How to deal with being an outsider

I am Jewish, so I’m very sensitive to Christian tropes that infiltrate our culture. Christmas is the biggest example of this, and I have written many times about how it is absolutely suffocating to be Jewish in December when almost everyone assumes that you celebrate Christmas. The assumption that all people are Christian permeates American existence to the point where Jewish parents are constantly having to explain to their kids why there is Christianity infiltrates so much of American culture.

It never occurred to me that I would have the same issues with homeschooling. But most books about kids refer, in some way, to school. As if every kid in the world goes to school. So just as Jewish kids are reminded constantly that they are outsiders, so, too, are homeschooled kids.

And, just like the question of Christmas, I am trying to decide what to throw out and what to keep. For example, we read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, even though it has Christmas in it, but we don’t read How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I am not really sure where I draw the line. In this case, I try to avoid books where the whole story revolves around Christmas.

I have the same problem with books about school. I read Sideways Stories from Wayside School because the teachers are so incredibly terrible, in a very funny way, that the book reinforces the idea that kids are better off with homeschooling. But I got rid of Timothy Goes to School. Not that it matters. My kids are too old for Timothy. But the act of getting rid of the book made me feel like I’m taking the next step to being a homeschooler: managing the feeling of being an outsider in a culture that assumes kids are in school.

And, just as I finished going through our bookshelf, I realized that I had a Norman Rockwell painting hanging on the wall that depicts homework. It actually depicts that moment when the parent cannot do the lessons the kid is learning. It’s definitely a schooling trope. And it makes parents proud: Their kid will do better than they did. It’s the American dream, really, and it starts right here, at the math books.

We will not have that moment in my house. I am teaching the kids to find resources beyond just me. And I am not learning alongside my kids when I am not interested. There will be no difficult math problems for me. There will be Khan Academy. Or emailing my brother, who is a math whiz.

I took the painting down, and I replaced it with the one of the boy diving off the high dive.

20 replies
    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      The corollary statement to the Christmas book example would be black people throwing out all books that are specifically about what it’s like to be white in the US. And this seems reasonable. I mean, why spend your time teaching black kids about the white experience? The whole subtext of the western literary canon is what it’s like to be white (and Christian). We don’t need to add any books specific to this topic in order to cover this topic throughly. Black kids, (like Jewish kids or homeschooled kids,) need to see their own experience reflected back to them.


      • Ceceilia
        Ceceilia says:

        But it may be useful to talk about how even homeschooling books can offer incomplete, inaccurate reflections. Books that are really off in left field can be a great place for starting that conversation because they’re so obviously unlike your experience.

        Perhaps you could go through a few books and ask the kids what parts of their experience they see mirrored or omitted? This would even work for new homeschool-centric pieces that you decide to adopt, because there will inevitably be subtexts that the kids will feel like outsiders toward even though they are “homeschoolers.” Maybe it could even be a creative experience where y’all rewrite favorites with your own experiences interpolated. You could talk about how such experiences might be dictated or socially (un)acceptable.

        Also, check out “Covering” by Kenji Yoshino. It’s about gay identity in the past few decades and how the whole idea of passing, by which I mean, saying who you are vs. acting like who you are, permeates our culture. You might find a lot of useful ideas for talking about homeschooling experience.

  1. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    What does Christmas have to do with Christianity? Seriously, I am a lifelong atheist and have a great time at Christmas. Sure there may be few fringe manger scenes or churchgoing carolers, but all of the fun stuff was derived from Winter Solstice celebrations by the pagans!

    Take Christmas back from the Christians! Make it your own!

    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      Of course, Jews do not want to “take back Christmas”. Jews do not want to make Christmas their own.

      This is a great example of everything I wrote about in the post.


  2. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    I see why you’re interpreting the painting as you do, but the day will in fact come when your kids surpass you. And that is more than just the american dream, that is the dream of all parents everywhere throughout time. As it should be.

    Before you put it away, talk about the Rockwell painting with your boys so they understand your desire and expectation that they will one day overcome limitations you were unable to–despite your best efforts. One day, they might even come to love math!

    I hated math in school, but I loved watching the Khan Academy videos with my son because we talked about them together and I learned that when it is presented properly, math is a fascinating, as well as useful, topic.

    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      “The day will come when your kids surpass you.”
      This only happens if learning is linear and we are all learning the same stuff, but the kids learn faster or better or something.

      But since my kids are not on any linear learning path, I will know more about most conventional school subjects than they do. Forever.

      But they already know more than I do about violin and pottery and skateboarding. I mean, I can’t teach my son how to do an ollie. I am too scared to even stand on the skateboard.

      So it seems that if you do child-directed learning the kids surpass you almost immediately, but the picture of that is not frustration, like the painting, but joy: the parent has succeeded in creating a self-learner.


      • Mark K
        Mark K says:

        “I will know more about most conventional school subjects than they do. Forever.”

        Like what? History? Geography? (your son already surpassed you in this I think, from your posts) Math? (which you have no interest in?) I would wager and feel very safe that they will between the two of them surpass you in every “conventional” thing you now know.

        Learning that is not linear is a web, and every node in the web is connected to every other node. They will get around to covering everything you consider conventional. And they’ll do that in addition to learning much that did not even exist when you were in school.

        I’ll admit they may never now as much about blogging or being an entrepreneur as you do, because those are things you taught yourself in response to your passions, these are the few areas in life where you are on an even playing field with your kids-and they might never catch up.

