Anti-schooling: The hybrid between homeschooling and unschooling

OPTING OUT Leslie Kauffman enrolled her 4 1/2-year-old twins, Nini and Desmond Kauffman-O’Hehir, in pre-K, but didn’t send them.
A community of like-minded parents is opting to enrich rather than formally educate their not-yet-school-age children … Read on

The Anti-Schoolers
New York Times
UNKINDERGARTNER Joanne Rendell, with her son, Benny, 5, who is being educated at home this year.


Published: October 15, 2008
ONE morning early last month, long after that frantic hour between 7 and 8 when most New York City parents were hustling their 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds out the door and into their first day of kindergarten, Benny Rendell, the 5-year-old son of Joanne Rendell, a novelist, and Brad Lewis, a New York University professor, lay sprawled asleep in his bed, enjoying what his mother described as his first day of unkindergarten.

Michael Falco for The New York Times
UNKINDERGARTNER Joanne Rendell, with her son, Benny, 5, who is being educated at home this year.

Michael Falco for The New York Times
URBAN classroom The Children’s Museum of the Arts is a hot spot for urban home-schoolers like Benny and his mother, who use the whole city as their classroom.

Benny stayed asleep, as is his habit, until well past 11 a.m., while his mother, whose first book, “The Professors’ Wives’ Club,” was just published by NAL Accent, worked on her new novel. When Benny awoke, he and his mother slowly made their way to a friend’s house in Brooklyn, with Benny reading the subway stops out loud on the way, and counting out change at a vegetable stand.

They spent the afternoon in a Fort Greene backyard; while Benny played with his pals in the mud, the grown-ups looked on, and shared a cold one.

Ms. Rendell, 34, and Mr. Lewis, 51, are no slouches in the academic department — with two Ph.D.’s and an M.D. between them, the two fell in love at an academic conference and Mr. Lewis is now a faculty in residence in one of N.Y.U.’s only residential colleges. Nonetheless, they have made the semi-radical (for New York, anyway) and anti-academic choice to keep Benny out of the school system, for now. They are part of a community of like-minded parents who are opting to enrich rather than formally educate their not-yet-school-age children (6 is the age that New York City law requires parents to register their children as home-schooled). They discovered one another through the New York City Home Educators Alliance (, a home-schooling bulletin board.

Benny’s parents aren’t home-schooling in the traditional sense, by hewing to a curriculum, nor are they strictly “unschooling,” that is, following the teachings of John Holt, a progressive educator who promoted a child-led learning movement that is a wildly democratic subset of the home-schooling world. Rather, theirs is an ad hoc, day-by-day exploration into what it means to be a stay-at-home parent and child in an accelerated culture like New York. In a city where the race to be on top can start in infancy, the disconnect between these parents’ choices and the New York City norm is vast, as Ms. Rendell learned recently.

A few weeks ago, Ms. Rendell wrote an essay about Benny’s first day of “unkindergarten” — complete with an evocative description of that hot afternoon and the beer the parents enjoyed — for the hip online parents’ magazine, Babble ( Its editor in chief, Ada Calhoun, published the piece under the magazine’s personal essay rubric, the coyly named Bad Parent. (Past columns have included essays about fighting in front of one’s children and, last week, a mother’s embrace of fast food.) Despite the column’s reputation and mandate as a forum for parents to discuss choices made outside the mainstream, Ms. Calhoun said, Ms. Rendell’s essay drew howls of protest from readers, and broke the record, at nearly 200, for the number of its comments.

Ms. Rendell, being a writer, had drawn her readers in with a sassy lead. “My son Benny was out late last night at a bar in Soho,” her essay began. But her readers, once hooked, revolted: “Selfish,” “self-indulgent,” “call C.P.S.,” “bar hopping family” were typical responses in those 198 comments, never mind that the piece also discussed Benny’s above-grade-level reading and museum trips.

In Ms. Calhoun’s opinion, “what got people going,” was a sense that these readers “were being out-hipped or out-cooled,” as she put it, that they were “feeling jealous on some level that Joanne had the opportunity to stay home with her son.”

“And then the other side were comments just being totally critical of what they saw as not taking proper care of him,” Ms. Calhoun continued. “They were morally offended by this child sleeping late.”

Ms. Rendell was stunned by the reaction, and put some of it down to a culture clash: she is British. And she acknowledged that being a parent always involves some sort of compromise or sacrifice, and one’s choices, if different from another’s, can seem like an affront.

“I think people judge parents on very superficial things,” said Elsa Haas, a passionate unschooler in Staten Island, whose son, Tyler, is 9, and who knew about the Babble kerfuffle. “I think Joanne was using a literary device, and she made a choice to emphasize certain things, like going to a bar and having a drink. People in their comments distorted that to getting drunk and bar hopping. Why? It’s a distortion that shows their own anxieties.”

