And This Is Why We Homeschool – Part II: Sports and Socialization

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‘Oh, You Homeschool? What About Sports and Socialization?’

When people find out my wife and I have six children, their initial response is almost guaranteed. “Wow! That’s crazy!” When they find out we also homeschool, their eyebrows rise still higher and their eyeballs grow very large. At an apparent loss, they nod slowly as they repeat “Oh, wow!” Then follows a brief comment about how they or someone they know thought about homeschooling one time. Then they tell us the reasons they decided against it.

These reasons almost always include either or both sports and socialization. In turn, I explain that my kids attend church, AWANA, homeschool group, 4H, and the local youth soccer. My homeschooled children are plenty socialized. Oddly, the conversation typically dies shortly after this point and the other person grows quiet. Thereafter there’s often a certain distance, a slight but perceptible hesitation in all their interactions. Thereafter I get this feeling of having been put at arm’s length.

Having myself grown up home schooled, I’m accustomed to this. And if anything, I’d say receptions to homeschooling have improved considerably since I was a kid. Twenty to twenty-five years ago, this was still very much a fringe choice. Only weird, radical people would choose to forgo public schools in favor of instructing their children at home. In recent years, however, as more kids like myself have turned out reasonably OK, public perception of homeschooling has warmed.

 

The Stigma Has Decreased As Homeschooling Has Become More Mainstream

Since I was a kid, SAT and ACT scores as well as state-mandated standardized testing have shown that academic performance among homeschoolers is significantly higher than that of public schoolers. Meanwhile, public schools nationwide suffer teacher-student sex scandals, school shootings, bullying, teen pregnancy, drug use, and suicide.

Consequently, a growing number of American parents consider homeschooling their children to ensure a better and safer education. And parents who strongly considered homeschooling their own children are more understanding when they encounter someone else doing it.

Nevertheless, we still encounter these questions about socialization and sports as reasons why parents finally decided not to homeschool. And I’ll confess. I’ve begun to wonder if maybe not all of those parents want to have these reasons stripped away. What if it turns out homeschooled kids actually can and do play sports? Maybe, just maybe, not everyone wants to know homeschooled kids can still socialize and build meaningful relationships in their community.

Of course, I am only speculating here. Yet it sometimes seems the public schools have generally aligned themselves to be very discomforted at their status quo being challenged.

 

Why Can’t Homeschoolers Socialize With Public Schools?

For instance, why aren’t homeschoolers in 19 U.S. States allowed to play sports or participate in drama or music programs at their local public schools?

My home state of Montana happens to be one such place. Here in Montana, according to the website for Coalition for Responsible Home Education, the bylaws state that “A home school student is not eligible to participate for an MHSA member school.” What’s more, this same resource reports that “the Montana Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that it was “reasonable” for school districts to bar homeschooled students from participation.”

But why would they? It’s not enough to know such restrictions officially exist. It’s not enough to know the authority exists to enact and enforce them. We should be asking why. And should such rules be amended or abandoned if no good explanation can be found for them?

What good, practical reason could there possibly be for such laws and rules? All I can think of are bad ones, like pacifying some parents, teachers, and school administrators who still find homeschooling backward and offensive.

Some clearly do feel uneasy about their children having to compete or rub shoulders with the weird homeschooled kids. I don’t pull that figuring out of thin air, either. Rather, from experiencing prejudice as a homeschooling kid myself, that is all I’ve been able to conclude.

 

‘Oh, You Got Trouble! Right Here In River City!’

In 2004, as a junior, I participated in the Hillsboro High School production of The Music Man. Not being enrolled in this local public school, I nevertheless had many friends there due to church, youth group, and other such. And despite having never been in a major drama or musical before, I was so filled with confidence in my abilities that I tried out for the lead role.

Moreover, I’m pretty sure I would have gotten that lead role except for one little problem. I was homeschooled.

Most of my cast-mates remarked repeatedly throughout rehearsals and even after production ended that they felt I would have made an excellent Harold Hill. I had a great singing voice, acting ability, and a solid memory for the lines.

Yet when The Music Man ended and HHS announced another production and I expressed interest to the drama teacher and choir director, I was told I wouldn’t be allowed to audition. My small supporting role in the barbershop quartet had been too much for some parents and teachers in the community, and they had complained that such things shouldn’t be repeated.

