Guest Post! My sister-in-law is homeschooling her children….badly. Should I intervene? (#171)

Before we get to today’s awesome guest-post by Commander Logic, I have questions for local Chicago people:

1) Do you live in or near Chicago?

2) Have you ever wondered about what it would be like to have sex with a trans man?

If so, good news!  Our beloved Lt. Trans is running a workshop at Early to Bed called “How to Bed a Trans Man” on February 9th.

If you don’t know Early To Bed, it’s the friendly, feminist, LBGT-friendly, clean, totally-laid-back sex shop in Edgewater. I recommend it to everyone for those times when you’ll be in your bunk.

Now I’ll turn you over to today’s question and the wisdom of Commander Logic.

Little Women
All of these women? Home-schooled.

O Captain my captain!

I need advice from the wise Captain and readers. I’ll skip the tedious explanation of my non-standard family structure (divorces, remarriages, siblings & stepsiblings rotating in and out of various parent-run homes, etc) and just say that this question involves one of my siblings–let’s call him Joe Boxwine–and his family. Joe has a wife, Jane Boxwine, whom I absolutely cannot stand (but who seems to think we’re pals), and two pre-teen kids. Joe and I get along but aren’t close; he’s a rather unprepossessing man who mostly keeps quiet and passive. The whole crew moved back in with my stepdad, Daddy Warbucks, because they were struggling financially, and he, as an empty nester and a widower, had a big house with a bunch of unused rooms. The rent arrangement/long-term moving plans/house rules were never firmly established, as Jane and Joe asked to move in while Daddy Warbucks was still in deep mourning a couple months after my mom’s death. At the time, I was angry because I thought they were taking advantage of his grief, but I also didn’t want them to be evicted and potentially homeless if they stayed in their previous situation, so I mostly bit my tongue.
So that’s the backstory. Here’s the main story: Jane homeschools the two boys, and she is awful at it.

Excerpt from wine message board
Without reading and comprehension, how will I explain to this Pinot snob that he is the world's worst oenophile, and a n00b?

Both the boys seem to have undiagnosed/untreated learning disabilities (I suspect ADHD, at the minimum–the younger one seems to have some autistic behaviors as well), but they are creative and good-natured. Daddy Warbucks and I both think she is doing them a terrible disservice; she’s not remotely qualified, academically, to teach children, and worse, she doesn’t seem to have any knack for it. I recently spent some time at the family home, and because of an injury I spent a lot of time in the living room observing a few typical homeschooled days, RICE-ing my damn ankle. Captain, I was appalled by what I saw. There was no schedule, no designated “school time,” no goal-setting, no desks, no formal lessons–in short, no structure of any sort. The extent of the “teaching,” as far as I could see, was Jane setting out a folder for each boy that contained the homework they were supposed to do that day. Sometimes they would ask her for help on a task, and she said “Ask your aunt, she’s the expert” and made them consult me instead. Sometimes, the boys would just wander off and start playing video games. Many times, they tried to get me to play with them while still carrying unfinished schoolwork (to which I’d say “I’d love to play when you’re done with your math!”). They seem to be way behind their grade-level in terms of what they were studying. What’s more, they are both socially awkward, and they don’t seem to hang out with anyone except their mom.

So, here’s the question: what the hell can I do to help these kids, short of kidnapping them and enrolling them in real school? Daddy Warbucks and I are really worried that they are going to end up as poorly educated misfits who don’t get into college and who resent the hell out of their parents. I have tried to get Daddy Warbucks to lay down the law (his house, his rules), but he has a hard time doing that for two reasons: 1) he’s affable and conflict-avoidant nearly to the point of absurdity; 2) Jane Boxwine is passive-aggressive and manipulative, and he’s afraid if he kicks them out or even threatens to by establishing more rules, she’ll take the kids away and never let them visit their grandpa again. I have no authority over Jane Boxwine, but I’m willing to be a bitch if necessary; he has authority in that he owns the house, but he’s not willing to act authoritatively. But we both care about these sweet boys and want to work together to save them from unwise parenting and devastating “teaching.” Help!

Educationally Concerned Auntie

Child's hand holding a starfish.
Do you mean when I don't have to stay in the line with the other kids, I get to hold the starfish?

Dear Auntie,

Okay, we may be opening up a BIG OL’ can of worms in the homeschooling community, so I want to say right here and now that I have no beef with homeschooling as a phenomenon, and it doesn’t sound like you do either, Auntie. Done well, it can be amazing! But in this specific case, it seems like there are capital “I” Issues.

Wow, do I sympathize with you. Reading is fundamental, right? How could it NOT make your blood boil that your nephews aren’t getting the best education the universe can provide them? But they aren’t your kids, so what to do?

I’m going to take you down some interesting paths in a sec, but before you do anything, I want you to become an EXPERT (ok, an afternoon-of-internet-browsing style expert) on homeschooling in the state and county where they live. There’s a lot to know, but for the paths I’m going to suggest, you need the following information:

1 – What is the local definition of appropriate homeschooling?
2 – Is there anywhere they have to/are encouraged to register with the school board?
3 – Are there tests to determine grade level competency? How do homeschoolers take those?
4 – Is there a local chapter of homeschoolers nearby and who runs it?

