Think homeschooling is for slacker families or those living off the grid? These moms and dads in the trenches set the record straight.

mom homeschooling group of children
Credit: FOAP

Jenny Lilienthal was worried about her youngest son, Josh, when he started a new school with his brother Paul in Schoharie, New York. "Things seemed fine at first, but then someone picked on him," Lilienthal says. Because of the school's zero-tolerance policy on bullying, Josh was sent to the principal, along with the perpetrators, and treated the same way. "They all admitted Josh had done nothing, not even to defend himself," she recalls. But when the incidents continued and Josh got a report card with his first-ever Fs, she knew a change was necessary. Lilienthal decided to homeschool her boys, and as a certified elementary teacher and pysch-ed major in college, she felt well equipped.

Bullying is a big reason parents choose to homeschool, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association. Other factors include the desire to give religious instruction, a growing concern over the Common Core standards, and special needs or gifted children not receiving the attention they require. And homeschooling is on the rise: The U.S. Department of Education states that, between 2003 and 2012, the number of kids ages 5 to 17 who were taught at home rose 61.8 percent, while data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows about a million kids being homeschooled in 2003, but more than 1.7 million in 2012.

Parents who homeschool do everything you'd expect of teachers in a public or private institution, including giving homework, chaperoning field trips, conducting science experiments, and breaking for recess. But because they're in the minority in most communities, they're often viewed as an oddity. Neighbors may wonder if these kids are really learning or whether the parents just let them run wild. Others think the children are isolated, won't make friends, or will never be able to participate in sports.

To get the real deal, we've interviewed parents from across the nation, asking them to clear up common misconceptions as well as share the challenges and rewards they've experienced with their children. Get ready to be schooled by parents on the front lines of education:

  1. Homeschool kids don't live in a bubble. If you think this group is a lonely bunch, you're way off base. "Many parents would ask me how my kids could be 'socialized' if they didn't go to a 'regular' school," says Christina Lorenzen, a mom of two in North Babylon, New York, who homeschooled for 10 years. "But we belonged to a huge homeschooling group on Long Island that offered parties, sports, clubs, and scouts, so they were able to interact with kids of all ages," she explains. In fact, homeschooling better mirrors real life in this way."Being around people at different stages of life is beneficial," notes San Diego dad Timothy Trudeau, who's homeschooling his four kids. "School is the only time in our lives when we're placed with people who are our same exact age."
  2. Judging just doesn't help. "One of the biggest challenges I've had to face is the lack of support from other parents in my community," says Heather Gretarsson, a mom of three (with one on the way), who homeschools in Hagerstown, Maryland. "Many times I've had to explain myself and justify my decision." The criticism can be daunting. "Negative feedback is so disheartening—some people think I'm lazy by letting kids stay home and that I'm doing them a disservice," says Tamara Murray, a New York City mom of two.
  3. It takes a village to homeschool. "Teachers in traditional schools don't know everything about all the subjects they instruct—they use textbooks and established curricula," points out Shannon Entin, a homeschooler of two in Bloomsbury, New Jersey. Fortunately, parents who teach at home have almost unlimited resources, including the Internet, libraries, clubs, and professionals who mentor. Marie Gandon is part of a co-op where expertise is shared. "One dad used to work for NASA, so he teaches science. We also have a freelance writer who teaches writing—and I'm French, so I teach the language," explains the Baltimore-area mom.
  4. Homeschooling looks a lot like, well, schoolMarie Gandon pictured homeschooling as a mom and two kids sitting at a kitchen table—and it didn't seem very appealing. "I wondered where I'd draw the line between being a mom and acting as their teacher," she admits. But not every situation has to be like this. If you didn't know any better and walked into Gandon's co-op, you'd think it was a school just like any other. "We have classes, periods, lunch, and the kids sign up for the courses they want to take."
  5. We can go fast—or slow. One of the greatest rewards of homeschooling is the ability to pace the teaching to match kids' needs. Nearly all the parents interviewed said they go into more detail with their teaching if their kids require help; they also accelerate learning for those up to the challenge."Every kid is unique, but traditional classrooms are often set up with the assumption that all kids learn the same way," Trudeau says. "The focus is on what matters—education," adds Vanessa Cassani, a mom of two near Houston, Texas. "No longer do my kids come home talking about Lady Gaga or if their pants are skinny enough."
  6. Yup, life gets in the way. Kids get sick, the dog throws up—and the dishwasher breaks down. Everyday distraction can easily throw off a lesson plan. "It's hard if you have a toddler and an older child in the mix," Gretarsson says. "And of course the kids—or the parent—can have an off day, so you have to push through and try to maintain some kind of balance."
  7. Homeschooling is exhausting! Amy Koons, a mom of four in Zionsville, Indiana, says she wishes she could take a coffee break. "Being with my kids 24/7 is very taxing!" Cassani agrees. "The workload is high, because of the preparation, research, and planning. And homeschooling requires intense self-discipline and the ability to separate the home and learning environment."
  8. But it helps families bond. "I think homeschooling has made us closer as a family, and I love seeing the light in my kids' eyes when they grow in understanding," Koons says. Adds Gretarsson: "We also get to enjoy the evenings with our children instead of making sure they finish their homework."
  9. Homeschoolers have built a great community. Homeschoolers stick together, giving support and encouragement. "Every semester we have a showcase, with family projects, and it's so rewarding to see great participation from other parents," says Shani Wolf, a homeschooler of two boys from Winchester, California. "They attend open houses, school shows, presentations, and holiday parties. We get to know one another well and are there for each other on a personal as well as educational level."