I knew my lines, sang well, and showed up early to everything. The choreographer remarked that I was an excellent dancer. The choir director wanted very badly for me to join his choir. The drama teacher wanted me in her drama program. My participation surely enriched the production and the program, and everyone involved seemed to genuinely enjoy my being there.

Yet all this was immaterial because I was homeschooled, and that fact was a bridge too far for some very vocal folks on the sidelines.

 

“Oh, You’re Homeschooled? That’s Gay.”

Prior to that first and last venture into public school theater productions, I played two seasons of knothole baseball as a freshman and sophomore. And though generally I look back with fondness at having played these seasons, my first experience with organized sports was a bit rough.

When the first team I played for found out I was homeschooled, I got a bit of hazing and mocking which I wasn’t prepared for.

“Oh, you’re homeschooled? What, does your mom teach you sex-ed?”

“Oh, you’re homeschooled? That’s gay. And you’re gay because you’re homeschooled because homeschooling is gay.”

Such sophisticated taunts were par for the course for many of my practices and games that season. I only remember one kid on my team being halfway nice to me. Another few guys did me the huge favor of not joining in the relentless picking.

Generally speaking, it was a lonely and painful introduction to a key difference between homeschooling and public schooling, or at least between how I had been raised and what these kids from the local public schools felt was normal and acceptable.

The following year I played for a team in Lynchburg, the next town over. That went much better. But this time I’d learned my lesson. I was ready. Instead of being myself, I learned how to put up a front. I walked in with a cool, confident mask, quickly trading barbs with anyone who made a joke at my expense. Where that failed, if someone made fun of me, I’d make twice as much fun of myself as they did and laugh twice as hard at my joke to the point that everyone forgot who started it.

And wouldn’t you know that I got through just fine that year!

 

“Homeschool Kids Are Too Comfortable Being Themselves”

In comparing and contrasting those two years of baseball, I’ve wondered at times whether I learned the right lesson from my experiences. Did I come away better prepared for “the real world,” or did I just learn some unhealthy coping mechanisms?

Considering that question, I’m reminded of a freight brokerage firm I worked at in Cincinnati back in 2012 prior to moving home to Montana. I had a co-worker there named Greg who moonlighted as a bouncer for some local bars, was a biker, and had before that been a guidance counselor for a local state college. I’ll never forget him remarking to me out of the blue one day:

“Your vocabulary and grammar are really good. You didn’t go to public school, did you?”

I laughed. But when I told Greg I had been homeschooled, he smirked knowingly. Then he told me about his encounters with homeschooled kids as a college guidance counselor. His comment was that they were almost always exceptionally bright, yet they had one tragic flaw.

“Homeschool kids are too comfortable being themselves.”

Greg went on to explain that homeschool kids typically found it jarring when their classmates, professors, and others mocked and ostracized them for being themselves. Consequently, these kids tended to do very well academically, but were depressed because of the unanticipated loneliness and social challenges they faced in “the real world.”

I’ve been thinking now for over five years about what Greg had to say that day, and I think he was onto something. Only rather than seeing his observations as a condemnation of homeschooling, I’ve come to see them as confirmation of a deep-seated problem in public schools. Namely, public schools are not designed even remotely to get kids to be themselves.  Quite the opposite, actually.

 

Conformity Versus Non-Conformity

I have come to believe the entire public schooling versus homeschooling debate is less about education, per se, and more about conformity versus non-conformity.

For parents who themselves attended public school when they were kids, the idea of homeschooling is scary. For me the idea of homeschooling my kids was less scary because I grew up homeschooled. To those whose only experience is public schooling, however, the prospect represents uncharted waters.

Having to be more intentional in getting their kids exposed to other people sounds a lot more daunting and precarious than going with the flow of what most parents in America have been doing for generations. Would those parents find themselves alone if they chose to homeschool? They could be forgiven for worrying – and not only about what it would do to their children’s social prospects, but their own as well.

So also for the public schools. Consider again the question of whether to allow homeschoolers to participate in sports, drama, and music programs. It really comes down to what to do with non-conformists. Allowing kids in which teachers and administrators don’t have broad authority over – kids their system has perhaps had zero influence in molding and shaping – it’s threatening.

What if such kids misbehave? How will teachers and administrators reign them in without threats of detention, suspension, or expulsion?

