How to win over skeptical family members

I told my family about how my son is passionate about clothes and he runs around Chicago buying socks, and shoes and changing his outfits between cello and piano lessons.

I told them about how he uses the Internet to track style trends and then find stores that will sell the stuff he wants.

I used to think the best way to convince my family that homeschooling is a good idea was to show them how engaged my kids are and how much fun we have. But then I realized that homeschool naysayers equate fun with academic negligence.

I also found that forwarding heavy-handed information like the speech about why school squashes creativity only serves to reinforce my family’s snark about how there’s no zealot like a convert.

So I’ve decided the best tool for converting family is the slow and steady route of sending very small tidbits of research that doesn’t provoke feelings of attack so much as feelings as thoughtfulness. Here are some examples of the type of research I’m talking about.

1. Playground politics have lasting, detrimental impact.
It turns out that if you’re the last kid picked in anything it’s a moment of complete humiliation, because it’s in front of so many people and it’s so obvious that nobody wants you. It used to be that we would brush this off as part of growing up, but that was the 1950s when the Baby Boomers became accustomed to fighting rabidly because there were too many of them.

In the 1980s, when we realized that self-esteem is fragile and should be protected to create a well-functioning adult, educators came up with the phrase “You can’t say you can’t play”. The truth is that kids say you can’t play all the time. It’s how kids develop a sense of belonging. They include people and decide who they fit with. This is good for them.

In the Lord of the Flies scenario of the playground, where the student-teacher ratio is 30:1, there is no adult modeling how to say you can’t play. One of my favorite blogs, Jezebel, has compiled a bunch of fascinating research into a single post that makes it clear that it’s a completely inappropriate situation for a kid to go through because it wounds them for the rest of their lives.

2. There are not enough hours in the day to allow for school.
This is just simple math. If you come home from school at four o’clock, which is when most kids come home from school, and you go to bed at eight o’clock, which is when kids start going to bed, then you only have four and a half hours a day.

In that four and a half hours a day, you have to include physical exercise, because there isn’t any in school, family-time, alone-time, because there is no alone time when the student-teacher ratio is 30:1, and homework. Here’s a link to research conducted by NPR and the Harvard School of Public Health that concludes that the reason that kids are obese is that they have no time in the day to make good food choices. All of their activities between four and eight-thirty are compacted. And the obesity epidemic coincides with the surge in homework and concomitant decrease in family time.

3. School is exhausting for the parents. 
Most parents who put their kids in school think of it as a break from the kids. But A.A. Gill, writing in Vanity Fair, explains why school is completely exhausting for the parents. There are a lot of reasons: the rules, the pressure, the strategizing, and the cost. But the bottom line is this, “education is really about fear and guilt that parents project onto their own children.” Gill announced that he is done with the absurdity of navigating his kids through the education system because,”The interesting adults are always the school failures, the weird ones, the losers, the malcontents. This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s the rule.”

31 replies
  1. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    I had two daughters in public elementary school between the grades of kindergarten and 4th grade. I went often to eat lunch and go outside with them for recess. There was never a time when there wasn’t a child crying on the playground. When one daughter was a first grader, she told me that there were 121 kids on the playground. She overheard the teacher who was on recess duty get the number count. 121 kindergarteners and first graders with one adult, but she had a walkie-talkie to someone else in the school building, so that was considered ok. I started homeschooling the very next fall. That was 9 years ago. Any links to the Gill article?

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    The link to the Gill article is the headline for that section. I should have made that more clear. It’s a great article.

    I liked reading your story of the playground. My son’s experience on the playground was the last straw for me, too. He asked me, on the fourth day of school, if he could stay inside for recess. I asked why and he said the first day one kid got beaten up, so now he stands next to the playground supervisor the whole time, and the other kids are making fun of him for always standing with her.


  3. Stephanie Lynn Stevens
    Stephanie Lynn Stevens says:

    I like the point about school being exhausting for parents. I was homeschooled k-12 and have homeschooled my own kids, so I had no point of reference.

    Then I sent them to summer day camp one year and just about lost my mind. It wasn’t just the schedule, although mornings were rushed. It was coming up with costumes for 50’s day or remembering to send pizza money for one age group on tuesdays and another on thursday and oh yes, the ice cream truck is coming this week and don’t forget swimsuits and peanut butter is not allowed and on and on…staying home is much simpler and easier for all!

