THE ENCHANTED CHILD: Ambivalent Attachments in the Southwest

Record: Allahyari, Rebecca A. “Homeschooling the Enchanted Child: Ambivalent Attachments in the Domestic Southwest.” What Matters? Ethnographies of Value in a Not So Secular Age, edited by C. Bender and A. Taves, New York: Columbia University Press (2012), 179-214. [Description Here]

Summary: Allahyari is a Research Associate at the School for Advanced Research. In this book chapter she discusses the Family School, a charter school for homeschoolers where students are instructed in the classroom for 50% of the day by teachers and 50% of the day at home with their parents.

Enchantment is an important word in this article, so Allahyari begins by illustrating what it means to be enchanted. If a disenchanted person is someone who is guided by structure, facts, and rationality, then an enchanted person is someone who believes in things that can’t be seen. Frequently, growing up is seen as a disenchanting process. Meaning, as children grow up, they usually lose their childish wonder and curiosity. Children are enchanted when they believe in things like Santa Claus or when they lead lives of natural discovery like Heidi in the Swiss Alps or Huck Finn on the Mississippi. Essentially, enchantment is a sense of innocence and curiosity about the world. While many people (including many homeschoolers) believe that enchantment is a good thing that should be maintained as people age, conventional schooling is generally thought to damage children’s’ wonder-filled spirits and thus make them disenchanted.

Another important term in the article is devotional parenting. Devotional parenting is simply the practice of tinkering with the family’s life and practice in order to gain a desired outcome in children. In this article, Allahyari focuses on the outcome of an enchanted childhood. To achieve this, some families turn to homeschooling, even though some families have turned to charter schools or homeschool hybrids that offer families flexibility and autonomy while remaining within a school-like setting.

Now turning more formally to homeschooling specifically, Allahyari provides a brief overview of the demographics of homeschoolers (they’re mostly from middle-class White families) and motivations to homeschool (people have multiple motivations, but academic concerns and the desire to provide religious concerns are the most common). After her broad introduction, Allahyari focuses her discussion on the Family School in Albuquerque New, Mexico that was founded by educator Gael Keyes in 1991 to provide half-day instruction to homeschoolers as well as education for their parents on how to teach their children. Allahyari found that while it was helpful to some families, others believed that the Family School created an rigorous atmosphere of high-achievement that stifled enchantment.

Allahyari interviewed several homeschooling families at the Family School to learn more about their profiles and to see how their choice of a homeschooling charter school is related to their homeschooling ideology. The first family she discusses is the Carlsons. The Carlsons typified a family of the Family School because they were not seeking an enchanted childhood but rather a development of responsibility, healthy interests, and skills. In other words, they chose the Family School because they believed it would be the best form of education for their son to develop into the adult that they wanted him to be. The mother was an educator at the Family School for five years, and she and her husband were primarily motivated to homeschool because of their belief that their son was gifted.

The next family from the Family School that Allahyari discusses is the Garcia family. The mother, Sandra, is half Pueblo Indian and half European, while her husband Don is Mexican-American. They are Catholics who eschewed the stressful lives that come with high-paying jobs in order to focus on their family. Rather than religion, Sandra was inspired to homeschool by La Leche League, which emphasizes attachment parenting. Some of the attachment parenting practices that Sandra practiced or promoted are extended breastfeeding, home births, family bed (where children sleep in bed with the parents), and a refusal of vaccinations. In her homeschooling, Sandra demonstrated the typical shift from structured to unstructured programming. She sent her son to public school in 5th grade, and after one year, her son moved to the Family School, which Sandra much preferred. She loved the Family school for several reasons. First, the community of parents was very strong. Also, it allayed some concerns that some parents had, such as gaps in the parents’ knowledge (i.e. teaching calculus) and the question of socialization. She recounted that the vast majority of students at the school had been previously homeschooled. However, 6 months after her interview, Allahyari spoke again with Sandra and was surprised to learn that the family had returned to simply homeschooling because the school had a policy of not acknowledging any kind of special occasion or holiday. As a professor of multicultural education, this was intolerable for Sandra. Furthermore, they also left the Family School because there was a family going through problems with drugs that was having a negative influence on the school environment.

Jean Johnston’s White, evangelical Christian family was very excited about the time for extracurricular activities (such as participation in the family’s ministry) that the Family School’s flexible schedule offered them. She appreciated that the Family School allowed her children to socialize with diverse children and teachers. As a trained preschool teacher, Jean also loved being able to help in the classrooms and utilize her passion for teaching. Through her experience with parent training and her role as a teaching assistant, she said she felt like she was getting her master’s degree. However, balancing her role at the school with homeschooling lessons, family life, and extracurricular activities was very stressful for Jean. Over time, Jean became more involved in the family’s ministry and the family moved to the tough, inner-city neighborhood where they worked. Although she continued to love the Family School (minus a few minor criticisms), she questioned whether it was the best use of her family’s limited time.

 Allahyari met a friend of Jean’s named Clare DeBorst who entered her son Clayton in the Family School. Clare is a White woman, described by Allahyari as “bohemian” in appearance, who is married to a Latino man. She taught public school for a year before becoming pregnant. She said she felt push-back from her family on her decision to homeschool because her family includes many public-school teachers. Initially, her son even attended public school. She was motivated by a desire to make her son enjoy learning. She said that one of the challenges was a lack of time for herself as well as the stress involved with juggling her son’s education at the same time as her domestic chores. What she liked about the Family School was the close relationship with her child’s teacher and a more meaningful education. After leaving the Family School, Clare went to unschooling. Through unschooling, she developed an attachment-style of parenting. Compared to the other mothers interviewed, Clare did not expect her son to go to college. Although she did choose to leave the Family School, she believed that the Family School was very important in her decision to unschool. She believed that that would have been unsuccessful if she had attempted homeschooling without first attending the Family School.

Time is often described as a problem facing families, and based on the interviews she conducted, Allahyari concludes that the Family School only exacerbated the time crunch that these families faced. She also concludes that the Family School is part of the neoliberal movement in which consumers act as managers and advocates for the self. For the children enrolled in the Family School, she proposes that they learn that people can move in and out of society’s major institutions. Returning to her initial discussion of enchantment, Allahyari believes that homeschooling offers an opportunity for enchantment for both children and parents, even though the structure of places like the Family School may hinder the benefits.

Appraisal: Unlike Allahyari’s other article that we recently reviewed, here she presents a very original and mostly coherent qualitative study of families enrolled in a homeschool hybrid. Since there has been very little, if anything, written in the literature about a school-based homeschool program such as this, it is a welcome addition, and it provides an interesting look at the unique relationship that the Family School has with the homeschooling community. For most of these families, at least the ones considered in this article, it worked as a stepping stone to full-time homeschooling. This is an interesting finding, since other school district programs like the Snoqualmie Valley Parent Partnership Program were created to win back homeschoolers (and their funding) who had left the public schools in order to homeschool. It would be interesting to know which result is more common:  do hybrids on average attract more independent homeschoolers into public education, or do they more often serve as stepping stones helping public school families transition out of the system entirely?

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