Year after year, an increasing number of parents choose to homeschool their children. According to a 2009 study by the Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education, the number of homeschooled students was at 850,000 in 1999, increasing to 1.1 million in 2003 and to 1.5 million in 2007.

While numerous factors undoubtedly contribute to this increase, the most common reason given by parents who homeschool, according to the study, was to provide religious and moral instruction to their children. This was followed by concerns about the public school environment (including issues such as bullying and drugs) and dissatisfaction with public school instruction. Other reasons—family finances, travel, distance, a desire for a non-traditional approach, and health issues—also contribute to the growing popularity of this educational option.

For Trish Ellis Herr of New Hampshire, a mother who homeschools her daughters, Alex, 9, and Sage, 7, homeschooling was a decision made somewhat by accident, before Alex was school-age.

“I was wandering around my library [one day] when I saw John Holt’s book, Learning All the Time. I read it...and...it just made so much sense,” Ellis Herr says.

Holt, who died in 1985, was one of the modern founders of the homeschooling movement and also a founder of “unschooling”—a methodology whereby children are left on their own and given a choice as to how to learn. Holt authored many books on homeschooling and education, including Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling.

“I started reading all [of Holt’s] books,” Ellis Herr says, “then talking with people who homeschool to find out more. Before I homeschooled, I had misconceptions—like the image of a woman in a long skirt, standing over her kids at the dining room table. But there’s so much diversity in how you homeschool.”

Ellis Herr is a member of the Secular Homeschool Community website, and splits her time between meeting with homeschoolers in the Boston area and those near her home in New Hampshire

“It took a while to figure it out, plus setting up social playgroups, but luckily, there’s no shortage of people in the Boston area. There’s a wide network of homeschoolers, you can find them on multiple Yahoo groups and Meetup, so we never have a shortage of playdates,” she says. “In New Hampshire, it’s a little bit different, where many people homeschool for religious reasons. That’s not why we do it.”

Flexibility and the ability to customize teaching based on each child’s needs and capabilities are key for Ellis Herr, who uses one method of teaching for Alex and another for Sage.

A “Typical” Homeschooler’s Day

Though many homeschooling parents will say there’s no such thing as a “typical” day, there are some routines built around learning. Ellis Herr says that on a normal day in her household, the girls wake around 8 a.m. If everyone’s ready, they’ll have breakfast, though mealtimes are not rigidly scheduled. “We eat when we’re hungry,” she says.

The girls then get to work on the individual boxes Ellis Herr creates for them. Each girl’s box contains 30-32 cards with specific lessons per subject written on each card. The cards must be completed in one week. Subjects include Latin and science (biology, chemistry, and physics), and core subjects like math, reading, and spelling. The loosely structured, game-like system allows the girls to complete the subject cards in the order they choose, when they choose. For example, all four math cards could be completed at the same time or spread out over the week.

Ellis Herr reduces the quantity of the cards if the girls are having a particularly busy week with other activities they participate in, such as karate, hiking, field trips, and playdates. “Is it going to kill them to do only two spelling lessons versus four?” she questions. Apparently not: Both girls, she reports, have scored ahead of their academic grades, according to their results on New Hampshire’s standardized test.

For parents fearing that they lack the academic background to homeschool their children, Ellis Herr stresses the myriad resources available and people willing to help. What’s more important than having a teaching background, she says, is “[knowing] your kids and (being) willing to learn something along with your kids.”

For example, Ellis Herr, who holds a master’s degree in biological anthropology from Harvard University, is currently learning Latin with Alex, who is studying the language at an intermediate level. Meanwhile, Sage, who is interested in Mandarin Chinese, is using DVDs to learn the language. Eventually, when the girls begin studying content beyond the scope of Ellis Herr’s knowledge, she anticipates hiring a tutor for them.

Homeschooling Isn’t (Always) Easy

Ande Frayser of Maryland has homeschooled her three children from the start. Her eldest daughter, Camille, who is now 18, says she liked being homeschooled “because you’re in charge of your learning and it can be done on your own time—and you’re responsible for the results.” Frayser is currently homeschooling her other two children—daughter, Chrishanna, 15, and son, Carrington, 13. All three of Frayser’s kids say they like that homeschooling fosters an entrepreneurial spirit “because you’re not waiting for someone to tell you what to do, and that carries into life.”

However, Frayser and Ellis Herr advise parents who are considering homeschooling to do their research before jumping in. Homeschooling, they say, is not for everyone.

“It’s a full-time job that you don’t get a break from,” Frayser explains. She’s seen cases of parents who tire out and children who suffer for it, left to “stay at home and rot.” Frayser recommends that parents also seriously consider the financial impacts of homeschooling, the biggest of which is the loss of income from one parent, usually the mother, who stays home to teach.