Perhaps scarier still, what if those kids outshine all their public school peers? Will that encourage more parents to withdraw and homeschool their own kids? And what would that do to the school’s prestige and funding?

 

An Unexplored Facet of Participation Trophy Culture?

Perhaps it’s a consequence of my children reaching the ages where they start to play sports, but I’ve heard a lot more ranting against participation trophies in recent years. At least in the circles I run in, there are few phrases which provoke more disgust than ‘participation trophy.’

Outside my circle of friends and family, the wider world of political commentary has invoked the unintended consequences of such things for explanations of why millennials seem so entitled, emotionally fragile, and unmotivated to work hard. Similarly, one can’t help wondering whether the violently emotional reaction of Antifa, BLM, and much of the rest of America’s liberal youths to the election of President Donald Trump is a direct result of kids having grown up being told at every turn that their feelings were important enough to do away with scoreboards, rigorous academics, and anything else which interfered with their precious self-esteem.

Yet even among those who loudly and repeatedly decry participation trophies, I wonder whether the attitude which gave rise to such farces has been entirely escaped. More to the point, what if the systematic ostracizing of homeschoolers from public school activities like sports, drama, and music programs stems from a similar place?

That is to say, I wonder whether homeschoolers are excluded more out of a fear they will excel than any other concern. And just like lots of parents and self-professing child-care experts insisted on “protecting” their children from the pain of losing by giving out participation trophies, so perhaps too the public schools of many U.S. States keep homeschooled kids out to “protect” their public school students from the pain and trauma of being eclipsed.

 

I or Us Versus Them

Don’t misunderstand me. There isn’t a hard line in the sand separating those who are dogmatic about homeschooling from those who are dogmatic about the public schools. There are some people on the extreme ends. Lots of people end up in the middle who are just as warm and friendly with those who take a different view as they are with those they completely agree with. Yet there also is surely a certain us-versus-them polarity in American society when it comes to education choices.

I feel especially sensitive to this both as someone who was homeschooled and as a homeschooling father. When I meet someone my age who was homeschooled, or someone who is homeschooling their own kids, I immediately feel a certain kinship.

‘Ah! You’re my kind of people! You’re one of us!’

Just so, the distance I’ve felt over the years upon talking with public schooled people was the other side of this coin. On learning I or my children were homeschooled, suddenly they knew us as being different in a fundamental way. We became alien and ‘other’, properly categorized in a separate compartment from themselves and most folks they knew.

In human beings there is a natural tendency to favor one’s own group and protect it from outside threats. As central to community and belonging as public education has become in American life, the choice to homeschool is seen by many as a rejection of community. It is seen as a choice to leave the group, thereby at very least abdicating the protection of said group. For some, however, this choice amounts to more. It is a betrayal, an affront, and perhaps even an attack on the community’s values and identity.

 

The System And You – Who’s Protecting Who?

A principle reason feelings towards homeschooling have warmed in recent years is that parents have found ever-increasing reasons to doubt whether they want their children to belong so emphatically to the public school group, or to share that community’s values and identity.

In short, many parents have looked at the numerous scandals racking the government-run schools nationwide, as well as the increasingly poor academic performance and moral character of the students, and have asked themselves whether they need more to be protected by such a system than protected from it. At a certain point the cost outweighs the benefits.

Of course most parents have continued sending their kids to the public schools, presumably because they convinced themselves those schools really aren’t so bad, at least locally. The local teachers wouldn’t molest or abuse their kids. Local administrators wouldn’t aggressively push the LGBT agenda. The local school wouldn’t commit to an objectively anti-Christian programme – surely not.

Regardless the naivete of such thinking, the thinner such claims get the scarier it becomes to think of the curtain being peeled back to reveal that the system on which they depend is not so effective, healthy, and beneficial as they’ve tried to tell  themselves.

Unfortunately – tragically – I have found in not a few cases that American parents show greater apparent anxiety in the face of criticism of the schools than they do at the thought of their children being subjected to real and actual harm or neglect by the  schools.

 

Moral Equivalence At The Expense of Moral Clarity

Often lately in discussions about education with fellow Christians, I am confronted with efforts at drawing moral equivalence between public education and home education. I’m reminded that God gave parents the responsibility to make educational choices for their children. I’m reminded we ought to be careful not to judge where the Scriptures do not give an explicit command either way.

