Public School on Your Own Terms


by Sandra Dodd

There are people who are solidly homeschoolers and happy to be so. There are others who are wholly involved in and supportive of the public schools their kids attend. Then there are those with a foot in each world. Using my sister as a test case, I made a radical recommendation which she chose to implement, and it turned out well. Since then I’ve given this advice several times and haven’t been sued (yet). Nobody’s even asked for a refund!

Here is the way my sister overcame her school codependency: She divorced herself emotionally and politically from the public school.

I have one sister, three years younger than I am. I was a star pupil, junior honor society member, extracurricular queen, member of the band, all-state chorus… Younger sisters in the readership are already sympathizing with my B-student sister. She went out with the younger brothers of my boyfriends a couple of times. She could not get out of my shadow. She dropped out of high school not long before I became a teacher. I was invested in the system. She had rejected it.

Years passed, and we each had three children. While I opted not to send mine to school at all, my sister was a “room mother” and gifted-program advisory board member, and she chaperoned field trips. Her older boy wrote at the age of five. Mine didn’t READ until he was eight. The evidence that she was right and I was wrong was increasing, which must have been a great feeling for her. (It happens more and more as the years go by, and I don’t mind at all.)

Another thing was increasing, though. From once a month, to once a week, to every other day, my sister called and complained about something at school, and I would play devil’s advocate, or give her considerations the teacher had that my sister might not have known. At first I was sympathetic. Then I was apathetic. After a while I got irritated, and one day I cut her off in advance of the tale of woe, saying, “You already know what I’m going to say. You don’t HAVE to send them to school."

It was springtime. She decided to spend the summer preparing them for the idea of staying home if they wanted to, but meanwhile she needed a way for their being in school not to ruin HER life. I recommended that she just detach. She was no longer going to enable the teachers to torment her children. She quit forcing them to do homework. She quit even considering punishing them for bad grades or rewarding them for good grades. Their grades were theirs, and not a reflection on the family, and not an indicator of learning. They were just grades, a contest, a competition like who sold the most candy bars, only my sister quit buying the candy bars, as it were. She quit helping with the homework.

The year after that, her daughter who is the oldest of three stayed home instead of going to 4th grade. The boys went to school. When they felt ill they were allowed to stay home without having to have fever or puke to earn the privilege. They became more honest. Sometimes they just said, “I don’t want to go to school today.” She would say, “You don’t have to then. I wish you just would never go again.” So their first reward was renewed and increased honesty. (When I called my sister to read this to her for verification, she asked me to add that if she had it to do over she wouldn’t be so honest as to announce to the principal, “School is optional at our house.” She advises you to make assorted excuses like the other parents do.)

The second year the daughter went back because she had missed her friends. The dynamics of that school year, though, were phenomenal. Neither my sister nor I had foreseen the extent to which this detachment would free the entire family, and hadn’t considered the effect on the relationship between the children and their teachers. No longer were these children in school against their will, their parents having submitted them to a lock-up situation. On one hand they had teachers who wanted them to stay in school. On the other hand they had parents who wanted them to stay home. How much more “wanted” could they feel? Each moment they were in school they were aware, and the teacher was aware, that they were there because they, the children, WANTED to be there! These factors changed the way the kids responded to assignments, to interpersonal problems, and to threats from the teacher (which have little power without the backing of the parents.)

In late winter, the daughter contracted a staph pneumonia and was in a hospital ninety miles from home for a couple of weeks. After that she didn’t want to return to school (and her recovery was better served by staying home, too). One of her brothers left school at that time as well, and next year all three plan to stay home When school starts and they don’t go, how different it will be for them than it is in those families in which the children pine for school but their parents forbid them to go.

There are different reasons for homeschooling. School might not be an option at all in a family in which religious or social considerations take precedence. In families in which student-directed learning is the primary focus, children taking control of their own learning by deciding whether to pursue it at home or at school can be liberating for all involved, and educational in the extreme for their teachers.

