Sending kids to school is outsourcing moral development

I just finished reading the book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It’s the story of a Hmong girl with epilepsy. In Hmong culture, epilepsy is a gift to the soul. So the parents wouldn’t give her medicine. The book is about the cultural struggle between the parents and the American medical community. The thing that got me was that it won lots of national literary awards, but also, it’s required reading at many medical schools. I thought I’d learn a lot. And I did.

Here is an excerpt from the book. It’s an essay the epileptic girl’s sister wrote for her eighth-grade language arts class about escaping Laos after the Vietnam war:

On our way to Thailand was something my parent will never forget. It was one of the scariest time of my life, and maybe my parents. We had to walked by feet. Some of family, however, leave their kids behind, kill or beat them. For example, one of the relative has tried to kill one of his kid, but luckily he didn’t died. And manage to come along with the group. Today, he’s in America carrying a scar on his forehead. 

My parents had to carried me and two of my younger sisters, True and Yer. My mom could only carried me, and my dad could only my sister, True with many other things which they have to carry such as, rices (food), clothing, and blankets for overnight. My parents pay one of the relative to carry Yer. One of my sister who died in Thailand was so tire of walking saying that she can’t go on any longer. But she dragged along and made it to Thailand. 

There was gun shot going on and soldier were close to every where. If there was a gun shot, we were to look for a place to hide. On our trip to Thailand, there were many gun shots and instead of looking for a place to hide, my parents would dragged our hands or put us on their back and run for their lifes. When it gets too heavy, my parents would tossed some of their stuff away. Some of the things they had throw awy are valuable to them, but our lives were more important to them than the stuffs. 

Here’s what her teacher wrote at the end of the essay. “You have an exciting life! Please watch verbs in the past tense.”

I had to reread everything. I couldn’t believe it.

There’s an article in Mother Jones about how public school used to do a good job of teaching immigrant kids how to assimilate. But with the emphasis on tests, public schools no long help immigrant kids become American. Lisa Nielsen, education philosopher who works for the New York City public schools tells me, “the emphasis on test taking sets immigrant kids up for failure.”

A school system that fails immigrant kids fails us all, though, because the emphasis on test taking overshadows the old emphasis on community integration, which intrinsically includes ethics. What this essay really drove home to me is how little we know about the people we leave our kids with. We know they are probably underachieversLH, we know they probably have their hands tied by test standards, but we don’t know their morals. And, what, really, do kids learn while they are school age? Kids learn how to frame their own world and their own experience.

While I am definitely in favor of exposing kids to lots of different perspectives, I want to be the person showing my kids how to frame their experience.

Robert Coles, author of the The Moral Intelligence of Children, writes about how book knowledge does not teach morals. Kids watching what adults do teaches morals. School kids are watching a single teacher eight hours a day. This person the parents did not choose. This person the parents do not know much about.

If morality is the overriding principle that people learn as children, and children learn morality by watching adults, then time spent with the adult is the essential learning process. It doesn’t require workbooks, or expensive activities, or a big house. It requires only time. It requires that kids be with the parents and not sent away to a school that emphasizes test scores and book learning.

28 replies
  1. Taylor
    Taylor says:

    I love this. I think it is how a lot of homeschool parents feel. Why should they send their kids out and away into someone else’s care and instruction for so much of the day?

  2. Hazel
    Hazel says:

    I loved the book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down”. But I don’t think this blog post succeeds in connecting the problems faced by immigrant and refugee children, teaching morality and homeschooling. Students from other countries would have less opportunity for acculturation if them were home schooled, even if current public schools are overburdened by testing requirements. Parents who send their kids to school can still teach moral development and/or find a school that mirrors their moral values.

    To me it is clear that the right-wing Republicans don’t want public schools to be effective, especially not those serving non-white populations. So they are destroying schools by attacking teachers and budgets and imposing requirements that make effective teaching more difficult.

  3. CM
    CM says:

    Am I reading this correctly? “how little we know about the people we leave our kids with. We know they are probably underachieversLH ” Does the LH stand for something or is it a typo? I ask because that one statement is so biased, uneducated and frankly untrue. Sure, in EVERY profession there are underachievers, but to call out all public school teachers as “underachievers” is a false statement. Didn’t you just write a blog about encouraging “young people how to think more independently so they have a better ability to recognize what’s actually right for them.” So if that is being a teacher, then are they are doomed to be an underachiever?

    Listen, I am all for parents finding the right path for their children’s education, not all children learn in the same way, nor do adults. I think there are fabulous schools/teachers/staff, public and private out there and equally horrible ones. However, that is no different than the homeschooling arena. There are families that do an excellent job of homeschooling their children and others that frankly should have thought long and hard about even becoming a parent.

