Before getting into this, please allow me to say that there will be a follow-up and parallel post on the pitfalls of traditional classroom instruction. This is a post of pastoral cautions for parents, not an exercise in pedagogical partisanship.
I have been involved in the work of education for almost forty years. And while I have seen many do it right, I have also seen not a few unfortunate disasters. I do know that there are many situations where homeschooling is the best option for concerned parents, and nothing said here should take away from that reality. I have also done a great deal of work seeking to equip parents who have chosen that option. I am one of the editors of the widely-used Omnibus series, and I am gladly associated with Logos Online. I am a great fan of homeschooling done right.
So these nine pitfalls are not predictions for each and every homeschooling family. Rather they should be considered as a checklist of things to watch for, things to be cautious about. When you see a pilot walking around the tarmac, checking out the plane you are on, looking at particular things, this does not unsettle you, but rather should reassure you.
I should also say that this is just an initial sketch. I believe that we need to have a serious conversation about these things, and this list is offered simply as an initial comment. I know that I will have to explain and qualify further on some of the points, and am happy to do so. I am trying to initiate a responsible discussion; I am not trying to initiate a giant fireball. And I would also ask everyone to hold their fire until I can assemble the comparable list for traditional classroom instruction.
That said, what are the nine pitfalls of homeschooling? If things start to go wrong, where might they start to go wrong?
First, Christians are supposed to live separated and holy lives. But the only thing capable of actually separating us is the gospel, presented with clarity and received with evangelical faith. And it is affirmed that parents are supposed to shelter their children from the corruptions of the world. So a holy life is a separated life, but the separation needs to be gospel separation. Mere physical separation (although sometimes necessary) can easily be confused with gospel separation. This is the old monastic temptation—putting physical distance between your family and the sinful world can sometimes seem like you successfully put spiritual distance when you have not. When putting merely physical distance between your family and the sinful world “works,” the end result of this confusion is spiritual pride. As my bemused children were once told by a much younger child, “Those who homeschool are better than those who do not.”
“I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:9–10).
The World’s Allure
Second, what happens when that separation doesn’t work so well? When parents make such a decision for the family, it is a decision that the children need at some point to buy into. If they do not buy into it, and are growing up in “monastic” isolation, this can make the glow of Vanity Fair on the horizon powerfully attractive. Our job as parents is not to get kids to conform to the standard, but rather bring them up to love the standard. I have seen homeschooled kids who were ravenously hungry to be accepted as “cool,” while simultaneously being radically handicapped by their position. This is related to the next issue.
“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7).
The FOMO Blues
The third issue is that Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) really is a thing among young people. When kids come to the conclusion that their educational upbringing is causing certain opportunities to pass them by, the end result can be anxiety, panic or resentment. The opportunities missed might be entirely imaginary, or they might be educational, or they might be cultural.
“But godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).
Unearned and Precocious Maturity
Fourth, sometimes homeschooling families throw their children into situations that they are not actually ready for, but because everyone is polite about it, to make up a random example, nobody tells the junior high kid that he is not really up to the challenges of walking into a group of college kids and functioning as a peer. But because everyone is polite, the wrong message is sent and received, which is that the child in question is “advanced.” This is an unearned and therefore precocious maturity, which is of course another name for immaturity. This can really dog someone later on, when he discovers the corporation culture is not nearly so polite about such blind spots. This can be made much worse if the child has been subsisting on a regular diet of people liking his every expressed notion on Facebook.
“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3).
Boys and Girls are Different
Fifth, the teleology of education differs with boys and girls. While the subject matter of education does not vary according to sex in most subjects (math, geography, etc.), the point of education does vary according to sex. Assuming homeschooling all the way through, the girls are being educated in an environment suited to them, and natural to them. The boys, past a certain age, are not. They either adjust to it, which is not to be desired, or they rebel against it, which is not to be desired either.
“For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man” (1 Cor. 11:8–9).
Sixth, we live in a sinful and fallen world, and we always bring our own corruptions with us. Temptations come at us from the world, the flesh, and the devil, and falling back to a physically isolated preserve does not touch two of these, and only ameliorates the effects of one of them, and that only sometimes. The flesh brings the old Adam along with it no matter who you are, and the devil even has a proverb spoken about his facility in putting idle hands to work in his workshop. And the world is still glowing on that horizon, and the house has an Internet connection.
“For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies” (2 Thess. 3:11, ESV).
Division of Labor
The seventh concern is logistical and academic, and concerns the value of the division of labor. Let us say there are five children. Teaching the first and second one to read is well within the scope of most parents, but every year the challenges get greater. This means that mom has to work as a first-year teacher every year in the subjects being taken by the oldest child—or is forced by the academic pressure to have that child become an autodidact or to receive a really thin education in that area. In a complicated task like education, there are many things that have to be covered, and limited access to the division of labor means that it is easy for some of them not to be covered.
“If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?” (1 Cor. 12:17).
Experimenting on Children
Eighth, there are times when very dogmatic parents have very settled ideas about what will work in the education of their children. The (necessary) truce between parents who choose different forms of education will sometimes mean that some parents are closed off from valuable input from others. There is a built-in barrier to the likelihood of someone else noticing and being able to communicate danger signs. When hard dogmatism is bound up with homeschooling, there is frequently an inability to receive critical feedback—or rather an inability to receive it until after it is too late.
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19).
“For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12).
Counting the Cost
And last, I have seen more than a few instances of an all-or-nothing approach to education. A family was all-in when it came to homeschooling, but the commitment was ideological, which is a very different thing from homeschooling as a matter of obedient Christian discipleship. Then when something goes wrong (e.g. one of the kids embarrasses the family somehow), there is a complete reversal. Instead of humbly correcting the problem in how they homeschool, or enrolling their child in a Christian school, they lurch to the other extreme. They put their kids in the government school, and accuse the parents who did not make their particular mistake of foisting that mistake upon them.
“For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:28).
As I said above, there is much more to say about all of this. And I trust that God will give us an opportunity for some constructive interaction.