By David Feddes
More and more children are getting an education without ever entering a school building. What are they doing? They’re learning at home. They’re being taught not by certified professional teachers but by their parents. The whole idea of home schooling may sound odd to you, especially if you’ve always assumed that schools are the only way to get an education. But many people who are involved in home schooling seem to love it, and it seems to be working.
If you’re not a home schooler, you may be curious to know what home schoolers actually do. Perhaps you even wonder if your own family should consider it. Then again, you may have misgivings about home schooling. Here are some comments home schoolers hear from time to time: “Children are too valuable a resource to be left in the hands of amateurs; they should be taught by certified educators.” “Homes don’t have adequate equipment for education; children need the kind of resources that only a well-funded public school can offer.” “What if the home schooling is abusive?” “Children need other children their own age for proper socialization.” “I could never teach my children every day; I send them to the public school; they’re professionals.”
Home educator Gregg Harris takes these comments about home schooling and applies them to another activity: home cooking. Suppose you’re out grilling hamburgers in your yard. Your neighbor says, “That’s unusual. You cook for your children every day, don’t you? I could never do that. Besides, I think children are too valuable a resource to be left to amateur cooks; only certified nutritionists should be allowed to cook. Home kitchen equipment could never be adequate; all children should eat three standard meals in government cafeterias. What if the home cooked meals are abusive? Children need to eat with other children their own age in order to learn proper table manners. I could never cook for my own children every day, so I send them out to the restaurants; they’re professionals.” Sounds a little silly, doesn’t it?
Believe it or not, there was once a time when home schooling and home cooking were about equally common. For most of human history, parents assumed it was their job not only to feed their kids but also to educate and train them for their future role in society. What children learned, they learned at home from their parents and their extended family. Eventually schools were established to teach children things their family couldn’t teach them and to supply learning resources their parents couldn’t provide. And that was okay, as long as parents remained involved in their children’s instruction and in the life of the school.
All too often, however, parents began to leave everything to institutions, and children began to see less and less of their parents. We’ve now reached a point where average parents, according to a survey, spend just seven minutes a day in face-to-face conversation with their children. Seven minutes! No wonder home schooling sounds odd to some. Most parents hardly talk with their kids, let alone take charge of helping them to make sense of the world around them.
In a society that lives on fast food, home cooking sounds quaint. In a society that learns only in institutional classrooms, home schooling sounds odd. In much of society, home-anything is starting to sound strange. Home? What’s that? Oh yeah, that’s the place I watch TV and sleep.
Home schoolers want to make the home a place of love and learning, not just a private motel where various individuals sleep and watch TV and mumble a few words to each other as one is coming and the other is going. Home schoolers want to make the family central, not marginal. They won’t settle for a measly seven minutes of conversation a day. They want to spend hours talking and studying and working and playing and eating together. For many, home schooling isn’t just an educational approach; it’s a way of life. It’s not just about better academic instruction; it’s about restoring the family.
This is true of home schoolers from various backgrounds, and it’s especially true of Bible-believing home schoolers. In the last verse of the Old Testament, Malachi 4:6, God speaks of turning “the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” Christian home schoolers take that verse to heart. They see a terrible curse befalling our society with its crumbling homes and confused kids, and many Christian parents sense the Lord turning their hearts back to their children.
For such people, home education is part of a larger vision of family restoration, of parents taking back responsibility for their children’s intellectual, social, and spiritual development. In this article, let’s take a closer look at each of these areas—intellectual, social, and spiritual—and consider the impact of Christian home schooling in each.
Let’s begin with the intellectual. Do home schooled children really learn anything from ordinary moms and dads? Can there be academic excellence when they’re not being taught by certified professionals? You might see a news item once in a while about a home schooler winning the national spelling bee, or getting a perfect score on the SAT, but these are just a few individuals. What’s the overall picture?
A study in Canada found that the average Canadian home school student scored in the 76th percentile on standardized achievement tests. The national average, by definition, is 50. In the United States, where the total number of home schoolers is much larger, the most recent major study found that the average American home school student scored in the 87th percentile on standardized achievement tests, 37 percentile points higher than the national average. To put it another way, the average home schooler is in the top 13% of all students, higher than 87% of all other children. And the longer the child was home schooled, the greater the advantage.
How can that be? How is it that children can learn more from ordinary parents than from expert teachers? Well, the simple fact is that children thrive when they’re being taught one on one and their individual interests and abilities are taken into account. God creates each child individually, not on an assembly line. In some school classrooms, there’s a “one size fits all” approach. 20 or 30 students of different backgrounds and interests and abilities all have to cover the same material at the same rate. For some the pace is frustratingly fast, while for others it is boringly slow. At home, on the other hand, the pace matches the individual. The child can slow down when something is a struggle and speed up when it’s a snap. Children learn best when they’re treated as individuals, not as units in a factory.
And don’t think home schooling parents are completely on their own. If there was ever a time when parents didn’t have resources to give their children solid intellectual training, that time is past. There are books, videos, apps, websites, and countless other teaching helps, and there are also local support groups for home schoolers. At any rate, whatever the explanation, the average home educated child does better academically than the average child in school.
