Father's Perspective: Interview With Wade Wright and Tom Murphy
Wade Wright and Tom Murphy are veteran homeschoolers going back to the days of the pioneers (I'll let you decide how far back that was!) and I think you will find their views about being homeschool fathers encouraging and enlightening. Both Wade and Tom live on farms in Pennsylvania, but both are engaged in other occupations, too. Wade owns and operates a toy company called, Marvelous Toys, and also works for Friends Society, and Tom is a professor at a local college. Enjoy!
MHEA.com: How many children do you have and how long has your family been homeschooling?
Tom Murphy: We have been homeschooling for 15 years. We have three children. Emily (23) graduated from college in June of 1995; Christian (20) is a junior in college; and Clare (17) is still homeschooling (which includes some college courses) for one more year after which she also intends to go to college. Emily was in school until 3rd grade and the other two did not go to school until college.
Wade Wright: I have three children: Jesse, 17, Dillon, 15, and Adrian, 9. We have homeschooled them from the day they were born.
MHEA.com: What were your thoughts when you first considered homeschooling?
Tom: Before we knew that there was anything like homeschooling, we suggested to the principal at the parochial school our oldest was attending that we work with her for part of the day. Her very advanced reading skills (she had been reading since 2 years old), her good math skills and her poor handwriting created a combination the school just could not deal with effectively. The school, of course, rejected our suggestion that we take over part of her education.
We talked to some friends of ours who ran an innovative preschool (Peter Bergson and Susan Shilcock) and they suggested we take over her entire education. I remember my initial reaction was "You can't do that, can you?" It was such a radical idea that we never even considered it. They gave us some material from John Holt and we started reading and thinking.
Another event had an impact on the decision for me. The big concern we had was whether we would mess Emily up for life if we tried homeschooling. What if it did not work and we had to put her back in school? What about college? Would our decision condemn her to be an outcast all her life? At the time we were working with a group that was helping a Vietnamese family relocate to the US. Their children were various ages (maybe 7 or 9 or 11). They spoke Vietnamese and French, but did not speak English very well; because of the turmoil in their country their education had been spotty. When the local school was confronted with the problem of where to place them, the school decided to put them in grades based on their ages. When I heard that, I decided that if we needed to get her back into school, we ought to be able to finagle something. The risk of keeping in school was growing and the risk of pulling her out was shrinking. At that time, my employer relocated me, so we decided to give it a try for a year.
Wade: I think we always felt we would be homeschoolers. I remember reading Postman and Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity in the early 70's, and my educational philosophy only got more so over the years. We had a small business in our home and we loved being with our children, and we intimately knew the Baltimore City Public School system, so homeschooling was natural. As a feminist, I personally wanted to be fully present for my children, and to participate in their lives fully, so the opportunity to homeschool only furthered that goal. I also remember Joseph Chilton Pearse's Magical Child: his premise was that it is pretty essential that parents (he said the mother) be physically and emotionally present for their children from day one until they leave the nest. Such safety creates children unafraid to explore and grow. We have discovered that to be the case.
MHEA.com: A friends of mine says that the homeschooling process acts like a mirror on their own life giving them an opportunity to see themselves in a new light. That watching our children engaged in life can have a profound effect on the direction that our own lives are going. What are your thoughts about this?
Tom: We started homeschooling in response to our daughter's school problems. We continued because we liked the way focusing the children's learning activity in the home (as opposed to having it focused on school and having home life peripheral) reshaped our lives. Learning became the central activity of our family.
It changed the way I viewed learning. I taught college before we started homeschooling; after 14 years away from it, I returned to teaching a few years ago. Despite being out of circulation for so long, I discovered that being involved in homeschooling gave me an attitude about learning that made me one of the more innovative teachers on campus. I was even approached to apply for the directorship of the center for effective teaching.
Because homeschooling encourages the integration of living and learning, because it empowers you to take control over an important aspect of family life, and because it suggests that the usual way to do things is not necessarily the only way--it is hard not to have homeschooling affect the way I approach many other aspects of life.
Wade: Having grown up in a pretty dysfunctional family, and having had to try and cope with the public school experience, it has been a joy watching my children grow up in a less dysfunctional family and simultaneously avoid being molded by the public school system. My introverted daughter has been able to develop that part of her personality without resistance from her environment. As a result she loves herself very much, and is as skilled, talented and interesting as any child in my memory. She never learned that she shouldn't be the way she naturally wanted to be. I was forced by my schooling to think I was an extrovert, and until adulthood was never able to claim my preference for introversion. And so forth.
