Ep. 96 || Freedom in Education Choices: An Interview with Jen Wilkin on Public Schooling, Part 4 Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Laura:  Hey guys. Welcome to the final instalment of our four-part series on educating our children and the Gospel. If you missed it the past few weeks, we encourage you to go back and listen to all our episodes on education and the gospel.

We’ve done a high-level overview of what scripture speaks to about how to educate our children. Then we’ve zoomed in through three different interviews to learn more about how God leads individual families in different ways of educating their children.

The first was Melissa Krueger, with private schooling, second was Irene Sun with homeschool, and today we’re hearing from our final mom, Jen Wilkin. She’ll be speaking to how she sent her children through public education, and the freedom she found in the gospel.

Jen serves on staff at the Village Church, and is an author and Bible teacher. You probably heard us talk a lot about her book, Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds. It’s a favorite here at Risen Motherhood, for learning how to study the Bible properly. She’s also written None Like Him, which talks about ten ways God is different from us and why that’s a good thing. She also has a new book coming out, In His Image, which explores the other side of that coin – 10 attributes of God that Christians are called to reflect. This book is already available for pre-order as it comes out in May of this year. Of course you can find Jen’s work all over the web, so we’ve included links for where you can follow her on risenmotherhood.com. In addition, I just want to make sure all of you know about our learning page @risenmotherhood.com/education. This is a special spot designated on our site for all our education resources that we collected during our schooling series here at RM. We know it’s a big, important topic so we want to make it super easy to find everything. There, you’ll find links to all the interviews and show notes, discussion questions for the shows, and any extra articles or resources, and of course, the questionnaire document that we’ve developed. If you’ve not checked this out yet, let me encourage you to do so. The entire document is just made up of intentional questions that you and your husband can work through as you process through this decision. We pray that it will be a blessing to you. Okay, now let’s get to the interview with Jen, Emily, and me.

Laura: Hi Jen. Thank you so much for joining us on the Risen Motherhood podcast today.

Jen:  I am so glad to be on, thanks for having me.

Laura:  We know you’ve been on the show before, and a lot of our listeners are really familiar with your work and your writing. We just love you on Risen Motherhood obviously. But can you give a quick background for anyone who might not have heard of you yet, and talk a little bit about your family and what your day looks like, and then of course how you educate your children.

Jen:  I am Jen, and I’ve been married to Jeff for almost 25 years; it’ll be 25 years this summer. It’s so funny, he’s actually sitting over there while we’re recording, and he just gave a big cheer. [laughter] So that’s a good sign probably, that he’s excited about that number.

We have four children – they are Matt, 21; Mary Kate, 20; Claire, 19 and Calvin 17. All of the birthdays are getting ready to flip. Only one, Calvin, is left at home right now – he’s a Senior in high school and he will leave in August to join his siblings at Texas A&M University. He cannot wait.

Laura:  All of them together. Amazing.

Jen:  Yes. He does find our company delightful, but I think he is about ready to go for sure. I am on staff at the Village Church Institute, and I have responsibility for all of our adult classes at our five campuses. My thing that I love the most is to talk about Bible literacy in the church, and especially among women. We chose to send our children through public school from start to finish.

Laura:  Can you walk us through your decision for public education? You said that you’ve done that from start to finish. Taking yourself back to when you were a mom of young littles – especially at the precipice of that decision – can you walk us through a little bit of how that worked for you and your husband?

Jen: Well, I always like to say up front that I fully acknowledge that this is a very personal decision, and there are a million factors that impact it. What worked for us is not necessarily going to work for everyone. But I do like to give our perspective because sometimes, people in Christian communities will write off this option as not being one that they can consider at all. So while I don’t think that our situation is not necessarily normative, I do like to talk about it just to let people know that you can love the Lord and send your children to public schools. And that all the other pieces in that puzzle line up.

But when our kids were small – you could probably tell from their ages that I said, our children were all born within four years. There’s exactly four years between my oldest, Matt, and my youngest, Calvin. Because of that, we had to assess things a little differently than someone who maybe had their children a little more spread out, or who maybe had fewer children, or even more children. You know, that’s something that affects the way that you make this decision.