A number of home schooling parents happen to be trained as certified teachers, but there’s little difference between the achievement level of their children and the children of other home schooling parents. Research among home schoolers has found that parents with less education do as well as those with more. Low income parents do as well as rich parents. Black and Hispanic home schoolers do as well as white home schoolers. That’s in sharp contrast to public schools, where low income and minority students tend to score much lower than wealthy, white students. Apparently, the ability to give your children a good education at home has little to do with institutional certification or wealth or skin color. It has everything to do with a commitment to personally provide an education for your children.
It’s an old prejudice to assume that in order to be wise and well-informed, you have to have formal training at the feet of a certified expert. Jesus himself ran into that kind of prejudice. His adopted father Joseph was a carpenter; his mother Mary, a housewife. People who heard Jesus speak couldn’t see how a man from a working class family in a poor town, with no expert training, could be so knowledgeable. How could Jesus be so brilliant if he’d never been the student of a recognized rabbi? They asked each other, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?” (John 7:15) Still today it’s hard for certain people to believe that someone can have great learning without having studied in a formal setting.
Home schoolers are disproving such prejudices. Most home school students aren’t falling behind; they’re excelling. And although there’s often a move toward a simpler lifestyle, home schoolers aren’t being left behind by modern technology. In fact, home schoolers have made extensive use of computers and internet resources. More and more colleges and universities are actively recruiting home school students. When it comes to intellectual development, home schooling works.
But, you might wonder, even if the children are doing well academically, what about their social development? Don’t kids need to get out of the house and do things and be with others their own age? Probably the most common question home schoolers hear is, “What about socialization?”
Well, home school children don’t live in isolation. 98% of home schoolers are involved in two or more activities outside the home every week, and the average home schooler is involved in five weekly activities, including sports, ballet, various clubs, church events, and so forth. If anything, home schoolers are more likely to do too much outside the home than too little.
At any rate, while many school children spend seven hours a day in classrooms with kids their own age, trying to sit still and be quiet or else whispering and passing notes, home schoolers are studying, cooking, cutting grass, doing laundry and other chores, and helping out with younger brothers and sisters. Many home schooled kids finish their schoolwork quickly and then go where their parents go, meeting people of various ages and occupations. Isn’t that healthy socialization? After all, in the adult world, people aren’t divided into age-segregated groups that sit in rows in the same room. That only happens in school.
When people ask home schoolers, “What about socialization?” they often haven’t thought much about the kind of socialization their own children are getting. Their biggest concern is that home educated children don’t spend enough time with kids their own age. But why not reverse the question and ask if kids in school are spending too much time with kids their own age and not nearly enough time with their parents.
The real question isn’t whether socialization will take place but who will do the socializing and what effect they will have. Are kids better off being socialized by family or by friends their own age? Why take it for granted when school children become peer-dependent and yet worry that home school children might be too parent-dependent? Isn’t that getting things backward? How many kids are using drugs or alcohol or talking dirty or having sex because they spend too much time with loving parents and not enough time with kids their own age?
Socialization is important, all right. Companionship plays a huge part in how we turn out. “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). Where is a child more likely to be walking with the wise, when he’s with his parents or with his peers? Who is wiser, Dad and Mom, or a bunch of kids who all watch the same movies, listen to the same music, wear the same clothes, and do all the same things their classmates happen to be doing?
This doesn’t mean that if your kids go to school, the family can’t remain at the center of their lives. But you will have to work at it, or else your children’s lives will soon be centered on their schoolmates. You must work to steer your kids clear of the wrong crowd at school. At home you must make space in your schedule and your children’s schedule to do fun things and pursue helpful projects together as a family. You must make sure there’s plenty of time outside of school hours for family meals and conversation in order to nourish and strengthen family ties.
If you don’t do this, if instead you drop your kids in a daycare center as babies, in pre-school as four-year-olds, in public school from kindergarten to high school graduation, if you keep them institutionalized from the cradle to adulthood, plunk them in front of TV when they do happen to be at home, and are face-to-face with them only seven minutes a day, then just plan on your children being more attached to schoolmates than to you. And don’t be shocked if the results aren’t very pretty.
The most important part of socialization is to keep parents and family central in a child’s life. In the Bible it’s not a peer but a parent who says, “My son, give me your heart” (Proverbs 23:26). The key to healthy social development, whether your children are educated at home or in school, is for you as parents to win your children’s hearts and keep their hearts.
If you home school, you can give your kids plenty of chances for outside involvement, and you can give them ample opportunity to have fun with friends; but the family remains the hub of their lives, and friendships are spokes tied into that central hub.
The socialization issue is sometimes considered a negative of home schooling, but it’s a positive. Researcher Thomas Smedley conducted a study and concluded, “The home educated children in this sample were significantly better socialized and more mature than those in public schools.” Another study, comparing home schoolers to children from good private schools, found that the two groups were equally well adjusted socially and emotionally. The only difference was that the home schoolers tended to be less peer dependent. So if your question is, “What about socialization?” the answer is that home schooling can produce excellent social development.