    Plus, I missed my kids. And in any large group of children there’s a Lord of the Flies dynamic to some degree.

  4. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    I like number 3. I would also add that my kids always fought a lot more during the school week because they were tired and burned down from the social craziness at school. So it was more work for me and their relationship suffered.

  5. mh
    mh says:

    One of my children is an All-the-Time child. He is ALWAYS ready. NO matter what time of day, he is this eager, excited little bunny, ready to take on a new challenge or new learning. If it’s ten at night and my husband is online surfing old WWII bomber airplanes, this child is right next to him, pointing and learning. If it is 6 in the morning and I am studying Greek, he’s downstairs trying to figure out the alphabet and speaking along with the responses.

    The rest of us in the family are definitely time-bounded creatures. Morning people or night people, we know when our best time for learning is, when we are most relaxed and switched on.

    One great thing about homeschool is it lets you schedule your child’s (and your own) day to maximize those windows. The kids can load up on music lessons first thing in the morning. They can go do homeschool phys-ed early (in summer time) or later (to play basketball in the sunshine.)

    And I know that 4-6 pm for me is a time when I want to sit, make a meal, and READ. Period. School work is done, everyone is happy and (usually) outside, the LEGOS are available in case of emergency. Wrestling with homework? Nope. I scheduled “Independent Work” for right after lunch — everybody’s projects and things are done.

    The problem we see with typical “after school” activities that include non-homeschooled kids — and I hope this isn’t a controverisal staement — is the traditional school kids are unpleasant to be around at 4pm. In some cases, their ADD medicines are wearing off, and in other cases, they have been passively listening ALL DAY already, and as a consequence, they are disrespectful of the after-school teacher or coach. It’s a pain.

    Luckily, our network of homeschoolers is vast and growing.

    I didn’t realize until recently how disconnected we are from the rhythms of a regular traditional school day until we were on our way to Homeschool Day at the Symphony. We passed a school bus going somewhere, and my youngest said, “Oh, those poor kids.” Indeed.

  6. Jane
    Jane says:

    I’m not sure where you child went to school, but in our area the student teacher ratio is 18 kids, one teacher (plus an aide). I think you present the worst-case scenario to make your point.

    • lyndap
      lyndap says:

      In the lower grades, the student to teacher ratio is roughly 24/25 to 1 while the upper grades in elementary school can go up to 35/37 to 1 in the classroom. The student to playground supervisor ratio is often times 100 to 1 at the school my child goes to. Penelope’s numbers are not worse case scenario by any stretch.

      • Jane
        Jane says:

        Well, sure it is, because as you say, your class sizes in the lower grades are 24 or 25. Not 30.

        I know there are classes in the US with 30+ students, but to imply that is the only class size available is wrong. It’s not.

        I also wonder if it’s better to play video games for many hours a day or sit in a classroom with other kids learning *something.* It may not be optimal, but perhaps it’s better than the video game scenario. And from what I’ve seen, hs kids do watch a lot of video games, because of course their parents have to pay the bills and balance the checkbook at some point during the day.

        My kids actually enjoy being with a bunch of kids their age. They love that. It’s not a problem for them at all. I know this is not universal, however,

        In any case, it is only accurate to point out that class sizes can be lower in the better school districts.

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      Both my kids went to kindergarten with twenty-five or more kids in their class and no aid other than parent volunteers. And classes got larger in the higher grades. Recesses had to aids for several classes. They also used parent volunteers for that. I suspect your situation is more like the best case scenario.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      Your case is unusual, Jane, not the example given. In my city, the mandated ratio is 22:1 in kindergarten. The mandated ratio goes up to 25:1 in third, 28:1 in sixth, and 31:1 in ninth. Frequently the classes are over-enrolled and will be at 25:1 in kindergarten or 40:1 in high school.

      On the playground, you don’t get every teacher of a class out there at the same time, as they use that time for their own lunch, so the estimate of 30:1 on the playground is, if anything, an underestimate.

      If you really see an 18:1 ratio on your local PS playground, or a classroom ratio of 18:1 teacher plus 1 aide, you live in a very unusual place or send your kid to private school. The average public elementary class size in the USA is 24.3 and rising.

