The Latter-day Saint Homeschooling Conundrum

Latter-day Saint homeschooling families living outside the Mormon belt face a conundrum. For the uninitiated, many if not most homeschoolers actually do quite a bit of organized educational activities with other homeschoolers in what are called “homeschool co-ops.” Sometimes this is limited to activities while in other cases one of the parents will volunteer to teach. (So yes, contrary to popular stereotypes, homeschool kids do actually get quite a bit of socialization.)

However, again outside of the Mormon Belt it seems that homeschool families basically fall into two camps: purple haired, hippie, atheist types or super religious, often fundamentalist protestant types who don’t want their kids to learn about evolution. (And yes, there are others, but I’m slightly exaggerating for effect here). 

In some areas there aren’t enough homeschoolers to allow differentiation, and people simply can’t afford to be picky; this was the case when we lived in Texas, and it leads to some fun circumstances where the purple haired atheist kids play with the fundamentalists. 

However, in places where there is a critical mass of homeschoolers they tend to differentiate.  And in these cases the Latter-day Saint families tend to join the secular homeschoolers, because the religious ones often require one of those faith statements that we Latter-day Saints are adept at legalistically parsing to see if we can in fact sign them in good faith. Of course, often the faith statement has some kind of trinitarian, creedal formula, which means we’re out.  

On one hand I get where they are coming from. I fully respect and affirm the right of parents to be somewhat proactive in shaping their children’s early environment to support one’s chosen faith community or ideology. However, a little leavening of diversity can also be good if it doesn’t threaten to overwhelm the environment. For example, at BYU I think it’s great that non-member students and the occasional non-member faculty are included, but I also see the point in overwhelmingly emphasizing member-candidates and students in order to maintain the Mormon-ness of the institution. 

On that note, the past little while we actually succeeded into getting into the kind of conservative Christian homeschool community that typically requires a deal breaking faith statement. My oldest had a great experience, and it was a fine education with a very grounded, wholesome group that shared many of our same values. However, early on in the process my kid got into a fight with the teachers about evolution. (Yes, as conservative protestant educations often go, it was an excellent education about everything except for *that*). In case you aren’t familiar with the conservative protestant worldview, this is basically the equivalent of a non-member kid shouting out “conman” when a BYU religious education class brings up Joseph Smith. It’s a pretty big deal to them, and it got awkward really fast, so we had a great opportunity to discuss context-specific appropriateness with our oldest. While in colleges and other places talking about evolution was not only permitted but encouraged, as guests in their education system we had to respect their belief system even if we disagreed about some of the particulars. 

Some may disagree, but frankly the benefits of that co-op outweighed the drawbacks, and I wasn’t terribly worried that my son was going to come home and tell us that if we didn’t change our non-trinitarian theology we were going to hell. The co-op respected our beliefs and we respected theirs, and it was a great experience overall. Of course, not all Latter-day Saint families have such a positive outcome, but more than anything I wanted to draw attention to the LDS  homeschooling situation, where in the homeschooling landscape we actually end up hanging out with the secular liberals more than the religious conservatives.

15 comments for “The Latter-day Saint Homeschooling Conundrum

  1. My sister who homeschools had a similar experience. If I’m remembering the story correctly, she’d found a group that was mostly conservative evangelicals, but there were several families that wanted their kids to learn evolution–the rest absolutely did not. As she was a biology major and the daughter of a biology professor who is outspoken about faith and evolution being completely compatible (in the waning days of the evolution wars he was repeatedly asked to give firesides and youth conference presentations where the thrust of his message was “If you find yourself losing your faith in a literal reading of Genesis, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”) she was well-qualified to teach the topic to those who wanted to learn it in a way that was both scientifically accurate and sensitive to everyone’s beliefs.

  2. I don’t quite get the concept of “homeschooling” that ties a student in with a group and facilitates coordinated education with a curriculum and principles decided upon by those coordinating the group. Such a group sounds like a school to me. Feel welcome to clarify what I don’t understand.

  3. It’s kind of like part-time school (which would be great if they allowed it, but most districts don’t), with the rest at home, plus more fin-grained control over the curriculum and schoolmates.

  4. Very part-time–I got the impression my sister’s group met something like once a week, though I’m sure that varies a lot. The rest really was home.

