A homeschool mom I know says, “the problem with support groups is they’re made up of people who need support.” True, but the same organizations can also be a central point for meeting new homeschooling friends, so it isn’t uncommon for families to have mixed feelings about support groups.
I used to expect that parents who choose to homeschool are naturally more akin to each other, but this is not necessarily true. My friend Elizabeth suggested that “the truth is probably closer to, we’re harder to get along with than other people, because we’re not committed to conforming with a group.” Indeed, one sometimes hears pained stories about attempted coups, betrayed friendships, and friends-turned-enemies. The problem is that, while many of us have high expectations of the homeschooling community, it is not superior to the rest of the country. While homeschooling itself offers hope for a better world, our community is essentially a microcosm of the greater society, with all the goodness, badness, beauty and ugliness humans possess. There are homeschooling bigots, zealots, religious exclusionists, pedophiles and thieves, just as there are free thinkers, the kind hearted, and those who would never imagine harming a child or stealing a pen from the office. There are homeschoolers who want to help create an array of learning opportunities for many, and others who simply want to place their children in “programs” that substitute for public school-to, as a friend put it, “keep their life as much as possible as it was ‘before homeschooling.'”
Facilitating a local support group for 8 years, I met hundreds of homeschoolers, some of whom were unhappy with the set up of the group. They wanted different activities, a new club, or for the dance classes to be changed to suit their particular schedule. Usually, they were people who complained about almost everything, but rarely-if ever-gave back to the group. Then there are those who berate their kids, bring them to events when they are sick and contagious, don’t supervise their children, or make excuses for poor behavior, like “that’s boys for you.”
In response to those types, I became a homeschool exclusionist. Over time I felt much less charitable and began to withdraw from planning support group events, doing the rah-rah and working to elicit action from others. I knew that it was well outside my circle of influence to change anyone else, and realized that I had to change. I learned how to say “Gee, that’s a great idea! Why don’t you start a club just the way you like it? I’ll help you promote it.” After the complainers heard that a few times they stopped complaining. Most of them never did anything, but at least they stopped whining.
I also distanced myself from the hypercritical, the nay-sayers and the arrogant. Some psychologists call them “crazy-makers” because they undermine one’s ability to function well. Ultimately, I feel sorry for them, because I know they bear some kind of inner poverty–but I also recognize that their needs are not my responsibility. That recognition is part of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. A healthy boundary lets in the good stuff and screens out the bad. This especially includes people. One must set boundaries with people who are rude, unappreciative, hurtful, excessively critical, overly contentious or otherwise draining. One must learn to say “Thank you for your opinion” and “It sounds like you have a clear picture of what you want, and I hope you can make that happen for you.” Sometimes one must even resort to being “too busy” or ignoring the person.
While I admit to being exclusionist, I don’t judge people by their religion, ethnicity, hobbies, political party, gender, age or marital status. Instead, I select my friends–homeschooling or not–by how they express themselves and how they treat others. It has become clear to me that, for my own preservation, I must carefully select those with whom I interact on a regular basis or for extended periods.
While I continued to facilitate the support group, my friends and I set up smaller groups through which we would get together for park days, field trips, picnics, swimming and other activities. I found the little private groups much more enjoyable than large groups and the difficulties that often go with them. While these exclusive groups were small and select, they were not closed. We invited newbies as we felt appropriate. This allowed the fresh air brought by new members, while maintaining the quality of the group.
Sometimes I felt guilty for being “exclusive,” but I realized that I can’t- and didn’t want to take care of the needs of the 125 plus families in my group. I needed to do what worked for me, and if doing that could help others–which it certainly did–that was a bonus. I tended to give new homeschoolers the benefit of the doubt, helping them meet others that might be compatible, and being open to the possibility that they may enter one of my circles. There is nothing like meeting a new, unsure homeschooling family, and watching them discover this satisfying way of life. I was willing to help with that, whether the newbie will become a friend or remain an acquaintance.
Below are the rules I developed for operating in the homeschooling community. I hope you will find some of them of value as you create your own set.
Achieving balance and comfort will require time and some trial and error, but it will allow you to be a truly happy homeschooler. If you are selective about the compatibility of the people with whom you engage, rather than using measurements based on religion, political affiliation, or homeschooling style, you will have made your custom niche in the homeschool community; a niche that serves the community and also serves you.
© 2002, 2005, 2010 Shay Seaborne. All rights reserved. Originally published in the newsletter of The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers