By Jen Wallwork Dominguez
An 8-hour school day, followed by two hours or more of homework? That sounds familiar to most moms—and awfully close to a full-on workday, leaving kids cranky and downright exhausted when school is done.
So it’s no wonder that the parents of more than 2.2 million children in the U.S. have opted out of the public and private school systems and chosen homeschooling. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, it’s the fastest growing form of education in the U.S. today, with up to 8 percent growth a year. NHERI founder Brian Ray says that parents who choose to homeschool their kids do so for multiple reasons, including the ability to customize curriculum and environment, strengthen family bonds and incorporate religion or beliefs into education. His organization’s research also shows that homeschooled kids generally score 15 to 30 percentile points higher on standardized tests.
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Sounds great and all, right? But how does it actually work? Mom.me talked to three homeschooling mamas to get the scoop.
Jen Wallwork Dominguez, 38, Nashville, Tennessee
A writer and piano teacher, Jen Wallwork Dominguez, mom to Zoë, 11, Grey, 8, Juliette, 4, and twins Alice and Celia, 3, admits that she judged homeschooling moms before she became one.
“People conjure up an image of religious zealots, insulating their children from the influences of the secular world,” she says. “I’ve also made this assumption.”
Teaching piano to homeschooled kids in Nashville, she quickly realized they were bright, curious, fun and lively. So when her oldest two kids weren’t being challenged at the local public school—and private education was out of their budget—she decided it was time to take matters into her own hands. Getting started, Dominguez said, “I looked at hundreds of pages of homeschooling curriculum.” And because she had been teaching piano in the homeschooling community for years, she talked with lots of real-life homeschoolers, “picking their brains and flipping through their materials.”
Still, it wasn’t easy in the beginning. Dominguez, who calls herself “the over-doer,” aimed for a traditional school vibe, with one kid working independently while the other got one-on-one instruction from Mom. They quickly figured out that it was too structured and too long a day. So the family shifted to starting with a morning read-aloud together, usually a fun history text, then some more structured work, aiming to wrap up the school day by lunchtime.
Socialization is key, says Dominguez. Despite the perception, homeschooled kids get plenty of it.
“People have an idea of denim jumper-clad students sitting in a kitchen alone for 12 hours a day,” she says. “The truth is, at least in my area, you could keep busy every day and never be home alone. There are enrichment programs where hundreds of students take classes in art, math, chorus, archery together.” With more than 300 local homeschooling families, downtime means play groups, chess clubs, swimming lessons, mother-daughter book clubs and lots of parties.
[I]t’s a real challenge to make sure that my life is balanced between schooling my children and pursuing the things that make me, as a mother and a person, whole.
For a while, “homeschooling was everything I hoped it would be,” Dominguez writes on her blog,LifeInTheCircus.com. “Grey learned to read and I got to be there as he discovered that C-A-T was ‘cat.’ A cat! Zoë fell in love with Greek mythology and taught herself to write the Greek alphabet. She put together a 20-page report about all the Greek gods, an assignment she gave herself.”
Just when they got into the swing of things, Dominguez found she was pregnant—with twins. Their early arrival put an abrupt halt to the school year. But in August, they got back on track. Then Dominguez’s mother died. Wracked with grief, that’s when “the over-doer” decided she needed to put the kids back into school. “But I think at this point we have decided that we will resume homeschooling next school year.”
The major reason? It’s what the kids want. “For people who’ve always participated in traditional education, I think there is a very distinct line between 'schooling’ and 'living,’” Dominguez says. “For the most part, homeschoolers don’t see it that way. Learning is part of living. Sometimes there will be lots of time and space for hands-on projects and deep study. Sometimes a workbook and a video will have to do. It all comes out in the wash.”
There are things to think about. “If you are considering sending your children back into the school system at some point in their education, there is an anxiety about whether your kids will be on the same page as their peers,” Dominguez says. “This is the situation that has homeschool parents looking up grade-level standards and trying to make sure that their students are 'keeping up.’”
And there are lessons learned: even today, Dominguez says, “it’s a real challenge to make sure that my life is balanced between schooling my children and pursuing the things that make me, as a mother and a person, whole.”
SAIRA SIDDIQUI, 35, HOUSTON, TEXAS
Former public school teacher Saira Siddiqui, mom to twins Musa and Khadija, 7, and Salman, 3, stumbled into homeschooling when her twins, then 4, were ready for school.
“I wasn’t really ready to start the 'craziness’ I saw happening with a lot of my friends, the race to get the kids up and out in the morning, then spending our days driving kids around and having my kids coming home exhausted after a long school day,” she said.
Researching local options, Siddiqui said she wasn’t finding anything that was better than what they were getting at home.
“They had a natural curiosity about things, and we had the kind of relationship where I felt I was helping them channel that curiosity. They had a good, healthy association with books and reading at home. And our life felt peaceful,” she said.
So Siddiqui and the kids dove into things headfirst. “One day we weren’t homeschooling, and the next day we were,” she says. “Those two days looked exactly the same, they just had a different label. When we started, we just 'lived.’ Only with an awareness that we tried to extract the most out of our everyday life.”
Getting started, the learning curve was steep for everyone. Siddiqui compares the process to riding a roller coaster.
