If we lived in Thailand and not Mexico, our three year old would be enrolled in school already (if he was a local) and most likely wearing powder blue uniforms with dark socks and a too-big-backpack. Trust me, it’s adorable. However, one thing travel has taught me about parenting is that there’s no right answer. Every culture does it differently, each family has their approach, and every child has their own needs. I have no idea what’s best for everyone, I’m just trying to figure out what’s best for us.
To be clear, I have a confirmation bias (and you probably do too, we all do). In my case, I live overseas, it’s easier to homeschool and probably cheaper too (if I don’t factor in my time as a cost, of course). We travel a lot, so anything that lets us do that more is going to seem more attractive. But I am concerned that I’ll filter all the evidence in favor of what I want to do anyway, so I’m trying to be careful to at least be aware of my biases. I would like talk about this more though, as I work through it, and I don’t know where to start, except where I am right now.
This is the crossroads we’re at, an embarrassment of choices: we could go back to the US for our son’s education. Or we could continue traveling. We could enroll him in an international school. We could homeschool. We could “unschool”. We could sign him up for a bilingual private school in Hawaii (I just threw that in, I love Hawaii). It’s wide open.
However as we look at our options there are some things that might be deal-breakers when it comes to schools and specifically living in the US:
1. Zero Tolerance.
Earlier this year a six year old was expelled from school for telling her friend that she was going to shoot her. With her Hello Kitty gun. Which only shot bubbles. Expelled — not scolded, not held for detention or put on leave, but kicked out of school. Permanently. Who is this helping? This week a teenager was expelled for her science fair project exploding. No one was hurt but they are also bringing charges against her. I don’t know what the tone is like in the average school, but these kinds of stories that have been hitting the national press in the last few years seem to point to a frenzied desire to not just keep our children safe but to adhere to these draconian rules for appearance’s sake.
2. Lack of childhood freedom.
I used to read the Free Range Kids blog, but Lenora’s writing was infuriating me, specifically the stories she posts about the increasing number of cases where the police are getting involved for such offenses as letting their 15 year old walk home from the library without their jacket or allowing a six year old to play unattended for any amount of time. You could always argue perhaps that’s not the choice you’d make as a parent, but surely CPS doesn’t need to remove the child from the home, right?
Between the zero tolerance policies in schools and the police involvement in the community, it seems to me, that not only are children being hyper-protected, but your ability as a parent to choose to do things differently is shrinking. It’s that second part, the over reach, that makes me wonder if I return to the US would I be forced to helicopter parent my child in ways that didn’t align with my beliefs?
This is a hot topic for us, because my husband suffers from adult ADHD, so I’m very familiar with the disorder and it’s also genetic, so my kids could get it. A few years ago we got Drew’s transcripts from kindergarten to 12th grade — they started back in the early eighties when they didn’t have ADHD. The transcripts were so sad to read because here you had this bright boy who was labeled as “chatty” in kindergarten and his grades slowly dropped and teachers over the years started labeling him as “unfocused” and a “poor student”. The thing is, my husband, even as an adult, still needs to shape his life around his ADHD, not the other way around. There’s no way that a school can really accomodate ADHD students — for example, letting them get up and move around or having lots of music or white noise in the room (which is actually calming and helps my husband focus). Which kind of points to the over-diagnosis as well — are little boys really best suited to sitting still at that age? Would a program that allowed them to move around and get their wiggles out lead to more productive bursts of learning? I understand why schools can’t do this, it’s a numbers thing, they’ve got 30 kids in a room, what can they do? But that’s one reason why homeschooling is particularly attractive to us because we have that option.
4. Art, Music, Phys Ed.
I’m a writer and photographer. My husband is an illustrator and animator. We love the arts, it’s what we do everyday! So, while we could supplement with art classes or music lessons or karate school, I also feel like little kids are way over-scheduled these days, and I’d rather not have to use our evenings and weekends to squeeze in a second curriculum to compensate for the gaps in public school — or at least not when the option to do a more balanced approach exists.
