Every homeschool parent wishes for self-confidence. There is always the time when someone challenges you or your child in public: “How are you learning math?” Or there is the time your child is unhappy and you worry it’s because of your choices. And there are those times when you realize your child hasn’t learned something that you always expected they would know by now. (Confession: Just yesterday I discovered that my ten-year-old son can’t spell his last name.)

For a long time I’ve been wondering where the confidence will come from. How long will it take me to feel confident with my homeschooling choices? What will it be like to stop feeling defensive?

The path to homeschooling with self-confidence is nothing like the path I was expecting to find, because Self-confidence isn’t based in reality but in how we think about ourselves. And we can train ourselves to think that way.

1. Self-confidence comes from taking risks.
According to Alex Malley, author of The Naked CEO, “The only way to build self-confidence is to take a risk and take action despite your fear of failure, messing up, or embarrassment. If things work out, then you now know you can do more than you think. If things don’t work out, you now know that you can handle more than you think. Either way, you’re better off.”

What’s most interesting here is that the best way to feel self-confident about homeschooling is to actually start doing it. The act of starting is taking the type of risk that naturally boosts self-confidence.

2. Have self-compassion instead of self-confidence.
Be careful because self-compassion is not about letting yourself off the hook. You can be self-compassionate while still accepting responsibility for your performance.  And you can be self-compassionate while striving for the most challenging goals. The difference lies not in where you want your children’s learning to end up, but in how you think about the ups and downs of the homeschooling process.

3. Do something shallow.
Buy something expensive. When women have a luxury item they feel like their marriage is more secure. The science behind why this is true is a little disturbing. So you don’t want to read that link, try reading The Primates of Park Avenue—there’s a whole chapter on why having a large, high-end purse changes how you think about yourself. So I always use my wallet from Maxwell Scott Bags. It’s gorgeous and I feel good every time I touch it.

Also I get an expensive haircut. My friend actually cuts it for free, but it’s expensive because I have to fly to LA to see her. Hair is important. If hair looks good we feel in control, and our sense of control is linked to self-esteem. The best research about hair comes from Yale: if you have a bad hair day you feel that you are less capable in life.

4. It’s not about curriculum.
You are never going to know what’s right or wrong for homeschooling. There is no right answer. There is only you and your relationship with your child. There is simply all of you being the best family you can be. And everyone in the household is learning, the best way they can figure out to learn.

Self-confidence is not about being sure you are right. Or even guessing right. Or gathering the most data. Homeschooling with self-confidence comes from the reserves you build inside yourself. It’s self-confidence about life.

29 replies
  1. Sophie
    Sophie says:

    It’s funny people see self-confidence as something that needs to be built. We are born with it, otherwise, we would never learn to walk/talk.
    We don’t need to build self-confidence, we need to preserve it.

  2. Virginia
    Virginia says:

    Penelope, when I read articles, I often have different take-aways from you. Instead of thinking that an expensive handbag will buy “security”, I see this and think that only insecure women would buy a handbag in the first place because they are trying to feel secure. It would be better to address the issues relating to your security head on rather than buy a handbag. I didn’t mean to get off topic, I just think its interesting that we can both read the same article and interpret it so differently. There was recently an article in the washingtonpost saying that people with autism (or maybe Asperger’s) are more creative and I feel you have a creative interpretation of articles. I’ve heard you say that you have bad reading comprehension before but I just think your mind works differently because your take aways aren’t really wrong– just different.

  3. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    I totally agree with the hair. I feel a lot better after a hair cut, but I always let my hair grow too long before I couldn’t handle the mess anymore and had to force myself to have a cut :)

    Taking risks does improve confidence! I had the experience this Monday, when I invited two friends over, and painted one of them after tea and chocolate. It was the first time I oil painted in front of people! I felt some pressure, but it eased as I started the process. And it came out pretty well after one hour’s work. It increased my confidence a lot!

