Parents explain why they homeschool kids: covid, ADHD, race, religion

When The Post asked readers to describe their home-schooling experiences, nearly 1,100 responded. Here’s what they told us.

Ella Bergeron lives in a household with family members who are chronically ill. Her parents decided to home-school her out of concerns about covid. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

One parent was fed up with an elementary school’s punitive approach to dealing with her 6-year-old son’s special needs. Another, home-schooled herself, reluctantly followed the same path with her daughter because of fears about her family’s vulnerabilities to covid. A third wanted to impart Christian values while exposing her kids to the food of the Philippines and the museums of Madrid.

Their children are among the hundreds of thousands who have started home-schooling over the last three years — the most significant expansion of home education in American history. Once associated with the political and cultural fringe, home schooling has attracted droves of families who never foresaw themselves abandoning a more traditional academic setting.

Understanding those choices — and what they mean for society, the public school system and above all the families themselves — is one goal of The Washington Post’s Home-School Nation project. So when we published the first story in the series, we asked our readers to tell us about their home-schooling experiences.

The response was overwhelming. Nearly 1,100 people took the time to answer our questionnaire, one of the largest responses to a reader submission form in recent Post history. What families had to say was thoughtful, relatable and often surprising. We conducted follow-up interviews with five parents, letting them explain the day-to-day reality of home schooling in greater depth, and in their own words.

Here, edited for length and clarity, is what they had to say.

Home-schooling her 9-year-old daughter in Manassas Park, Va.

“I was a home-schooled child myself. My parents were not thrilled with the state of South Carolina schools at the time.

Having had the experience of being home-schooled as a teenager is very different from teaching a child how to do the three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. I was not thrilled about that concept, but we decided instead of sending our child — who has a household of family members who are chronically ill — into a school system that was starting to look like they were dropping mask requirements, we would just home-school and cut out the fact that she would’ve probably come home with covid. My husband is a Type 1 diabetic. I have a clotting disorder, and both of those things were terrifying with covid on the line. The biggest single factor for us was covid prevention.

Facebook groups were a really big help. A lot of folks who are on the Facebook groups, they [say], ‘oh, yes, I was a public school teacher, we use this curriculum, this is a home-school market option that’s very similar.’

There are a couple of big names in Christian home-school publishing, and I knew that anything touched by them, I didn’t want anything to do with. We’re a Unitarian Universalist family, and in general, I believe that approaching science from a secular perspective is the way that things need to be done. To rely on the Bible is an escape from having to think critically.

I would say we are a more structured unschooling family. I do use a math textbook because math is not my strong suit, and it’s something that my daughter actually enjoys.

How home-schooling left the kitchen table and became a big business

Going to the grocery store, it’s a lesson in food, culture and politics in the United States today. What do the labels on foods mean? What does it signify when something says GMO-free on the box? It’s a math lesson. I have $40 in my pocket, and I need to eat for the next three days. What can I buy that is nutritious and not going to cost me a mint? Where can I go to make my dollar go further? And there’s a technology tie-in. What equipment do I have at home?

I’ve definitely noticed a lot more acceptance than when I was home-schooled. It was rare and strange. A highlight of the day was when you found another home-schooler. There was also the assumption in the ’90s that you’re home-schooling because your child is a genius and going to Harvard at 14, or you’re doing it because you are hyper religious and cannot stand to have your child out of the bubble of religious education. Nowadays, people ask: Tell me the reason why.”

Home-schooling his 10-year-old daughter, 12-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son in Whitehall Borough, Pa.

“When my son was preparing for preschool, we decided to look around and see what the options were. I had heard about Montessori schools, and it really sounded appealing to me as someone who really did not like public school growing up.

The thing that really stuck out to me during the interview process is they said that every family has to donate 40 hours of their time per year to the school. That made me start thinking, how could a school not be good if the families are that involved? How important is family involvement?

When the fall of 2021 came around, we decided to pull them out of school and do home-schooling instead. We figured this is the time to do it because there’s really nothing we can lose. Even if they did nothing all year, they would still be in the same place as their [remote-learning] peers.

The kids loved it, we enjoyed it. It allowed us to let them follow their interests. All those minutes that are just wasted throughout school just don’t exist in the home-school environment. You get them in and out with their main studies, and then from there, they’re free to pursue their interests.