And now, the final and most important question: What about spiritual development? The Bible emphasizes that parents are their children’s main teachers in spiritual matters and that educating children in God’s ways is an around-the-clock activity. Scripture says, “Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 11:19). God wants parents to teach kids every chance they get and provide them with a God-saturated environment.
Only five percent of people in North America have a daily time for personal Bible reading. Even fewer read the Bible as families. Many Christians assume that their children’s biblical instruction is the job of a pastor, Sunday school instructor, youth leader, or Christian school teacher. That is a disastrous assumption. Nothing can substitute for family worship. Nobody can take the place of godly parents. Other people may help, but biblical instruction of children is first of all the job of fathers and mothers (Prov. 1:8,6:20; Eph. 6:4). Whatever else parents delegate to others, they must lead daily family worship themselves, and they must teach God’s Word to their kids every chance they get (Deut. 6:7).
On Judgment Day, if it turns out your children never got a good introduction to Jesus, never learned what the Bible says, never learned how to pray, never learned to see God’s rule over all of life, whom will God hold accountable? You, the parents! On Judgment Day, the Lord won’t blame a preacher or teacher first of all. He’ll blame you! He gave those children to you.
The spiritual instruction of children isn’t just the job of a pastor or teacher or youth leader. Such people may have a role to play, and parents may delegate some work to them, but the spiritual instruction of children is first of all the job of parents and grandparents. Scripture plainly says in Deuteronomy 4:9, “Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” In Psalm 78:5-6 the Bible says, “He commanded our forefathers to teach their children… and they in turn would tell their children.”
The ultimate test of home schooling (or any other approach to education) is what kind of person is produced, not just what test scores are achieved. In some places home schooled children are required by law to take standardized tests, and they usually get good scores. But test results measure only what government schools care about. They don’t measure love for God or obedience to the Lord Jesus. They don’t test knowledge of the Bible or of other great books in the Christian tradition. They don’t ask how the lordship of Christ relates to math, science, philosophy, politics, business, history, art, literature, farming, medicine, or entertainment. They don’t measure preparedness to build a godly family. They don’t measure a vision for evangelism or cultural transformation. Standardized tests don’t measure such things, but true education places the highest priority on them.
Authentic Christian education, whether in school or at home, is not satisfied with giving kids enough knowledge and skills to get a job and make a living. The goal is to make disciples for Jesus who see all things in light of his truth and radiate that light to others.
Fitting in or Standing Out?
One reason some folks object to home schooling is that kids won’t learn to fit in. But Christian parents don’t want their kids to fit in with the world; they want them to stand out for God. And there is every indication that God is blessing their efforts and raising up a generation that is intellectually bright, socially sound, and spiritually strong.
I hope that what you’ve just heard helps you understand and appreciate Christian home schoolers. I also hope that if you’re a mom or dad, it’s made you think about your responsibilities toward the children God has given you.
Maybe God is laying it on your heart right now to consider home schooling. If your children’s school situation isn’t good, and you don’t have the option of a better school, please consider home schooling. It may be God’s way for your family.
If there’s an outstanding Christian school in your area, such a school may be an excellent place for you children. Still, don’t assume you can leave everything to the school. Even if your children go to a fine school, you as parents are responsible to invest the time and energy to make the family central and God’s ways uppermost in the minds and lives of your children.
Some parents decide to home school even when there’s a good Christian school nearby. In some cases, they’d rather not have both parents away from the kids, working outside the home to pay the tuition bills. In other cases, they simply believe God is calling them to be the teachers of their children and spend the best hours of the day with them without delegating any of the work to a school. Those who choose to home school and those who choose to send their children to Christian schools should respect one another’s choices. Why condemn or compete, when we can cooperate? It’s best when Christian schools and home schoolers work closely together and deeply appreciate each other.
If you who like what you’ve heard about home schooling and wonder whether you should try it, please realize that success isn’t automatic. It takes daily hard work and commitment. Home schooling, like anything else, will fail if it’s done carelessly. So don’t consider home schooling unless you’re prepared to do it well and give it your best.
At the same time, however, don’t be too quick to say, “Oh, I could never do that.” You can probably do a lot more than you think you can, especially if God leads you to do it. Before you decide you’re not qualified, let me ask: Who else loves your children more than you do? Who else knows them better than you do? Who else should have a greater hand in shaping their character? Nobody! And it may well be that nobody else can do a better job of increasing their knowledge and skills either.
If you’re considering home schooling, here’s what to expect. Expect that you will have to maintain order and discipline in your home; you’ll go crazy if you don’t, since you’ll be spending so much time with your kids, and you can’t ship them somewhere else. Expect that you will need to look into various education approaches and choose what seems best for you family. Expect to have a direct sense of responsibility for your children’s intellectual, social, and spiritual development. As a home schooler, if you don’t do it, nobody will. These things may be deeply rewarding, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy.
So expect challenges, but also expect great joys. Expect the delight of being there to see each new development in your child. Expect to be drawn closer than you’ve ever been. Expect to be amazed at how you really can teach your children and at how much you learn yourself. Expect to do what you never thought you could do. Expect to say with the apostle Paul, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 RSV). Expect to say with the apostle John, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.