My kids asked me if I’m voting for Donald Trump. I could give a million reasons why the answer is no, but I wanted to give a thoughtful answer that would generate a conversation. So I said, “No. I don’t think he supports community.”

We talked about that. We talked about the border wall he wants Mexico to pay for, we talked about how he wants to children born in the US to live in Mexico. Then my son said, “Mom, how do you support community? We don’t really do anything in our community.”

Crap. I have to remember as the kids get older it’s harder to get on a high horse about anything.

When we first moved to our rural home I was actively trying to improve the community by way of the school. I met with the principal a lot to talk about how to make improvements for the kids.

Then I got frustrated and took my kids out of school. Since then, we have made our life on our farm and in Madison and the northern suburbs of Chicago. I don’t know very many people in Darlington, and neither do my kids.

I struggle to feel like I’m part of a community. When the kids were smaller we joined all the other families when the carnival came through town. Now, not so much. I look for ways to contribute even though we are rarely here, and also, there is a huge cultural gap between me and my community.

The truth is, most of the way I contribute to community is to vote for people who want to put resources toward supporting people at the bottom rungs of the community. I should have said that to the kids.

But really, saying stuff like that to the kids just sounds preachy and self-serving and they smell it a mile away.

While I was fretting about that, I remembered that my older son asked to work at a soup kitchen. I couldn’t find one close by and gave up. But then I looked harder and found a food pantry looking for volunteers. It was close to our home. So we went.

I tried to be casual while we were packaging ears of corn. I said, “It feels good to be contributing to the community.”

The boys looked like they didn’t hear me even though I know they did, which meant I couldn’t repeat it.

So we took our places in the line: Older boy handing out carrots, Younger one handing out bananas, Me unloading carts.

I was shocked that no adult supervised them.

At the end of the day, I asked them how it went. My younger son said.

“I saw a friend here.”

There were no other kids volunteering, so I knew what he meant. I said, “How did that feel?”

“I was surprised,” he said. “And I didn’t know her family is poor.”

I nodded. This was one of those times when I want to say something profound and nothing comes to mind.  I said, “What did you say when she saw you?”

He said, “Well. I gave her bananas. And then I talked to her just like I would if I saw her at the pool.”

You can teach kids empathy. There are a million ways and I’m not linking to them. All the sappy parenting sites tell you what to do. The reason those parenting magazines tell you about empathy is because it’s an absolute joy to watch your child exhibit empathy when it really matters.

The thing those magazines don’t tell you is that if you send your kids away for the majority of their lives, you miss the majority of moments when your kids shine. And the same is true for community: if you keep your kids away from community, for eight hours a day, you miss the opportunity to make them feel like they are part of a community.

Homeschooling is not about having values no one else does. And it’s not about having curriculum no one else does. It’s about giving time to kids—not as a teacher or a spiritual leader but as a parent who shares the joys of day-to-day living.

16 replies
  1. BenK
    BenK says:

    A balanced portfolio strategy suggests doing good things for people who are near to you, consistently, even though the impact is only on a few people and for a short duration (perhaps); doing concrete things for the community nearby, though the actions may seem mundane and the local impact only last a few years; and doing some things that have a low probability of success or a long time horizon, but could impact a large number of people at a national or international level. Different people will balance with their own emphasis, but having a bit of each is healthful.

  2. sarah
    sarah says:

    When I was a kid I worked at food banks. Which, is ironic because we should have been in the recieving lines. I never went with my mom. My Aunt took me. I dont think she took me for the experience, but rather for the help. They were always short handed.

    I dont think working at a food bank taught me empathy, since I was just as poor, but rather econmics. I saw just how much stores waste to keep people coming in. But I saw stores careing by donating to the poor. I dont mind paying for things because I feel like I keep the cycle of giving going. I learned its ok for people to make money, they need money to help the poor.

  3. kate
    kate says:

    “Homeschooling is not about having values no one else does. And it’s not about having curriculum no one else does. It’s about giving time to kids—not as a teacher or a spiritual leader but as a parent who shares the joys of day-to-day living.”

