For the second installment of Experts Unplugged, I spoke with Jennifer Lois, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Western Washington University, about homeschooling and parenting.
For almost a decade, Lois immersed herself in the world of homeschooling moms and their children through fieldwork and dozens of in-depth interviews. Her book Home is Where the School Is: The Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering (2013) was recently released.
Because I’m also interested in the changing cultural standards for motherhood as well as understanding the homeschooling experience better, I was thrilled that Lois agreed to answer a few of my questions. Her research helps to show the reasons that we should all — as educators, as parents with homeschooling families on our blocks, as citizens concerned with our education system — look more closely at and understand homeschooling. These reasons are not only educational, political, or moral ones; they also relate to important questions about the expectations for today’s mothers and for parenting in general.
School of Smock: How did you become interested in studying homeschooling moms?
Dr. Jennifer Lois: When I moved to the Pacific Northwest from Colorado (and before that, from New York), I couldn’t believe the number of homeschoolers I met in the first two weeks! I had just finished my PhD dissertation, so I was looking for a new project, in my new job, in my new corner of the world. I had never known anyone who even knew anyone who had been homeschooled, so I was fascinated by the prevalence here. That was in 2000-2001, so things are different now; most people can say they know someone, however distantly, who homeschools. But at the time it was less well-known. I looked up the sociological research in homeschooling and was surprised to find virtually none, so that’s when I knew it was my new project. In the spring of 2001, I began attending support group meetings for homeschooling parents, which were open to the public, to see what it was all about. Later that year, Mitchell Stevens’s book, Kingdom of Children, came out, and it was a huge contribution to the sociology of homeschooling. He focused more on homeschooling as a social movement, but I knew the minute I attended my first meeting, I would focus entirely on the family/mothering aspects of homeschooling. Mothers talked about it as a choice for their families. I wanted to explore that.
School of Smock: What did you learn about why families made the decision to homeschool?
Dr. Jennifer Lois: That’s the second-most popular question homeschoolers get (right after “what about socialization?”). There are some distinctions in the few previous studies of homeschoolers, which basically divide them into “ideologues,” who homeschool for religious reasons, and “pedagogues,” who homeschool primarily for academic purposes. That distinction was proposed in the late 1980s, but is still widely used today, mostly in mainstream culture, as a basic and broad way to stereotype homeschoolers (which hides the complexity).
The truth is that homeschoolers’ motivations are very complex, so they are hard to capture. Furthermore, “motivations” for anything are difficult to study in any concrete way; sometimes people report what they want their motivations to be, sometimes they don’t know what their motivations are, and motivations often change over time, so asking someone why they began an experience does not explain why they continue. This problem is especially acute in survey research, where homeschoolers are given a list of reasons (developed by researchers in advance of actually speaking to any homeschoolers) and asked to choose “the most important one.”
In addition, as other researchers have pointed out, reasons overlap. For example, “character,” “concerns about peer socialization,” and “negative school experience” could all be related to faith—or not. So surveys have a hard time capturing this and as a result show a wide disparity of findings. The more accurate approach, I believe, is to talk to people in depth and ask them to explain their journey into and through homeschooling. Luckily, that’s the kind of research I do, anyway.
School of Smock: So how did you decide to categorize these homeschooling moms’ experiences?
Dr. Lois: I found that mothers talked about their decision to homeschool in terms of how they felt about being stay-at-home moms to school-age children. I call these groups “first-choice” and “second-choice” homeschoolers, and detail the differences in how they understand their decision to homeschool. These stories draw a great deal on mothers’ own understandings of motherhood, emotions, and their ideas about how they go together. In another chapter, I discuss how mothers defend homeschooling to critics (the people who ask about “socialization”) and I find that mothers must work extra hard to fight against implicit, and sometimes explicit, accusations that they are “irresponsible” mothers for keeping their children out of conventional schools. They draw on culturally accepted ideas about mothering to do so, focusing on academic, social, moral, and relational rationales.
SS: What were some of the challenges that these mother faced?
JL: Mothers talked a lot about the challenges. Mostly this has to do with time: how do they find enough time to get their chores done, especially when their children lose motivation and/or don’t make the progress mothers anticipated (I’m not at all implying kids tend to fall behind—sometimes they get ahead!). The household schedule is disrupted, the laundry piles up, other children need attention, and on and on. Homeschooling is a lot of work, so in one chapter, I examine how mothers avoid burnout. In another chapter, I show how mothers have no “me-time” because they are with their kids “24/7” and don’t get the “break” that conventional school can provide. There are several strategies they attempt to carve out personal time, but most fail and mothers resort to managing their feelings about time instead. (In both of these chapters, the theme of husbands not contributing enough to family life is prominent, so that is woven into their discussions about the challenges.)
SS: How did they handle these challenges then?
JL: The thrust of the book focuses on mothers’ time management strategies. Objective time-management (like asking husbands to pitch in more) didn’t tend to work reliably, so mothers often switched their perspective to thinking about the day when their children would be out of the house. They anticipated they would be nostalgic for their children’s growing years, and they used this feeling and perspective to quash their frustration and resentment in the present. They didn’t want to look back and regret not spending enough time with their children. There would be “time for me later.”
SS: Based on your research with homeschooling moms, what do you think are the broader implications for understanding parenting?
JL: I think almost all of the dynamics I identified with homeschooling moms occur in many other types of families as well. For example, what mother hasn’t told herself that she doesn’t want to look back and regret a missed opportunity with her child? This is a basic way we understand what it means to be a mother in our society; homeschooling just amplified these dynamics so I could see them more clearly. I also deal a lot with the issue of “choice” in the book because the thing that separates the first-choice from the second-choice homeschoolers is, as I mentioned above, how they feel about stay-at-home mothering. Second choicers used a great deal of the choice rhetoric that circulates in mainstream culture, which mothers in general use to ferret out the “value” of working or staying at home. So in a nutshell, I think this research points to broader elements in the culture that force women to “choose” between working and staying at home, and illuminates the problems in defining good mothering in that way. Likewise, and relatedly, that these are issues for mothers but not fathers is a parallel track that needs more attention in popular culture. “Working mother” is a choice; “working father” is redundant. That’s part of what sustains gender inequality in a great many families and in our society more broadly.
I just received Dr. Lois’s book and am looking forward to reviewing it soon. In the meantime, Dr. Milton Gaither’s homeschooling research site has a thoughtful, two-part review. He examines the methodological challenges that Dr. Lois faced and recognizes the important contribution of her work. At the end of his review, he concludes that the book is “beautifully written” and “successfully divulges the inner lives of homeschooling women, who are and have always been the key players in the homeschooling phenomenon. Thanks to Lois’ careful work everyone can get to know who these women are, what they struggle with, and how they change over time.”