Now that you’re armed with information, I’m going to provide three paths:


These are not your kids. The best you can do without getting into a confrontation is to be Awesome Educational Gifts Auntie. Send them books. Send them educational games that you loved as a kid. Send them chemistry sets. Get them subscriptions to Make Magazine ( Invite them to stay with you and take them to museums. Set up a Skype date with them weekly to show them cool things you found on the internet. Ask them to send you art projects.

Accept in your soul that it is not your job to teach them the fundamentals of reading and communicating, and hope that exposure to the internet will force them to read prompts and write responses.

The goal here is not to show Jane Boxwine how it’s done, but to broaden their horizons as much as you can from afar. The phrase for this is “I thought this was so cool, and I thought of Nephew A or B!”


This is going to involve a confrontation of sorts, sorry. I sense that dealing with Jane Boxwine is going to set your teeth on edge, but I’m giving you two mantras to deal with this:

“She really, truly wants what’s best for her children.”
“I want to help her get what’s best for her children.”

And then you’re going to have to listen. A LOT. Because neither of those mantras is “I know what’s best.

Bethesda Children's Library
Children's libraries: Delightfully empty during the school day.

So here’s how this is going to go down: You’re going to ask Jane and Joe to dinner without the kids, and you’re going to tell them upfront – as part of the invitation – that you want to talk about the Nephews Boxwine. “They’re getting to an age where I’d like to be more involved in their lives, and I loved the time I had with them when I was laid up. I want to help with their educations (for examples of how see Path #1), and I want to know what you think would be appropriate. Also, have some great dinner with you guys!”

Then you ask questions, always keeping the mantras in mind. Listen to the answers and prompt for more information, but provide NO ADVICE:

– How did you decide on the homeschooling program you chose?
– What do you think about socializing kids to their peers? If yay, then when should that start? (Mention that NYT article you read about homeschool groups who fieldtrip together)
– What grade level are the kids at now? (So you can send them appropriately aged books and games, of course)
– I know it’s early, but do you think the nephews will try for college? Does your program have a grade-equivalency set up for transcripts?
– Do you know anyone else in the area who’s homeschooling? (They might be able to help Jane out, trade off classes and whatnot.)

They might get suspicious of you. What’s your agenda? Come back to the mantras. “I want to help you educate the nephews. Daddy Warbucks does, too. What would that help look like for you?”  You already know what it looks like for you, Auntie, but you won’t know what it looks like to Jane and Joe until you ask in depth.

They may also get defensive because they haven’t thought about this stuff and you’re just springing it on them all of a sudden. “It’s cool if you haven’t thought about it! I certainly hadn’t before I thought about getting closer with the nephews. I know you’re doing all you can for Nephews and that’s what’s important.”

What you want out of this meeting is to deliver the message: “What do the Wineboxes need from Team Winebox-Warbucks-Auntie to educate the Nephews? Also yes, we are all on the same team.” The answer doesn’t have to come over dinner, but dinner is the opportunity to tell Jane that she’s not alone, and someone is listening to her and wants what she wants: The Very Best For Her Kids.

The result may be that the kids go to public school. Daddy Warbucks may help finance them into private school. Maybe they will still be homeschooled, but they can be EFFECTIVELY homeschooled with some help. But you won’t know what the ideal outcome is for Jane and Joe until you ask.

PATH #3 – NUCLEAR (not recommended)

Depending on how homeschooling is regulated in the state in question, you may need to call the local school board, the department of children’s services, or the state’s department of education. Explain the situation, and that the nephews may be considered truant. Did you know? In Illinois, homeschooling that doesn’t meet state standards can earn the teacher a Class C misdemeanor charge.

If they live in a state that involves criminal charges like that, the nuclear option should be preceded by asking Jane and Joe if they knew about that possibility. Dropped casually into a conversation, that may be enough to scare them to public/private school. If it doesn’t, and you drop that bomb on them, be prepared for massive fallout.

So what do you say, commentariat? What have I missed? Also! Do you have great ideas for Awesome Auntie educational contributions? I’m the auntie to two nephews myself, but they aren’t quite at the age yet where I can get them the COOLEST THINGS. I’m impatiently awaiting their Make years.


Commander Logic

51 thoughts on “Guest Post! My sister-in-law is homeschooling her children….badly. Should I intervene? (#171)

  1. Oh, geez. I was homeschooled, badly, myself. It could’ve been worse, but it was in the ‘religiously motivated’ camp — when I say “I learned everything I needed to know from the internet”, I’m never kidding.

    I’m left highly resentful of homeschooling when it involves only one or two parents as teachers (the potential for abuse terrifies me), but given certain situations (horrible schools or no schools), I appreciate it as an option. However, this situation sounds like it involves zero. CL’s avenues of approach — specifically, that it needs to be approached, and the potential damage to consider — seem reasonable to me.

    Counterpoint: There is this thing called ‘unschooling’ and while I think it’s awful in concept it was used on me and I can understand calculus and words longer than ‘calculus’ just fine now. YMMV — and with homeschooling, your mileage will vary a /lot/. I’ve always been highly self-teaching, and as I understand it, not everyone is.

