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    Mr. & Mrs.: Hierarchy and the Homeschooled Child

    March 18, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    Even though we homeschool, I try not to think of it as a universal panacea. Homeschooling, just like institutional schooling, has its inherent downfalls, and the better homeschools I have seen and heard of seem to be the ones that are realistic about these weaknesses. These families face them head-on and think proactively about how to conquer.

    In other words, they are offensive rather than defensive.

    To give perhaps the easiest example, homeschooling can be very easy to push aside. Parents may start out with great dreams of a quality education but suddenly the baby is sick, a relative dies, Dad takes a business trip and–gasp!–the family hasn’t done a lick of school in weeks!

    Now, first of all, we have to admit that reality really does impact schooling, institutional included. The death of a relative, more likely than not, would result in school absences regardless of the educational approach. However, this doesn’t change the fact that homeschooling, because it is at home, can be crowded out by the rest of life.

    And this is why most families I know start school pretty early in the morning. They don’t let the day get away from them, and many times the children are done with enough time remaining to allow the rest of life to be lived.

    Trust me when I say that school goes much faster (even in kindergarten) when teacher doesn’t have to wait for a class of squirming five-year-olds to settle down and be quiet.

    Well, another potential weakness for homeschoolers, especially here in the Left Coast where hierarcy is practically dead and has been since at least the 1980’s, is getting too casual. By casual, I don’t mean reading on the couch. The couch is far superior to a desk when you want a child to get absorbed in a book and really catch a love for reading. What I mean is getting casual about social structures, about distinctions and social ordering.

    The Left Coast has a tendency toward chaos, I think.

    I am vaguely aware that Richard Weaver could shed much light on this subject. After all, it was in reading a discussion between blogging book club members reading his classic work Ideas Have Consequences that I first caught on to the idea of hierarchy.

    If only PaperBackSwap would grant my wish for a copy of his work…

    Why would I be concerned about a lack of hierarchy in society? Why would social structures be important? The answer is rather simple: They imply an ideal.

    I will explain using the concept of children calling their elders “Mr.” and “Mrs.” This was a big decisions for us. Well, for me. Si was raised in the South and was required to not only say Mr. and Mrs. but also ma’am and sir. I, on the other hand, called most adults by their first names.

    However, I still had a sense of hierarchy because I went to school. At school, there were Mr. and Mrs. as my teachers. And above them were people with scary titles like Dean and Principal.

    Institutions are full of hierarchy. Now, I don’t want to sing the praises of hierarchy as if it could do no wrong. But, in a world that is too casual (to the point that it insists on taking nothing seriously), I think a bit of hierarchy is healthy.

    When a child uses the word Mr., he is making a distinction. With every ring of that word he is forced to admit that there are children, and there are adults. Adults (or at least the adults that we purposely expose our children to on a regular basis) are what our children ought to be when they are grown. They tend to know lots of things children don’t know.

    Calling someone Mr. drills into my child’s head that he is not yet grown, that he hasn’t yet reached his goals. It fights a bit of the battle against hubris. It forces a bit of humility in that it makes a distinction. Adulthood is a club, child, and though you are more than welcome to witness it, and though all of these adults love you, you are not yet in the club. However, if you work hard, you will join the club in time and we will be thrilled to have you with us.

    In the casual world, we see childhood lasting for an eternity. I run across mothers saying their sons aren’t old enough to marry and have children. These sons, by the way, are my age, sometimes older. Apparently, getting older no longer directly translates into joining the Adulthood Club.

    As I tell my children when they speak to me too casually, when they cross that line between teasing and disrespect: I am not your friend. And I usually add, However, if you work hard and grow up well, we will be very good friends when it is time.

    I do not use hierarchy to designate the unattainable. I don’t think of it in terms of royalty versus the rest of us. In the situation of royalty, there is no potential for improvement. I use it, rather, in the sense of goals and ideals. There is, after all, an ideal way to manage finances, to live one’s life, to grow up. This doesn’t mean that we must be cookie cutters, but it does mean that one should learn to be financially responsible rather than irresponsible, moral rather than immoral, adult rather than immature.

    So why do we have our children use titles when speaking to adults? It’s simple, really. It is to show them that there is a real, tangible line that separates adults from children. Our goal after that is to coach them to cross that line when the time comes.


    In other news: Have you requested your review copy of my husband’s book? We haven’t received them yet, so there is still time to put in your bid!

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  • Reply Rahime March 22, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    I remember when I was about 10 or 11 visiting friends and family in the South. After being a Cali girl for about 2 or 3 years I was shocked to hear these Georgian or Tennessean children using titles like “Mr., Mrs., Sir and Ma’am” to address “normal adults”…the only people with whom we were used to using such titles were teachers (though even they often shortened their titles to the more casual “Mr. T” or “Mrs. J” and occasionally elderly family friends. Several teachers I had were actually offended when a student (usually one who had transfered from a more traditional state) addressed them as Sir, thinking he was being a smart aleck.

    When we were in Kenya we used Aunt or Uncle to address most of our parents’ friends. Many people I knew in CA didn’t even address their own aunt’s and uncles with such formality.

    I wonder if this casualness has an causal relationship to the 25-year-old who feels she’s too young to marry or the 30-year-old who thinks he’s too young for children? …there’s no great distinction between childhood and adulthood and there’s not a particular time when that shift happens…maybe we need some rites of passage prior to marriage/parenthood.

    Si, that is a beautiful song, and very powerful.

  • Reply Si March 19, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Applied to our faith, I believe there is great value in using titles. For example, in prayer we call Christ “Lord” or “Master” or “Son of God.” These titles acknowledge real spiritual distinctions between us and our savior. This reminds me of a wonderful, moving song called “God Forbid” that I heard in church a decade ago. I only recall one line:

    “God forbid that I find you too familiar, that I think of you as less than who you are.”

    The entire song is a powerful statement of God’s transcendant superiority over mankind. It was both a humbling and worshipful experience in church that day.

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