My relaxed methods of homeschooling prompt another question: Are we being academically challenging and rigorous enough?
That gets us to the core questions about why we homeschool in the first place: for academic excellence? For spiritual reasons alone? Do we homeschool to get our children to Heaven or to Harvard?
Personally, I’ve never really asked myself the "Heaven or Harvard" question. In our state, we have to report/declare our reasons for homeschooling by claiming an exemption for either academic reasons or religious reasons. We claim the religious exemption because we do firmly believe the Church’s teaching that we are the primary educators of our children, i.e., that we have the right and responsibility to educate them as we see fit, or to contract out their education to schools if we so choose, etc. But, the academic exemption has always been right in front of us, too, and we could legitimately have chosen that option as well.
When we wanted to pull our eldest daughter out of school it wasn’t because we were afraid that she was being spiritually tainted. She had a sweet, kind Kindergarten teacher (who later quit working outside the home and began homeschooling her own children) and she had made friends with some very sweet and lovely children. But I couldn't bear some of the other stuff: I couldn’t bear that she wasn't allowed to read (in school, I mean) the books that grabbed her. I couldn't bear that her love of learning was being dulled with handwriting practice and pre-reading worksheets. It made me mad, actually. It made me realize that I knew my daughter better than anyone else did, and that I could provide stimulating days and a vibrant education for her at home.
Certainly our goal was to raise our children, spiritually speaking, as we saw fit: saturated in our faith, living it every day. We wanted to provide a particular kind of lifestyle that allowed for exploring the liturgical year rather than the school year, for going to Mass when it worked for us, not just on Sundays, for a holy half-hour in the middle of a "school day" and for digging into a saint's life story if that's what we felt like doing.
But such a lifestyle and accommodations for our faith don't negate or ignore the desire for academic excellence. Atticus and I have always been dedicated to providing a strong and stimulating education for our girls.
On the other hand, we may not define academic excellence in exactly the same way that the world does. Allow me to elaborate. Of course we want to be the best teachers we can be and we hope to provide our children with the best possible education. But that doesn’t mean we're interested in churning out cookie cutter versions of human beings. Not everyone wants to attend a particular university or even a particular kind of university. Not everyone wants to pursue a particular type of profession, either. For us, academic excellence -- the kind that takes into account the very specific needs, gifts, passions, interests, strengths and weaknesses of each child -- will produce everything: plumbers, engineers, nurses, doctors, landscapers, secretaries, stay-at-home moms, stay-at-home dads, computer programmers, salesmen, philosophers, respiratory therapists, Spanish teachers, and ... on and on. An academically excellent homeschool considers the fact: the world needs all kinds of people and all kinds of jobs.
When it comes to raising and educating human beings with souls, paying close attention in a loving home to our individual children and what they need is every bit as important as an isolated, rigidly defined, supposedly objective standard of academic excellence.
I have never found and have never believed that there is one method, one cookie cutter ideal, one fixed rule, or one predictable outcome to homeschooling.
There is just this one thing in our homeschool: we need to figure out what this child needs at this moment, this week, this month, this year. Homeschooling, for us, is about finding what works, and then doing it.
Excellence, then, while it is about tailoring the academics to our particular children and their needs, isn’t about proving to the world that we can raise the smartest, most stereotypically or predictably "successful" kids possible. As a matter of fact, homeschooling isn’t about us at all.
Should we repeat it? Homeschooling isn't about us at all.
Sometimes we homeschooling parents forget that. There’s so much pressure -- from the world, from family or friends, from interested observers and critics -- to prove that we haven’t definitively messed up our kids. We feel compelled to confirm that we made the right choice, the best choice. And then we forget that it isn’t about us or about how we look.
It’s about our kids. It’s about cooperating with God in this endeavor. It's about raising the people He entrusted to our care. It's about helping them to become the people He wants them to be. Sometimes our kids will fit every preconceived notion the world has of success and sometimes they will look as far from it as is humanly possible. And everything on that spectrum is conceivably perfectly okay, as long as we keep on asking ourselves the question, “What does this child need next?”
That's why, for us, it's not "Heaven or Harvard." It's Heaven and Harvard and not-Harvard and everything in between. It's about letting a Kindergartener read Little House books all day if that's how she best learns. It's about letting a high schooler write a novel the entire month of November if that's where her passion is. And it's about having her do some math, too, because that's a practical part of life that we have to address. It's about faith and books and being excited about learning for the rest of our lives.
It's about individual human beings, it's not about me, and it's about a life lived authentically. And that's going to look different for everyone.