  4. Kris Costello
    Kris Costello says:

    After nearly 8 years of homeschooling our youngest and a short high school homeschooling time with my eldest. ( Now an adult). I find that I worry less about ‘curriculum’ and more about is he doing what he loves? Is our household filled with love and support? Does he have friends that he can confide in? Out of the blue he announced tonight that he’s like to be an architect and a chef. ( It’s been a hilarious adventure watching him try to teach his mother, (me) to cook!) Thank goodness for Chef John Video’s! I guess the Architect thing didn’t surprise me that much, his great grandfather was an architect and a civil engineer…anyway, we hang out with other homeschoolers, so nobody in that group thinks we’re weird and we all feel pretty confident that we are doing the right thing for our children and our families. Now the hair thing, that’s another matter….I’ve had the same style for nearly 40 yrs. lol!

  5. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Your post is timely. Our senior associate in our law firm just told me today that I should have more confidence. Thank you.

      • Cate
        Cate says:

        This comment is not true. It may be that this is a very senior partner who sees this (perhaps young?) person as lacking confidence in her abilities, and he was trying to tell her that she should believe in herself, because he sees good things!

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        Well, not always.

        Ten years ago Beth Comstock, the current President & CEO, GE Business Innovations Chief Marketing Officer, GE was told by CEO, GE Jeff Immelt “I need you to be more confident.” Apparently he meant something like “You are more competent than you realize and I would love to see your demeanor accurately reflect what I believe to be true.” At least that is how it reads to me.

        I’m not sure why a senior associate would bother otherwise.


      • MBL
        MBL says:

        mh, I was surprised by your comment. In addition to it not being true, it seems out of character. I mean, I know you think tact is overrated, but I hope you don’t think cruelty is underrated.

        I’d have added a — ;) — after “tact is overrated” to convey my intent, but I believe you think those are overrated too!

          • MBL
            MBL says:

            Ay-yi was afraid you were going to say that.

            (The WIC is for While I’m Cringing. It is pronounced lollwick. I just made that up, but I think it should be a thing.)

          • mh
            mh says:



            The ai-yi-yi was directed at me, because I sort of understand the expectations but frequently … How shall I say? … blaze through.

            When I’m not really concentrating, I talk like I think, eh?

            /insert internet smiley face here/

  6. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    According to my reductionist Three Peoples theory there are:

    People of the Subordinate Self: Don’t see the point of school.

    People of the Responsible Self: go to school to become a responsible adult that contributes to society.

    People of the Creative Self: Home school, because who knows what their talents are?

    • Aquinas Heard
      Aquinas Heard says:

      Lost causes: People who arbitrarily create theories to justify their ignorance of:

      The nature of children
      The process of learning and its difference from schooling
      The history of schooling
      The current intellectual state of schools, especially public schools.

  7. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Your son is ten now?! I can’t believe it’s been a whole year already. I can’t believe I have been following your blog for so many years now! Life really does seem to go by so quickly, I’m glad to have these moments at home with my kids, makes me want to go give them each a hug and tell them how much I love them and wish for time to stand still for awhile.

    • Jenn Gold
      Jenn Gold says:

      Hey YMKAS,

      I love your comment as I can identify with it 100%.

      The nature of my work is that some months are more intense and busy than others. They are always home schooled either way.

      During the quiet months though, when Im home more and more home-minded, I realize just how much of my kids I still have missed. Lots and LOTS of time spent together, plus homeschooling.

      I dont feel guilty because I am truly aware that the decisions I made are right for us.

      But the differences in the emotional attachment and bonding are distinct to me (INFJ). And I am thankful that I made this decision. Penelope’s writings and other commenters formed my support system that facilitated this.