Generally speaking, I agree with these sentiments. Moreover, I myself have expressed them many times. Yet such reminders can be unhelpful. And honestly, they sometimes remind me of participation trophies.

‘Don’t make the other parents feel self-conscious. Every parent is a winner regardless how they educate their kids. Let’s not keep score or talk about winners and losers.’

But what do the Scriptures say about caring for and raising children? And do we help ourselves or one another meet our responsibilities before God by cutting short discussions of the choices before us before we’ve asked questions about safety and effectiveness?

No, I am not appointed a judge over my brother sending his children to the local public school. But there is no moral equivalence between the programme of the American public education system and both the character and quality of the education my wife and I are giving our children at home. Lest we cut discussion too short, let’s be clear about that!

My wife and I would not be homeschooling if we felt our children would be just as well off in public schools. And if we’ve made a choice to homeschool out of deep, personal convictions, why on Earth must we keep quiet about our convictions?  Yes, let’s make personal decisions. But let’s do talk about them and make informed decisions!

 

What Is Socialization Anyways?

When I tell people now that I was homeschooled, they’re surprised. Several times I’ve heard I wasn’t at all what they expected. Usually they think my wife Lauren – who did attend public schools growing up – was the one who was homeschooled. Why? Because she’s soft-spoken while I am louder and more outgoing.

Just so, we often get comments from people impressed by how verbal our children are. ‘It’s like having a conversation with an adult!’ I’ve heard that said about our oldest son Josiah, aged 10, and also our daughter Evelyn who just turned 4.

The explanation is simple. My wife and I get to carry on conversations with our children about their studies and interests. We get to talk with them about life and faith and their hopes and dreams. That is far better preparation for life than sitting quietly all day in an overcrowded, excessively standardized classroom.

Concerns about homeschooling socialization are at best overblown. At worst they take for granted a very artificial imposition of social conformity as ideal. And this is why we homeschool.

A system erected to impose conformity – especially conformity to the foolish, godless ideas this current system demands conformity to – is not a system I want teaching my children how to build healthy relationships.

Socialization can be a good thing, of course. Yet if socialization means learning how to build and maintain healthy relationships with others, homeschooling is still preferable. Central to healthy relationships is mutual respect and love. Central to love is a commitment to others’ best interest and protecting them from things which would hurt them. In light of the many public education scandals and dangers already listed, my wife and I model this kind of relationship-building for our children first by protecting them from the public education system.

If You’re For Sports, Keeping Score Should Come Naturally

The irony to me is how passionate parents – especially dads – are about their children’s athletic careers. And when it comes to sports, dads especially will talk at seemingly endless lengths about the minutiae.

How is this or that coach doing? What did you think about that last call the ref made on Friday night? They’ll talk about how this or that player is doing really well or needs to step it up. Or they’ll talk about different workouts and conditioning methods, or different diets, or which team has the best players.

Yet are those same parents anywhere near so engaged when it comes to their kids’ education? Where does all that attention to stats and scores go when comparing public schools with, let’s say, homeschooling?

With as critical as education is in relation to athletic ability, wouldn’t you expect parents to be at least equally interested in the stats of the educational choices open to their kids? Yet this is seldom the case. Rather, the system’s score is not to be kept or discussed openly without offense. In short, we keep meticulous track of performance and discuss it at length where it matters little. Yet we are committed to ignoring performance where it is of the utmost importance.

And this is why we homeschool.


For more on this topic, read And This Is Why We Homeschool – Part I: A Brief History of American Public Education
Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to six kids – I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I’m not asking you questions out loud, I’m endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God’s grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.

  • Sheri Kilgore Duff

    You covered a lot of ground in this article! I think you hit the nail on the head when you said public school is about conformity. That’s why socialization is so important and the topic people ask about when they start a discussion on home schooling, and why home schoolers are on the “outside”… and why it’s so hard for parents to not conform by not putting their children in public school. Parents are afraid of peer pressure!

    But I didn’t agree with Greg’s comment completely when he said this, “but were depressed because of the unanticipated loneliness and social challenges they faced in “the real world”. The real world here means the public school for children, it does not mean the real world in the working community. There, people are generally rewarded for intelligence and character; conforming to a nebulous set of behaviors doesn’t matter any more. Home schoolers are no longer on the outside, but are often leading the pack!