    • Sarah R.
      Sarah R. says:

      Do you live in Florida? I ask because my daughter’s KG and 1st grade classes in Florida had less than 20 students. Florida has a constitutional amendment limiting class sizes. Financially, it was an awful decision, but it’s great for the teachers. Now we live in Oregon and our class has 28 students (first graders). No aids. I feel for our teacher but she is tough as nails and manages alright.

  7. mbl
    mbl says:

    When my daughter was in first grade, they had different people doing the monitoring during different activities (class, lunch, recess, phys ed). So what might look like “teasing” or an accident in any one given situation, clearly looks like bullying when take as a whole. But since the actions are only seen as isolated incidents, it is very easy for a socially savvy child to manipulate one who is less so.

    On the plus side, once I finally found out what was going on, I discovered that my aspie daughter had a remarkable grasp of the nuances of the situation.

    We are doing more of a park/museum schooling thing, and it is remarkable how easy it is to sit back and monitor the kids. If you really know the personalities, strengths and weakness of the kids involved, you can give them tons of room to work things out, while stepping in and modeling on an as needed basis. If they give biased accounts of what happened, it usually just takes a “Hmmm, that doesn’t sound like something he would do. What’s another way to interpret that? . . .Ah, that sounds more like him. Now go frolic!”

    We ended up pulling her from her ‘social skills group’ because it was interfering with her social growth after we started homeschooling.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh my gosh, I love this comment on so many levels.

      It’s lovely to describe your homeschooling as park/museum schooling. So nice. And you are so right that monitoring the kids are so easy if you understand their personalities. I am shocked at how much easier homeschooling is once I got the hang of it.

      Also, I really appreciate your observations about your daughter’s social skills group. My son had an IEP with tons of special stuff like social skills groups and when I took him out of school I realized that each of those things were just interruptions to his day. He creates his own paths and rhythms.


      • mbl
        mbl says:

        Ah, the good old IEP. I had to formally request “a full and complete evaluation per IDEA . . .” before my daughter’s needs even existed since “she’s not even on our radar since we have kids here with real problems.” And this was at a ‘Lake Wobegone’ school with a waitlist.

        She has a formal medical Asperger’s diagnosis but they wouldn’t consider that she might meet the educationsl criteria until they conducted the ADOS. Then they offered twice a month social group and several social goals for her to meet with zero guidance from them and no plan for anyone to evaluate whether or not she met the goals. Awesome!! She wasn’t even eligible for sensory breaks since she didn’t qualify for their autism program.

        We (via insurance with a high deductible) used to pay $151 for 90 minutes of social group in which she learned scripted responses to scripted actions and $191 for 50 minutes of OT in which she practiced things that were great for evaluations, but not as helpful on the playground. Now it is either free when it is playground weather (still snow here) or $3-7 for 3+ hours at indoor gym/play structure/bounce house/pool places with 1:1 real life guidance. Sensory heaven. These are places we won’t go during non-school hours.

        Speech and OT served their purposes and I am grateful for them. But it is noteworthy that the instant we started homeschooling, both therapists commented of how well she did during every session during the homeschool overlap.

        I am taking things day by day and we do some co-op things and camps, but I honestly can’t imagine ever sending her back to school.

        I love how fluid the homeschool groups of kids can be. The kids certainly aren’t perfect, but they are remarkably inclusive and respond so well to parental intervention. Things sometimes get pretty rambunctious and there can be some power struggles and hurt feelings, but I just haven’t seen kids being mean.

        I don’t mean to suggest that HSing is always peachy, it’s hard as hell, but so worth it.

        Ooops. Another novella.

        “He creates his own paths and rhythms.” That’s lovely.

  8. Ari
    Ari says:

    If you need something to give people that lends unschooling academic support, the most research-oriented book on unschooling just came out… “Free to Learn”, by Peter Gray, a professor at Boston College who is also author of a standard college intro-to-Psychology textbook. It even has an endorsement by Steven Pinker, the Harvard Psychologist.

    Not that I unschool because of this sort of research, but it is nice to have something to point people toward, if they are the kind of people who respect mainstream scientific support.

  9. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    I’ve given up on convincing family members about the benefits of homeschooling. My husband’s family alone has 3 generations of public school teachers, all within the same school district. Homeschooling is just too radical for them. Flip the argument; they have to convince me of the benefits of peerized public mass programming over the benefits of individualized, customizable learning. Mass education is for the masses but not for the individual.

