The method that produced Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson is getting renewed attention from modern parents

As 44 million youngsters head back to America’s elementary, junior high, and senior high classrooms this fall, upwards of 250,000 faces will be missing. They will not be the much-lamented high school dropouts nor victims of parental neglect. They will be the growing legion of home schoolers who, while other kids are boarding buses, unjamming lockers, and searching for Room 318, will sit down at the kitchen table with Mom (or Dad, or Grandma) to resume their education.

“The new pioneers,” as newspaperwoman Diane Divoky called them in the respected Phi Delta Kappan magazine last February, “are coming out of the closet. Ten years ago, such parents would have insisted that their children stay inside the house during school hours, for fear that neighbors would report them to the truant officer. Today, home schoolers are more likely to appear on TV talk shows and to grant interviews to reporters about this educational option.”

The push factors are twofold. The first, obviously, is discontent with the public schools for an assortment of reasons: relativistic teachers, ungodly peers, falling achievement scores, less “discipline.” The second is parents’ uncertainty, in a recession, about whether they can still afford private Christian schooling, especially when the teaching is sometimes long on seatwork and short on creativity.

Meanwhile, their courage to go it alone is being fortified by (1) enthusiastic testimonials from many who are trying it and claim it’s superior, (2) a growing number of curriculum publishers providing materials for home use, (3) scholarly endorsement from secular as well as Christian quarters, and (4) the knowledge that if you get taken to court, you’ll probably win. In fact, in more than one state, parents are turning around and suing school districts for violation of their civil rights by harassment. “We’re signaling the system that it can’t use public money to intimidate parents, to make them live in fear,” says Ed Nagel, director of the Santa Fe-based National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools.

Proponents of home education range from Boston humanist John Holt, publisher/editor of the Growing without Schooling newsletter, to Raymond and Dorothy Moore, authors of Home-Grown Kids and Home-spun Schools (Word, 1981 and 1982), Better Late than Early (Readers Digest Press, 1975), and a formal apologetic entitled School Can Wait (BYU Press. 1979). “The home, not the school, was the original educational system,” the Moores write, citing the Bible’s almost total silence about classrooms for the young. “The school, not the home, is the substitute. Until the last century, most children who went to school started at twelve or later.… To take little children unnecessarily out of the home and put them into institutions before they are ready is perhaps our most pervasive form of child abuse today.”

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Raymond Moore, a Seventh-day Adventist who has spent a lifetime teaching, administrating schools, advising the White House on educational concerns, and researching effectiveness in learning, is hardly one to attack his professional colleagues. “There are many beautiful teachers, men and women alike—warm, thoughtful, very special models for our kids,” he says. “But not even the best of them can do as much all day for a normal child in his class of 20 or 30 or 40 peers, as a reasonably loving and consistent parent can do on a one-to-one basis in an hour and a half to two hours at home.” The rest of the day, says Moore, should be free for projects the child selects, maybe a money-making enterprise, some chores, a little homework, and play.

When James Dobson invited Moore to say such things on his popular radio show, it generated the program’s largest wave of mail to date. “Obviously, the Moores’ perspective on early childhood education is like cool water to a parched land,” Dobson wrote in the foreword to Home-Grown Kids.

Only Wonder Women Need Apply?

Parents who decide to teach their own claim the task is not so daunting as most assume. It does require a full-time adult at home, which is increasingly rare in modern households. Whether it requires a college degree and a teacher’s certificate is not as clear. “Common sense and dedication are the main ingredients needed to teach one’s own children,” says Angel Eberlein of Brooks, California, who is teaching her two at home. “It’s been a joy to give Kyrilyn, my seven-year-old, the tools and simply watch her learn” says Mary Ann Bruner of Boise, Idaho. “She’s learned to read at home this year.”

“The first year was very difficult,” says Beverly Thumme, whose three children are older—16, 14, and 12. “They just weren’t used to bearing down on things like grammar. But by the end of the year, we were breezing along. They had picked up the crucial attitude of seeking out answers on their own—going to the library together, finding out what they needed to know.”

