This is a photo from the photographer who was at our house yesterday. Not that having a photographer at the house is unusual—we have one here every so often—but this one, Paulius Musteikis, was different. He was sent by a magazine publisher the first time, but he came back because I asked him to. Most photographers come from New York or Los Angeles, but he’s from Madison. So close!

So as we got to talking, I learned that today was the first day of homeschooling for his eleven-year-old son.

I congratulated him and offered for his son to come to the farm and visit any time. But also I asked the question I love to ask homeschoolers: “What was the final straw? What happened that made you think it’s insane to keep going to school.”

Paulius told me about one Sunday he was playing in the snow with his son. They brought tools to the playground and started chopping ice into blocks. It was getting dark but his son wanted to stay late, in the dark, and finish.

Paulius suggested they do just the chopping and then Monday, at recess, all the school kids could all work together to build something.

His son said they can’t do that because they’re not allowed to touch the snow.

That’s right. We live in Wisconsin and kids are not allowed to touch the snow during school recess.

Paulius said he had no idea playground rules were like that, and the more he asked, the more he learned how little his son was allowed to do at recess. On top of that, his son was becoming more and more checked out during the school day, to the point that teachers were calling conferences.

His final straw was the  realization that his son got no time to play, and his son was not able to focus. The combination was too much.

A pattern I notice is when parents take their kids out of school and start homeschooling, they have pretty much no idea how to homeschool but they don’t think they could do worse than what the school is doing.

I had that sense when my son tested two grades ahead in math and reading and the school said they had no obligation to teach him at his level. Is that legal? I’m not even sure, but I was sick of fighting legal battles for my other son’s IEP, and I knew I didn’t want to send my son to teachers who were arguing with me over whether they had to teach him anything.

I tried to make plans when I started homeschooling, but I realized quickly that the plans were only to make me feel better, to give me the ability to point to what I was accomplishing. Because really, those plans did not benefit my sons. They didn’t need my plans, they needed respect and freedom to craft their own plans.

That’s the hardest part about homeschooling, to give up the idea that your kids need to be told what to be interested in. Most parents figure that out in stages.

Stage one: parents figure out that their vision for their child’s education is not happening because their child is not thriving.

Stage two: parents figure out that they are working too hard at homeschooling because kids can make their own path.

Stage three: parents leave their kids alone.

This last stage is when parents become evangelists for homeschooling. Because the right goal is crystal clear by then. But those first two stages are so so hard, that it looks, from the outside, like homeshooling is the hardest path a parent can choose.

That’s why the stories that force parents down that path are so fun to hear.


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56 replies
  1. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Kids are not allowed to touch snow in my part of Connecticut either. My daughter missed months of recess because they were confined to a very small, very boring paved area of the parking lot. She has had six years of playing in the snow to make up for that very long winter.

  2. cheryl
    cheryl says:

    Do folks here think it’s easier to make the decision to homeschool after something like this happens, as opposed to making the decision from the very beginning?

    As we get closer to elementary school/homeschool decision-time for our almost-4-year-old, I find myself fascinated by these stories, but struggling without one of my own to fall back on for motivation when I get nervous about homeschool.

    And then that seems strange, as if I’m wanting my child to have a bad experience for some kind of validation.

    • April
      April says:

      Hi Cheryl,

      No, you definitely don’t need to have a bad experience for motivation! We were actually pretty happy with our eldest child’s kindergarten and (part of) 1st grade experiences. He was really fortunate to have wonderful teachers who thought outside the usual box and made school a place he loved. When his 1st grade teacher invited us in for a conference halfway through the year, we were surprised when her first question was, “How did he learn to read like he does?” (He sort of figured it out for himself …..) She went on to say that she would try to accommodate his needs in class, but that the only other thing the school would offer was whole-grade acceleration, and her recommendation instead would be that we take him out of school and teach him at home so that his love for learning wouldn’t be destroyed! Can you believe it??? We were so thankful for her candid advice, and that was the beginning of our homeschooling journey. That child has graduated and is now living across the country in a city he loves, with a good job and time to “have a life” as he likes to say ;) We are continuing our journey of more than 15 years as a homeschooling family (still have two at home) and I often think of that wonderful public school teacher who helped us choose this path. All of that to say that we all come to homeschooling in a variety of ways, and if you get to begin before a “bad experience” makes you start thinking about it, I think that is wonderful! Best wishes to you and your family!