      I almost want to say “only homeschoolers would understand”…

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I wonder how parents of children that attend school have self confidence were it not for test scores, grade advancement, and curricula. The test scores, grade advancement, and curricula in school are the substitute for the hours of observation each day done by a homeschooling parent. Which is a better measure of a child’s advancement to a child’s readiness for adult life? What is the purpose of a K-12 or homeschool education? Is it only for the sake of admittance to and graduation from a college or university? What I’m trying to convey here is there may be too much focus and attention on academics for children today. While academics are important, I don’t think the self confidence of homeschooling parents are necessarily derived from it. The measurement and success of goals of each homeschooled child and their parents are as diverse as the needs of each homeschooled child and family. The allure of homeschooling is the ability to be able to customize and change the learning environment to suit individual needs. Knowing that numerous possibilities and solutions exist to facilitate learning should help homeschooling parents in some way to gain self confidence. I think the self confidence problem for homeschoolers arises when they’re compared to children who go to school. The experiences, goals, and path of each can be very different for each even though the goal of both is to get into college. Thanks for the post. It makes me think of self confidence for all parents whether they’re homeschooling or sending their kids to school.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Mark, your commentary resonated with me.

      In keeping with the best homeschooling philosophy, I will describe self-confidence among schoolchildren as other-directed and externally focused. A kid who goes to school feels self-confident if he is doing all right in all his classes and his grades and test scores are sufficient. These are metrics set up by society to sort the children, and he feels confident if he’s sorted into the top group. His self-confidence is constructed at the most superficial, externally-focused level of his personality, and sometimes persists only to the extent that he continues to play the same game – the game of memorization, test-taking, and competition with other kids just his age. When the scene is changed, or he enters a situation where his goals are unclear, this confidence may fall away.

      Somewhere during adolescence, peer pressure becomes more important to him than parental guidance. If by then he has been sorted into the college-bound group, he will follow his peers to college. When he gets to college, he will do the same things his peers do, whether that be competing for fellowships or competing to see who can drink the most beer. The self-confidence will remain, to the extent clear external metrics persist, the game resembles the one he’s played for the last thirteen years, and his peers keep playing it too. Given how all-consuming school has become (with the college admissions-driven takeover of everything that happens outside school as “extracurricular activity,”) excellent sheep may be the best you can hope for.

      My 11 year old son went to sleepaway camp this summer for three weeks. For two of them we had no contact with him. He had problems (bullying) he needed to resolve himself, with the help of his counselors, and he did. This might seem like a low bar compared to what David Farragut was up to when he was eleven, but we have had many good conversations since he returned about how the experience has affected him, and I expect more as he continues to unpack it. We have calm, time, a lack of competition or anxiety, and a strong bond. We can contemplate at leisure, and think about how the experience affected him not in externally measured successes or failures but in his ability to adapt to and prosper in unfamiliar circumstances and to maintain his pride and integrity in the face of adversity.

      If he were already back in school, like some kids are, these conversations would never have happened, as he would already have had to armor up for new adversity. For us, instead of an abrupt cut-off date, our summer slowly fades through gradual reintroduction of activities into the busyness of the fall. Highlights this week include two excellent auditions, one on violin and the other on viola, and my son’s insight that supporting a group is more important to him than being a soloist.

      I can’t help but think that the different rhythm of our seasons, combined with the inescapable fact that I spend more time with my son than does any parent who sends his kids to school, changes the nature of our conversations. I’m not just patching him up quickly to send him back into the fight. I don’t need to accept that we’ll never have time to get to the bottom of things. And this is the point I’m so clumsily trying to make – that self-confidence is something best constructed from the bottom of things.

      Adolescence is turning out to be a wonderful time in my son’s life. I understand that for many people it’s a trial and a period of conflict and separation. For us, it’s starting out as a period of greater communion, while we watch his abilities unfold and his confidence grow.

  9. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Building on what Mark said, I have observed that die-hard advocates of public schooling (there are many in the blogosphere) have an uncanny confidence that public school is truly adequate to prepare people for functional adulthood and that choosing any other means of educating children and young people is either unfair or hurtful to the public at large. To have that kind of strong opinion is to be incredibly confident! Confidence does not always involve good judgment. Humility is not a bad thing. We all want a sense of security about what we are doing (I mean people in general) but that comes over time. In the end, whether a family homeschools or not, raising kids involves 10,000 leaps of faith, along with firm conviction. And if you ever need an attaboy or some reassurance, just read a little John Gatto and you’ll be feelin’ just fine!