  2. I like this advice but would suggest an option 2.5, something between “I just want to listen to you and ask questions that might make you think about how well this is actually going” and “criminal charges for Jane Winebox”.

    If you start with option 2 and it doesn’t get a response, or gets a really defensive response, you may want to have a second, less gentle conversation with them a few days (or weeks) later. Say that you were asking about their homeschooling because you were concerned about what you saw — that the boys don’t seem to be focusing on their work, that there doesn’t seem to be much structure to what they’re doing, and that they seem to be behind the level their equivalent grade would be at. The more specific, the better; saying “it doesn’t look like they’re doing anything” will probably be less productive than “a number of times they stopped in the middle of a lesson to go play video games” (though realistically, both are likely to get a defensive response). You may want to tell them that you’re worried that the boys aren’t getting as much out of their current set up as they would from a more structured environment, either at home or in a school. You can strongly encourage them to look into the state requirements, resources for homeschooling, etc. And if it isn’t taken well, then you can break out the heads-up that this may be a situation that you will need to report.

    Depending on your relationship with your brother and SIL, this may be a conversation you want to have with him alone (I take it that he’s not home during the day — does he know what the “homeschooling” consists of? If not, and if you think he’d be more receptive, I’d start there.) I don’t know your life, but if you aren’t adverse to being the bitch, and if brother and SIL are unwilling to address the issue, I don’t think the nuclear option is all that bad a choice (especially if these kids are still young enough for school to make a difference). Your nephews are systematically having doors closed to them in the current situation; if you feel comfortable getting involved, you may be able to do a lot of good.

  3. I was homeschooled for most of my life, in a manner eerily similar to the one the letter writer describes (no structure, no “teaching,” just stacks of homework to be completed by some undefined future date), so I hope my perspective might help show what might happen if the letter writer does nothing to intervene.

    In my case, I didn’t have anyone at home with me while I was supposedly being “homeschooled”. Both my parents worked (as teachers, ironically), so I spent most of my week unsupervised. Sometimes I was given work, with vague assignments to finish parts of it “soon”. Like the nephews, sometimes I did the work I was given, but most of the time I procrastinated by playing computer games, surfing the internet, or watching M*A*S*H re-runs and The Price is Right (none of which is particularly educational).

    Given the fact that I spent huge chunks of my childhood physically alone, I became very introverted and had a harder time adjusting to being around people. I really think this was the worst aspect of homeschooling; aside from my spotty education, the aspect that has most effected my daily life has been the necessity of building the basic social skills in my 20s that most people learn in their childhood and teenage years.

    IF, and that is a strong if, your nephews continue to be homeschooled, I can’t stress enough the need for a variety of frequent contact with both adults and age-appropriate peers. I think the type of isolation these nephews have been placed in borders on neglect.

    In some ways I benefited from homeschooling, but I believe the cons far outweigh the pros. While homeschooling (or more accurately in my case, as well as the apparent case of these nephews, autodidactism) left me quite educated in certain areas (I devoted myself to writing and posting my writing on the internet, as an attempt to gain some connection with other people), I was seriously lacking in other areas when I finally did enter traditional schooling (mostly math and science).

    If you want to look out for the nephews first and foremost, I would seriously recommend the nuclear option, as hard as the fallout may be. The parents have clearly shown their incompetence in practicing ethical homeschooling. I don’t think supplemental help from other adults is the answer here, since that is merely patching a hole in their education, not, if you’ll pardon the stretched metaphor, giving them the full garments they need.

  4. I’m loving the approaches that are provided here.

    LW, you mention ‘being the bitch if you have to’, but you also mention that while you very strongly dislike sister-in-law, she considers you a pal. I think that last fact affords you some leverage. I doubt you’ll want to be BFFs, but I think presenting yourself as an ally, as opposed to the antagonistic force telling her, “You’re doing it wrong!” will gain a lot more mileage with Jane Boxewine. Rather than going into passive-aggressive meltdown, she may very well warm up to friendly feedback. It’s worth trying before going the more nuclear routes, at least.

    (As an aside, my mom was totally a proponent of Tactic #1 when it came to my cousin’s, daughter’s nutrition. The kid lives off of chicken nuggets and McDonalds, but when it was time to visit Great Auntie there WOULD be veggies on the table and the rule of, “You don’t have to like it or finish it, but you have to take one bite.”)

    1. Right! The more flies with honey approach!

      (Did you know? My SiL insists that my nephew will only drink chocolate milk? It was news to me after he sucked down the decidedly non-chocolate milk I handed him.)

      1. “The more flies with honey approach!” <—That was exactly the phrase that ran through my mind.

        (Eheh, it's kind of amazing the things kids will try once you put it in front of them.)

          1. XD I DID know that, but I’ve installed a filter on my brain to check my Hermione Granger impulses. Not that YOU should install that filter! I just had an adolescence chockablock with my mother sighing at me and saying, “It’s a figure of speech, let it rest.” and “Not everyone cares about etymology.” and “That’s fascinating, but perhaps this isn’t the time.”