  10. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    Great. All the reasons I have chosen to homeschool. Especially the second. Now that I have kids I simply cant imagine sending them away for 6-8 hours every day into a school environment when I have worked SO dang hard on them this far! It really feels that at ages 5 and 6 and 7 its much more giving my children over for someone else to raise, rather than teaching them information.

    I would add add family cohesiveness/bonding to this and it would complete my 4 main reasons for homeschooling. That aspect is extremely important to me and I really think school does create too much tension in the home. I think the tension coupled with the long hours of separation really make it hard for parent to relate to child and child to the parent. And obviously that kind of emotional distance can create all sorts of other problems.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Danielle, I agree about the family bonding. All those shared experiences, inside jokes, and seeing your parents as human beings rather than Super-Human Arbiters.

      Watching your parents on the phone, paying bills, interacting with neighbors, doing chores, planning road trips, budgeting, laughing, making mistakes — and doing some of those things right alongside — is great for kids.

      Kids with homeschool experience are more able to decide things for themselves, because they can draw on a long series of memories for “what works.”

      It is hard for families to transmit life knowledge in a constrained after-school time frame.

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This morning I read a blog post ( ) by a 15 year old conservative student who attends public school in Appleton, WI. He wrote about being bullied, singled out, and indoctrinated by a few select school teachers. Students need their own space to reason based on their own critical thinking skills. He still supports the public school system.
    His story, though, could be a good reason for a parent to homeschool. Homeschooling makes available educational content to your child without an having an adult in an authoritarian position (who is not chosen by you) giving their spin or a school system that determines curricula and pass/fail criteria by their schedule.
    I have no idea how frequently it may occur but I have read of other similar type instances. The fact that it happened is bad enough. I think it’s a free speech issue where he shouldn’t have been harassed. I have no idea if and to what extent it may have been happening when I went to school. There was no Internet or social media at the time. Fortunately, I didn’t experience it. This is the thing though. I think parents need to have a good rapport with their child and always be listening for anything that may appear to be out of the ordinary.

  12. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    My biggest “sell” is that parents will never have to participate in a cookie dough, candle, or wrapping paper fundraiser again.

    It’s like taking candy from a babe after that. *smerk*

  13. Daven
    Daven says:

    Interesting — from the “Last One Picked” article in Jezebel:

    “… a student whom he asked to help him pass back papers told him she didn’t know who had written five of the assignments. “This class was on the smaller size (24 students) and had the longest meeting time (80 minutes),” he recalled in an email. “In that moment I stopped my independent reading block and asked my students how many of them believed they could name all 24 students in the class. Only about half of them raised their hand.”

    Kids don’t know the other kids in their classes. (I remember that, from decades ago; I didn’t know all the kids’ names in my classes either.) Socialization, yeah.

  14. Julianna
    Julianna says:

    this is a small thing, but my kids are up at 6:30 and we leave for school at 8:30. 2 hours.

    Then school is out at 2:40 and home by 2:50 (or off to playdate, lesson, park). Go to bed at 7:45. 5 hours there.

    That’s 7 hours. A lot more than 4.5. And that’s for 180 days a year.

    Homeschoolers forget that all parents homeschool more than half the year.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The reason that summer break is not homeschooling is that homeschooling is the believe that sending kids away from home for their education is not productive. If you send your kids to school then you tell your kids you believe in what people are doing in school. You support that. Which means that home for your kids is non-learning time. If it were all learning time then why would you need to send your kids to school? The fundamental belief of school is that kids will not learn unless they are being force-fed material. Do you force-feed material during the summer? How can they both be school? It’s a philosophical problem to say you send your kids to school and you homeschool when school is closed.


      • Julianna
        Julianna says:

        I live on the east coast where school runs til the end of June. So, while we have 60 days off during the summer, we have 125 off during the year. I’m not talking about summer break.

        My kids learn a second language at school and yes, I support that. It’s not something I can do on my own. Ditto math and hard science. There’s a lot I value that goes on at school that I can’t teach on my own, or want to. I can’t model being the adult I want to be — and follow my passions — and homeschool. THAT is important to me.

        But just because I value the work that happens at school hardly means that what we do at home is NOT learning. That doesn’t follow. My kids spend a lot of time doing art and squash and music and other things that require one and one time and isn’t possible to do during school hours. They spend an enormous amount of time with kids in the apartment building we live in, with playdates arranged by yelling into the air shaft. We have been building a house, 2 boys and me and husband, on the weekends for the last 10 months. Again, very much learning and none of it — in school or out — is force fed.