      • cheryl
        cheryl says:

        April, thanks so much for this wonderfully encouraging reply. Stories about homeschooled kids who are now adults out in the world are also so fascinating to me, so your story about your son was a double treat!

    • BenK
      BenK says:

      Not so much a criticism as an affirmation – smart people learn from their mistakes; really smart people learn from other peoples’ mistakes…

    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      I think what happens is kids are really really ready to learn when they are like 0 -12. And school slows them down. And after 12, is when maybe you start to notice concerning things…but by then it can be very difficult to turn things around.

      I think if you ever give consideration to homeschooling, doing it early is the biggest bang for your buck. And it does not mean you have to do it until they are 18 to see benefits. They need to learn how to be their own advocate before you send them off to school. Some may see how to do this effectively faster than others.

      • cheryl
        cheryl says:

        Jennifa, this is so interesting to me: “And it does not mean you have to do it until they are 18 to see benefits. They need to learn how to be their own advocate before you send them off to school.”

        I had never thought about it from this perspective before. I’ll definitely be turning this over in my head…

        • Jennifa
          Jennifa says:

          Yeah, my sis did that for her two girls. Kind of a potpourri of; homeschooling early years, then one year of disastrous Christian private school, more homeschooling, public school, more homeschooling and now public school again. At this point you probably couldn’t drag the kids out of school, they really enjoy it. I feel certain it was the homeschooling years that gave them what they needed to now enjoy public school. The older one has expressed extreme dis-satisfaction with her mother for ‘keeping her home all those years of homeschooling’. I think that will wear off eventually; maybe by the time she is 40. :) The younger one probably likes that she always has a plan B of homeschooling again if she wants. And oh yeah, they both were not always homeschooled at the same time. Sometimes one was in school while the other not. So do whatever you want! Their your kids!

    • Darleen Saunders
      Darleen Saunders says:

      I see the dichotomy you face. But there may be one you’re missing. Think of it this way, we know formal brick and mortar schools are failing students by the droves right? We all know they are no longer educating students effectively, they have not kept up with how the world has changed and are old factory models. So it may be safe to say that the traditional school model is broken.

      If the traditional model is broken they why would you want your child to participate? What is so alluring about it? What is the worst thing that could happen if they didn’t participate? These are legitimate questions to as yourself.

      For me it was the fear that my child may not be able to attend college or university that was really holding me back, not that I or anyone else couldn’t do a good job of teaching. When I did some research and found that not only could homeschoolers attend college, but that statistically they are admitted at a higher rate than almost any other group, that made me confident.

      • cheryl
        cheryl says:

        Darleen, I particularly appreciate your “What is the worst thing that could happen…” question. I don’t have a quick answer, which tells me it’s a great thing to consider.

  3. Jeff Till
    Jeff Till says:

    Great story!

    For me it took both the theoretical and the schooling experience. As I learned more through Gatto/Holt/Lewellen (and Trunk!) about home education, the real experiences of my children in school seemed more repulsive and oppressive. And then it all came together when I thought about how I’d like to be treated if I were in their situation.

  4. Shelly
    Shelly says:

    Oh, there were so many reasons we started. One huge thing was that, since we have such a large family, my kids were constantly bringing home illnesses and lice (which our school never publicized when it was going around so that we could be proactive), so we ended up calling off of school several times. I eventually got a letter stating that my kids missed too much school (because they got sick from kids AT school), and I would need a doctor’s excuse from then on. I thought to myself, “These are MY kids. How dare they think that I’m supposed to answer to them about something that is, in essence, partially their fault.” This was compounded by the negative peer influences at school, the lack of education since they were always teaching to the test, and the sheer volume of nonsense they were bringing home every night. We’re in our seventh year now, and we love it. My kids will never go to school again unless they choose college.