Indeed, the common thread running through most of the Babble commentary was the idea that Ms. Rendell was having too much fun.

“I’m so not the party girl,” Ms. Rendell said. Instead, she described herself as a woman who has crafted a life that fits what she sees as her child’s developmental stage as well as that of his parents.

On a recent Tuesday evening, Benny was playing a game with one of the college students from down the hall — Mr. Lewis and Ms. Rendell are living in the middle of a dorm, in an apartment whose rooms, while very large, are separated only by partitions. Rent-free housing gave Ms. Rendell the opportunity to stay home with Benny, she said. “It’s part of the equation.” And next year and beyond, until, perhaps, he asks to go to school, they will be home together, too.

The seed was sown years ago. Mr. Lewis had friends back home in Tennessee whose home-schooled children greatly impressed him when they visited some years back. “They were incredible,” he said. “They blew us away. They were interested in us as people, and I got to thinking, no wonder, they grew up in this community that included a lot of adults.”

Ms. Rendell, who excelled at her private school in Plymouth, England, said that before she visited her husband’s friends in Tennessee, she knew nothing about home-schoolers and assumed they were all “lonely weirdoes.”

When Benny was 2, the couple attended a conference on alternative education, and were captivated, they said, by one woman’s lecture about choosing not to be led by the school bell. The clincher may have been the community they connected with in New York through online bulletin boards. Ms. Rendell soon found herself in a group of roughly 12 families with similarly aged children, with whom she spends at least two days a week, on field trips and in reading groups and other activities.

With Benny, Mr. Lewis went on to say, “we embraced a hybrid between home-schooling and unschooling. It’s not structured, it’s Benny-centric, we follow his interests and desires, and yet we are helping him to learn to read and do math.” They read to him hours every day. “It’s about trying to find things we both enjoy doing,” Ms. Rendell said, “rather than making myself a martyr mom. The terror of home-schooling is you have to be super on all the time, finding crafty things to do.”

What’s radical is the choice to opt out of the educational rat race that is so intense in Manhattan.

“It’s hard right now, bucking a cultural trend,” said Leslie Kauffman, 44, who enrolled her 4 1/2-year-old twins in preschool and then chose not to send them because of what she sees as a trend toward too much academic pressure too early. She wants to take her time to find a school that fits them, she said, “and maybe that happens in kindergarten and maybe that happens in third grade.” Ms. Kauffman, a political organizer who stopped working when her son and daughter were 2, started the parents’ group Ms. Rendell joined last year.

Two home-schooling memoirs published this year narrate choices made outside the mainstream: in “The Film Club,” David Gilmour, a Canadian film critic, lets his 15-year-old son drop out of school on the condition that he watch three films each week chosen by his father. “Homeschooling: A Family’s Journey,” was written by Gregory and Martine Millman, two American financial journalists with six home-schooled children in Plainfield, N.J., a town that presented what they considered a Hobson’s choice: a terrible public school or a rigid Catholic one.

Mitchell L. Stevens, a sociologist at N.Y.U. and the author of “Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement” (Princeton, 2001), said it is not surprising that home-schooling is becoming more popular in New York City, with more than 2,600 students registered this year, up from nearly 1,600 in 2001, according to the New York City Department of Education.

“In one sense it is hyperparenting, an extreme version of bourgeois parenting,” he said. Parents, he said, are anticipating a world in which children will have to be ever more flexible and creative, and some home-schooling parents believe their approach will provide that edge.

But Ms. Rendell and her group aren’t thinking about admissions to Stanford, she said. It was a “distasteful atmosphere of competition” that drove one member of the parents’ group (stung by the Babble comments, she declined to give her name) to keep her 3 1/2 -year-old out of preschool; next year, she plans to pull her 6-year-old twins out of the public school gifted program they’re in and “enroll” them in what she described as “this village of many different ages and many different belief systems who have decided to spend time together.”

“This is New York,” she said. “There is so much to do, and we don’t have to follow that other, complicated path.” (Ms. Kauffman offered a new term for what she and the other mothers had become: “It’s not stay-at-home mom, it’s out-in-the world mom.”)

The mother of the 3 1/2-year-old and the twins said her goal for her three children was that each be able to “value his own good work, and think for himself.” She and Ms. Kauffman had gathered on a curb outside the gate of a playground in Greenwich Village, and Ms. Rendell was inside it, watching their children. As the women spoke, two of the children had gathered by the fence, and had begun a coordinated and admirably executed effort to dig a tunnel underneath it: “The Great Escape,” Village style. The mothers were delighted.

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