When Holly Rauser announced to her family that she would be homeschooling her first child, her mother was horrified.
“I only know one girl who was homeschooled, and she was weird,” Rauser’s mom protested.
“I know hundreds of people who went to public school or private school, and some of them are beyond weird,” Rauser retorted.
Looking back, Rauser—an etiquette coach who is working on developing a homeschool etiquette curriculum for teens—acknowledges that she might have been less confrontational. But like many homeschoolers, she found herself in a weird social situation where people felt comfortable making very personal comments about her choices. Homeschooling isn’t the weird, crunchy-granola or hyper-religious activity it once was (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it’s still not mainstream enough to be unremarkable. And just as strangers feel entitled to touch a pregnant woman’s burgeoning belly, they can feel entitled to weigh in on your homeschool choices and success. And sadly, even fellow homeschoolers aren’t immune from rude behavior.
There are etiquette books on everything from minding your manners on Twitter to throwing an engagement party, but homeschool etiquette is a brave new field. So we’ve turned to the experts to help sort out the best way to respond to everything from nosy questions to rude comments.
Your child tells a curious stranger she’s homeschooled, then gets hit with an impromptu quiz on multiplication tables or geography facts.
What you’d like to say: “Let’s see how you like pop quizzes. What’s the capital of Madagascar?”
What you should probably say: “You must have loved math when you were in school. Was that your favorite subject?”
Quizzing anyone who hasn’t signed up for your class is just plain rude, says etiquette expert Sue Fox, author Etiquette for Dummies. But the first rule of good manners is not to respond to rudeness with rudeness, so instead of getting snippy, deflect the question by turning it into a conversation, suggests Maralee McKee, an Orlando homeschool mom and author of the book Manners That Matter for Moms. “Ask them about the subject they bring up—people like to talk about what they know, so someone asking your child about the dates of the Korean War may be a history buff,” she says. “Instead of rebuffing that person, engage him.” If you’re quick-witted, humor can also defuse the situation. Saying something like “We usually do a little cardio before our quizzes” lets the question asker know that you’re not comfortable with the quizzing without making a big thing out of it.
Just as important as how you handle these stranger interrogations is how your child handles them. Very young kids can get away with saying “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” but as children get older, they should be able to deal with an unexpected pop quiz using the same bounce-back method you’d use. A smile and a laughing response like “I usually do better on written tests,” will not only refocus the conversation; it will also help dispel the notion that homeschoolers are socially awkward or academic automatons.
If your child does end up blindsided by a self-appointed quizmaster and can’t answer the questions, support him. If you catch the tail end of the conversation, shift the focus to one of your child’s strong points: “Next time, ask him about dinosaurs. He knows more about the Mesozoic Era than I do.” Otherwise, let your child know when you’re alone again that the quizzer was out of line and that his academic work is up to snuff as far as you’re concerned: “It’s really rude to put people on the spot like that. I would have felt really confused and frustrated if someone came up to me and started quizzing me. I’m not sure I would have been able to come up with answers off the top of my head either.”
Homeschooling is going great, but you’re tired of having to defend your educational choices. Every time you get together with your family, someone questions your decision to homeschool.
What you’d like to say: “What we do with our kids’ education is none of your business, so shut about it already!”
What you should probably say: “I’ve listened to you, and I really hear what you’re saying. I am glad you love our children so much that you worry about their wellbeing. But now, I need you to understand that I love them, too, and they are our children. You have to know that I would not do something that I did not believe with all my heart was best for them. And right now, what’s best for them is homeschooling. We have made our decision.”
You can’t really fault a grandmother—or an aunt, or a brother-in-law—for caring enough about your children to express an opinion. After all, you want your family to care about your kids. “But ultimately, they’re your children, and you’re the one who is responsible for deciding what is best for them,” says McKee. Unlike rude strangers, who are best rebuffed by distraction, dealing with family etiquette blunders is something you should tackle directly.