  5. ritatac
    ritatac says:

    While my oldest was in Kindergarten, I was astonished to find how ahead she was of her peers. I loved her teacher, and she tried to supplement the best she could, and we discussed bumping my daughter up a grade. My husband also mentioned homeschooling, which I dismissed out of fear it would be too much pressure on me. Finally, when I found myself crying over the thought that my daughter would not really have enough time in school to eat lunch the following year I decided that the only realistic option was to homeschool her. That was now since three years ago, and I’ve never looked back!

  6. JDVT
    JDVT says:

    I asked my kids if we could try homeschooling for a year. If it was a catastrophe, they could go back to public school.

    We started because the kindergartner was labeled “non compliant” by November, and my sensitive third grader was disappearing before my eyes.

    Three years later we still decide year by year whether to continue homeschooling.

    I, too, love to hear why people homeschool.

  7. JB
    JB says:

    This is our first year (last year was preschool) and we started because it never felt right to us to rely on others to educate our children, send them away from home all day, learn in a rigid, set-up environment, and before they’ve even gained the confidence or ability to open a carton of milk. My last straw was clipping “cash for school” coupons so 10¢ could go to our local school. I have enough local resources, ability, creativity, and I will make the time to love, cherish, and educate my own children. If cereal boxes actually need to carry 10¢ “school coupons”, there is something very wrong with the funding, support, and general outlook of our education system. Also, I was ridiculously bored in school and possibly would have enjoyed learning, exploring of creating with my family rather than comparing clothes, passing notes, and hoping to just make it through the day. Life is not for just “making it through the day”, its for celebrating, and I’m fairly certain most children in public school watch the clock more than their teacher.

  8. Blackwalnut
    Blackwalnut says:

    We started homeschooling because, as early as kindergarten, my son was being funneled into a special ed track. And I know (as a public school teacher) what a racket that path can be, how incompetent special ed teachers often are, and how enabled and dysfunctional many sped kids are by the time they graduate.

    • Khadija
      Khadija says:

      That’s good you didn’t let that happen. I wish you the best!
      I’m sure my second child would have been placed in special ed because he learns in a completely different way than other kids. He couldn’t read until 2nd grade and he has always been a very very slow learner until he hit high school.
      He got an 800 in math on his SAT right out of 9th grade. He’s an extremely brilliant kid who would have gotten lost in public school. He just needed time to blossom. I am so so thankful I didn’t send him to school.

  9. katkins
    katkins says:

    Because of the pointless, soul-crushing, family time-sucking HOMEWORK!

    My kid (6th grade) was generally happy at school, and scored well on tests, but has trouble with executive function. I tried to negotiate a drastic reduction in busywork-homework, but no dice.

    Our district allows part-time homeschooling, which is fantastic. We do English and Math at home, and have lots of leeway. She still struggles with organization, but this setup has allowed us the time to work on it together. In fact, I think we spent more time talking about planning and organizing than on academics during the first month, because it was what she needed.

    Not sure yet what we will choose for next year. Before this year, school was feeling impossible but full-time homeschool was a little too scary. Now anything from full-time school to unschooling seems doable, because she has learned how to get her homework done as well as taking on much more responsibility for choosing what to do with her time.

  10. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    I found Penelope’s blog before my oldest was enrolled in school and I’m so glad I did. Homeschooling has given us so much freedom. I just read a news article about a school district’s decision to change start times. Parents are upset. Why? Because of time. Rushing kids out the door, rushing home after extra-curricular activities to have dinner and go to bed. What kind of family life is this? Not one I’d be willing to live with.

  11. Khadija
    Khadija says:

    I went through most of my schooling in Milwaukee and suffered greatly. Although I did have two really good years at McFarland high school, I detested school for the most part.
    In Milwaukee, it was “If you go to college,” with a smirk. But in Mcfarland it was “When you go to college.”

    My horrible experience with public school as a child is what made me homeschool from the very beginning. My kids have never been in a public school. My oldest is in university now and my second oldest is in 12th grade. I am an INTP so I have really enjoyed doing school with my kids. :D

  12. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Avid blog reader. As my oldest child approached school age I agonized over whether or not to send them considering all the things I’d learnt on this blog.

    It took a while but I am now happier and more confident in my decisions to not homeschool and send both kids to school (and continue to hangout on this blog).