    Ok this needs to be blasted from the rooftops of apartments and homes to the flagpoles in every schoolyard across the globe. Thank you, Penelope!

  4. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    It’s almost like I get so used to knowing that when I come here I will read such quality, thoughtful, helpful writing that I expect it in a selfish kind of way. Just thinking today how much better my life is because you chose to homeschool and then chose to share your experiences and making sense of it publicly. I guess I’m trying to say thank you, again.

    Also, I went to an Unschooling conference called Free To Be in Arizona with 400 other parents and kids this weekend. I was blown away and am still processing all I heard and saw and was offered. I had no idea some people completely sign on to allowing their 9 year olds to play video games all night with people in different time zones around the world and then sleep all day and then start over. That there are parents who go days without speaking to their children, sometimes. And they will explain to you exactly why this is respectful parenting in their case and could be in your case too. Or four year old’s with “natural” dread locks and brown teeth. And explanations of how and why this is respectful in their case. I really am not judging, just honestly in a bit of shock, I think. It was very clear to me that these parents love their children deeply and by all outward measures their children are respectful, socially appropriate children as much as I could observe in a four day conference kind of interactions.

    The thing I think I heard the most, the theme I heard, was that this is the priority for most of the outspoken/experienced/deeply unschooling families: “My highest priority as a parent is my relationship with my child and the best way I’ve found to have a good relationship is to trust them instead of require things of them that they tell me are unhelpful and that are largely arbitrary rules our culture imposes. For instance all people cycle through different sleep schedules in their life. When he gets a job, damn straight if he won’t set that alarm to get up and adjust to what is important to him at that time. Relationship building and trust as what everything centers around. ”

    I brought up that I don’t care if *I* am the one they turn to for everything, because I just can’t be everything to them and the earlier I accept that, the more confident I’ll be in the roles I do play in their life. That I think my real goal is for them to feel confident in knowing how to identify and reach out to trustworthy, competent people when they need help, and there were some nods, but there were also some vehement disagreeing, I guess maybe mostly by people with younger children…

    Another time in a circle discussion on respectful parenting I brought up that book that you told me you’d read, “The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings,” by David F. Lancy and said something like how I think this is important as well:

    ..”Perhaps the most surprising thing about “The Anthropology of Childhood” was how it taught me to value things that, in a cross-cultural perspective, might suddenly seem arbitrary: how we approach hygiene, for example, or teach etiquette. As a parent, I realized, my job is to transmit my culture. It helps to think of your child as a stranger in a strange land, like a study-abroad student you are hosting long term and to whom you must, patiently and constantly, explain the land they’re visiting.

    “In our culture, we don’t put our feet on the table,” I have heard myself say. “I suppose there are cultures where you can, but this isn’t one of them.”

    Then we get on the floor and play Legos, which is what we do in our culture.”

    And it was…not well received. Children should not have to change for arbitrary cultural norms. That is not what childhood is about and we do a disservice to our children if we strain our relationship trying to make them do things that are ammoral. I will say that I heard from the “loudest”, most opinionated voices the most and wonder how many other parents do have a less black and white thought process on the role of cultural norms in a child’s life.

    And also, I was shocked at the lack of “activism” or community emphasis. They had an Experienced Unschooling dad’s panel and someone asked something like “how do you respond when people ask you about how/your philosophy of homeschooling?” and every single one of them said, “Lie.” Or “Tell half truths like: ‘we use a lot of different curriculums!” or ‘we do a lot of internet study’.” They said they tell the answerer what will make them most comfortable, they aren’t out there trying to “change anyone’s minds/the world.” The same theme for the mother’s panel.

    I guess I just think that is one of the hardest parts about homeschooling for me, is the tension between wanting to help my own community of children (and be a citizen of the world and help the children who don’t even get to SURVIVE childhood, let alone *enjoy*/thrive because of economic/war kind of factors) and wanting to meet the needs of my children that are right in front of me. Knowing that my children are in this incredible place of privilege, where they get to have a full, rich, active role in determining how they spend their childhood, and the only way I can keep going is by working to create a life where I use my energy to be community minded and invite my children along while I try to be responsible to that value.

