Why Urban, Educated Parents Are Turning to DIY Education

The Schreiber girls spend about two hours a day on formal lessons, including English and math. Doug Adesko for Newsweek

In the beginning, your kids need you—a lot. They're attached to your hip, all the time. It might be a month. It might be five years. Then suddenly you are expected to send them off to school for seven hours a day, where they'll have to cope with life in ways they never had to before. You no longer control what they learn, or how, or with whom.

Unless you decide, like an emerging population of parents in cities across the country, to forgo that age-old rite of passage entirely.

When Tera and Eric Schreiber's oldest child was about to start kindergarten, the couple toured the high-achieving public elementary school a block away from their home in an affluent Seattle neighborhood near the University of Washington. It was "a great neighborhood school," Tera says. They also applied to a private school, and Daisy was accepted. But in the end they chose a third path: no school at all.

Eric, 38, is a manager at Microsoft. Tera, 39, had already traded a career as a lawyer for one as a nonprofit executive, which allowed her more time with her kids. But "more" turned into "all" when she decided that instead of working, she would homeschool her daughters: Daisy, now 9; Ginger, 7; and Violet, 4.

We think of homeschoolers as evangelicals or off-the-gridders who spend a lot of time at kitchen tables in the countryside. And it's true that most homeschooling parents do so for moral or religious reasons. But education observers believe that is changing. You only have to go to a downtown Starbucks or art museum in the middle of a weekday to see that a once-unconventional choice "has become newly fashionable," says Mitchell Stevens, a Stanford professor who wrote Kingdom of Children, a history of homeschooling. There are an estimated 300,000 homeschooled children in America's cities, many of them children of secular, highly educated professionals who always figured they'd send their kids to school—until they came to think, Hey, maybe we could do better.

When Laurie Block Spigel, a homeschooling consultant, pulled her kids out of school in New York in the mid-1990s, "I had some of my closest friends and relatives telling me I was ruining my children's lives." Now, she says, "the parents that I meet aren't afraid to talk about it. They're doing this proudly."

Many of these parents feel that city schools—or any schools—don't provide the kind of education they want for their kids. Just as much, though, their choice to homeschool is a more extreme example of a larger modern parenting ethos: that children are individuals, each deserving a uniquely curated upbringing. That peer influence can be noxious. (Bullying is no longer seen as a harmless rite of passage.) That DIY—be it gardening, knitting, or raising chickens—is something educated urbanites should embrace. That we might create a sense of security in our kids by practicing "attachment parenting," an increasingly popular approach that involves round-the-clock physical contact with children and immediate responses to all their cues.

Even many attachment adherents, though, may have trouble envisioning spending almost all their time with their kids—for 18 years! For Tera Schreiber, it was a natural transition. When you have kept your kids so close, literally—she breast-fed her youngest till Violet was 4—it can be a shock to send them away.

Tera's kids didn't particularly enjoy day care or preschool. The Schreibers wanted a "gentler system" for Daisy; she was a perfectionist who they thought might worry too much about measuring up. They knew homeschooling families in their neighborhood and envied their easygoing pace and flexibility—late bedtimes, vacations when everyone else is at school or work. Above all, they wanted to preserve, for as long as possible, a certain approach to family.

Several homeschooling moms would first tell me, "I know this sounds selfish," and then say they feared that if their kids were in school, they'd just get the "exhausted leftovers" at the end of the day. Says Rebecca Wald, a Baltimore homeschooler, "Once we had a child and I realized how fun it was to see her discover stuff about the world, I thought, why would I want to let a teacher have all that fun?"

It's 12:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and Tera and her daughters have arrived home from a rehearsal of a homeschoolers' production of Alice in Wonderland. Their large green Craftsman is typical Seattle. There are kayaks in the garage, squash in the slow cooker, and the usual paraphernalia of girlhood: board games, dolls, craft kits. Next to the kitchen phone is a printout of the day's responsibilities. Daisy and Ginger spend about two hours daily in formal lessons, including English and math; today they've also got history, piano, and sewing.

Laws, and home-crafted curricula, vary widely. Homeschoolers in Philadelphia, for instance, must submit a plan of study and test scores, while parents in Detroit need not even let officials know they're homeschooling. Some families seek out a more classical curriculum, others a more unconventional one, and "unschoolers" eschew formal academics altogether. There are parents who take on every bit of teaching themselves, and those who outsource subjects to other parents, tutors, or online providers. Advances in digital learning have facilitated homeschooling—you can take an AP math class from a tutor in Israel—and there's a booming market in curriculum materials, the most scripted of which enable parents to teach subjects they haven't studied before.

So far, Tera says, these books have made the teaching itself easy—insofar as anything is easy about mothering three kids nonstop. The girls have started their lessons at the kitchen table, but there are also sandwiches to be assembled, cats who want treats, and girls who want drinks or ChapStick or napkins or, in the youngest's case, attention.

"Violet, Ginger is getting a lesson, so you have to be quiet," Tera says from across the open kitchen, while heating tea and coaching Ginger on sounding out Y words. "The first word: is it two syllables? What does Y say at the beginning of a word?"


"At the end?"

"Eee? Yucky."

"Yucky is correct."

Tera sits down to eat a bowl of salmon salad while helping Ginger with her reading workbook. Daisy is reading a fantasy book about wild cats. Violet is playing with a big clock.

"Sam has a cane and a cape," Ginger says. "Sam has a cap and a can."

"If you use your finger, it will work better," Tera says.