            My issues, not yours. And it IS really cool that you can catch more flies with vinegar! Apple cider vinegar is even more effective than balsamic! *NERD HIGH FIVE*

          2. My friends now have even more reason to fear the “Did you know . . .?” face! This is pretty cool.

          3. Even white vinegar (diluted) can catch fruit flies. If you have a fruit fly problem, you put water, vinegar, and soap in a dish and leave it out–the vinegar smell will attract them and the soap will break the surface tension and drown them.

            the more you knoooow

  5. The Captain has some good ideas here. I was home schooler (junior high & high school) myself, but my family was fanatical about making sure there was structure and opportunities for time outside the home (sports, theater, jobs, classes with other home schoolers). So much so, that most people seem shocked when they learn that, claiming “you seem so normal”. It’s possible to be home schooled and smart (I come from a Ph.D. family) and as normal as the next duck.

    Since so many families home school because of religious reasons, this can be a tricky subject. Many mothers want to protect their children from the big bad world, yet aren’t capable of tackling the education challenge by themselves. Jane may feel embarrassed at how out of her depth she is, give her the chance to save face and be an active adult who is part of the solution.

    I also agree with the Captain, that simply reading to/with your nephews can be a good first step to influencing them toward better education. Being boys, they may not be big readers yet, but by encouraging them to make sound effects to the story, and then asking them questions about the story you just finished are both two good ways to get their brains involved in the process a bit.

    1. Jane may feel embarrassed at how out of her depth she is, give her the chance to save face and be an active adult who is part of the solution.

      I agree with this. Obviously, I could be wrong — I’ve never met the lady, I’m a random internet person reading your letter — and she may in fact feel totally in control and be defensive at any criticism. But the thing is, this is not at all a productive and useful learning environment for the kids, and in a bottled-up ashamed core of herself, Jane may know it. One thing that jumped out at me in your letter was how she told her kids to “Go ask your aunt, she’s the expert.”

      So she may be feeling ashamed and stubborn and backed into a corner by her own declarations that they’ll homeschool the kids and how it turns out that she’s not actually good at homeschooling. She may have all sorts of mantras running through her own head: Well, public school will be even worse, and if I give up, it says I was wrong all along about this and well, I care about my babies in a way no one else will, so this has to be best for them and I just need to catch up and I’ll be on top of things again, just as soon as I manage X and Y and Z, and all sorts of stubborn prideful tail-chasing to cover her own awareness of the fact that she’s drowning here, and failing her kids. Especially if she’s trying to make up all the curriculum as she goes along, and not making use of any of the many resources out there for co-ops and field trips and pre-made curricula and educational games and parental support networks and so forth.

      None of that absolves her from, well, failing her kids. None of that excuses it. I’m not saying it does.

      But if it is the case — and it might not be, but it might be — then she may be secretly deeply grateful for someone to help provide some things she can’t, and new ideas, and a support network for her to give her sons a better education while saving face.

      Which is why I think starting with the politer approaches is very likely to be a good tactic. Yeah, you might end up having to escalate to nuclear options in the end. But you might not. And, as you know, the end goal here is not proving yourself right or proving to Jane that she was wrong; it’s getting your nephews the best educational opportunities that your family can collectively give them, and a supportive learning environment whether they’re learning at home or at school or in some combination thereof. If that requires some polite half-truths and careful scripts traded between the adults, well, that’s worth it, I think.

      1. Yeah, I picked up on the embarrassment in the “She’s the expert” comment too. Embarrassment may cause her to react very poorly to accusations, even if she takes them to heart.

        I like the mantras Captain provided, they will help preserve everyones dignity. Even if she gets defensive with the polite approach, be persistant and give her some time to come around.

        Good luck!

  6. I have a friend who is a single dad to an almost five-year old girl. He means well, but his depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia and general dysfunction left him at a point about a year ago where he would sit inside his dirty little apartment with the shades drawn and play video games while his daughter entertained herself, all day every day. So, not quite the same situation but somewhat similar issues. What I did was have a conversation with him about how I know it sucks to be a single parent with no time off and maybe he would want me to take his daughter off his hands sometime. And I set up a weekly “date” with her- I take her to the library for storytime, we go to the park to run around, and we paint and bake cookies and so on. She’s only four, so we don’t go too heavy on the educational things, but I read to her and encourage her to write her letters when she’s drawing, and I act impressed when she helps me count out ingredients for cookies. So, even if Option 2 doesn’t go as well as you hope, a version of Option 1 that involves spending time with the kid as well as getting them neat stuff like books on dinosaurs etc has worked pretty well in my situation.

    Also, as a former homeschooled kid, I have to say that a homeschool co-op sounds like exactly what your sister-in-law needs. They provide some structure because you have to go to meetups, and even just exposure to other homeschooling parents will help her see different strategies for getting what she wants educationally. Just stay away from any co-op that’s too heavy on the scary religious doctrine. When I was in 5th grade, I went to a co-op that was mostly little girls in denim dresses whose hair had never been cut and little boys in collared shirts and neatly combed hair, who sat quietly because they’d be spanked if they made noise, whose mothers talked a lot about how God had called them to leave the sinful world of public schooling because the devil was trying to make their children believe that Earth was billions of years old. This kind of co-op probably is not what you’re looking for. But, when I was in high school, I went to a different co-op that was only mildly religious, and that had actual classes taught by various parents who had expertise in an area, so I took physics from a man who worked in engineering at Boeing, and US History from a man who was an amateur history buff, and it was actually pretty cool. A good co-op along with an adult who role-models a love of educationy things (that would be you) can go a long way to helping a home schooled kid succeed.