Although the ideal might be children who have never gone to school a day in their lives, reality isn’t always ideal. If your children press you to let them go to school, this detachment option might be a way for you to have your cake and eat it too. The philosophies of choice, freedom, child-led learning, “bliss-led learning,” and personal responsibility can be honored and spread to new audiences by parents treating children as humans with rights and responsibilities whether they are sixteen, twelve, or eight years old.


"Public School on Your Own Terms" first appeared in the newsletter of the California Homeschool Network, Network News, in September 1996. That group was so thoroughly anti-school that it caused a controversy and I was ousted as a columnist.

Linda Dobson included this essay in her 1998 Homeschool Book of Answers, which has been translated into Japanese.

It appears as the fifth of 47 chapters in Moving a Puddle (2005).

This article also appears on the RiseOut blog: RiseOut blog, where it received this comment:

This is very interesting, and you stated it in a way I’ve never heard before. I feel the same way about the 12 year prison-like scenario. We homeschooled for 7 years, then the kids went to school for a year, and this coming year they’ll attend for a couple of classes only, and stay home for the rest. There’s a much more comfortable, relaxed feeling when we know no one has to meet someone else’s rigorous standards in order to be considered a functioning person. My kids function quite well without the stress!!
Author's 2009 follow-up comments:

I no longer use terms like "Student directed learning," or "taking control of their own learning." I quit thinking that way a long time ago.

I was trying to include all the terms in use in those days to describe unschooling. I certainly get it all and can defend it, but "child-led learning" has caused problems for people trying to get unschooling to work. I used to assume that people would begin with a busy, enriched and enriching life, but not everyone was making the same assumption or starting from the same place. Some said "We're unschooling, starting now," and then watched the kids to see when they were going to take control or direct their own learning.

Choices in an environment maintained with learning in mind are different from choices in a quiet, boring place. If I were a kid, my choice in a quiet, boring place would be to go to school.

Make your unschooling sparkly and joyful.

Pam Sorooshian expanded on the problems with the phrase "child-led learning" here: http://learninghappens.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/unschooling-is-not-child-led-learning/
Karen James       Apr 17, 2012, at Radical Unschooling Info:

Every year my husband and I casually make school an option to our son, who is now nine. Something like: "So, are we homeschooling again this year?" while smiling. Our son usually says, "No, unschooling!"

Recently while we were in the car, my son sweetly asked me, "Why do some kids choose to go to school." I told him most kids who go to school don't have a choice. I looked in the rearview mirror to see what he thought of that. He looked bothered. After a bit he said, "That must be awful." I asked, "What...going to school, or not having a choice?" He said, "Not having a choice."

I think the same thing is true for homeschoolers that don't have a choice to go to school. It can be just as depressing for a child to be at home without an option to try school if the child really wanted to. I also believe we never know what life will throw at us. If something happened to my husband or myself, my son might have to go to school. It wouldn't be wise of us to set him up to be terrified of school if there wasn't any other alternative.

Comments on "Public School on Your Own Terms"

I love Sandra's article about public schooling.

My ds homeschool's, but my dd (7) goes to school. I've read Sandra's article several times, and the information therein has served as the model for our family's approach to my daughter's schooling.

She goes to a private school, so we don't have the attendance = money issue that public schools have to contend with. However, if it was public school which she wanted to go to - we would do it the same way.

This week is a good example of how she schools: Wednesday she had a slight tummy-ache/diarrhea - so she stayed home and played with us all day. Thursday there was a fun field trip scheduled, and she felt better, and wanted to go, but hadn't yet memorized a poem that she was supposed to recite at school that day.

We talked about her options:

1) Go to school and enjoy the field trip, but don't have the poem ready. (They do not get graded at this school - and so far she has never been penalized for late homework.).

2) Stay home from school - and play with us!