Teaching Daisy to read was a breeze. With Ginger it's been more complicated, and Tera has had to research different approaches. She gives her lots of workbook activities, because Ginger retains information better when she's writing and not just listening. Since hearing about a neurological link between crawling and reading, Tera also has Ginger circle the house on hands and knees 10 times daily.

A school, Tera says, might not have teased out precisely how Ginger learns best. This is something I heard often from urban homeschoolers: the desire to craft an education just right for each child. They worry that formal schooling might dim their children's love of learning (yet there is a flip side: a reduced likelihood of being inspired along the way by the occasional magical teacher, full of passion and skill). They want their children to explore the subjects that interest them, as deeply as they care to go. For Daisy and Ginger, that has meant detours into herbalism, cat shows, musical theater, and deer.

Many parents are happy to sidestep environments that might be too intense, loading kids up with homework, making them feel an undue burden to perform. "The pressure from the reform movement today, from kindergarten on, has been all about 'Let's push, push, push for academic achievement,'" says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, and the author of a forthcoming book about urban parents' schooling decisions. Some urban homeschooled kids, particularly those with special needs, were previously enrolled in school but not served well there.

In truth, some conventional schools are making strides toward diagnosing and remedying each child's weaknesses. "Differentiated instruction"—the idea that teachers simultaneously address students' individual needs—is a catchphrase these days in public schools. And many elementary classrooms are no longer filled by rows of desks with children working in lockstep. But it is also true that you can never tailor instruction more acutely than when the student-teacher ratio is 1–1.

The Schreiber girls spend most of their time out and about, typically at activities arranged for homeschoolers. There are Girl Scouts and ceramics and book club and enrichment classes and park outings arranged by the Seattle Homeschool Group, a secular organization whose membership has grown from 30 families to 300 over the last decade. In a way, urban homeschooling can feel like an intensified version of the extracurricular madness that is the hallmark of any contemporary middle-class family, or it can feel like one big, awesome field trip.

Institutions throughout the country have discovered a reliable weekday customer in urban homeschoolers. "Everywhere you turn there's a co-op or a class or a special exhibit," says Brian Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute in Oregon. Three years ago, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago began to court homeschoolers with free admission, their own newsletters, and courses designed specifically for them. Participation has doubled each year. "The more we offer, the more we sell out," says Andrea Ingram, vice president of education and guest services.

A mini-industry of homeschool consultants has cropped up, especially in New York City, whose homeschooling population has grown 36 percent in eight years, according to the school district. (While states usually require homeschoolers to register, many parents choose not to, so official estimates skew low.) In Seattle, even the public-school system runs a center that offers classes just to homeschoolers.

Violet and Ginger during work time. Doug Adesko for Newsweek

"My kids actually have to tell me to stop," says Erin McKinney Souster, a mother of three in Minneapolis, whose kids have learned to find an academic lesson in something as mundane as the construction of a roller-rink floor. "Everything is always sounding so cool and so fun."

Still, you can't help but wonder whether there's a cost to all this family togetherness. There are the moms, of course, who for two decades have their lives completely absorbed by their children's. But the mothers I got to know seem quite content with that, and clearly seem to be having fun getting together with each other during their kids' activities.

And the kids? There's concern that having parents at one's side throughout childhood can do more harm than good. Psychologist Wendy Mogel, the author of the bestselling book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, admires the way homeschoolers manage to "give their children a childhood" in an ultracompetitive world. Yet she wonders how kids who spend so much time within a deliberately crafted community will learn to work with people from backgrounds nothing like theirs. She worries, too, about eventual teenage rebellion in families that are so enmeshed.

Typical urban homeschooled kids do tend to find the space they need by the time they reach those teenage years, participating independently in a wealth of activities. That's just as well for their parents, who by that time can often use a breather. And it has made them more appealing to colleges, which have grown more welcoming as they find that homeschoolers do fine academically. In some ways these students may arrive at college more prepared, as they've had practice charting their own intellectual directions, though parents say they sometimes bristle at having to suffer through courses and professors they don't like.

Tera figures that her daughters are out in the world enough to interact with all sorts of people. She feels certain they will be able to be good citizens precisely because of her and Eric's "forever style of parenting," as she calls it, not in spite of it. It's hard for Tera to get too worried when she's just spent the weekend, as the Schreibers often do, hanging out on a trip with homeschooled kids of all ages, including confident, competent teenagers who were happy playing cards with their parents all evening, with no electronics in sight.

Milo, my 3-year-old, never wants to go to preschool. So the more I hung out with homeschoolers, the more I found myself picking him up from school early, to squeeze in some of the fun these families were having. I began to think, why not homeschool? Really, there's something of the homeschooler in all of us: we stuff our kids with knowledge, we interact with them more than our parents did with us. I am resourceful enough to make pickles and playdough; why couldn't I create an interdisciplinary curriculum around Milo's obsession with London Bridge? I calculated what we'd have to give up if I cut back on work (though some homeschooling moms work full time or at least occasionally—like Tera, who writes parenting articles).

But my husband and I are loyal to what we call "detachment parenting": we figure we are doing a good job if Milo is just as confident and comfortable without us as he is with us. Family for us is more a condition—a joyous one, for sure—than a project, one of several throughlines of our lives.

For many of the homeschoolers I met, family is more: the very focus of their lives. And they wouldn't want it any other way. One comfort Tera and Eric Schreiber held on to when they started homeschooling was that if it wasn't working out, they could enroll the girls in school, literally the next day. That developed into an annual reassessment. By now their rhythms are deeply their own; they are embedded in a community they love. And at the college up the road there are plenty of calculus tutors, should they need them one day.