      • Erica
        Erica says:

        For what it is worth I think you’d reconsider a million times if you homeschooled. That’s just being a parent. Im glad for you public school is working and if it ever doesn’t you have a fall back plan. Good job!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Erica, I’m really glad you could make the decision to send your kids to school and continue to read this blog. It’s a huge strength of this community that we disagree on stuff but keep talking and learning from each other.


  13. mh
    mh says:

    My inventive, imaginative kid just withered at school. The after-school misery was intense by third grade. So on mornings when he was in a good mood, I didn’t take him to school. I kept him home to enjoy him.

    And then we got a Christmas card from a family like us, who decided to homeschool *just their oldest* for a year… Boom.

    The first six months of homeschooling that child were a combination of him reading, playing Legos, and drawing stuff. I asked him to play one game with me per day – catch or free throws or a board game. Then I signed him up for a daytime photography class at the city botanical garden that was oriented for seniors learning digital photography. He LOVED it and made friends and was charming and successful and bright and talkative.

    And then we pulled the plug on school entirely, mid year.

    And once you quit school entirely, you realize that homeschooling means freedom for the whole family. Not just the kids, but the parents, too. Everyone’s fitness increased, married sex improved, more laughing, more play, no fighting. Markedly less sibling rivalry. Each child successful and confident with peers and adults. Kids pursuing excellence, not just good grades. I didn’t even grade them.

  14. MrsJ
    MrsJ says:

    For me, the final straw was finding out that charter schools were no better than public schools at giving me what I was looking for in a school for my kids–it just did not exist. I decided the only way my kids would get it the way I wanted it, was if I did it myself!

  15. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    The biggest reason that we homeschool is that we highly value continuing self-education, being Gen. X–autodidacts of necessity–and unusually gifted for our socioeconomic backgrounds.

  16. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    This is refreshing to read. My son is at a new school due to moving to a different city. The question I get asked is, “But if your son is homeschooled, how will he socialize?” My son’s new school is making it *really* hard to socialize with peers outside of school. There has been one barrier after another. This is the thing that is sealing it for us.

    A few weeks ago I learned that my son couldn’t hand out invitations for a playdate at school. But the school directory only had 3 students listed in his class. The secretary didn’t know that our class had a room rep who could help with email addresses. And the kids are all bussed home so I can’t hang out on the playground to meet other parents. I thought I needed a background check to enter the school past the main office, but I guess that is only for volunteering. There is no way for me to go into this class if he is a tad off in the morning and make sure he settles in okay because it disrupts learning – even if I were to volunteer my effort to help students learn.

  17. Shauna Kay
    Shauna Kay says:

    The final straw?
    When this big beautiful blue eyes looked deep into mine and he said with distress “Mummy is there something wrong with my brain?” I bought him home…
    Nearly two years later his is thriving, full of life, passionate about many things and displaying his brilliance often. He knows there is nothing “wrong” with his brain now but rather feels for all his friends left behind in that crushing system.

  18. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    We unschool (or whatever it is we’re doing) because that’s what I experienced from 2nd grade until I started community college.
    Because it worked so well for my siblings and myself, I never really considered doing anything else. The hardest part has been getting my husband on board with the “hands-off, let them pursue their own interests” thing because of his rigid, math-heavy educational experience in communistic Poland. I sometimes think he believes their successes are despite my efforts, not because of them!
    Two of my kids have emotional issues that makes the day-to-day nuts and bolts of homeschooling tough on some days, but when I honestly evaluate our situation, I know they’d be far worse off in a traditional school. Fortunately, they can see this also and it helps them appreciate what Dad and I are doing for them!

  19. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I don’t have any horror stories. I just read this blog after having read about unschooling in 2006 but didn’t consider it; just found it fascinating.

    Then as my relationship with my child grew older I began to find myself more and more.

    A very key part was doing a bit of deconstruction on people I admire and realizing that they have control of their time and honor their natural rhythms.