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While the first reaction of many parents is “I couldn’t handle it—I’d never have the patience,” home schoolers reply that teaching one or two at home is far different from a roomful of other people’s kids. “You may expect too much of yourself,” says John Holt in his book Teach Your Own (Delacorte, 1981). “Your children’s learning is not all going to come from you, but from them, and their interaction with the world around them, which of course includes you. You do not have to know everything they want to know, or be interested in everything they are interested in.… You will learn from experience—mainly, to trust your children.”

John Bowlby, an educator who has done studies for the World Health Organization, flatly says, “Children thrive better in bad homes than in good institutions.” Raymond Moore, whose articles have been welcomed in such places as Harper’s and Columbia University’s Teachers College Record, avows, “Most parents can do it. They don’t think they can—but they can.”

Home schoolers argue strenuously that a state certificate is no proof of teaching skill, that colleges of education spend more time on esoteric theory, the logistics of handling large groups of students, and maintaining paperwork than on any secret tricks of one-to-one instruction.

To parents like Peter and Char Yarema, however (see page 20), there is an even greater mandate: Scripture. “Deuteronomy 6 is very clear,” says the husband, “that we are to teach our children what they need for living—not someone else. Proverbs speaks again and again about fathers and mothers instructing their offspring. Even if there were a Christian school down the block, we wouldn’t send our three. Teaching them is our job.”

But don’t kids need a change of voice now and then? “I’m not a perfect mom, believe me,” Char responds with a smile. “But at least when I speak, the values are consistent. No one is contradicting what I’m trying to instill. We rely on the scriptural promise that parents are qualified to bring up children in the way they should go.”

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But Is It Legal?

When the Thummes, who live in a rural area of Illinois, talked with school authorities about their plan, they got a surprisingly open reception. The officials “admitted their system was not heavily into college prep,” says Beverly Thumme, “and said I could probably give them more at home. They were very honest about it.”

Things didn’t go so smoothly for Chris and Karen Hayward in Waco, Texas. Their Alison had had a difficult kindergarten year in a private school, and after two weeks of first grade in a public school, they decided to pull her out. Two social workers came to call, announcing that under Texas law, Alison would have to be back in school within 10 days. “We explained our position—that we had the constitutional right to educate our own child, and that we were convinced this was the best for her both morally and developmentally.”

The school superintendent soon called to press the matter, and finally it came before the board of education. “We did a lot of praying!” says Karen. By that time Dallas television reporters were wanting interviews, which the Haywards turned down.

After a long and stormy session, the school board voted narrowly to send a letter of assent, with certain stipulations, and Karen has continued to teach Alison since. “We use the Home Study Institute curriculum from Washington, D.C.,” she says, “which is put out by the Seventh-day Adventists. We’re Baptists, but their material hasn’t caused any problem. I’m teaching 10 subjects every day in two-and-a-half hours: Bible, handwriting, reading, math, health/science, language, social studies, spelling, art, and music.”

State compulsory-attendance statutes are a mixed bag. Some, like Missouri’s, specifically allow home education. Some permit it if overseen by the local school district, or if the home teacher is certified. Others, such as New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, allow home schooling if it is “substantially equivalent” to what is going on in public school. Others say all children must be in school but are then willing to pronounce the family quarters a “school” as far as the statute is concerned.

“Of our 2,700 families, maybe 100 have been challenged this past year,” says Paul Lindstrom, superintendent of the Christian Liberty Academy Satellite Schools system, CLA does not defend families in court but does offer legal research and advice. “If the state sues on the grounds of child neglect, it’s easy to show the superior education our students are getting,” he says. “Our program even produced a National Merit Scholar this year. If the charge is violation of the truancy laws, then we plead that religious conviction takes precedence. The First, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments are all on our side.”

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Lester and Dixie Rice ended up spending $10,000 to defend their right to educate Leslie Sue at home in Wallace, Nebraska, a state Lindstrom says is the most difficult. The Rices lost in county court, won in district court, and when the prosecutor appealed the case, won again in the state supreme court. “It’s my daughter, and she’s worth everything I have,” said the father.

Lindstrom wishes a home schooling case would make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, thereby settling the matter once and for all. “The trouble is, we keep winning at the lower levels, going through the same process over and over.”

