Like other neurotic and vaguely millennial (by the skin of my teeth, I tell you. 1982.) mothers of modern times, I stress somewhat obsessively over the choices we’ve made slash continue to make for our children. Gluten? Screen time? Appropriate catechetical formation? Vaccines?
The list of things to research on the internet and form opinions about (well informed or not) is basically endless, #thanksgoogle. And so I know that I’m not the only Catholic mother who has engaged in a little internal hand wringing about how I should maybe be thinking about homeschooling my children, sorely ill-equipped for such a venture though I may be.
A painfully necessary aside: I love homeschooling. I think it’s amazing and brilliant and that the majority of the kids who come out of it are overwhelmingly impressive, not to mention some of my favorite human beings on earth (most of my mother’s helpers have been wonderful homeschooled gals). And yet, I hope to God that our wonderful Catholic school never a. gets shut down by the government or b. becomes astronomically unaffordable…because I am in no way, shape, or form equipped to engage in it at this present moment in my motherhood. Also, I myself am a product of Colorado public schools, and right now, I can’t imagine sending my kids there in their present form. Your public school might be awesome. Many of our public schools here in Denver are … less than awesome. But yours might be! And it might be the best option for your family. This is not an essay written at you to shame your academic choices, so please click elsewhere if that’s what you were expecting to find.
So if you are publicly schooling your children, or homeschooling them, or letting them wander around your homestead keeping bees and marking up their nature journals and conducting astronomy experiments at night, or serving Mass at 8 am at the start of your local parish school day?
Then you are probably doing an awesome job.
As long as you’re engaged.
For the past couple years I’ve watched some of my homeschooling friends sit down to outline their yearly curriculum at the end of summer with something like a vague pang of envy, because while I have zero desire to engage in the behavior of homeschooling, I sure wouldn’t mind some of the outcome: brilliant kids with a love for learning and a companionable relationship to their mother/teacher. (A caricature, I know. But still.)
This year, however, it has occurred to me that I actually can have the best of both worlds. Our school encourages parental involvement and is earnestly forthcoming about curriculum and classroom goings-on, but I don’t just mean tracking what they’re learning and quizzing them on vocab words in the car, I mean engaging meaningfully over the ideas and content they’ll be soaking up and making the most of the time we have together, helping to connect the dots in their little brains between what happens in the classroom and what happens around the dinner table.
Public-schooled though my siblings and I were, the most valuable curricula on our schedules was transmitted not within the four walls of the school building, but around the family dinner table, when our parents would engage all of us in robust (sometimes alarmingly so, ask any of our childhood playmates) political and religious discourse, covering everything from current events to world history to politics to moral theology. It didn’t matter than the youngest in our sibling set was separated by 17 years from the eldest: we all got schooled in the fine art of loud family dinner table debate.
And thus it was there, in the domestic school of rhetoric and reason, that the most enduring lessons were driven home to my siblings and I: that logic is essential to comprehending reality, that reason and faith must be wedded to one another to make any sense out of life, and that if you didn’t have an opinion about something before one of our roundtable spaghetti-sessions, well, you might afterwards. Or else you’d have some good book recommendations assigned to you.
My parents engaged us in the art of daily living, and though we have our flaws and our domestic dysfunctions same as the next family, there is an enduring sense of unity and fraternity that knits the nine of us together, which I have no doubt is rooted in those hundreds of hours spent debating, discussing, and dissecting the universe.
So just because my little people will be out the door for 8 hours a day starting later this month does not absolve me from being up in their business and intimately engaged in the formation of their minds. Far from it! In fact, precisely because they’ll be out of my care for 40 hours a week, no matter the impeccable caliber of our teaching staff, it behooves me to be inversely more engaged during their time that we do have together.
For us, that might mean limited sports and social activities on school days. I figure if that becomes ingrained in our family culture from the earliest days, it will be that much easier to resist the surging tide of social pressure to sign up for All The Things.
I don’t mean that nobody will ever play soccer, just that family time and chill, unstructured sibling interaction will always take precedence. That dinners at home and breakfasts together, so much as is possible, will always trump completing homework assignments or attending tae kwon do classes.
We choose to send our kids outside the home to educate them, entrusting them to the care of competent strangers for 40 hours a week. But we do not cede our parental responsibility – or authority – during those 40 hours, or the other 128 in a week.
And because we send them out, it is even more essential that we do maximize those hours when they are home, and that we actively and intentionally engage with the content and curriculum they’re being exposed to in school.
As a public school graduate, I can attest to the hours and hours my parents – but mainly my mom – spent interacting with the local school board, meeting with teachers, questioning content and curriculum choices, and more than once choosing to exempt us from certain unit studies or entire courses altogether. (I’m looking at you, 5th grade sex-ed and 7th grade health class.) They weren’t being prudish, but prudent. I got a sex education at home, and in an age appropriate and mostly satisfactory manner, and my parents exercised their God-given authority over my education and moral formation.
Was it embarrassing to be pulled out of classes? I honestly remember being the envy of my 5th grade class because while they were blushing furiously, learning to insert tampons into plastic scale models, I enjoyed 45 minutes a day of free time in the science lab during those 2 weeks, fiddling with equipment and reading for pleasure. If I felt any embarrassment at being singled out or “othered” while my classmates were rolling condoms onto bananas, it was more than compensated for by the strong identity my parents formed in each of us that we were, in fact, different from many of our peers, intentionally so, and that it was acceptable and even preferable to be so.
So where I’m going in this rambling, kind of all over the place essay on parental authority is that you are the parent, and your authority is vested not by any municipality or school board, but by Almighty God Himself. And whatever He is asking of you this year where your children’s education is concerned, know this: the role of primary educator is intractable.
So whether you’re unschooling, homeschooling, inner-city public schooling or attending St. Gregory’s Classical Rhetorical Academy of Wisdom and Theology, you are ultimately responsible for exposing that kid to as much truth, goodness, and beauty as you can cram into 18 years, however your family deems best to achieve it.
And that won’t be on the standardized test.
Happy back to school season, fellow parents. May God inform and inspire all our choices where our children’s minds (and hearts, and souls, and bodies) are concerned, and may we be endowed with the mental fortitude to implement them.