      • Susan
        Susan says:

        It almost seems as if you are bent on your children learning only those things which are unconventional, as if you are simply rebelling against anything that is at all remotely “schoolish.” You never know; your kids might love math or history or science and decide to pursue those subjects with a passion. And then they probably will surpass you! There is nothing wrong with learning conventional school subjects. In fact, math is actually really good for the brain; kind of like a workout! When children ask why they even need to learn math if they’re never going to use it, all you need to say is because it’s GOOD for their brains. It actually helps us think, across the board, regardless of the subject. I’d be careful if I were you about seeming so anti-education, at least for the “school” subjects. You might just turn your kids off to learning and what a shame that would be!

      • Lori
        Lori says:

        Hopefully your kids *do* surpass you in the areas of their strongest interests. However, they will take a long time to surpass you as a learner. They are learning to direct and manage their own learning; as parents, we act as their learning mentors. My oldest child is now a teenager but he still respects me as a thinker, learner, and mentor — even though he has easily “surpassed” me in knowledge in many areas.

      • Zellie
        Zellie says:

        Just because you’re not going to teach them doesn’t mean they won’t surpass you in knowledge of any subject of interest.

        My kid surpassed me in history, geography, math because she was interested. She knows little of biology. Maybe some day.

  3. karelys.
    karelys. says:

    omg I’ve been looking for the Khan Academy website for a long time! I forgot its name and browsed old posts but couldn’t get to it.

    Thank you!

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    All this hullabaloo about the Norman Rockwell painting above prompted me to do some research.
    The painting is described by Laurie Norton Moffatt in “Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue (1986)”. as
    Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)
    Boy and Father: Homework
    Four Seasons calendar, 1962
    Oil on canvas
    18 x 16 inches
    Collection of George Lucas
    (Dates of paintings and drawings coincide with year of publication. Also, Rockwell rarely, if ever, named or dated his paintings and drawings. As a result many of his images are known by multiple titles.)
    This painting, as well as other Norman Rockwell paintings, was shown at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg Collection exhibition at the end of 2010 ( – Smithsonian’s blog). The online slideshow version of the exhibition is at .
    The ‘Boy on High Dive’ is part of Steven Spielberg’s collection and included in the slideshow.
    As a side note, I discovered that the Smithsonian American Art Museum has an upcoming exhibition from March 16 to September 30, 2012 named ‘The Art of Video Games’ – . Check it out Penelope. It may be something you and your sons would be interested in going to see.

  5. Lori
    Lori says:

    one of the great things about children’s literature in general is that it totally supports homeschooling. my kids don’t have to just buy my opinion that school is unpleasant and best avoided. that message is reinforced by the majority of TV shows, movies, books, and comic strips — probably because the kind of creative people who make TV shows, movies, books, and comic strips typically had a miserable time in school. calvin & hobbes comes to mind as one great example.

    pen, if you haven’t seen this dav pilkey video, you should:

  6. Cure of Ars
    Cure of Ars says:

    I can relate to being a religious outsider. I’m a Catholic who grew up in Mormon dominate Utah. I was constantly challenged on why I was Catholic. Growing up I was annoyed and angry about this. But it made me look deeper into my faith and question things. It taught me to not go with the crowd. It made me a stronger Catholic. As an adult I tend to smile when a Mormon asks me what ward I’m in or where I went on my mission. I am thankful for the reminder that I’m Catholic.

    Seems to me this is one thing that gives religious people strength. The most robust religion/culture in history are the Jews. They have been around for thousands of years and have survived the worst of the worst. They have practices like circumcision, dietary laws, and many other rules with the main function (at least that’s what it looks like to me) as being to remind them that they are set apart (sacred) from other cultures. It’s healthy. The stress of being the outsider builds “antifragility”. (

    Seems to me a central part of education/homeschooling should be concerned with building antifragility. What types of stressors do children need and what are the optimal levels? What types of stressors make children weaker and how do you avoid them? These are the questions that I have been thinking about in regards to my own children.

  7. karelys
    karelys says:

    being an outsider has it’s good side. when it comes to walking on uncharted territory or offering up new ideas and getting slammed by people because they are uncommon…there’s really not much to give up. You were never part of the bunch as tightly so there’s not much to lose if you stick to your guns. You are used to going at it alone and having to think in a peripheral way about everything.

  8. Meg
    Meg says:

    It’s kind of funny to me, that in real life, people just see knowledge and ability to do things, as such, but suddenly when it comes to kids, everything has to be a “subject”!

    It’s very similar to how other kids, on approaching mine, instantly want to know what grade they are in, and how old they are, in order to establish whether it’s ok to hang out.

    They don’t even realize how ridiculous it is, because thinking of reality in those terms is normal for institutionalized kids.

  9. Amy
    Amy says:

    Christianity permeates our culture because we were founded by Christian Puritans on Christian Puritan values. It sounds as if you think this is negative, but it’s just logical.

    You say that every child should have their experience reflected back to them, but in a separate post you complain about how the Christian homeschool group in Darlington chose to have a Christian focus. To allow Jews or blacks the luxury of seeking out the like-minded but to not allow that luxury to Christians seems hypocritical and unfair. The reason Christians homeschool is because they want to focus on what they are interested in and what they value, and they want a reflection of their own experience that modern-day secular culture doesn’t provide to them.

    In a way, Christians feel the same way about the modern-day secular culture espoused in public schools, (aka, government subsidized indoctrination centers for the Democrat party) as you do about Christmas – they are on the outside and don’t like the assumption that they are on board with the status quo beliefs. The only difference is that while no one who celebrates Christmas is attacking you (I hope), Christians are being attacked and told they are foolish and that their values are worthless everyday by the modern day secularists in the public schools who force a morally relativist viewpoint upon them.

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