  5. Love the idea of homeschooling. We are part of the “Mormon belt”, so we didn’t feel as great of a need to find an alternative to my kids’ current charter school, but I’m sure we would otherwise. My sister’s family in Baltimore homeschools, mostly with the “purple haired, hippie, atheist types” which seems to also have its own challenges, but also benefits. Grateful for states like AZ, Utah, and others who are creating ESAs and making it easier to be able to homeschool without having to pay for your kids’ education twice.

    Who is the artist for the picture above? I wouldn’t mind getting a picture like that for my sister.

  6. RLD’s right; 1-2 a week is pretty typical. Again, it takes advantage of the exponentially more effective homeschooling while building in some socialization and exposure to other styles and approaches. Having 100% control over your child’s environment is a huge, scary, responsibility.

    @Sam:

    Yes, some states are certainly more accommodating than others. Maryland basically tries to punish you for homeschooling with red tape; Utah’s homeschooling subsidies would be a dream for us.

    The artist is me typing into GPT-4: “Create a rural American regionalist painting of children being homeschooled.” And then, after it gave me a scene out of the 19th century: “make another one that’s similar, but put the kids in 21st century clothes.”

  7. This comment comes from experience and concern and not rancor: if you are planning to send your kids to BYU, please consider mainstreaming them, at least for high school. For many years I have seen home schooled kids arrive at BYU and *struggle* academically (the rhythms and norms of semesters and hard deadlines are often foreign to them), socially (it’s a big, big school and they won’t be special or doted upon; everyone is amazing and the socially adept tend to be loud and dominant in classroom, church, and informal settings), and spiritually (the family specific proctectionism most home school parents impose comes home to roost in college level classes where professors and students from all sorts of backgrounds exchange ideas).

    The transition to BYU is pretty shocking to all students, but it falls really heavily upon the home schooled students. It does a number on their self confidence. The Testing Center alone is a brutal introduction to the sometimes cold and distant nature of mass higher education that BYU has chosen to offer. Even if you only main stream their junior and senior years in high school, you will be doing them (and yourselves) a real favor.

  8. @Anon College Professor: Thanks for your insights. Yes, I am definitely of the school of thought that some public school years are important. There’s a good and bad way to do homeschooling. As much as some might pine for a day where we all get paid to explore our interests in the wild, for the time being we have to be beholden to deadlines and hoops to jump through, and it behooves us to teach our kids how to deal with deadlines and jump through hoops. Fortunately, we’re in a golden age for that, and there is a lot of out-of-the-box materials that make it easier than ever. For example, Khan academy has a structured yet flexible math curriculum that is as good as just about anything in a public school system. Living way outside of any area of Mormon influence I’m not particularly worried about BYU being a diversity shock for them.

  9. I was homeschooled, and so was my younger brother. I never have gone on to a mainstream college, though I continue to learn autodidactically; my brother’s about to start his second semester of a mechanical engineering master’s at a highly respected college. Our parents made sure we had enough discipline and routine to hack it just about anywhere. There were certainly bad examples of homeschoolers in our group, but most of us went on to become well-adjusted adults, higher education or not.
    I don’t have personal experience with the type of co-op described in the OP, but we had a loose group with whom we went on So. Many. Field trips. Theaters, zoos, museums, hikes, community service, we even created our own kid’s opera and put it on for our parents. We’re still friends with some of the families to this day!
    That said, I personally believe that higher education is badly broken, and that it breaks the majority of kids that begin unprepared. It’s not just the homeschoolers that I see failing. I live in a college town, and I see people dropping out all the time, usually up to their eyebrows in debt, because they didn’t have a focus or understanding of what they want to do with their schooling, they just decided to ‘get their generals done first’ because that’s what their advisors recommended. That’s a problem with how higher education is presented to minors, not a problem with homeschoolers.
    As for testing, Anon Professor, me and my brother consistently took the standardized tests throughout our schooling; I don’t know where your homeschooled students are coming from, but we were required by law to test here in Utah.