    Please tell me I misread the line and it doesn’t imply that teachers are underachievers?

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      I also second that calling most teachers underachievers is probably a bit much for an unclarified generalization. I think I understand the logical leap though. Since the public school system is so messed up, why would anyone want to be a teacher in it who wasn’t an underachiever? Or, that the requirements for becoming a teacher aren’t that high (which is untrue nowadays, at least in my state), so the profession attracts underachievers. Or that it is very difficult to get rid of lame duck teachers who’ve taught for more than 2 years in a district (which, the laws are changing in my state to make that not the case, which is obviously for the better).

      Or, that because of how inefficient educational processes and misdirected education goals are, anyone who wanted to make a difference would get out and teach at a private school, or help kids in some other way…idk.

      • trish
        trish says:

        I bet “LH” means “link here” and there’s some supporting evidence that has been accidentally omitted …

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Oh. Yeah. I can’t believe I forgot that. Okay. So, the truth is that I am a career coach, and I know what makes people go into teaching. It’s a relatively safe path. It’s a known path. With a lot of security.

          This is not the sort of path that will be open to anyone in the next generation. For example, teachers will get fired very fast if they are bad, or paid too much in the future. Today that does not happen because of Unions.

          So the job security and clear career path that teacher have is anachronistic, but also, it selects for people who are not risk takers. It selects for people who are not intellectuals (they go into academic research where hands-on teaching is minimal) and it selects for people who are not competitive (it’s very difficult to get accurate ranking of where you stand as a teacher).

          In general, people who are non-competitive and want safe routes do poorly in the work world. Teaching is an exception, but I don’t think kids should be exposed to such an exaggerated representation of this type of person in their formative years.

          That said, the LH is because I had a hard time finding supporting evidence, and I meant to take the sentence out of the post when I couldn’t find evidence.

          But whatever. I just wrote a good explanation here. So I’m gonna leave it.


          • lyy
            lyy says:

            Have you coached a lot of teachers? Have you had a lot of exposure to teachers that don’t seek coaching? Is that how you know what makes so many choose teaching? And how does the homeschooling mom model her own competitiveness in a healthy way that doesn’t put pressure on her child?
            Do you think competitiveness is more innate or learned?

          • Daniel Baskin
            Daniel Baskin says:

            Personally, I don’t think that’s why most teachers get into teaching. It may be the underlying reason, but not the conscious intent. Most of my classmates in my graduating class of teachers had noble reasons for getting into teaching (or at least, they had really good canned reasons when people asked).

            But as far as being an anachronistic profession in terms of competition, I definitely agree. Those laws that make teaching more competitive are starting to come down the pipeworks, as I mentioned.

          • Bird
            Bird says:

            YES. Please front page this comment into a post! Along with “Don’t go into teaching unless you can/Don’t hire a teacher who can’t/ say what their next career will be and how they will transition to it.”

            I’ve spent too much time writing resumes with trapped teachers who have no clue how to find their way to something different, let alone something they will love. They lose touch with the outside world. Bad for them; bad for kids.

            I once had a teacher tell my 5 year old “You and your parents might think you can choose who your boss is or how you do your work, but you need to know real life is not like that.” I tried to explain to the teacher that I’ve always chosen who my boss is, and so has she. Didn’t work. Now I’ve learned to guard my kid from this mindset.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        there are good and bad teachers as in every profession. Should there be more control and assessment – very likely. Should there be a ranking system, and constant assessment of every single move a teacher makes to instill competitiveness? I don’t think so – i actually think to have a very stiff competitive environment is not conducive to good teaching, which indeed cannot be measured by simple metrics. If you check out Micron, in the 1990s they had an incredibly competitive workplace – employees were constantly assessed and ranked, and if they did not make it into the top or whatever 60% they were fired. Often the reasons for being placed in a certain rank were not transparent, mostly due to the difficulties of ranking non-quantitative tasks. In the community Micron is known as the worst example of an employer – ever. And strangely enough it did not make the company better. It just made the employees miserable and destroyed any fragile seed of teamwork.

        • Daniel Baskin
          Daniel Baskin says:

          ^Agree. Not all methods of measurement actually measure what they intend to measure, or promote a healthy work environment. *cough* Standardized tests *cough* (…such as using test results to rate teachers).

  4. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    This is THE reason I want to homeschool, if there was any reason. It’s even a little more important than deschooling and allowing opportunities for them to develop interests.