  7. I was homeschooled for my entire pre-college education.

    I am now at college and doing very well by objective standards.

    That being said, it doesn’t look like this particular homeschool program is the best for these kids, or even a particularly good one for these kids.

    However, for the sake of the other homeschoolers in the state, I would *strongly* recommend you not begin with the Nuclear Option. While you may just be trying to help this family, the blowback will hurt other homeschooling families, even those who are doing an excellent job at raising bright, well-adjusted children.

    If you try gentler approaches and are making absolutely no headway, then by all means take serious steps, but please, please start small.

    1. Thanks for this perspective, Katie.

      I teach college freshmen, and some of my most bright, talented, socially ept, cool students have been homeschooled – it’s absolutely not a drawback to anything when done well!

  8. Many homeschooled kids also visit a local school for certain subjects (science lab, math). A friend of mine who homeschools does so through an online program that gets her daughter in touch with other kids and real teachers online; sometimes they meet in person for field trips. When I was a kid, I did a saturday program at the local college with absurdly fun hands-on classes in chemistry, physics, and computer stuff (

    So you can suggest this kind of thing as a way to get the kids excited and well-rounded, and to take some of the strain off the parents.

  9. Like a few of the commenters above, I would probably go for the nuclear option more quickly than the Cap’n recommends. Not saying that’s what the LW should do, just saying it’s probably what I would do. But those laws that entitle every child to an adequate education exist for a reason. Under the circumstances I certainly think Jane has earned a visit from whatever your state’s equivalent of child protective services is.

    But yeah, discussing it with her first is probably better. But unlike in real war, you should keep the nuclear option on the table, and maybe visible where Jane can see it.

    1. Yeah, the problem with the nuclear option is that the fallout is likely to include never being involved with the nephews again, which is not ideal for either party. The Auntie loses her nephews, the nephews lose the only person who was giving a damn and doing something about their education.

      I had to put it out there for the very reasons you state here, but it really is a last resort. Nuclear, as it were.

      1. Well, the fallout involves that if they know it was her. And there is a risk they might guess. I don’t know about dept. of education, but dss allows anonymous reporting. I don’t know how she would feel about reporting it and not admitting it, or giving the family a chance to avoid involving authorities first, but the option may be there-and if it is, it might be better to go that route before setting the family on alert to her potential problemness. Then they’re less likely to guess that it was her. But involving DSS carries a whole new set of problems for the family: there are good ones, and they’re generally well meaning, but they can be more harmful than the situation itself.

  10. I was homeschooled from kindergarten until the 9th grade – with even less structure and real education than what seems to be going on in this question. I was homeschooled for religious reasons, so the materials I were taught with were not only behind in grade level, but flat out incorrect (fake history, fake science…). Auntie might have better luck with brother and sister-in-law because it doesn’t sound like illogical, religious forces are at play here, but I will note that anytime my extended family members asked questions or stated concern about the quality of education we were receiving, my parents became extremely defensive and angry. I would say walk gently, and start by talking about groups/clubs run by other homeschoolers – as they may encounter and be more open to better schooling examples from “their own”

  11. To find out more about what your SIL is doing, invent a friend who is considering homeschooling her kids and use that as a basis for asking what curriculum your SIL is using, what routines they have (don’t assume you know; the presence of aunt Susie may have thrown things off), whether they are part of any homeschooling groups, etc. how they’re making sure the kids get socialized and that their academics (and school records) are what they need for college (or whatever they have in mind), etc.

    On another front, how about contacting your state’s department of education? Without making you identify yourself, turning it into a “tip,” surely they could tell you what the standards are in your state and how the state goes about assessing whether families are meeting those standards (and what happens if it discovers they aren’t), and maybe guide you to some resources that you could in turn bring to your SIL’s attention.

    In addition to homeschooling cooperatives,in my state, public schools have to let homeschooled kids attend individual classes if they want — so, for example, some kids’ parents will bring them in for the music classes, band, phys ed, drama, etc. (for socialization) or for lab sciences, etc., that are harder to teach at home. (Probably not an option if the reason for homeschooling is religious isolationism, but otherwise you might be able to pitch it to your SIL as a way to get a little time for herself, while giving her nephews an opportunity to meet other kids).

    If you speak to your sister in law in terms of “I really admire what you’re trying to do, but it is such a huge undertaking and you seem overwhelmed,” and at least start with offers of help and support, you won’t be burning bridges. And if, having tried that approach, you feel a need to report them, you can do it a) with some real facts in hand, and b) knowing you tried to work with your brother/SIL first.

  12. Another (possibly too charitable) interpretation- Maybe your SIL is aware of her kid’s possible learning problems, and has decided (justifiedly or not) that the schools are unable to provide her kids with the resources they need. From what you’ve said it doesn’t quite sound like this situation, but it’s a possible conversation route to prepare for if you take option B.

    I bet the SIL has, despite her absent qualifications, created this identity as an educator and the only one who really knows etc etc. She doesn’t have outside employment and is probably relying on at least the idea of teaching her kids to fulfill her basic need to contribute and be productive. The more you can let her keep that idea going, I think the more success you’re likely to have.

