In our brief seven years of parenthood, we’ve tried quite a few schooling approaches. We’ve done Waldorf preschool. We’ve unschooled. We’ve hybrid-schooled. One form of education we haven’t tried yet is a more conventional school setting and schedule – the kind that involves kids mostly sitting at desks Monday through Friday while doing teacher-directed activities. We have a highly rated public school not far down the street from us, and by all accounts it appears to provide a satisfactory education to most students who come through its doors. And it’s free. This occasionally prompts people to ask us why we are going out of our way to reinvent the wheel when it comes to our children’s education. Why opt out?
The standard answers are that we place a high value on kids being active, having time in nature, and spending time just playing with no adult-imposed “learning outcomes.” Academics are important too, especially as kids move past the first few years of school, but these can be accomplished in far less time than many people assume. Putting aside these philosophical differences with the mainstream education system, alternative education provides several big benefits to our kids and family. These are the big reasons we’ve chosen a non-traditional schooling route.
1. It helps our kids build strong sibling bonds.
Good sibling relationships do not happen automatically. It usually takes time, effort, and usually some serious diplomacy exercises on the part of parents to build healthy sibling bonds. Like any good relationships, sibling connections also require positive shared experiences. Dr. Laura Markham, author of the book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life suggests not interrupting your kids when they are playing well together if you can avoid it. Of course, we cannot and should not schedule our entire lives around our children’s playtimes, but it’s a good reminder that those moments they spend building memories together are an important foundation for a lifelong relationship and are worth prioritizing when possible. There are lots of ways to make time for sibling togetherness, but alternative schooling makes it happen for us. Our kids have one full weekday together outside of school. We sleep in as late as we want, then pack lunches and head out to see friends. These weekdays off provide the kind of relaxed togetherness that we can’t quite seem to achieve on weekends, when public places are crowded, and our schedules always seem to fill up with errands, grocery shopping, and birthday parties.
2. We can spend our best hours together.
My favorite part of being a parent is being able to do fun things with the kids in the beginning of the day when energy and enthusiasm levels are high. My least favorite part of being a parent is coming home tired to kids who are also tired and then trying to make it through dinner and bedtime without losing my cool before collapsing into bed. The great thing about the homeschooling lifestyle is that you get to spend a lot of your prime hours together, not just the evening hours when everyone is exhausted.
I’m naturally a night owl. I usually do my best work between 10pm and 2am. If I have to wake up at 6am, my prime working hours are destroyed. My kids seem to have inherited my night owl tendencies and it’s not unusual for them to fall asleep around 10pm. We don’t have to wake up until about 8am even on our school days, which still gives them 10 hours of sleep, which is enough to keep them healthy and happy. The night owl schedule works for us without having to constantly fight our natural rhythms. Our local public elementary school starts the day at 7:45am. For most families that means about a 6:30am wake-up time at the latest. I know there are plenty of people who consider that sleeping in, but those people are as much of a mystery to me as those deep-sea divers who can hold their breath for ten minutes at a time. I know it’s possible with the right training, but it doesn’t sound appealing.
4. Schoolwork never ruins family time.
Over the years we have been part of several learning communities. I love having this resource for the kids (and for me) and I’m happy to share the responsibility of educating our kids with knowledgeable professionals. I’m also happy that these programs have adopted a Las Vegas approach to school: “What happens in school stays at school.” There is no high-pressure homework, tests or quizzes to study for, and there are no stressful projects that kids parents have to do at home. That means when we are together on evenings and weekends we can enjoy our time together. No homework battles. No nagging. No pressure.
5. They get to be little kids.
At ages 8 and nearly 6, our kids are still little kids. They live in a world of climbing the monkey bars, pretending to be cats, building elaborate creations with paper and tape, dressing up in costumes, and making “soup” outside out of grass and sticks. They haven’t seen the latest movie. They don’t know what songs are popular. They have no idea what clothes are in style or how much time people spend keeping up with eyebrow trends. This lack of knowledge would undoubtedly make them less “cool” than some of their more sophisticated peers if we put them in a traditional school environment, which would produce at least a small amount of pressure to keep up. I know many families are able to preserve their kids’ childhoods despite these outside influences, but in these early years I am happy to sidestep them as much as possible and let our kids grow up slowly. There is a short window to be a kid, and it seems to be getting shorter every year. Giving our kids just a little more time to be little is worth a lot.