by Isabel Shaw
Extending the Role
Most folks assume homeschooling dads go off to work each day while moms stay home to teach the kids. For many families, that’s certainly the case. However, there’s a new breed of homeschooling dads: those not satisfied being merely an observer. They don’t want to come home from work and ask what Johnny learned today — they want to be a part of that learning experience and learn it with him. These fathers are fostering a love of learning in their kids, and rediscovering it for themselves.
Just how involved are today’s homeschooling dads in their kid’s lives? To find out, I interviewed local homeschooling fathers and sent questionnaires to homeschool email lists and support groups. The responses showed a diverse approach to learning at home, as well as a variable level of involvement. Surprisingly, the dads’ replies were strikingly similar.
Most dads’ participation appears to be determined by the learning style of the homeschooling family. Fathers in families that have a structured “school at home” learning environment are usually less involved with their children’s homeschooling activities. These families tend to be satisfied with the “Dad goes to work” and “Mom teaches the kids” role models.
But some dads have extended their roles beyond traditionally accepted boundaries. For instance, Chuck Baker, whose wife Mollie homeschools their seven children, finds time after work to review curriculum material, tutor his teens, assign research projects, help his kids set goals, and act as the after-school bus driver. Initially opposed to homeschooling, Chuck’s views have changed. “I have learned that homeschooling is more than just having school in your home. Homeschooling is a family lifestyle commitment that completely refocuses the family toward a common pursuit: education of every family member.”
For families that follow an unstructured, child-led learning style, better known as “unschooling”, fathers usually take a hands-on approach to learning. Misha Basalaev, a physician and homechooling dad, spends about three hours a day (including his lunch hour) with his children. He believes everyday activities provide learning opportunities. Despite a busy medical practice, Misha plays cards and chess, cooks, answers questions (medical and others), and reads to his kids each day. Long conversations, bicycle trips, and visits to theaters and museums are a vital part of his family’s homeschool curriculum. Misha’s goal? “To spend as much time as possible with my girls, and guide them so they become kind, generous, curious, and responsible people.”
Levels of involvement may vary, but enthusiasm for learning does not. When Bill Seldon, a geologist, found a dead squirrel, he buried it in a bucket behind his house so his kids could study the bones when it decomposed. Corey Folta carries home bags of books, magazines, and videotapes when they are discarded at his workplace. He even recruits co-workers to be on the lookout for useful materials. Each bagful is a learning adventure and an opportunity to spend time with his kids.
Several dads reported working two jobs to support their family’s homeschool lifestyle. But that doesn’t stop these dads from being actively involved. Rod Hall, in addition to his day job, works as a singer and musician on evenings and weekends. Rod has given his daughter, Aurora, an introduction to the music industry by taking her to singing engagements and rehearsals. Tony Lance reports that despite working two jobs, he makes it a point to read to his two boys every night. Weekends are spent teaching his kids about gardening, cooking, and cleaning.
All of the working dads with stay-at-home wives see their primary role as support person. That support can be physical (taking the kids out for the day), psychological (giving encouragement), and financial. While many dads expressed regret at not being able to spend more time with their kids, these fathers are pleased with their role as provider, knowing that learning at home is the best option for their family.
A Balancing Act
How do roles shift when both parents work? Steve Cauley shares work and homeschooling responsibilities with his wife, Katherine. Steve is responsible for transporting his kids to their countless activities and classes during the week. While the kids are engaged, Steve conducts business from a cell phone and car “office.” Ray and Karen Skean, both psychologists, also share homeschooling responsibilities. Ray works in the evening so he can be with his son, Andrew, during the day.
When asked about goals, Steve and Ray felt strongly that peer pressure and unacceptable outside influences force many schooled kids to grow up before they’re ready. Both men expressed the hope that homeschooling will provide a safe haven and allow their kids to grow and mature at their own pace. In fact, just about every father saw learning at home as his way of preserving and protecting his kids’ precious and vulnerable childhood.
Single homeschooling dads offered a unique perspective. Jonathan Levy, who homeschools his teen son, Aidan, sees his role as facilitator rather than teacher. The key word in their homeschool/parent relationship is trust. Aidan sets goals for the year, and his dad encourages him to stay focused. Jonathan, who described homeschooling as “a little more anxiety provoking than anticipated,” has never regretted his decision to homeschool. The best part? “Long leisurely discussions on an infinite variety of topics.”
For one homeschooling family, learning at home includes building that home. Unschooling dad Tim Wessel, with no prior building experience, is in the process of building his own home in Vermont with wife Eileen and son Cal. Tim has found homeschooling to be quite different than he anticipated. “I imagined it to get in the way of life much more, and for it to be difficult. It has turned out to be life itself, more of an organic experience than an artificial framework.”
The Fruits of Their Labor
Many fathers spoke of the joy of watching their kids learn in freedom. Terry Matilsky, physicist and father of five, explained what almost 20 years of unschooling has taught him. “For our family, homeschooling is not about setting goals or academic achievement. (Child-led) learning is an ongoing process, a life-long process. It’s more of a continual unfolding to which I am a privileged observer.”
Hopefully, these stories will inspire dads who’d like to do more, but aren’t quite sure how to go about it. Gary Wyatt, writing for Home Education Magazine, urges homeschooling fathers to become more involved: “At the end of the day it’s a temptation to “veg out” in front of the TV or do other things that exclude our families. I’ve heard a lot of well-intentioned fathers complain that they can’t find the time for their children; however, the proactive fathers I know make time for them.”
Wyatt continues, “For fathers to deny themselves full involvement in the lives of their children is to cut themselves off from something elemental and soul-sustaining, something vital for both themselves and their children.” Today’s homeschooling fathers are forging a new path for tomorrow’s homeschooling dads to follow. Our children will benefit from closer relationships resulting from that path, and dads will benefit by really knowing their kids.