    I don’t feel terribly close to my parents. I have a very healthy figurative arms-length relationship; I let them in on what’s going on with me, I sometimes ask for advice or help, and I really value what they’ve done for me. But I’m disenchanted that I didn’t get to do more actual work with them. I’ve only seen my dad work at his job twice in my life (but I got to do a month substitute job for my mom while she had surgery recently, and have seen her in her work maybe 20 or 30 times).

    My main point is that the best way to pass on your work and life lessons to your kids is to give them the opportunity to see you in action. When kids are sent to school, they end up learning more about life from their peers (and teachers to a lesser degree) than they do from their own parents. If one has the ability to homeschool, then your kids can be with you nearly whenever. (If you don’t work at home, whoever cares for them during the day can sometimes take them to your work).

    Also, when students are encouraged to develop their own interests, and parents show interest in these interests, then kids are likely going to show some interest in what the parents do (if they didn’t already).

    I always wonder at why lots of people have kids in the first place if they don’t set themselves up to be able to effectively pass on their values. I then remember that most rule followers don’t realize that homeschooling really should be the norm, and not the exception.

  5. redrock
    redrock says:

    Isn’t the attempt to solely impart a specific moral compass one of the main reason by fundamentalist christians to homeschool? Development of ethics and moral in one’s life has so many aspects – and I think as much input from many different people and books is critical.

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      “I think as much input from many different people and books is critical.”

      I do too. Give your children lots of books to read–even books you disagree with (but hopefully, as you implied through response, you are open-minded enough to appreciate even books you disagree with). Have them meet people you don’t understand. Let them job-shadow people in jobs that you don’t understand. Yes, all of it. Expose your children to other cultures and ways of viewing things. Absolutely.

      But, ultimately, at the end of the day, if you aren’t the person (along with your partner) making the biggest impact on your child, in terms of instilling values, then there’s a problem.

      Did you consider that open-mindedness is a value? Ironically, by trying to be open-minded about where your child gets their values, you may lose out on your child getting that value instilled in them.

      Again, if you want to expose your kid to the world, by all means, please. But children don’t necessarily always turn out open-minded (even with open-minded parents) if their peers are closed-minded–whom they will learn the remainder of their values from. The remainder of values that you decide to defer off will also be instilled by corporate advertising, popular culture, random people, etc. Developmentally, when their brains are too young to ask the kind of questions critical thinkers ask, help them start thinking in that direction before they form close-minded opinions on things they know relatively nothing of.

      People of any age don’t know they are being close-minded until they form a trust-bond with an open-minded person that shows them how they are being close-minded. It is easiest to accomplish this in people when that trust-bond is with a parent, and that parent is open-minded.

      When you homeschool, you (hopefully) will have more time every day to instill your values of open-mindedness and intellectualism.

      In conclusion, don’t assume that schools teach open-mindedness and intellectualism. You can’t know or choose the teachers, as Penelope says. “Instilling values” doesn’t have to be something reserved for “fundamentalist Christians.”

      I read a lot into your all of two sentences. I wrote all this to get it off my chest, not because you needed all this to “set you straight.” I don’t know how much of the above you already do agree with.

      • lyy
        lyy says:

        I understand the desire to impart your value system to your children, but how do you feel about the homeschool parents whose values are not “open-mindedness and intellectualism”?
        Penelope recently wrote a moving post on feeling excluded by a group of homeschoolers because of her religion. I don’t not support your decision to homeschool and I understand your desire to influence your children’s value system. For a multitude of reasons, homeschooling can be a better choice for parents and children.

        But I am grateful for the teachers, principal and books that my father credits with showing him a different way than his father who was an abusive alcoholic criminal. As a member of a community, I am glad that there is an place,however imperfect, that does sometimes offer a lifeline for children without parents or with parents who cannot be the support system a child should have. If not every child in school becomes successful, there are some that do who wouldn’t have without adults other than their parents who showed some care and concern for them.

        • Gareth
          Gareth says:

          Ivy, I believe you have made a statement with which almost all homeschoolers would agree:

          “I am glad that there is an place, however imperfect, that does sometimes offer a lifeline for children without parents or with parents who cannot be the support system a child should have.”

          I, for one, am happy to help fund a place to support such children.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          I agree. Kids with parents that are ill equipped to raise them are probably better off in school. (Although I have to tell you that I was removed from my parents house for abuse and I am not convinced that my situation was bad enough to warrant putting me into school.)

          So, I’m totally happy to pay taxes to the public school system. And I support all efforts at trying to reform public education. I just think that parents who have their act together, in any way, should take their kids out of school. School are outdated, they are a mess, they are ineffective, they are a waste of a kid’s childhood. Right now they are only good as a safety net, and the only kids who should go there are those with incompetent parents.