        I just don’t follow your logic on this. I value what they do at school. I value what we do at home too. I value when they’re shooting the shit on the stoop. These things aren’t contradictory. You send you kid outside the home to music classes .. thus what happens in the home isn’t important? You don’t make this leap in your life. Neither do I.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Hi Julianna. I think each family looks at who is getting what out of life and adjusts to give everyone the best benefits possible. No family can do everything. Every family makes compromises. Homeschooling is making a choice to be more conscious about this instead of having it dictated by school.

          The thing that really stands out to me in your comment is that you are following your passions during the day and modeling that for your kids. But the tradeoff is a tough one because you are putting your kids in school, where they cannot follow their passions (that’s not what school is).

          So the way you frame the issue is that you following your passions is at odds with your kids following their passions. So the kids go to school.

          I think it’s true that often family members compromise for each other. I think eight hours a day nine months a year is too big a compromise for the kids to make for the parents. Especially given that we know self-directed passion-based learning is a million times more effective than school.

          Of course, you know this, too, which is why you are so protective of your time during the day when you are free to follow your passion.

          I think families can find a better solution for each person following their passion than sending some members of the family to school.


          • Ben
            Ben says:

            (Sorry, at work)

            What would that look like? For someone like me, a pediatrician with full office hours. Or my wife, an accountant on film sets who is sometimes away for a month at a time?

            I think you have missed some basic truths, like some kids can be passionate about some schools. If I moved to a poor area with no resources I have no doubt my kids and my wife and I would be miserable. But we made more thoughtful choices.

        • mh
          mh says:


          Rosetta Stone offers homeschool language programs that are EXCELLENT and get the job done, on your child’s schedule, with no work and VERY LITTLE COST to the parent. If your children have a passion for languages, Rosetta Stone will feed them.

          I don’t find that homeschooling my children limits my opportunities to pursue my passions. Homeschooling takes so little time (relative to a standard school day), the children do most of the house chores and cooking, we all have time to be outdoors or on field trips, and the children learn things from neighbors and friends (and librarians, and service project volunteers, and National Parks guides…) that I could not teach them — like how to carve foam for model railroad layouts, or how to build a working fountain for the garden out of quick-set concrete, or how to repair stucco walls, or how to change the oil in the cars, or how to do computer animation, or how to propagate local wildflowers from seed … homeschooling is freedom.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Julianna, sure. I agree. ALL PARENTS HOMESCHOOL.

      All parents (implicitly or explicitly) set the boundaries for acceptable activities, ways of interacting, and ways of speaking. All parents teach the hygiene and diet they practice in the home. All parents teach their “rules of the road” to their kids. All parents pass along their attitude toward authority.

      So what else do parents teach the child? Traditional school parents teach the child that “school” is the place you go to learn things.

      Homeschool parents, and I think this is the point, teach that Life is Learning.

  15. emily
    emily says:

    These three points are exactly how I feel about work.

    1) Office politics are draining and detrimental. Sometimes I think it’s just that there’s so much sexism in the office but I see how the non-jocky guy types get treated and it’s just as bad. It’s so hard to make friends at work that you have to write separate posts just about how to do it.

    2) Eight hours a day is too many hours to give up every day to someone else’s cause. I think another commenter once wrote – if you’re doing something that doesn’t either earn you a million dollars a year or isn’t something no one else can do then it’s not worth your time. But people rarely get to either of those places by going to a job and working there for eight hours.

    3) Work is exhausting: From dealing with office politics to dealing with your own lack of interest or passion in the work as it relates to you life on the whole, it’s no wonder people come home tired and depressed. There’s nothing you want to do except come home, order food and watch a show.

  16. Heather
    Heather says:

    with the problems with bullying boredom and depression me and my sisters went through in classes where the teachers where either too busy or didn’t care i plan on at least trying to home school any children.

  17. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    I think it’s extremely hard to explain to the naysayers why you homeschool. Most people don’t deal with the education of children on a daily basis so they really have no idea how kids learn. Which is why when you say creativity and experience, they think that, somehow, that has nothing to do with learning.

    Most people also just want the end result. They want to see the A on the homework, they want to see the high GPA and the high test scores. They aren’t really interested in how you get to that.

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