Steve Lundsford, founder of North Texas Home Educators Network, a homeschool support group, and his wife, Kathy, homeschooled their own two children, who are now adults. The couple sells customized curriculum plans for homeschooled children in grades preK-12.

Lundsford’s advice to parents considering homeschooling is clear: “Define what you mean by ‘homeschooling.’ Let me tell you what it is not: It’s not easy—you’ll work harder than ever because your investment is so much more.

“A terrible reason to homeschool,” he continues, “is as an easy way out of a difficult situation; for example, if a child gets into trouble.” And based on more than two decades of experience, Lundsford stresses three requirements that homeschooling parents must have: discipline, dedication, and diligence—“especially,” he says, “when it gets hard.”

Can You Afford To Homeschool? 7 Expenditures To Consider

According to an article about homeschooling costs on MoneyCrashers.com, there are seven significant expenses when teaching children at home:

  1. Purchasing a homeschooling curriculum plan.
  2. Purchasing homeschooling supplies and equipment.
  3. Paying dues to homeschool groups, networks, and organizations.
  4. Arranging and paying for field trips.
  5. Paying for extracurricular activities.
  6. Paying transportation costs for most outside-the-home activities.
  7. The lost income of the homeschooling parent.

The cost of a standardized curriculum plan can run in the thousands—or, conversely, can cost almost nothing if a parent customizes existing study programs, says Andrew Schrage of MoneyCrashers.

Expenses for supplies and equipment can be exorbitant, and annual homeschool group dues can run anywhere from a modest $100 to a more costly $1,000, according to Schrage. Costs for field trips and extracurricular activities are typically high for homeschoolers; because of the flexibility of their schedule, homeschooled children typically go on more field trips than the one-trip-per-year schedule of their public school counterparts. (On the other hand, lines at the field trip destinations will most likely be short, Ellis Herr says, since the trips can be scheduled at off-peak times.)

Various venues’ transportation costs must also be factored in and can vary depending on the length of each trip, the cost of gasoline, and maintenance costs associated with the vehicle used for travel.

And don’t forget the tax man. Even though you may decide to opt your children out of the local public school system in order to homeschool, bear in mind that you’ll still owe property taxes to support that system, Lundsford cautions.

Are Homeschooled Kids Sheltered?

Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif., doesn’t favor homeschooling and says that in her experience, “homeschooling is never the right decision.”

“Parents are not as skilled as most teachers who have degrees in teaching, nor are they experts in the subject matter,” she says. “So the child doesn’t learn [as] much or as well.”

Lieberman, who has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, CNN, and the BBC, has found that homeschooled children often feel like they’re missing out on something, and as teenagers, find it difficult to integrate into public high school and/or college. She said many younger kids feel forced to stick with homeschooling because “They’re afraid to tell their parents that they don’t want to continue because they’re afraid of hurting their parents’ feelings.” She questions the real reason parents choose to homeschool, arguing that the decision is often based on the parents’ psychological needs rather than doing what’s best for the child.

Also, Lieberman says children need to learn to handle challenges that students in public school encounter. “A child needs to learn how to deal with situations,” she explains, such as peer pressure, drugs, alcohol, and bullying—all issues homeschooled children may not encounter. “[And parents] need to teach [their] children to talk about these things at the dinner table.”

In place of homeschooling, Lieberman suggests that parents get involved with their child’s education in a variety of ways. “Volunteer in a class, or on [the] PTO. Bring your child to and from school.”

“Or,” she says simply, “help your child with homework.”

Factors To Think About When Considering Homeschooling

  • Do your homework. Research homeschool organizations in your area. Talk with successful homeschoolers, both parents and kids. Shop around for curricula and other resources.

  • Know yourself. And your limits. Do you have the wherewithal to be responsible for teaching your children?

  • Have a plan and purpose. Homeschooling is not a “quick fix.” It requires commitment from both parents and children.

  • Review your reasons for homeschooling. Are they personal? Do they benefit your child...or you?

  • Network. Search out and lean on external resources. You’ll need them to help guide you in teaching your child, and for social and learning opportunities for your child.

  • Know that you can stop. Be open to your situation or if your child’s interest changes. Homeschooling is not the final frontier, nor, once chosen, your final educational option.

  • Allow time to find your homeschooling groove. Give yourself and your kids time to find your own way. Don’t expect everything to snap into place like it does on the first day of public school. The lack of structure inherent in homeschooling gives you an opportunity to create what works best for you and your kids—and make changes if something doesn’t work. For example, be flexible when it comes to where your kids learn and study, be it at the kitchen table, sitting on the floor, or outdoors.

  • Budget. Homeschooling is not a free ride. Build the anticipated expenses of homeschooling into your family budget before you begin.

Freelance writer Kathy Shiels Tully and her husband live with their two daughters north of Boston.