  10. I agree that there should be a place for home-schooling — I did not home-school, but my brother did. That said, I generally am not an enthusiastic fan of home-schooling. Not all home-schooling parents are conscientious or competent as teachers. Of course, this excludes present company, as the crowd here is not perfectly reflective of the larger community. I have seen sad cases of home-schooled young adults unable to master adulthood (of course, I have also seem schooled young adults unable to master adulthood). I am unpersuaded that home-schooling insulates a growing child from what their parents see as the rampant sinfulness among youth in established schools.

    I am glad different states have different approaches to home-schooling. I think some experimentation is good.

  11. Home schooling works well for some. For others, it is primarily an effort by the parents to limit their children’s learning.

    When I was growing up we had a family of three move into our ward. Homeschooled. Their kids only read the scriptures. Didn’t know modern science, history, etc. Some of the most ignorant people I ever met. And, all three of the kids rebelled after leaving the home, left the church and have struggled in life.

  12. I’ve homeschooled for 14 years, and I’ve been around a lot of homeschoolers both in person and online. I admin a facebook group for homeschoolers. Two of my three kids have also experienced public school. Like anything in life, homeschooling is complex and is impacted by numerous factors.

    When I was growing up there were several families in my ward who homeschooled, and I deemed all of them “weird”. Now I look back with different eyes. One family in retrospect wasn’t weird at all–I just thought they were because in my mind homeschooling = weird. Their children have grown up to be very typical, functioning members of society. One family had kids who struggled and everyone blamed homeschooling. However, later on, those kids were diagnosed with mental illnesses that explained their childhood challenges. Another family truly was odd–and later on abuse within the family was exposed.

    The more people I know who homeschool, the more I know that these families and their experiences are just as varied as public schooling families. You can’t make judgments about homeschooling in general based on interactions with one or just a couple of families.

    Even in my own family, I have had vastly different experiences with different children. One of my kids is motivated and persistent. He spent time in both public and homeschool, has served a mission, excelled at sports, is now in college and doing very well. He’s outgoing and fun; he knows what he wants out of life and is committed to doing what he feels is right. My other two kids have behavioral and mental health challenges. My daughter thrived in homeschool but longed to go to public school, and it’s been a disaster for her both academically and socially due to her mental health and challenges that she was born with that are too much and too personal to go into here. My youngest child has never been to school and has no desire to. He experiences severe anxiety and is likely autistic (neuropsych evaluation scheduled for later this summer). In my opinion, he presents as the stereotypical socially-awkward homeschooled child and may well be judged as such by those who aren’t familiar with him. However, his challenges are not caused by homeschooling, and it’s really frustrating to me that ignorant and judgmental people might just assume that they are. He would struggle in public school as well, probably even more than he does currently. Public schools are *full* of children who struggle, who are socially awkward, who are doing poorly academically, etc.

    We have a family in my ward whose kids are the poster children for successful homeschooling–outgoing, articulate, confident, etc. It’s easy to compare and get discouraged. But my job isn’t to turn out kids who look great to the outside world. It’s to parent and teach the kids God gave me and to help them navigate their individual challenges and be the best people *they* can be. I have a friend on facebook whose homeschooled children are definitely socially-awkward. The parents are as well. It would be easy for others to judge them, and I’m sure people do. But I’m absolutely amazed with what this friend has her children doing and sheer variety of activities they are involved in. The three oldest are all in college; one is working on a master’s degree, so obviously they’ve done something right.

    I think the problem comes when we see homeschooling as only being justified if the results are spectacular. In reality, it’s just another way to educate, and no form of education is perfect or can meet every need of every child. The sheer number of resources available to homeschoolers is staggering, and if parents are motivated there is no end to curriculum offerings for every situation under the sun. I’m all for parents having as many choices as possible. I don’t mean government-funded choices (I’m opposed to vouchers). But I am in favor of expanding what education looks like and how it is delivered.

  13. My general dislike of homeschool stems from it’s purpose. The vast, vast majority of the time, homeschool is more about instilling the values of the parents than educating the children.

    I trust my children with public educators not just for the learning, but for the diversity of knowledge only experience can grant. Raising a child in an echo chamber, no matter how “pure,” will always end up badly.

  14. Neither here nor there, but FWIW a very moving “purple haired atheist” homeschooler film is Captain Fantastic.

  15. Poorly done homeschooling is a part of a recipe for a child’s faith crisis.

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