He may not get his landmark decision, however, as the willingness to do battle fades. A county attorney, testifying before the education committee of the Minnesota House of Representatives, outlined his misgivings about prosecution. As summarized by John Holt, “he said, in effect, it costs us a lot of time and energy to take these cases through the courts; we get a lot of terrible publicity; we lose many more cases than we win; and even when we win we don’t gain anything, for the family usually just moves to another school district, or perhaps out of state, and we or someone else has the whole thing to do all over again.”

Holt continues: “I cannot think of one well-prepared case (unfortunately, not all are well prepared) in recent years in which the family has lost.”

And Jane Joyce, a Grants Pass, Oregan, home schooler and writer, lands a telling blow with her question, “Why is [institutional] education compulsory, if it’s so good?”

A Home School That Didn’T Work

As soon as five-year-old Mark Treat (not his real name) started kindergarten, the daily stomach aches began. His neighborhood school was a bewilderment of bells, teachers’ orders, mouthy classmates, and playground aggression. By the end of the year, his parents knew they had to make a change.

“The one Christian school nearby was too high pressured, and the other was too expensive,” says Mark’s mother, Linda, who graduated from a Christian college with an elementary education degree and holds a state teaching certificate. “I read a lot by Raymond Moore and the others, and in August we finally decided to keep Mark home for first grade.”

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The county assistant superintendent, who also serves as the truant officer, was not impressed. The Treats were several months too late to be bringing up such an option, he announced; they should have submitted their curriculum for approval back in April. Signing up as a satellite school of Christian Liberty Academy was only a ruse as far as he was concerned; he would not hesitate to prosecute if Mark, now six, were not enrolled.

As it turned out, the schoolman’s bark was worse than his bite. Since Mark had not been registered for first grade and was still below the state’s minimum age for compulsory attendance (seven), no indictment was possible. Linda Treat secured the A Beka series of teaching materials and began working with her firstborn three to four hours every day.

“We really went at it in the beginning,” she says. The walls were covered with charts and calendars—the whole bit. It was just too intense, especially with two preschoolers to watch at the same time. By the end, we were down to an hour and a half, plus miscellaneous art projects at other times.”

A neighbor thought Linda was refusing to cut the apron strings, while her mother-in-law voiced continuing concern and objections. Linda’s hopes of doing field trips proved hard to work into her husband’s schedule. A relocation appeared likely the next summer: how would she get her son into second grade in a new town without a transcript?

She worried also about whether he was keeping up with other kids his age. Birthday number seven was approaching ominously. “If we’re going to spend money on a lawyer,” they reasoned, “we might as well be paying tuition.” Finally, one April morning, Linda took her son back to the public school.

“His first-grade teacher turned out to be a Christian,” she says, “and the school people have been amazed at how well Mark has fit into the class. He’s way ahead in math and right near the top of the class in most other subjects.”

She does not regret her attempt at home schooling, however. “I’m glad I did it—he needed that extra time at home. He seems happy now in school. Maybe I gave him the breather he needed.

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“I don’t think home schooling is ever going to sweep the nation,” she adds. “It’s kind of like home childbirth or La Leche League. The same kind of do-it-yourselfers gravitate to all three.”


Social Life: A Blessing Or Curse?

But is it good for children to spend so little time with peers? Isn’t socialization hindered by the isolation? This is the subject most hotly debated by friends and foes of home schooling, even more than the quality of education. “Sooner or later, kids have to mix it up in society,” says Spencer Sawyer, who, with his five brothers and sisters, was taught at home back in the 1940s up through eighth grade; he is now a phone company executive. “I wouldn’t say I regret being taught at home, but Christianity has to be lived in the real world. You can’t avoid the four-letter words forever.”

Confesses one mother after completing her daughter’s freshman year at home, “The problem of friends is a major source of discontent. We are still praying for a solution to this. She misses being with the other boys and girls on a regular basis, but does not miss the classroom atmosphere at all.”

This problem, Raymond Moore would say, has been caused by starting home schooling too late. “The [young] child who eats and plays and has his rest and is read to daily, more with the parents than with his peers, senses that he is part of the family corporation—needed, wanted, depended upon. He is the one who has a sense of self-worth. And when he does enter school, preferably not before eight to ten, he usually becomes a social leader. He knows where he is going, is self-directed and independent in values and skills. He largely avoids the dismal pitfalls and social cancer of peer dependency. He is the productive citizen our nation badly needs.”