    Wow, that was really long and rambly, and I hope that it didn’t come off as judgmental. I do respect parents who say they have made their best judgments with where to put their energy as they unschool.

    Ok, last thing – I have three children and I noticed that most people had only one or two, the MOST I saw was a family of four and that was the ONLY family with four children that I saw.

    Ok, last, last thing. I also have felt so comforted by what I’ve picked up from you and that book you quote from the guy who quotes the twin studies and says it’s mostly genetic, how your kids turn out, so just ENJOY them, that’s my biggest job as a parent. But there was push back to that as well. I felt like most/the loudest(?) voices were convinced that unschooling was what was going to give their children “the chance to reach their potential” or “the leg up on being successful in careers”, kind of things.

    I will be thinking on this experience for a long, long time. It brought up so much for me. Invaluable.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


      That conference certainly sounds “interesting” from your perspective. I consider myself an experienced unschooler but you won’t ever find me at a conference.

      There is a difference between unschooling and radical unschooling. Unschooling is where children are the drivers of their education. Radical unschooling extends that philosophy into all areas of a child’s life including bedtimes, food, and personal hygiene.

      I consider myself an unschooler and respectful peaceful parent. If there is a spectrum of unschooling I am somewhere between unschooler and radical unschooler, but you won’t see my kids with brown teeth. Ew. My kids play video games, but not for hours a day as they have so many other activities they would rather be doing, like making music, creating art, and sports. My kids are free to eat what they wish, but my house is filled with healthy food options, organic foods, lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. They are free to go to sleep when they wish, but that is generally still early in the evening since they get up at 5AM every morning like clockwork. We emphasize making healthy choices and taking care of our bodies. We talk about diseases and sickness when one doesn’t take care of themselves. Showing a picture of neglected teeth in an adult would do wonders for my kids if they suddenly stopped brushing for some reason.

      I don’t feel the need to be everything for my kids, perhaps definitely at young toddler ages, but at the older ages we look for experts to help in fields that they are interested in. I can’t coach my kid on a one person swim team. I can’t teach my kids how to act nor can I teach them how to progress pass level 4 in piano. We definitely need help with these things and look to our community for not only support but to be an active part of it.

      I don’t lie to people when they ask me about unschooling. How… strange. I don’t consider myself an unschooling activist, but perhaps I am. I am not ashamed of how we live our lives, and I have seen only positives from my kids once we moved to an unschooling philosophy from an academic traditional one.

      How great that you went to the conference and kept an open mind about it. Hopefully you learned some helpful things to help you with your own family.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Thanks for the report, Rachel. It’s very evocative. I imagine a gaggle of grunting snaggle-haired children, brown in tooth and claw, hiding behind their shifty dads.

      Whenever I feel I have to lie about something I wonder if that indicates a problem with what I’m doing. I’m glad I don’t feel I have to lie about what my kid does. My new catch phrase is “interest-led learning.” People seem to understand that. If one feels like he has to hide what he’s doing, how can he continue to feel it’s the right thing? Bizarre conspiracy theories?

      As far as passing down our cultural norms of personal hygiene, darn tootin I do. It might not be as obvious to someone who is deeply self-obsessed or whose social interactions are mostly mediated by a MMORPG, but people we meet do inescapably judge us when they meet us, as we do them, and hygiene is one of the things most judged. I’ve seen folks talk about how to present oneself here, and I think a reasonable baseline for that would be “not as a filthy savage.” So I am not above telling my kids to change their clothes, brush their teeth, bathe, and trim their nails on a regular basis.

      Odd as it may seem, although my daughter is in preschool and she plans to go to regular school afterwards – and my son also plans to go back to school next year (which combination would make me no longer a homeschooler) – I still do talk to others about our homeschooling and in some cases recommend it. I am happy with the effect these five years have had on my son, who is content, competent, enthused, articulate, and ambitious. Oh, and clean.

    • mh
      mh says:

      When it comes to clean teeth, I am judgmental.

