My almost 4-year-old son has yet to attend any kind of school, but I’m starting to think about his education. I believe it’s a civic duty to support public education in every way, including by sending one’s own kids to public school. The problem is, I’m anti-school, especially for young children. Almost all of them—public and private—are developmentally inappropriate for children under the age of 8 or 9. From the lack of play to the hyper-focus on academics, I don’t think school is good for them. I’m considering homeschooling my kid until second or third grade. We’d mostly “unschool” (obnoxious, I know), which for us would mean making the city our oyster, learning through experiences and adventures. My question is: Am I contributing to the demise of public education by doing this? Am I leveraging my privilege (to work less and homeschool) at the expense of others?
—Parent or Citizen?
Dear Parent or Citizen?,
I sympathize with this conundrum, and you articulate it well. But don’t assume it will go away as your child gets older. Middle school is probably even less developmentally appropriate for 11-year-olds than kindergarten is for 4-year-olds. I agree, however, that it’s important for privileged parents to bring their social and political capital into the public-school system; just look at the difference between school systems where this happens and those where it doesn’t. New York City, where it’s more common for well-off parents to send their kids to public school, has many excellent ones, while Baltimore and Philadelphia, where this is less usual, have very few. This becomes a vicious cycle, because what parent would choose to send their kids to a terrible school?
One way to resolve this, Parent, if you live in a city with a choice system, is to look for a diverse public school with a more progressive, project-based curriculum that incorporates play into the day and doesn’t insist on early academic achievement. (Full disclosure: I did this, and am very glad that I did.) Visit the kindergartens; if you see Legos or water tables, stop worrying so much. Of course, not every district has such schools. But even if you’re looking at more conventional public schools, I’d suggest broadening your thinking about what is “developmentally appropriate.” Socializing, unmediated by parents, indisputably benefits young children. Additionally, being away from you during some part of the day encourages a healthy independence. Privileged children also gain from attending diverse public schools. Extensive literature shows that kids who go to a school with people who are different from them have more social intelligence than those who don’t. It seems unlikely that a child who didn’t enter public school until third grade could be as profoundly shaped by the environment as much as one who had entered in kindergarten, given how crucial these early years are in shaping the way we make sense of the world. Lastly, while there are plenty of state-sponsored education policies that are cruel (standardized testing, for instance), many teachers have knowledge about kids that we, as parents not trained in early-childhood education, lack. In other words, the dilemma—what’s good for society versus what’s good for your child—may not be as stark as you think. Give public school a try.
I’ve recently realized that there are certain topics that bring out a lot of anxiety in me. When I’m in a context where people don’t share my concerns or viewpoints, I start to talk in a sterner voice, I lose my usual humor, and I don’t ask good questions to learn more about other people’s opinions. My friends, with whom I feel really safe, don’t ever see me acting this way. In contexts that are less “loving,” I struggle to be my charming self. I feel upset about injustice but worried that I’ll say it all wrong—and then I do. I’m wondering what role anxiety plays in activists’ lives and how we can be more resilient.
It sounds as if, in addition to anxiety, your sense of personal responsibility may be getting in the way of having productive discussions. That sounds weird, right? After all, that sense of personal responsibility is part of what inspires us to be politically active in the first place. But it can also be paralyzing. You may be putting too much pressure on each individual conversation. Remember, if these are people in your community, you’ll have lots of chances to influence them. Don’t try to do it all in one interaction. Think of your perspective as a seed that might be nourished by regular friendly contact. If you feel the discussion is about to go off the rails, bow out gracefully and say something light: “We’ll probably be talking about this a lot!”
It’s also important to ease up on yourself. There are other forces influencing this person’s thinking. Try remembering in the moment that your interlocutor has her own upbringing, her friends, and all of the media shaping her views. Changing her mind may not be a task you can do alone.
I would also advocate getting some training in organizing. Improving your skills would bring you more persuasive success, which would in turn improve your confidence and ease your anxiety. Many labor organizations offer summer schools on organizing, while other groups offer training for people at the grass roots. Your self-awareness is admirable; I’m sure you can improve your game.