Karen Hayward tells about the church choir director quizzing her, “What’s your secret with Alison? She really stands out as a leader in the children’s choir.” The woman was amazed to learn that Alison, 9, was being taught at home. The girl, incidentally, will spend one more year at home and then transfer for fifth grade to a Christian school. “Some of our friends are continuing straight through high school,” says her mother. “I’m not that brave. We think Alison will be ready once we finish building the foundation here at home.”

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Such inner direction is a primary goal of the home schooling movement, which hails a long tradition of achievers to support its point. “Seven United States Presidents were educated at home by mothers who had not been to college,” says Paul Lindstrom. He ticks off such names as John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Other notables include Philipp Melancthon, William Penn, Thomas Edison, Konrad Adenauer, George Patton, Agatha Christie, Douglas MacArthur, and Pearl Buck.

Raymond Moore’s Hewitt Research Center (recently moved from Michigan to Washougal, Washington) studied 400 home-educated adults and found that “nearly all were leaders in their professions and trades and were remarkably successful parents themselves. The only negatives we heard were from four individuals who somehow were placed in the first grade when they entered formal school at eight or ten or older. You can imagine how wrong that was.”

Pros And Cons

What home schoolers are doing is actually nothing different from what missionaries in the back reaches of West Africa and New Guinea have done for decades. The state of Alaska has no other choice for educating a number of its remote children; a state-run correspondence program must suffice.

When parents attempt to teach at home despite a nearby school, however, the reasons must be more compelling. John Holt writes, “Why do people take or keep their children out of school? Mostly for three reasons: they think that raising their children is their business, not the government’s; they enjoy being with their children and watching and helping them learn, and don’t want to give that up to others; they want to keep them from being hurt, mentally, physically, and spiritually.”

An elaboration of that list runs as follows:

• Kids receive more direct responses from the adult (100 or more a day, says Raymond Moore, compared to zero to six in a classroom).

• The same amount of learning can happen in fewer hours. Says Linda Ashton, a former Lawton, Oklahoma, teacher of third grade, “I knew how much time had to be wasted by virtue of having 30 students in the room. It was either hurry-up or busywork. One-on-one makes so much more sense.”

Peter Yarema, a home schooler who nevertheless makes his living teaching chemistry at a suburban high school, says, “Not long ago a student of mine missed three weeks for an appendicitis operation, and when she came back, I began meeting with her during her free hour. Within two or three days, we were caught up with the rest of the class.”

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• The hours can be spaced as you like. If you want to go on vacation in October and make up the time when the snow flies, nobody says you can’t.

• Parents get to instill their values and spiritual commitments directly, without countermanding.

• Children can spend more time studying special interests, from astronomy to horsemanship, once the basics are covered. They can also make things to sell.

• It’s cheap (under $200 a year from most suppliers of curriculum).

• Children miss the name-calling, vulgarity, negativism, drugs, and physical threats that pervade all too many student bodies.

• Children are not pushed into formal learning too soon. “Even John Dewey protested children going to school before age eight,” says Raymond Moore. “Most early entrants are tired from school pressures before they are out of the third or fourth grade.”

As with any innovation, proponents sometimes argue their case too strongly. Paul Lindstrom doesn’t mind saying that the public schools (in which he taught briefly) “are a multimillion-dollar taxpayer rip-off” because they are “not educationally oriented, but politically oriented to produce … an acceptance of the philosophy and character of socialism.” Even Raymond Moore can exaggerate occasionally and write, “Throughout history man has had spells of separating young children from home and family. Usually this happened just before social collapse.”

The great majority of home school parents are law-abiding, highly conscientious people. They are not crazy. And they are winning the respect of even professional educators. “It’s a noble experiment,” admits Clifford Schimmels, Wheaton College professor of education. “After all, the idea that every kid in America should go to school at age six is a terrible myth. We’ve tried to force children into formal learning too early.”

A Morning In A Home School

While researching this issue’s cover story, Dean Merrill took a Friday morning to visit a home school in action. His observations:

On a suburban side street not far from an Interstate cloverleaf, Kathy Yarema, 10, waits on her front step for the visitor to arrive. An American flag flutters overhead from the porch post. She flashes a fourth-grader’s smile as she welcomes the guest indoors.