      There are standards in the home, and children lack the life experience to set the standards. We respect them personally and insist they meet the standards for hygiene and manners.

      When they were little and complained about writing thank you notes, I told them it was the law. Same with sitting in car seats at age three. That’s the law. Cheer up and deal with it.

      Now they’re big and still write thank you notes. They know it’s not the law. :). It’s a good habit to have, and practice makes permanent.

    • Cáit
      Cáit says:

      I’ve never met anyone like that in my homeschooling community..but I have seen issues which I think have the same root. Abstract thinkers, in this case the parents you described, can get carried away, especially when they are immature, and forget to contextually assess their “big ideas.” One solution: have friends who are S in MBTI. “Does this make sense? Not brushing teeth?” Check with an S. It puts a check on runaway abstraction. Like New England liberal arts college students who become vegans and then question whether antibiotics are “animal cruelty”. Check with an S.

  5. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    Penelope, I’m glad you seldom touch on politics on this blog.

    It’s important too; but here, we can focus on being better homeschoolers no matter what cultures, religions, or politics might otherwise divide us.

  6. mh
    mh says:

    *** my kids are older ***

    We have sort of an odd homeschool/unschool, a lot of generally weird combinations of ideas, and I’m fine with it. The border wall has come up around here, but my older son’s take was:

    “No border wall. We should annex Mexico. There’s all this talk about colonizing Mars. We should colonize Latin America. Citizenship for them, new frontier for us.”

    No kidding. So we played around with that idea and he made a very good case for how it would work, historical figures that would have gotten it done, and why it would be good for the people in both countries. Then he gave me three or four reasons why it would never work. He’s my philosopher-poet, and he always has surprising perspectives, but I wasn’t expecting this one.

    To be fair, then the conversation turned to great-grandpa, who crossed the border multiple times, living and working in california and mexico during the 1920s. Then to great-grandma, an immigrant in the 30’s who totally acculturated. Why that’s good. Why that’s bad. How my grandfather, with an eighth grade education, started and failed at multiple businesses and became successful. But how his daughter-in-law, with college educated parents, was always so snobby to him about his culture. How most American families have immigrants in the mix. Why that’s good. Why that’s bad. How things are different for today’s immigrants than they were for Ellis island immigrants. Shaun Tan’s book “the Arrival.”

    Then the philosopher-poet went off by himself and made a little bridge out of wooden coffee stirrers and didn’t bring the subject up again.

    This is why philosopher-poets don’t make good politicians, Plato’s ideas notwithstanding.

    • Mark Kenski
      Mark Kenski says:

      Sounds like there’s more than a little philosopher poet in you too, mh. Really enjoyed that glimpse at one of the great joys of having a home-schooled older child :)

      • mh
        mh says:

        I enjoy them as big kids – they get more fun every year. Big conversations last night:

        Who has better commercials?
        1) GEICO with the gecko, maxwell the pig, the caveman, and Charlie Daniels/Kenny Rogers/the drill sergeant
        2) nationwide with Manning singing that theme tune “chicken parm is really good”
        3) the directv/cable commercials

        They settled it by adding up youtube views, for a minute. But those kind of questions ultimately get settled when they grow up and make their kids watch some funny old video, they and their generation.

        I let my kids watch Star Blazers under the spell of personal nostalgia.

  7. Rayne of Terror
    Rayne of Terror says:

    We don’t fit in with our small town very well either. What I do is help run the youth recreation softball, baseball & t-ball league for community work. Giving every kid the opportunity to play ball in town for a cheap price in a well run league is something I can get behind. It’s a lot of picking up trash & counting concession stand money at 9:30 pm while my kids eat the leftover popcorn, but it’s definitely worth while. My favorite part is running the league Facebook page and trying to make sure every team gets their moment in the sun & parents know what’s going on and feel welcome.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Kudos to your older son for asking to work at a soup kitchen, your younger son for being able to perform his volunteering in a personal and dignified manner with his friend, and you for making the extra effort to make the experience possible. I didn’t see from this story where the kids were taught empathy by being involved in this community event. It seems to me they got a chance to hone and show what they had already learned beforehand.


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