  10. kris Costello
    kris Costello says:

    Katarina- Ah yes! I just ‘rediscovered’ John Gatto and his writings were SO reassuring and inspiring! Got all excited about Interviewing him and was so sad to hear he had had a stroke a few years back and now has difficulty communicating. My experiences as a beginning teacher were very similiar to his. I couldn’t believe that none of the other teachers were talking about education and/or the kids they were teaching. Or if they were, they were complaining. A rude wake up call indeed! I Lasted about 20 yrs in the teaching world – and 10 of those were only because I ran ‘my own’ school and had the freedom to create a pretty interesting education experience for the kids. Love your description of 10K leaps of faith – and having raised teenagers – occasionally a ‘mama bear’ to keep them on track!

  11. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Personally, I think it takes 10,000 leaps of faith to keep ones children in a failing system, called traditional public school.

    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      Isn’t that the truth? The biggest advocates of public schooling are also complaining the loudest about what is wrong. They are committed to the concept, even when they see that reality shows (according to their own complaints) that it is inherently flawed. They blame the problems on external forces out of their control. They don’t/cannot accept that the concept is flawed.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Right?! Maybe we should re-frame the question. How can parents who send their children to public school have confidence in that decision? I don’t think there are enough haircuts, purses and wallets that can help with that.

  12. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    Penelope is right that self-confidence is not about being sure you are right. Self-confidence is primarily the result of feeling you are capable –overall – about life.

    Long time unschoolers on here can verify the veracity of this next claim. Recognizing that your child has a right to their life and honoring their right to pursue their values will lay a permanent foundation of efficacy within your child. Through this constant self-directed pursuit of values, a child will internalize that he is responsible for the selection of his values and, as he attains them, he will learn that he is, overall, capable of attaining values generally. A child might encounter times when they don’t achieve the value/goal they set out for but (with the help of parental feedback – if asked) he will not make a general assessment of himself as being incapable. How could he? The vast majority of his experience have shown that he does get what he goes after. He did climb that slide. He did pour the milk in the glass. He did kill the Angry Bird on the Ipad. He did identify the name of the distant relative. He was able to get away from the older sibling who chased him. It is through these constant reality driven experiences and successes that a child will feel efficacious and act efficaciously – like a feedback loop.

    I would venture that because the majority of us did not have this completely free value pursuit experience as children (along with our parents not treating us as actual people, more like they owned us) we never developed this total sense of efficacy. Now, as adults, we have had or are having to figure out how to instill confidence in ourselves. Some of the techniques explained in the Forbes article could be worthwhile. But, I think the way I described how children attain self-confidence is just as applicable to adults.

    Pursue a rational value and make a mental note of all that is going on in your mind as you do the pursing. I think you will find that as you pursue this value you will learn a lot about what might be preventing you from having overall self-confidence about life. As you experience any roadblocks or temporary failures are you making unwarranted generalizations about yourself? Are there facts to back up these generalizations? If there are, are you making new choices so that these negative generalizations are no longer applicable to you? Are you giving too much consideration to what others think about this value pursuit? If so, why? And why these people? Have you considered worst case scenarios? How likely are they really? Can you deal with this worst case scenario? And so forth.

    Just as the Forbes article advised for people to consider making new and better choices to raise their confidence level, I am hoping parents will honor their child’s right to exercise their volition. This way their child(ren) will never suffer from low overall self-confidence.

  13. Kate
    Kate says:

    Don’t feel bad about your kid not being able to spell his last name, Penelope. I didn’t learn how to spell my own last name reliably until I was eight years old, and I was (and still am) known as ‘the good speller’ in my family. I was great at spelling everything except my own name. Why? Because my last name is Italian and long with lots of vowels, more vowels than consonants in fact, and I am Australian! It just didn’t fit! So I coped by always copying my name off something else. I remember the day I learnt to spell my last name, because I was copying my name into a heap of my books, and I realised I didn’t have to check the spelling after a few goes of copying it out. I even made up a little sing song in my head to help me remember, which I still use now when I have to spell my name for someone else.


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