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Her father, Peter, is taking the day off to finish battling a cold and also to help explain what goes on here. He introduces his dark-haired wife, Char; Molly, eight; and Jon, six. The day’s Bible lesson has already been completed at the breakfast table. It is now almost time for school to begin.

9:00. Music time. Out come copies of a children’s songbook, and while Char plays the piano, the children sing three selections. The two girls try to persuade Mom toward more of their favorites, but she has an agenda in mind. Soon they are at the kitchen table reciting the current memory work: Romans 12:17–18 and Psalm 1. A string of text cards on the wall helps them when they falter.

9:10. Char quickly jots down Kathy’s list of work to do at a bedroom desk (science questions 9–16, get ready for spelling test …) and another list for Molly (reading assignment with comprehension questions, a math page to do). Once his sisters are dispatched, Jon, the kindergartner, has Mom’s full attention for a lesson on root words and endings. Construction paper carrots hide in the green slots of a chart on the refrigerator, their leafy tops adding -s, -ed, and -ing to make new words.

“Obviously, I don’t have a grudge against public schools—I teach there,” explains Peter, who earned his M.A. at a state university. On the end table lie McGuffey’s Third Eclectic Reader and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity side by side. “It’s just that when it comes to my own children, they must get my values, not someone else’s. So I teach the Bible part before I leave in the mornings and the science when I get home at night. Char handles the rest.

“We can see the maturing in our children. They’re spending more of their lives with adults, and so they’re growing up faster. That doesn’t mean they’re sheltered. They’re all in the park district leagues; I even coached one of the soccer teams last season. Kathy’s also taking an art class and Molly a cooking class—just to be with other kids. They’re also in junior choir at church, which is working on a big musical just now. So that gives them the experience of drama.”

9:30. Jon is released to play in his room as Molly brings her third-grade work to the table. Char, who studied elementary education in college but has never taught professionally, checks the papers, shows Molly how she did, and then asks her to open her reader. While Molly reads aloud a parable from the Gospels, Char pulls out her sewing to baste a hemline. She keeps working with her needle as she asks Molly comprehension questions.

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“If you’re going to teach a child to absorb from the printed page,” says Peter, “why not absorb the Bible instead of Dick and Jane?”

How has adult living been altered since home school began? “We’ve had to cut out a few things, of course,” he answers. “I’ve stopped singing in the church choir, although I’m still an elder and lead a discipleship Bible study. We guard against being out late too many nights in a row, so we can be sharp for the children in the daytime.

“A husband and wife really have to be of one mind on this. And you have to lean on the Lord to guide you at every step.”

How long will Kathy, Molly, and Jon continue to learn at home? Can Peter—knowing firsthand the complexities—pull off a quality high school education within these four walls?

“We’ll evaluate after eighth grade and make our decision then. But I think we’ll probably see it straight on through. Yes, I can teach the sciences right here. I’ll pick up a microscope and a few other pieces of equipment, and we’ll be able to do all the important experiments.

10:00. Kathy’s turn. First comes a spelling test, with immediate grading, and then language. Her face brightens when Char announces that tomorrow the whole family will go to an air show that will include a mammoth C5A. Molly and Jon dart in from the other rooms to catch the details, then return to their desks.

Did the girls have to be coaxed to drop out of public school a year ago? “Not at all. They were excited to spend the time with Mom. One letter to the school authorizing release of the records to Christian Liberty Academy was all it took. We are a satellite school here, with full records, regular testing sent in to the national office, everything. In fact, Kathy’s getting ready for her year-end tests right now.

“The education here is broader than they could ever get in a classroom. Molly, who’s eight, sews on all the buttons in this family. Kathy’s made an apron. If Char asks her to make muffins for lunch, she can do it. All three kids use ledger sheets with their allowances, so they know exactly where their money is going. You’d have a much harder time getting around to these things if your kids are gone two-thirds of the day.”

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10:25. Recess. The girls debate whether to roller-skate on the sidewalk, while Jon grabs a ball. Char joins her husband in the living room to answer more questions.