My wife stays at home with the kids, so she takes the lead teaching day-to-day stuff. I work full time, about half out of the house, half in the house. I do some of the bigger picture type things, all the history, the science, and I really focus on watching what their interests are so I can direct them on how they can expand those interests.

The home-schooling world is definitely mom-heavy, as most things in the parenting world are. I am in some Facebook groups that are dad-only just because it’s nice to interact with other men that way. It’s an ongoing joke where we start a post off with, ‘Hey, home-schooling mamas.’ Dads just aren’t as involved as I wish they were. That’s not to say they’re not out there, they definitely are, but the majority are going to be women.

I don’t want to sell home schooling as a smooth, amazing process. I had three back surgeries, and my wife suffers from Lyme disease. We have had times where we’ll look at it, and three weeks have gone by and nobody’s really done anything. Our son has severe depression stemming from way back when he was in school. That was really hard to deal with because it’s hard to be self-motivated when you’re too depressed to barely get out of bed. Thankfully, we’ve had a huge turnaround there recently.

By far the most difficult thing is socialization. A lot of home-schoolers say it’s fine, you can make it happen. Well, if you’re a family of introverts, it can definitely be challenging finding opportunities for them to get to know other kids. For our son, [a home-schooling co-op group] has been a lifesaver. Our girls, on the other hand, are still struggling, so we’re always on the lookout for opportunities to get them around other kids.”

Regan Tindell, 33

Home-schooling her 8-year-old son in Katy, Tex.

[Students] “were going to start back to school [after the pandemic shutdown], but I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t going to get shut down again. I didn’t want to put him in and then have to pull him out again for his very first year. It was just kindergarten, so we decided to home-school for just that year. We put him back in for first grade, hoping that it would go well, and it did not.

The second week, every single day, the school was calling me by 10 a.m. to come pick him up. At that point I was already asking, do I need to pull him back out? Is this going to work? They said they would evaluate him and have the 504 meeting [for students with disabilities]. He’ll get accommodations, it’ll be fine, don’t worry about it. And then more and more time goes by, and he keeps getting sent out.

He got sent to a program that’s for kids to help with their behavior for a few weeks. [Then] they said that he needed a consequence, and they were going to put him in the alternative school.

I knew it was more of an issue where maybe a special education, therapeutic education would be better. They said no, he needs to serve his consequence. That’s when I decided I was going to pull him out again because they said ‘serve his consequence.’ He’s a 6-year-old. He’s not a convict.

A month after we pulled him out, they finally called us back and said the child psychologist can see him. He qualifies for therapeutic education for ADHD and autism.

We do math and reading and writing every day, and then we alternate between science and history and art. We start between 10:30 and 11 a.m. and do those things, and there’s lots of breaks in between. A couple of weeks ago, we started multiplication and he was having a lot of trouble with the concept of it, and it was like a five-minute break after every problem.

Then there have been days like the other day. It wasn’t a history day, and he asked to have another history lesson. That made me feel really good because this is what the goal is. You want them to be interested in learning. That made me feel like, okay, so this is working, maybe we can continue on.

It’s not the plan I had for my life, it wasn’t what I saw myself doing. I get kind of embarrassed about it, I guess, because when you say you home-school your kids, people think a specific thing. They think they know things about you and where your opinions lie, who you are as a person, and I think we are pretty much opposite of that [politically and religiously] on most things. It is a little uncomfortable, but day-to-day, I don’t think it’s worse than working a full-time job, for my mental health at least.

I just don’t want him to have to be forced to go back to school. If he doesn’t want to, then we won’t. But if he wants to, I’m all for it.”

Home-schooling her 13-year-old son in Winter Springs, Fla.

“We had come from North Carolina. On the very first day of school, I emailed the principal and sent him my son’s IEP [individualized education program] and requested an IEP meeting. Very long story short, I sent that on the very first day of school, but the Florida IEP was not completed, if you can even call it that, until the very last day of that first semester.