    I’m a very responsible person but find it so hard to stick to a schedule without good reason behind it (for example, be at the office at 8 just because). So I navigated the world until coming to this point where I’m at now. I hold a job that gives me wiggle room to do my best work and dictate the time. It’s easier to get in the zone and a state of flow because I’m doing in my rhythm not based on schedule. I love my colleagues and my supervisor is my mentor. And I love my clients. Sometimes I cry of happiness seeing the changes in front of me.

    That’s my reason to homeschool.

    As an adult I know myself and have my rhythms and I’m loyal when given trust. Why wouldn’t I do so with my child?

    He’s not of school age yet. We’re probably not even going to go that route.

  20. Katie P
    Katie P says:

    My kids have always been homeschooled. My husband had a job where he was away from home Mon-Fri every single week. I just couldn’t see putting the kids in school and having them miss out on some amazing opportunities. While their friends were in class, they dove off the boat we rented in FL and swam with dolphins. While their friends were in school, they were climbing the Statue of Liberty. While other kids were dreaming about Thanksgiving break, we were at Niagara Falls. When their cousin told them about the bears he was writing a paper on, they told him about the ones they saw in Montana. They are 12 and 1o, and can drive a tractor, as well as navigate the NYC subway system. Other kids were reading about Lewis and Clark, and my kids were reading in the car, while we drove to the Arch in St. Louis.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I love this. It pretty much sums up homeschooling for us too. We travel for weeks at a time without worrying about homework, catching up on missing assignments, or needing some other adult’s permission to take our kids to interesting places during the week. With academic work we can move quickly at our own pace and finish things when we want. We are in charge of our lives and our education.

  21. Maria
    Maria says:

    I am really happy in Germany the kindergarten takes my kids play on the public parks, makes them spend more time outside than inside, creates working groups of mixed age and grades… they even take my 3 and 5 years old on the day trips to the Christmas Market and the Zoo… and still I sometimes complaint. I find it hard to believe that really they dont allow kids in Wisconsin to touch the snow. I went to school in Minnesota, and I certainly touched the snow during my recess, but maybe it was a different time and things have changed?!

  22. Tina H.
    Tina H. says:

    I’ve been following Penelope for several years; in fact, some who know me would say I’m the evangelical version of her…which I take as a high compliment. :) In terms of why I homeschool – which I have from Day 1 of my kids’ lives – I have two reasons. For one, I used to be a classroom teacher before my kids were born so I saw from the inside what it’s really all about (don’t even get me started!). Secondly, though – and much more importantly – I know (from a biblical perspective) that every parent is called and commanded to take direct, personal responsibility for his/her child’s upbringing. God does not separate it out and say, “Well, in every area except academics.” It’s a holistic thing to Him and should be to us. It’s also true that whom He calls, He equips – 100%. He won’t dump instant expertise on anyone the moment we decide to homeschool, but He does provide exactly what is needed at every step of the journey. It’s our job to obey the command (thereby choosing to defy our misguided culture) and then trust that He is, indeed, big enough to do it.

    • Liz
      Liz says:

      Tina H. Thank you for this! We are in the midst of deciding whether to homeschool our oldest for pre-k next fall and I feel wholly under equipped. We definitely feel called in that direction, but it’s a scary commitment to make! Your words were a great reminder as to who’s in control and brought tears to my eyes.

  23. telan
    telan says:

    Any thoughts on Homeschool for children with special needs? I have a child with autism in Kindergarten. Can anyone give any insight or advice?

  24. Rhe Lynn
    Rhe Lynn says:

    I’m seeing much of my daughter’s story here. Non compliant, far ahead of the other students, and not allowed to do anything at recess unless it is sit quietly next to teacher. My brave active and interested daughter turned into an anxious, fearful and angry child during her first grade year. Homework bored us both to tears – I had to fight with her to complete it. We always had to discuss behavior first thing – and it was ruining our relationship together.

    She had language problems with tense and word order that, although dealt with well by her K teacher, brought disaster with her first grade teacher. She turned into the class scapegoat. After multiple discipline meetings for things that were blown out of proportion she had been labelled as having disrespect for authority and as a constant distraction. We were given ‘guidance’ on skills our daughter still needed to learn that included teaching her to ‘shut down’ – sit very still and quiet with her head down, until the teacher called on her. She was not allowed to read or draw, as those would be distractions. She could not be moved ahead to second grade – because her behavior was not mature enough.