“I knew it would be an adjustment, and it was,” she admits. “I was a perfectionist about the house, and God has really kind of tamed me on that. The kids do more of the chores now, and they’re proud of it. Everybody folds laundry, for example. Jon cleans all the mirrors.

“I used to bake bread almost every week. I’ve probably baked bread only two or three times this past year. But is that such a sacrifice? Would I give up the joy of what I’m doing just to bake more bread? Of course not.

“A woman said to me the other day, ‘I wouldn’t want to give up my free time.’ The trouble is, her time is not completely hers. We mothers have been given a gift from God, and he expects us to give ourselves to our children in return.”

Peter adds: “This is a conviction with us. Convictions don’t change; preferences do. That’s why we’re prepared to stand for our constitutional rights, even stand alone, like Daniel did. This is God’s assignment.”

Char continues, “Of course it would be easier just to pack lunches and send them off to school. But actually, I’m enjoying this. So far, I’ve never gotten up in the morning and said to myself, ‘Ugh—I have to teach today.’ I have gotten up sometimes saying, ‘I sure am tired today.’ And that’s just my own fault for staying up too late, taking on too many extras.

“Sure, there are valleys. Sure, there are days that don’t go smoothly. I make my lesson plans every Saturday for the coming week, and sometimes they fall apart on me. But the same thing happens to the pros, I bet.

“We’ve never seriously questioned that this is the way God has led us to go”

As she talks, she draws a series of simple sketches on a dry-marker board pulled from behind a cabinet. Soon the children are called inside.

11:00. Social studies. Time to review an earlier reading of the life of Thomas Edison.

The three children and mother sit on the floor around the board. Char points to the first cluster of drawings: a light bulb, a phonograph, and a movie camera, among others. “What’s this, Jon?”

“That’s all the things Thomas Edison invented,” the boy replies, starting to name them.

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“Very good. What does this railroad car mean?” Hands wave for attention.

“That’s where Thomas Edison set up a printing press,” Kathy explains. “One day there was a fire, and so they kicked him out with all his equipment.”

The next sketch shows three pages of a calendar. “What’s this?”

“That’s to show that Thomas Edison went to school only three months of his life.”

Next sketch—a house. “Then what’s this?”

That’s where he got the rest of his education—at home.”

“And was it a good education?”

“Sure it was!” Molly exclaims. “Look at all the stuff he invented.”

There is simply no way to say these children are deprived, overprotected, or warped. They are at ease with each other, their parents, and the world around them. While the route they are traveling to maturity may be different, there is little doubt they will reach the destination.


Glenn Heck, senior vice-president for academic affairs at the National College of Education in Evanston, Illinois, says, “Well, they certainly have a marvelous teacher-student ratio. My judgment is that the younger the student, the better the possibilities of effectiveness. Up through third grade, the skill development can be great. After that, however, I’m less enthusiastic, because the input needs to be broader than just printed materials and Mom.

“Home schools can be very, very good—but they can be very bad, too. That’s why they need good monitoring.”

Local school districts in Wisconsin are asked to do just that, says Carl Carmichael, executive assistant to the state superintendent. “Our consultants make site visits every year, and we instruct them to be cooperative. We’re not trying to usurp, but just to make sure something is happening.”

Home schooling, in the end, amounts to a trade-off of sorts: Family closeness is gained at the expense of the varied experiences of school. Controlling the input means the mother (or someone) must streamline her schedule and say no to competing activities. The flexible scheduling is a bonus, but neighbors and friends are likely to misunderstand.

“You can’t generalize about public schools being good or bad, and you can’t generalize about parents as teachers, either,” says John K. Tuel, a Tulsa clinical psychologist who formerly taught at Oral Roberts University. “I’ve been a consultant to school systems both in Pasadena and here, and I’ve found that the better school people always welcome parental involvement. Now they have some parents taking that a step much further than they intended.

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“But I believe in a certain pluralism of method in our culture,” Tuel continues. “If nothing else, it encourages competence by challenging everyone to do a better job. And in that sense, home schooling may not be such a bad idea.”

Home schooling is not utopia. It is demanding, unconventional, and requires a certain bravery. But neither are the public schools utopian, nor private schools, for that matter. The educating of children is an exceedingly complex, long-range enterprise, and parents must decide which of the various imperfect strategies they prefer.

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