3) Memorize the poem before school - go to school, and enjoy the field trip.

I indicated no judgment or preference for any of these choices. She chose #3 - memorized the poem in about 5 minutes, and apparently nailed it at school.

Friday (today): My daughter doesn't like Halloween. The scary costumes make her very uncomfortable. So, she told her teacher yesterday that she would not be coming to school on Halloween. And we get to play with her all day!

Her teachers know that she is there by choice. She knows she is there by choice. She occassionally (2 to 3 days a month) chooses to stay home just because she wants to. I do help her with homework, if she wants me to. I also let her know when things are due, and how much time I think assignments will take to complete, because she doesn't really have a sense of how to organize projects around due dates at this point. I never, though, pressure her to complete assignments, and have made it very clear to her that I don't agree with certain assignments/tactics, etc. But, I've also made it more clear to her (I wasn't doing this before), that I honor her decision to go to school, and will help her with it in any way she wants me to.

The freedom I feel, and the enjoyment she feels with this set up is wonderful. I think I would still prefer if she stayed home (and I know my dh would be thrilled not to be paying $7000 a year, LOL!), but I do feel we are genuinely honoring each child's unique choices, and our family is happier, and closer than we have been (well, since before we put them in school in the first place - sigh, live and learn).

And yeah, what Nancy said about trusting educators regarding homeschooling. They honestly have no idea what it's like, and the vast majority of them have formulated opinions based on false ideas about it. (I know - I used to be one of them! LOL!).

Love,
Laura
October 2003

Laura, thanks.
I'd like to use what you wrote up above on the comments page for that article if that's okay with you. It's very encouraging! —Sandra

Sure! I'd be happy to have my comments on your article page. —Laura


My 10yo daughter is insistent on going to 6th grade middle school next year. I don't think she will change her mind. As much as I don't like the idea, I almost trust her to know where and how she wants to learn. I think I have prepared myself for it. I really like "Public School on Your Own Terms" http://sandradodd.com/schoolchoice

I printed it out last August, and it was really hard to swallow at first. Now I find it as nothing short of brilliant. I guess that shows how far I'm coming with unschooling. I am prepared not to engage with the school against my daughter, if she conducts herself the way she did in K-4th. I am prepared not to put any stock in grades and such.


Ang
March 2003

We have been homeschooling since 1987 when our first child turned five. Two more kids later, they were all homeschooled until 1999, when our second child decided to go to high school. It made me cry at the time. And now our third child has decided to try high school as well. Your essay answering the question, Is homeschooling an all or nothing situation? mirrored my own philosophy exactly. Going to school is their choice and therefore I'm not responsible for or caught up in how they choose to participate. They know that I would rather have them home. They know they always have that option. But in allowing them that choice we have shown respect for their ability to have power in their own life. Thank you for writing it in just the way you did.

Christine Lozano
January 2003



Dear Sandra Dodd:

I liked this article because it relates to my own situation. We put our oldest son in school after a difficult move and moving to a town where there is no network of homeschoolers. He decided to go to school to meet the neighborhood kids and do it on his own. He went to school for half of first grade and than completed his 2nd grade and does not want to go back. I would keep on encouraging him to explore his own interests, but I noticed when in school, he did not have the energy or the brain power to explore what he really likes. At the end of this school year, I was casual about Homeschooling and did not cram it down his throat. I just said try to envision what you would like with your schooling in the fall.

Within four weeks of deprogramming he wants to homeschool although he doesn't like the name so we thought up his own name - NATE Natural Achievement Through Education. I feel confidence which I lacked when I was Homeschooling before and it showed and he sensed it. Now he understands the difference. A couple of months ago it was a discussion in this group about a kid who decided to go to school or not. It depends on the kid and the parenting. I have a daughter who has no desire to go to school and hopefully we will be more established in a network for our whole family. But we will cross that bridge when it comes.

Peace to you.

Lisa, another Montanan

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