          • lyy
            lyy says:

            Do you think you should have stayed in a house where you received regular violent abuse to be home-schooled? Do you think your parents would have dealt better with you?

          • Anon
            Anon says:

            To say that only children with incompetent parents are the ones that go to school is a gross generalization.

            Let’s take immigrant children as an example. Even if their parents did want to homeschool, immigrants are often hired at menial jobs regardless of their education, at least for the first few years after arriving to the US. Why? Sometimes it comes down to not knowing the language well, not knowing social norms/mores, and it takes a while to adjust a completely new culture (including working culture).

            It’s imperative for immigrant children to go to schools for at least one or two years, so they could at least be exposed to English 8+ hours a day, because that’s how you get to learn the language and social norms. (To later be able to get those jobs that would allow you to decide whether you can and want to homeschool your kids.)

          • Daniel Baskin
            Daniel Baskin says:

            I agree that school is probably best for children with non-English-speaking parents. That doesn’t mean that is anyone else’ decision but the parents’, though, in the end. Maybe there should be services that counsel these parents to send their kid to school–there may already be.

            When you put power in the hands of government to say whether or not a parent can instill some values and not others, a dangerous line has been crossed in terms of individual liberties and state tyranny.

          • CJ
            CJ says:


            What you are saying is simply not true. There are two families with ESL children that have relocated from other countries recently in my HS circles and all of the children are doing beautifully. Even without a personal example, there is a lot of info out there on the other ways people new to the US acclimate to their new culture and language, number one being TV watching (and I suppose now that would include the Internet too). Do some research and you will see that the generalized statement that these kids need school for a couple of years and 8 hours a day is false.

            personally, I cringe when someone cites “social norms” edu as a good thing about institutions. And, many schools are abusive environments so it is difficult and flawed to generalize where a child from a distressed home would be better off.

  6. Richard
    Richard says:

    I think the above thread begs an interesting question:

    If a lot of people start homeschooling (say a 25% of students), this will take a lot of kids with supportive parents out of the system. What effects would this have on schools?

    I don’t know the answer (it might be positive or negative), but it feels like something important to think about.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think it would be great for the system. I think overachieving rich kids drain the school system of resources that should go to kids who need a lot of support. The schools right now accommodate such an incredibly wide range of types of kids. To take out a bunch of kids — without removing the tax base they represent – will allow schools to have more focus.


      • Bird
        Bird says:

        The problem with this, in WI, is that districts don’t get their property taxes handed straight back to them. Instead, each district gets a per capita payment based on their enrollment. It probably cost your district $15k when you took your two kids out.

        This is why smart districts are working hard on ways to bring you back. They need your kids’ “head count dollars” to survive.

  7. BenK
    BenK says:

    But this is precisely the reason some people feel every child must be forced through the school system – not because it provides great intellectual enhancement, but because it is an opportunity for centrally controlled, mandated ‘moral education.’ Something parents are not to be trusted with; parents who might advocate racism, sexism, religion, ethnic values, violence, traditional marriage, etc.

  8. JRW
    JRW says:

    This year is my first year homeschooling my 5 year old daughter (along with her 2 year old and 5 month old sisters) and I’ve been telling people that the hardest part of homeschooling is forcing myself to stop reading your posts about homeschooling.

    I found your blog from the more waldorfy unschooler FIMBY blog and am always happy to find such well written and thought provoking ideas. I’m always challenged and usually feel inspired. Can’t beat it.

    Now if I could just figure out how to change my settings, I get emailed your business posts and can’t get them to email me your HS posts. Every time I come over here I feel half angry that I missed posts and half excited that I have a bunch of posts to read.

    End of love letter. :)

  9. Ebriel
    Ebriel says:

    “The Spirit Catches You…” is a fantastic book that highlights the diametrically opposed worldview of the Hmong to US culture. When traveling to research my first book, I asked Hmong papermakers in Laos how long they’d been making paper, they looked at me like I was crazy.

    “Always,” they said. How else to appease the spirits that caused the bamboo to grow, and sicknesses to happen? There was a cultural continuity that had carried them through colonial wars and American bombardments and now Chinese dominance.

    Lots of my high school classmates were Hmong. I had no idea how strongly their families held on to their culture – outside of school – until reading this book. Then, I remembered things: the pregnancies and early marriages, the festivals. How they’d managed to keep their heritage intact in a nation that demands we all become homogenized.

    I dip into your homeschooling blog because if we have a child we’ll be raising them outside my home country, and homeschooling techniques will be a big part of our life wherever we live, to make up for defiencies in local schooling.

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