I took the girls on a nature hike at Bushy Hill Nature Center the other day. A group of people had signed up, most of whom we were meeting for the first time. About halfway through, a man approached me and introduced himself, and he made the observation that it looked like my daughters were homeschoolers.


Some people might take that as an insult, given the stereotypes that are out there, but taken in context with his attitude and demeanor I could see that he was offering a compliment. And it made me think. The hike was on a weekend, so there wasn’t the obvious clue that they weren’t in school. What was it about my daughters that made him think they were homeschooled? Maybe it was their crazy rainbow dyed hair. I’ve observed that many homeschooling parents are a little more free about letting their children choose their styles and experiment with things like hair color at younger ages. That’s a very broad generalization though.

So aside from their colorful hair, what made this stranger look at my girls and think, “Homeschoolers!”? I think it was their attitudes. They are confident young ladies at an age when many girls start to lose their native confidence. Social pressures start to weigh heavy and social attitudes about strong, confident women — namely that we’re bitches — start to sink in. Looking at the stereotypes again, girls in a public school environment are almost expected to go through this unfortunate rite of passage as a matter of course.

Interestingly, my daughters are not homeschooling right now. They’re enrolled in a public elementary school. But they were. We’ve gone in and out of homeschooling the same way we’ve gone in and out of public schooling, as our family needs and interests have changed. Roughly two years of homeschooling, two years in public school, another year of homeschooling, and two years at a new school.

But there is something there. There isn’t a single educational approach that will magically imbue your kid with confidence and the skills he or she needs to carry them successfully through life. But there are advantages to be found in different schooling styles, and we were able to cash in on a big one by homeschooling during the girls’ early years. They did a LOT of exploring. They spent time in groups of different kids every week. Kids of different ages, abilities, and interests. They spent time in their community. They spent time using their bodies as well as their minds to explore the world around them. We encouraged them to try new things, and we encouraged them to fail. We focused on the iterative process that’s so important to discovering new concepts (especially in STEM fields!), where you fail repeatedly as you build and discover and realize new truths about whatever it is you’re working on. You keep at it, changing a little bit at a time, until you reach success.

They had ownership over much of their early education, and that shows today. They are active, engaged learners who routinely get complimented by their public school teachers for their ability to work in groups, to take leadership roles and to communicate and compromise, and to take initiative with their assignments.

And this has translated into confidence in themselves.

As a parent, I have confidence even though I doubt myself all the time. I think that’s the paradox of good parenting. Everything we do is uncharted territory. As the girls get older, we have to make new decisions on the spur of the moment and we always wonder if we’re doing the right thing. At the same time, I am a very confident parent. I think a lot, I read a lot, I observe a lot, and with reflection comes a basic level of preparedness and deliberation that goes into those spur of the moment conversations and decisions. Like, “Mom, what are our family rules on dating?” Coming from my 11-year-old, who heard some older classmates comparing their families’ dating rules at school. Whoa. I was so not ready for that one. But we muddled through and I am … confident … that I handled it reasonably well.

Confidence is such a difficult term to describe to a kid. Try to explain to a preschooler that confidence is about feeling secure in yourself and your knowledge and skills, but — as my 9-year-old put it — not being a jerk. How there is a thin line between confidence and arrogance, and how to walk on the right side of it. Conceptually, that’s not really where a younger kid is at, even though they’re at such a great age for developing their own confidence. So it has to come through role modeling and experience.

Whatever your schooling options are, you can set the stage for kids to develop a sense of confidence in themselves by giving them some ownership over their educational experiences, by supporting them in a quest to fail — over and over! — and by showing them that you have confidence in yourself.