Start by doing one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do: Just listen. Let your mother-in-law obsess about the perils of non-school socialization, let your dad worry that your weak math skills will make it impossible for you to teach your children math, let your sister obsess about how hard it will be for your kids to get into college. Resist the urge to counter with facts or opinions of your own—just listen. When your mother-in-law is done expressing her concerns—and only then—calmly and simply explain your own perspective: “You know, I was worried about socialization, too, but I find that my kids have even more opportunities to socialize with other kids now that we’re homeschooling and they aren’t stuck behind a desk all day,” or “I definitely hope my kids will be better at math than I am. That’s why I’m using this really great program that walks us through everything step by step. If we ever reach a point where I feel like I can’t teach them, there are some great homeschool math classes I can sign them up for.” Don’t get into too many details; you want to address the concern without falling into the trap of justifying your choices, explains McKee.
It’s unlikely that whatever you say—however intelligently reasoned or expressed—will change your mother-in-law’s mind about homeschooling. Like politics or religion, homeschooling can bring out strong opinions that aren’t easily shaken. You don’t have to change your dad’s mind—and good manners dictates that you shouldn’t even try, says McKee. Instead, you should focus on making him feel like his concerns matter to you, even if you don’t agree with him. Let him know you’ve heard what he has to say and care about it, but you’ve made your own decision. Then, resist the urge to get pulled back in. If the topic comes up again, say “I know you feel that way, Dad, but we’ve made our decision.”
If your family member just won’t let it drop, you’ll need to take a firmer position. (It’s best for the person who’s directly related to the worrier to handle this since these conversations can be tricky, says McKee.) Say, “I understand that you don’t understand our decision. But I ask that you respect it.” Repeat this whenever the topic comes up, and eventually you’ll quell the commentary. And take heart: While your words may never convince your mother-in-law you’re doing the right thing, your results may win her over in time. Rauser spent years asking her family not to second-guess her decision to homeschool. “Now my mom is proud to announce that her grandchildren were homeschooled because they turned out so well,” Rauser says.
You’re having a perfectly nice conversation with another mom on the playground when you mention that you homeschool. “Oh, wow, I could never be around my kids all day,” she says.
What you’d like to say: “I could never be around your kids all day either.”
What you should probably say: “I love the new landscaping they’ve done by the pavilion. Are those tulips?”
When another mom makes a comment like this, your immediate response is to feel embarrassed and flustered. Are you weird because you don’t mind hanging out with your kids all day? Is she weird because she can’t imagine hanging out with her own kids all day? Before you start stammering an apologetic explanation about how homeschoolers have hard days, too, take a deep breath. When someone makes a comment like this, she’s not usually looking for a response at all, says Rauser. If you smile and change the subject, you’ll defuse the moment before it even has a chance to become awkward.
If ignoring her comment feels too rude, McKee recommends acknowledging the other mom’s perspective without going into lots of details about your own. Say, “Well, there are some days where I would agree with you, but for the most part, it’s a pleasure.” Then switch the subject. While you may feel like this mom is putting you on some kind of Super Mommy pedestal, if you try to respond to her comment with a lengthy explanation of how great your kids are or an uneasy treatise on your failings as a mom, you’ll make both of you uncomfortable. Treat comments like this as off-hand remarks that require minimal response on your part, and you’ll be able to continue your conversation comfortably.
You mention to someone that your kids are homeschooled, and he immediately asks, “Why do you homeschool?”
What you’d like to say: “None of your business!”
What you should probably say: “Why do you ask?”
Some homeschoolers want to shout their educational choices from the rooftops, but for other families, the decision to homeschool may be more personal. Knowing why someone is asking you about homeschooling is the key to answering this question politely, says McKee. “People who are just being nosy deserve a minimalist answer—‘It just feels like the right thing for our kids for right now,’ is true and nonspecific—but you may be surprised by people’s reasons for asking and want to give a different answer.” McKee speaks from experience: More than once, a stranger has asked her reasons for homeschooling only to admit that she’s considering homeschooling herself.
“This is one of those situations where you can really be an ambassador for homeschooling,” says McKee. “Someone might have a good reason for asking, and you might be able to help point them in the right direction.” And if someone’s just prying? Well, you can smile and give a brief answer before changing the subject.