Near the end of the fall semester of 2022, he just started getting into trouble. A lot of it was just social stress. My son has pretty severe ADHD. He takes medication, and he’s able to usually mask his way through school. He was under a lot of stress with school and the move and trying to fit in with the kids and middle school and trying to put all of this out. It was just too much, and he wasn’t able to mask.

I’m home full time. I don’t work, I’m retired military. We moved down here after my retirement. Now I have this available time to be able to help my kids more — that’s one of the reasons I retired. I made the decision to pull him out.

My son is also Black, and I am a White mom. I adopted my boys when they were babies, and I saw my son going down a very bad road. You don’t want to do that. You’re already behind the eight ball as a Black boy, and he was going to end up getting kicked out if things kept going the way they were. I did not want that. All of this follows you, your school record follows you into high school and on.

[Socialization] is one of the hardest parts because I had to basically cut him off from all his friends, so to speak, from his middle school. That’s been hard because those are the kids he was getting into trouble with and getting into fights with, and a lot of them live in our neighborhood. My son hasn’t had too much social interaction since I pulled him out in February. But it’s also probably the best thing I could have done because the kids he was with were not the best social influence.

Him being Black is another factor. I would like him to have more Black friends and that’s another hard thing to deal with, being down here in Florida with this governor and all the crazy laws changing that I don’t agree with. I’m not sure we’re going to stay here, but I can’t financially move us right now.

[Home schooling] has reduced our stress on everybody in our family, probably 50 percent. But getting him the right education is what I need to really focus on right now. I knew he was behind, but once I actually sat down with him, seeing what he did not know was just scary. The schools were basically just passing them through. That’s what the schools do to every kid, frankly.

I think this year will be good. We’ll see how it turns out, but I think home schooling is the best thing for him. I’m not sure I will ever send him back to public school.”

Home-schooling her daughters, ages 7 and 2, in Hillsboro, Ore.

“Growing up in the Philippines, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Eastern academic culture, but it’s very, very rigid and very competitive. I was a straight-A student, and I was valedictorian, and I was cum laude in college. But even then, I was really bored. I was bored because I wanted to explore other subjects.

My husband has slight dyslexia, so in the schools that he grew up in, he was always considered behind because of his reading problem. His interest in education didn’t really sprout until he got to college. These experiences really helped inform our decision for our family.

I always had an inclination that we’re either going to send [our 7-year-old daughter] to private school or we’re going to do what people in the old days do, where they hire a tutor. C.S. Lewis had a teacher who trained him through Socratic teaching, which helped him think critically. I really like that kind of focus on children.

We believe that families are the fountainhead of a healthy, moral and functioning society. The family should be the child’s center of gravity. They shouldn’t be looking for that security in their peer group, because that’s not sustainable.

In the Bible, it says in Deuteronomy 6 that you shall teach your children about the Lord. They have to be grounded on the truth of God, right? In education, we seek to nourish not just the body, but also the soul and the mind.

We want them to appreciate what is true, and to seek what is good and what is beautiful. Because we are not just raising our children to make a living. We want them to have a life, and a life that is full of wonder, because wonder leads to worship.

We were very hesitant home-schoolers. I totally believed that I could not do this. But after a while, we found our rhythm. What’s a good pace for her? What’s a good length of lesson time for math? What sorts of things does she enjoy? How can we explain things better?

I no longer work. I quit my job last year before she started first grade.

That was very difficult in the beginning. My background in the Philippines is like, ‘This is what success looks like.’ So it was very hard to break the news to my family back home that I was making this choice. But it’s also very, very fulfilling to be doing this. It’s a great vocation to share a life with a growing child.

We’ve traveled to Japan. We’ve traveled to Spain, to the Philippines. And that’s definitely part of our home school. We teach them to observe the behaviors of people, the food … in Europe, there’s celebration of art and music. It’s these sorts of things we want them to be exposed to.

We need to bust the myth that home-schooled children are overprotected and not socialized. That’s not true. I find that my children actually socialize with a broader mix of people. They hang out with kids who are older than them, and they have friends who are older people, and we visit some of the elderly at our church. And because of our travels, they get to play with other kids who speak a completely different language and have a completely different background than they do.

What I’ve noticed is that she’s a lot more confident talking to people and having conversations with grown-ups as well.

For the foreseeable future, our intent is to continue home-schooling.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.