5. The value of a college degree.
When I was growing up, it was drilled into me that I had to go to college. It was the stepping stone between being poor and being middle class. These days, I’m not so sure. It’s a huge opportunity cost. Kids at 18 are perfectly capable of starting their careers if they want, and four years of not working — even if it’s interning or apprenticing for someone else — is a lot of missed time. Plus you come out of school in debt. Of course college graduates seem to do better in life, but it’s a self selected group — they would probably do better in life anyway because of the same ambition and talent that lead to university in the first place. It’s a huge cost: $40,000 – $120,000 plus four years plus a lack of practical skills (who uses what they learned in college in their job these days, anyway?). So while high school is hyper focused on getting into college I wonder if it’s better to be hyper focused on figuring out what you love and getting hands on experience.
(Note: obviously some careers definitely require a college degree, but I’m less convinced you need to prepare for the potential of becoming a scientist by forcing everyone to take advanced calculus, when it’s easy enough to catch up if that’s a direction you want to take. Sort of like most careers — like programmers, we don’t learn C++ in high school but then again maybe we should…)
6. Becoming an entrepreneur.
Drew and I are entrepreneurs. We’re self-employed. We did the whole other side — heck I worked for GE, literally the largest company in the US. So as we’re thinking of education options one thing keeps coming up for us: are we raising employees or entrepreneurs? It’s entirely different skill sets and I do think that public school is wise to prepare children to the real world, which for most of them will include working for other people. But is that our goal? And since we loathed that life so much, and love the freedom of what we’re doing now, wouldn’t it be sort of hypocritical of us to put our kids through a system that made us unhappy?
7. What school doesn’t teach you.
There are three things traditional school doesn’t teach you: 1) how to manage your money 2) how to find what you love and 3) how to make money doing what you love. I didn’t have a clue on credit cards, or how to be a freelancer. I didn’t know the difference between picking a career that was safe and picking one that I enjoyed. I spent 10+ years of my life trying to figure out what I could have learned in a year of courses. I can’t remember anything significant from high school biology (we dissected a frog, that’s all I remember) but I could have really of used a course on doing my taxes. Which makes me wonder, why can’t school prepare you for life, at least just a little bit? Is getting into college the only goal?
This is big for us, obviously, I’m learning three languages right now, and I’m hoping this immersion leads to our kids picking up a bit. The crazy thing about languages in public schools is that kids are natural language learners. Their brains are geared towards it and this doesn’t change until they are about 13. It’s called the critical period. So what do we do in the US? We wait until kids are 14 to start teaching them a second language. What a waste! After so many years of trying to learn languages, I know how hard it is, but we’re squandering the one opportunity we have in life to pick them up easily because of scheduling? Madness.
9. Learning how to learn.
I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly learning new things online. But I think about how I learn now verses how I tried to learn in school and it’s completely different. I read, yes, but I rarely memorize. I don’t focus so much on retaining everything I learn, but figuring out how to access it later. I think this is huge for the next generation and the school systems haven’t caught up — we live in a digital age, where it’s better to know how to use Google well then to cram specific facts and dates. It’s more important that you know how to find answers, than knowing the answer themselves. I think a lot of people would argue that this is a terrible development, but we’ve already gone through this once. Before books, people used to memorize everything! We don’t do that anymore. We have books. They would have argued that we’ve lost the great art of memory, and they are right, but so what? Books! Easier! Same thing, to me. We have the internet. The world of knowledge is right there, and for kids coming up, their education should embrace this fact.
I watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about creativity the other day and everything he said rang true to me but especially this:
“My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
When I was in Beijing, there was a symposium where they talked about how they couldn’t compete because they weren’t creating enough creative thinkers. We seem to be moving more towards the Asia model (standardized tests, heavy workload for kids, penalized for errors) when Asia is trying to figure out how to be more like us. It’s critical.
Watch the full talk here:
I’m still trying to figure out where I stand on all these things. Maybe we’ll homeschool for a few years when the kids are younger, then go to international schools when they are older so they can do a bilingual program and learn to read and write in a second language. Or maybe we’ll figure out some kind of homeschool co-op with a group of like-minded parents and make our own mini-school. Or maybe we’ll just head back the US because whatever we try doesn’t work. I’m open to anything at this point, although you can kind of see where we’re heading. In two years, Cole will be entering kindergarten, what exactly that will look like is still open. Soon though, I’d like to start some kind of preschool, even if that just means me buying more art supplies.
I would love your thoughts on this, if you’re so inclined!