effort to expose their kids to a diverse crowd. Though many homeschoolers roll their eyes at the most prominent pop-culture depiction of a homeschooled kid—Lindsay Lohan’s character in Mean Girls—Jesse Cordes Selbin, a 19-year-old who was homeschooled for seven years, says she identifies with her. Selbin spent a considerable portion of her teens in Sweden and says interacting with a wider world helped her put the often-brutal social scene of many schools in perspective. “My parents homeschooled me so that I could get more experience in the world, not so that I could shelter myself from it.”
As the feminist homeschooling movement gains momentum, mothers will increasingly be faced with tough, identity-defining questions: Does being a feminist mean you have to have a paid job? What does it mean to raise a feminist kid? Is there a feminist definition of success, and should there be? It’s important to keep in mind that a homeschooling mom is many things besides a homeschooling mom—even if she can’t stop talking about her kid’s latest papier-mâché dinosaur. Forging these more complex identities entails recognizing all the hats they wear besides “homeschooler.” Packebush is a zinester, Schira is a webmaster and writer, and so on. They’re Marxists, or anarchists, or punks, or please-don’t-define-me-the-reason-I-homeschool-is-to-get-away-from-this-label-slapping-bullshit human beings.
As for Kim Campbell, she’s still unschooling and still fighting critics of her decision with a vengeance. When others question whether her decision to “stop working” is feminist, she responds, “Honey, you don’t know from work!”
Maya Schenwar is a reporter for Truthout.org, and was a contributing editor for Punk Planet magazine until its recent demise. She lives in Chicago and still has nightmares about middle school.