    We were already seeing the shut-down behavior at home and it worried us. She used to draw, read, skate, build things in every corner of the house during her every waking moment. Now she would crumple in a chair and sit there inactive for hours watching DVD discs repetitively. We started homeschooling the week after that conference.

    We’re two years in – we have done SO much in those two years. But, she is begging to go back. Her language issues now show up only in her writing. She has far accelerated her grade level in all other subjects. I don’t know what grade she will test into, and they are still unlikely to accelerate her past her age group simply because of the district. I still worry about the anxiety and peer pressure she will face when she goes back this Fall. When we meet with kids her age she still has a hard time relating to them at their level. It will be something she has to face now or later…

  25. Erica
    Erica says:

    I knew going in to public school my daughter was ahead. I was prepared to ask the teachers to differentiate her learning as had been done in my daughters preschool. What I was blissfully ignorant of was that my daughters preschool was at least half full of advanced kids. I had no idea of the resistance I would experience from her kindergarten teacher. She actually told me at one point that the first couple of months of kindergarten are really just about learning the rules so she couldn’t allow any deviation until my daughter had learned the rules. I think she meant “until your daughter is broken down and conforms”. She had the nerve to tell me my daughter drawing on her desk because she was bored was perfectly natural for that age and proof she just needed more training on the rules. This for the child who had never draw on anything she shouldn’t, who asked in a sad voice why people would draw on the tables (graffiti) at a fast food restaurant. Add to it the teacher constantly telling the kids they wouldn’t get to have centers time because they ran out of time like it was the kids fault, and only one fifteen minute recess with only a fifteen minute lunch all day. Then switching schools where the teacher shamed kids, and segregated boys and girls because the girls were “too delicate”, where the teacher told my daughter she was manipulative and sneaky for going to the office when she was bleeding to get a bandaid. Homeschooling may not be perfect but it can’t be worse.

  26. N-gen
    N-gen says:

    Nevada has one of the WORST educational models ever! I knew I could not do any worse than what they were already getting in public school. What gave me the “green light” to make the plunge….my kids were being forced to throw away their lunch before finishing, another child made an art class drawing showing him killing my child, kids being forced to miss recess and part of lunchtime to finish “state testing”, and my kids getting increasingly agitated, and not wanting to go to school/do homework. I could not ignore these things, and I have not looked back. They are so much happier! Of course there’s going to be days of not wanting to do “school work”. I am learning that those days, don’t force it, but let them have input in the decision making process. They still end up doing “educational work”, but in a different format. Like, instead of math worksheets,one child wants to work more on computer programming(still math concepts), and the other child wants to cook(still math concepts). As a result of this journey, my youngest child(4), is so mature, yet so curious…..and is gaining knowledge organically. And because we do not “force” this learning…….it’s amazing to see! I promise you, homeschooling is an adjustment, it deviates from everything we have been told, and learned while growing up. Family and friends will tell you you’re wrong, and not qualified to “teach”. But, we are our children’s voice. We are their advocates. Stand your ground.

  27. Ouida Gabriel
    Ouida Gabriel says:

    I have a saying; “My worst day of homeschooling is better than public school’s best day.”

  28. jennifer wisdom
    jennifer wisdom says:

    I was at a conference for my daughter and the diagnostician says she’s doing so good in math. I look down at her math average and see a 72. I say a 72 looks like almost failing to me. She says “no way, have you seen 4th grade math, I couldn’t do it”. Um excuse me? You’re in the industry of education and you have just said out loud that 4th grade math is too difficult. So clearly the diagnostician has made it in the world and is also educated. So my question is, if 4th grade math is so hard yet she could graduate college and be successful in her field then what is the stinking point of having any math after 3rd grade?!! So why stress the kids out over math that isn’t necessary, or any subject that is required and useless. That was the most memorable conversation of my life up until this point. I knew in that second that it was a joke, school that is. It’s just free babysitting and most of us have been brainwashed to believe its the only way. Yet, I’m fearful I will screw up my kids if I homeschool….and I can do 4th grade math easily….who’s the idiot now. Lol….

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