  13. I am a college admissions counselor, and I strongly endorse the recommendation of asking Ma Boxwine if college is an eventual goal. From my experience, the home-schooled kids who have the most success at college, who have the most success at getting IN to college, are the ones whose parents made college prep part of the plan from the very beginning. I don’t mean signing an 8-year-old up for a community college class, but I do mean teaching an 8-year-old to sit and focus for a twenty minute lesson so that by the time he is 18 he can sit and focus for a 90 minute lecture.

  14. LW, you said you suspected some learning disabilities, and maybe autism spectrum disorder in the litttle one. My understanding is that those quirks often require special attention for management.

    As I understand it, many kids with special needs do well outside the traditional classroom environment, and certainly better outside your average public school, but… is there a way you could talk to your SIL about those concerns specifically, see if you could persuade her to agree to have her kids assessed? A plus for this approach is that if they do have special needs, not only will they have made contact with administrators/educators who could guide them towards special classes and treatment (which might improve their learning on all fronts, and at least introduce some helpful structure and a wider social network), but might even get them funding for those classes, and other educational needs. I know in Massachusetts, which is where my mother taught, there is a statewide legal requirement (I think under title 9, but I’m not sure) that special needs kids have their educational needs funded by the state.

    Obviously I’m no policy wonk, but I wonder if it might be worth looking into, at least.

  15. One itty-bitty little thing no one else has mentioned: the LW is engaging in some armchair psychology/diagnosis that isn’t helpful and isn’t appropriate:
    Both the boys seem to have undiagnosed/untreated learning disabilities (I suspect ADHD, at the minimum–the younger one seems to have some autistic behaviors as well),

    Unless the LW is a doctor, or a parent who has educated themselves on children with ADHD, this kind of “well, based on what I see” diagnosis isn’t helpful to anyone involved. It isn’t helpful to the kids (“Auntie thinks there’s something wrong with you that needs medicine and talking time!”) it isn’t helpful to the mother (“Why haven’t you taken your children to the doctor to get help for their obvious developmental disabilities? Do you not care enough about your kids?”) and it isn’t helpful to the LW’s concerns. (the issue is the homeschooling; don’t dilute it with an unrelated discussion of potential developmental disabilities)

    Children are active and have shorter attention spans. They can learn to sit still and learn longer attention spans, but just because they’re excited or high energy doesn’t mean they’re ADHD, it just means they’re children! Their behavior could be a function of their upbringing or their age and health or a disorder like ADHD. But unless the LW has the education, experience, and opportunity to perform a proper diagnosis, she shouldn’t go throwing around labels.

    Children are still learning social skills and interactions at the ages described. Children can be odd or eccentric either as a learned behavior or in the absence of more “normal” learned behaviors without actually falling in the Autism Spectrum. Absent an actual medical diagnosis, the LW comment comes across as “these kids act really badly, but I don’t want to blame the mother for bad parenting, so I’ll just guess it’s ADHD or autism or something outside of her control so it’s not her fault”.

    1. You don’t have to be a healthcare professional to notice symptoms. If that were the case, nobody would ever know when they needed to go to the doctor.

  16. I think the advice is great, but I wonder if LW has already tipped her hand in a pretty serious way. I mean, the nephews would go to their mom for help, and her reply was, ‘Ask [LW]; she’s the expert!’ That sounds to me like SiL is already very aware that LW thinks her a substandard teacher – and that she doesn’t exactly seem to think of them as pals, contra LW’s characterization. On top of that, LW seems to have some resentment issues with SiL/Brother. I’d also be curious to know how the LW has come to the conclusion that these boys have undiagnosed learning/behavior issues. ADHD should absolutely be treated, but there was certainly a time/are some communities in which Ritlin was/is prescribed at the drop of a hat. I guess what I’m getting at is: tread carefully, as a few days with young kids does not always paint the most accurate picture, and maybe some of the resentment of SiL is coming into play here.

  17. Remember you have had a very small window into their lives. Unstructured homeschoolers have their own patterns, and you can’t tell just from the length of time it takes to fix a broken ankle how things really go down in that home. A lot of times homeschoolers have periods of down time. Also, she may be unschooling, which is this whole philosophical thing about freedom etc. How are these kids performing academically?

    I’d favor option A. I really would.

  18. I was also a homeschooled kid.

    I know the LW means well and wants the best for her nephews. But I think she should also be open to the possibility that the current situation many not require drastic chance.

    As a kid, I got most of my education by reading books or doing worksheets, and occasionally asking mom a question. There were no firm schedules, tests, or grades; few formal lesson; and certainly no desks!

    It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it wasn’t a bad system. I ended up in a very fancy PhD program with a competitive fellowship.

    I’m sympathetic to the LW’s goals, and I agree that the Boxwine’s system seems to have some problems. But the LW also seems to have a very fixed idea of what a “good education” looks like, which might not correspond to what’s best for her nephews or for their family.

  19. LW here. Thanks, Cap’n and Commander, and all the commenters. I submitted this question a while back, and the situation has changed without my intervention, but your responses have helped me think about the role I can and can’t play in my nephews’ lives and how to be a good aunt without being a godawful sister.