“It takes time to find your groove and your 'style’ of homeschooling, because there are tons of homeschooling styles. You have to figure out what works for you and your family. So you have extreme highs and lows. The highs are when you see the results of the process, and the lows are when you feel personally exhausted, or confused. Which is expected when you follow a path less followed.”
That’s why she says mentorship is key. “You need some one to 'talk you off the ledge,’” she says with a laugh. “But honestly, I could say that about first-year teachers anywhere. It’s the nature of the game.”
It takes time to find your groove and your 'style’ of homeschooling, because there are tons of homeschooling styles.
Now that they’ve settled into a groove, the culture of homeschooling has shaped who they are as a family. “When a problem arises, or something isn’t working, we have to fix it because there’s no escaping each other,” Siddiqui explains. “But more than that, when you take on the responsibility of the education of your children, you feel yourself sort of stepping up to the plate. I felt like it put more pressure on me to be the kind of person I wanted my children to be. It’s forced me to better myself.”
A typical day for the Siddiqui clan is pretty free-flowing, with lots of spontaneity: a park or museum, reading on the couch or lessons from household chores. But no screen time just yet. “We don’t do any typical 'school time,’” Siddiqui says. “We just live a really enriched lifestyle. We pay attention. We learn. Everywhere. Learning isn’t confined to the four walls of a classroom, so the kids have a lot of curiosity about things, which they’ll pursue.”
And that, in turn, has rubbed off on Mom herself. “I’ve started wondering more and pursuing my own interests and curiosities. It’s been kind of amazing.”
The hardest part? Burnout. “This is not a choice for those who can’t be a little selfish,” she says. “I’m big on self-care. It’s the age-old oxygen mask idea. Help yourself before you help others.”
Now focused on getting her doctorate in Social Education, Siddiqui says she’s unsure how long the family will continue to homeschool—it could go either way. “I don’t vilify school, but I do feel that, for our family, this is the best decision for us right now.”
JEANNE DEE, 63, GLOBETROTTER
For Jeanne Dee, the idea to unschool daughter Mozart was a no-brainer. After all, Jeanne and her husband Vince, pioneers in the realm of travel blogging and early YouTube stars, had been on the road since 2006, when they sold their home and belongings to explore the world.
Find a park, and you will find kids to play with
And then there was their kid, who needed more challenges than the average toddler. “Mozart was an unusual baby who walked and talked—in two languages—at 6 months, taught herself to read at 2 and was reading Harry Potter books, played violin before 2, piano at 3 and started writing music at 4. We skipped her three years ahead for kindergarten and first grade in California, but it still wasn’t enough. So we decided to homeschool. Then we thought, why not homeschool around the world, so she’d be a trilingual global citizen, and we’d have more time together?”
By the time she was 5, the family was focused on the idea of “world school,” traveling to 48 countries on five continents. Mozart, now 14, is multilingual, speaking English, Spanish, Mandarin and “dipping” into local schools worldwide for more language immersion.
The lifestyle allows “freedom for all of us, closeness and time together—plus all the lifelong advantages she gets from this kind of superior and geared-to-her education,” Dee says. “I can’t really think of a hard part of homeschooling. School systems are not made for creativity and individuality. As an older parent, I know how precious and short childhood is, and we didn’t want to miss any of it with her. So we decided to be both a stay-at-home dad and a stay-at-home mom learning together from life as we roamed the world, getting to know it and its people deeply.”
Life on the road varies day-to-day, but Mozart usually does schoolwork first in the morning, which leaves her much time for her musical interests, classes and gigs. The pre-teen also takes classes in voice, songwriting, piano, violin, guitar, dance and acting at their current home base in Dallas. Downtime can mean fencing with other kids or making and editing videos for her YouTube channel. As Mozart preps for a full slate of AP classes at the high school level, she’s also focused on making musicand has plans to release an album next year.
Dee sees herself more as a facilitator or guide in her daughter’s education. “Most of Mozart’s learning is self-led. She’s always been a compulsive reader, and we’ve always included outside classes, tutors if needed, and tech aspects, although we are into limited time on tech and more real life, hands-on experiences. When all the kids had Nintendos, for example, she didn't—except one she made for herself out of cardboard.”
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Socialization has been natural for the traveling trio, too. “Find a park, and you will find kids to play with,” Dee says. “We do a lot of RVing in Europe, and there were always local kids to play with, and Mozart still is friends with some of them online because we often returned every year to the same campground resorts. In tropical Asia, the kids would gather in playgrounds and pools within the large apartment complexes. Plus, she often takes classes and makes friends in those classes.”
Next up: Harvard or Hollywood. Maybe both. And Dee has no doubts that Mozart is well equipped to conquer either. “We have always wanted to raise her as a global citizen with a strong moral, sacred, multicultural foundation so that she can help bring more peace to our planet, and I think that is a lot harder to do in a school where it is one size fits all, created originally to create factory workers,” she says. “I wanted her to have a lot more freedom to listen to and follow her own inner directive. The world has been Mozart’s classroom, literally and on so many levels.”
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As for the kid, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I feel like I have been blessed with the best education on the planet,” Mozart said, “and am so grateful for my parents’ wisdom, courage, innovation and trust.”
Image via GettyImages