MHEA.com: David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America, claims that fatherlessness is our most urgent social problem. How important is the role of father and do you think that homeschooling has enhanced or diminished that role for you?
Tom: Because homeschooling enhances the role of the parent, it is hard to see how it would do anything but enhance the role of the father. However, there is an interesting phenomenon I noted, sort of an "odd man out" syndrome. When I worked in Philadelphia and was gone 12 hours a day, I did end up feeling left out sometimes. Our goal-setting process gave me some sense of involvement, but the world of home, where the discussion was about American history or some exotic insect in the garden seemed to me more interesting and noble than the kind of thing I would deal with all day. One impact of that contrast was my effort to introduce into my business executive job more theoretical issues (e.g., negotiation theory) to try to lessen the gap.
My wish to be around more, to be more in on what was happening, was a strong motivator for me in our decision to have me quit that job and move into the country. There were other factors involved, but that was a significant one. It is also relevant that I ended up in a college so
that the children actually became part of my "other" world when they took courses and went to activities at the school. Madalene's work also involves her with the college in her own right. The result is that I feel much more integrated into what everyone else is doing and that is important to me.
Wade: I think the issue of importance is probably having a durable, stable, functional family that will provide safety, energy and possibility for growth for the child over the duration of their childhood. Two adults who are there totally for that time is probably the best model. An extended family, with grandparents (or other Elders) who are there for that time makes it better. Some other friends of the parents who are there for the duration is probably even better. Our Quaker Meeting community provides that for us now. We have several dozen adults that very likely will be a part of children's life in some way forever, if our children choose that. That is an environment that is healthy. And of course homeschooling has provided a way for me to experience being a father more deeply, and an opportunity to try and grow beyond the limited model of fatherhood that I grew up with.
MHEA.com: Recently I spoke with a number of homeschooling dads about their experiences as fathers and husbands and I came away with a view that can be best summed up by the title of the movie, It's a Wonderful Life. How would you assess your feelings as a homeschooling dad?
Tom: The movie you refer to of course is based on the idea that the hero has a problem and because he views himself as the provider upon whom everyone depends, he sees suicide as the only way out. It may be a wonderful life, but he has underestimated his family (the resourcefulness of his wife in particular) and has viewed them primarily as dependents.
I often feel guilty about taking any credit for the homeschooling, not because I did not contribute, because I did, but because the benefits I received far outweigh the amount of effort it took from me. As a result of a process that required sometimes heroic effort and always hard work
from Madalene, I can take satisfaction that we did not miss an opportunity to fashion a family history that is personal and unique. Northrope Frye once described the sentimentalist as someone who would feel emotions without having to pay the price of the experience that
goes with them. I sometimes feel like I am only entitled to be sentimental about homeschooling; but, hey, what movie is more sentimental than "It's a Wonderful Life"?
Wade: Absolutely. The joys of being a feminist, homeschooling father is one of the best kept secrets in our society.
MHEA.com: What advice would you offer to a father considering homeschooling?
Tom: It depends on how you define "father." If the father is the primary homeschooling parent, then he should talk to Madalene for advice. If the family plans to have the adults share the responsibility equally, I wish him luck; I have never known a family that worked that way.
If you mean the No. 2 adult in the homeschooling operation, my advice is:
1. Always get home when you say you will, especially when the family includes very young children.
2. Try to bring some of what you do outside the home into the effort. Be on the lookout for resources, friends and coworkers who know useful things, ways you can involve the family in your hobbies and interests. The flexibility of homeschooling (and the way motel rates work) meant that some of my business trips became great educational outings for the whole family.
3. Don't give your partner, who spends all day grappling with the reality, too much advice, but you must contribute your perspective. There is no magic formula for the proper balance.
4. Learn to appreciate, honestly and clearly. You will often serve as an audience, and when you do, "That's nice!" is not good enough. In order to appreciate properly you must be attentive to the thing at hand and to your child's general progress. You must know a breakthrough when you see it.
The ultimate piece of advice is unless you enjoy learning, don't get involved. From my experience successful homeschooling parents spend much more time learning than they do teaching. What makes things work is the synergy of a whole family learning together and the "father" needs to be part of that too.
Wade: Start the process about two years before you have your first child and enjoy every minute of it from that point on. Get to know your children from the moment of conception onward. Be real gentle on yourself. Work hard to break out of the convenient patterns of maleness that the generations before us bestowed on us. And be sure to let go of your children when the time comes to do that. And trust them, because they will deserve to be trusted.
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