    The update is: a few weeks ago, with no advanced notice or discussion, Jane decided that the boys should go to public school after all. They enrolled and got assigned to grades that are a little (but not drastically) low for their age, and they’ve been attending regularly. In fact, one of the boys just got all As and Bs on his very first report card, and he sounds much happier when I talk to him on the phone (I’m out of state).

    Reading comments made me realize how much backstory I didn’t include, and I appreciate some of the commenters for pointing out assumptions I might be making. Just one thing I thought it would be useful to clarify, since it’s come up a couple times: we have a number of people with learning disabilities in our immediate *and* extended family, and though I didn’t get into details in my original letter, the boys have been exhibiting some behaviors that look familiar to me and Daddy Warbucks from family experience. But I know that everyone is different, and similar behaviors might not come from similar causes, so thanks for the friendly reminder to stay humble and avoid armchair diagnosis.

    Thanks again–and I especially appreciate hearing from those of you who were homeschooled about your experience.

    –Somewhat Less Concerned Auntie

    1. Glad to hear the kids are doing well- and you should totally take ’em to the library anyway. 😉

    2. Aww, it’s good to hear the kids are getting a good education (and that their mom was prepared to give it to them with little-to-no-prompting).

      It’s also awesome to hear that the ‘good aunt’ tips resonated. It may not be necessary for them to have the Educational Auntie, but I know it was always The Most Awesome Thing to have that relative who would take you to the dinosaur museum, or show you how to use a rock tumbler, and so on. So whatever the case, I hope you guys have a heap of fun in your future family endeavors (be they educational or not!)

    3. A) SO HAPPY things have resolved themselves! Who knows? Maybe if we’d answered earlier, there would have been unforeseen clusterfuckery, so hurrays all around! Now the boys are in a stable educational program, and you get to be Fun AND Educational Auntie.

      B) I’m actually glad you didn’t include more backstory; you kept your letter succinct, which is HIGHLY PRIZED in this land. Though a couple of commenters reminded us that we shouldn’t put too much faith in the armchair diagnosis, the potential disabilities weren’t really the crux of the matter, so I didn’t focus on it. The main goal was to get the kids in a STABLE PROGRAM with other trained professional adults on the scene who could officially diagnose. That could have been a homeschooling group or a private school, but public school works, too.

      C) A little armchair diagnosis is totally okay. Like, my mom worried that the 5 month old baby isn’t making eye contact and is therefore autistic is taking it a little far (no, Mom, he’s just 5 months old and his brain hasn’t booted up quite yet), but a little concern can save lives or a lot of heartache (yes, Mom, when the toddler was a little unsteady that WAS the sign of an ear infection gone to abcess. Good catch!).

      1. Thanks! I have been much more involved with their lives since they moved into the family homestead, as it were, so figuring out how to be Fun, Educational Auntie is important to me. All of my family members are long distance, but they used to live in a different part of the country and now they are part of a particular geographic cluster, so I see them much more often. One thing I am going to try to do is be a pen pal to them, with actual letters and stamps and such. Old school!

  20. something else to be considered is a lot of parents homeschool their kids with special learning needs because they are picked on by their peers in a normal school environment, or because the public schools in the area are woefully unprepared to deal with individual learning needs. Given that information option 3 becomes not only the worst idea for the relationship with Mr. Boxwine but also something that could potentially not help the kids at all. A combination of options 1&2 sound great to me. LW, is there anyway that you could during that sit down conversation offer to provide lessons once or twice a week in your given field to your nephews as another form of help? That way you make it clear to Mrs. Boxwine that you REALLY just want to spend more time with the kids and help with their education, plus if you do it at daddy warbuck’s house a couple of times you can show by example as to what she SHOULD be doing. Then since you’ve already got your foot in the door, sending webquest challenges, educational books, program information etc would seem natural, rather than you trying to one up her.

  21. Glad to hear things are going better!

    I would have been really wary even of Option 2 – what I derived about Ms Boxwine is that there’s a good chance she feels that she’s doing everything perfectly and any offer of support is an implication that she’s not capable – so even a trip to the zoo might be shut down. Sounds like this isn’t the case and I read more into it than was really there.

    I would still do anything you can to get the kids to some kind of doctor or psychologist for diagnosis – better to know for sure and be able to treat any conditions that are there than to just suspect. Jane may also find spending 4 hours a week doing support exercises more fulfilling (and manageable) than being a full-time homeschooler.

    As an aside, I think there are kids who unschooling will work fantastically for and those for whom it would be a disaster. I know that if I had been unschooled, I would have a head full of utterly meaningless and disconnected trivia, and I’d have dropped out of university in my first term there.

  22. My mom homeschooled my youngest siblings because we older ones turned out wrong. I shit you not. My mom is very religious (Christian) and she is very disappointed that her older children are meh or atheist. She turned to homeschooling to control the educational content and protect the sibs from outside influences. They live on a farm, so neighbours aren’t close by and they weren’t given access to the Internet (except in the summers when they came to visit me). In other words, they were kept extremely isolated.

    My mother was a terrible homeschooler. Partly this is because she couldn’t be the stay at home mom she wanted to be, and thus, didn’t have enough time to properly teach. Another aspect is the extremely religious homeschooling material (young earth creationist!). And lastly, the only socializing the kids got were play dates with kids much younger than them. This has resulted in my youngest siblings being very interested in lots of things but having terrible skills. For example, they love reading and writing – but their spelling and grammar are abysmal. Not Internetian/texter abysmal; “I am struggling to learn English” abysmal but coupled with a really good vocabulary. (English is not their 2nd language nor do they have learning disabilities.) Their socialization skills were not age appropriate. (Teenagers who acted like 10 yr olds.) Two of them were twins, so they really only socialized with each other.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say to LW: if all you can do is help socialize your nephews, that is still important. Be the cool aunt (and grandpa) who sends cool educational gifts, gets them connected to the Internet, takes them out for lunches or dinners, takes them to museums, galleries, and theatres – THAT IS STILL A HUGE THING TO DO. DO IT.

    And if you find that they are being taught drastically wrong things (young earth creationism, for example), let them know that other people believe other things, and present real info and real resources for them to look at. (For example, I’d take them for part of summer vacation and we’d spend a week doing dinosaur stuff (Royal Tyrrell Museum for the win!) Talk about it in a comfortable way, and don’t let the kids feel that you are accusing their mom of being bad or wrong or whatever. If you do, they will probably defend her and shut you out, which will ruin everything you are trying to do. Or make them resent their mom, which will cause a whole different bundle of problems.

    1. Annnnd I just saw the LW’s update. I am so good at bad timing. Glad things are turning out well!

    2. …i dunno. I think that people who have that kind of experience — where a parent who’s supposed to be educating them and preparing them for life is instead feeding them bullshit and keeping them isolated — probably SHOULD resent said parent. I agree it can cause a whole host of problems, but seriously, that sort of shit would be child abuse in any sane society.

      (This is not to say that homeschooling is Bad! It’s not! I know lots of liberal hippie folks who homeschool, and their kids are bright and well-socialized and awesome. But teaching kids nothing but wrong information and religious crap is NOT homeSCHOOLING, it’s home-indoctrinating, and that’s wrong and bad and awful.)

  23. One problem with the nuclear option is that even if you report them, the state/school district/city may do nothing. Often, the authorities have their hands full with kids who are being manifestly neglected or mistreated.

    Friends of ours were homeschooling their kids in the casual way that LW describes. The kids at various time spent brief periods in public school, so the school district was aware that they (and their siblings) were there, but nobody ever checked. The youngest two in fact couldn’t read at age 11, and nobody noticed. They live in a small city with a substantial poor population, many of them black or hispanic. I think that because the kids were physically taken care of and not abused-looking, and the family was from the professional class — and were white — nobody saw any problem, at least not one big enough to waste scarce resources on.

  24. Oh god, I’m so sorry, here I am again with TL;DR ABOUT ELODIE’S LIFE EXPERIENCES. But I might have another positive perspective to offer on homeschooling, with MANY caveats.

    I was homeschooled without structure. My SAHM mother was able to provide me with some liberal arts education, but generally she just bought me every book I asked for and left me to my own devices; I was interested in math and science, and she wasn’t able to help with that. I started taking college classes before I was a teenager, and have since become a *reasonably* productive and literate member of society.

    A child who is homeschooled without structure by parents who are not “qualified” needs to be:

    1.) an academically motivated child
    2.) able to function perfectly well when alone, when with other children, when with adults
    3.) a child who shows great interest in even one subject (reading – even if it’s fantasy? science – even if they just love bugs? video games – if they can discuss at length why one is better than another?)
    4.) intelligent and curious.
    5.) highly independent.
    6.) capable of identifying and asking for what they need – playdates with friends, outside sports/activities/lessons, more/less advanced textbooks, materials, etc.

    It worked out fairly well for me. It did not work out well for my younger sister; my mother put her in first grade and she liked it, appreciating the structure and the larger social network. So my little sister has always gone to public school with children her own age; I’ve been almost entirely homeschooled – with brief interludes of public school when we’d moved and I wanted to make new friends. Charmingly, I attended high school and received a high school diploma while I was also working on my associate’s degree.

    Unstructured homeschooling will work for SOME but not ALL. I think those six qualifiers are completely necessary to take a child out of school and let them loose on the world. If the children don’t show them, they should be in public school or a structured homeschool. Collectives might work for some. Charter schools are also gaining ground.

    For my own children, I’ll have to see what happens. I would not just randomly decide to keep children at home. I would not apply the same decision to two brothers at different ages. Obviously I don’t know what’s going on with your SIL and her household, but that’s my perspective. ❤

    1. That is a really helpful perspective; thank you! One of my big concerns has been that the boys do have very different personalities and ways of interacting, yet they were getting the exact same kind of instruction (such as it was). I appreciate your list of what a self-motivated homeschooler would look like–I think my nephews would fulfill #4 but probably none of the others.

      1. One thing I do suggest, if the kids may have ADHD and/or ASD, is that a good thing you, as a loving aunt, can do is to watch carefully for signs that they’re being bullied at school, and if they are, offer the parents your support with the situation. Schools can be appalling at ensuring their charges are properly safe and given an appropriate environment to learn in, and kids often pick on people who are socially different from them.

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