In our case, financially, private school was not going to be an option for us, especially with having so many, and at the same time. I mean, right now I’ve got three in college, and another one heading out the door to join them soon. If we had done private school for all of their earlier years, there was just no way we were going to be able to think about having money available for them when it was time for them to go off to college just because it’s so many of them in a row. We did not seriously consider private school because of financial restrictions. So I don’t want to say that we weighed private school heavily against public school and then chose according to our conscience. It wasn’t that. It just was not an option for us financially. So then you’re faced with homeschool or public school.

At the time that our kids were little, we were in a community where there were a ton of homeschoolers and they were actually doing it really well. We were in the Houston area and they were doing co-ops, they had proms. That area was maybe a little bit ahead of some of the areas that we had lived in at other times where you sort of thought of homeschooling like, “Why would anybody do that?” We never felt that way about homeschooling. But we also come from a family of public educators so we had some convictions around public school as an ideal. Also, we were living in an area where, from an academic standpoint, the public schools were excellent. Which meant the decision for us was not going to be based on whether or not they would get a good education in the one environment versus the other. When we think about our children’s schooling option, for us at least, we did not feel an impulse to shield our children from influences that they might encounter in a public school. And again, the education piece was not a factor. We weren’t living somewhere where it’s an inner city school, or where the funding is bad. I have family members who have public schools near them that I don’t know how you would ever have the courage to send your child there. Although many people do, and I think it can be admirable. But a lot of the factors that sometimes keep people from right out of the gates saying, “Yes,” to public school have never been an issue.

Emily:  I love how you bring up so many factors there. Even among our own friend groups as we’ve been having these conversations, an observation we’ve made is that when you look at the financial piece of the puzzle, we’re literally like, “What school is in your neighborhood?” And, “What is that specific school like?” All of these different questions come into play, and so it’s really hard to just make a blanket statement of any kind that says, “Oh, this is the better decision.” Kind of bridging into that question, can you just talk us through why we have freedom in Christ in this decision? Is there a better choice? I think we’ve kind of flown the plane around and answered that, but if you want to expound on that anymore, I think that would be helpful.

Jen:  You know, again, of our children, no one has a learning disability, and we had no special considerations with our children. This removed a lot of questions off the table for us, and then it became a question for us of, well, “We believe that if at all possible, we should opt-in to the public school system.” I would say that as a Christian, whatever choice you pursue with your own children, it’s important to feel a conviction that education is a right that we’re all entitled to. Even if your children are not participating in the public school system, you as an adult can find ways to participate in and improve the public school system for those families who do not have another option. For us, we were able to hold to public education as an ideal, not just by investing in it as members of our community, but by actually placing our children there with very little risk associated with that decision. So we wanted to. One of the misconceptions about education choices – and it’s probably come up in the other interviews as well – is that it’s a decision you make when your child enters into kindergarten. And then you just stay the course for ever. Though it may appear that we did that, if there had ever been a compelling reason to re-evaluate that decision, we certainly would have. We didn’t happen to run into one, and some of that is just because of the makeup of our family. A lot of the things that people fear with regard to public schools are things like bullying, or a child being isolated, not making friends or making the wrong friends. At least in the case of our family, our children were their own peer group in many regards, because they were so close in age. They shared a lot of friends and a lot of overlap in their friend groups, a lot of policing of who people were being friends with just among our kids. Then like-mindedness with their siblings, right? The peers they were spending the most time with were underneath their own roof. Some of the factors that can make public school – but honestly, any classroom environment difficult – were alleviated for us a little just because they had each other.

Laura: Jen you talked a little bit about how you would re-evaluate if you needed to. Can you speak to that mom who does feel guilt or anxiety, maybe, of sending her child to any schooling system, because there are pros and cons or strengths and weaknesses to every choice. Can you give some gospel hope to that mom? Because I know Emily and I are at the beginning of this stage, but we already feel some anxiety about it. I am not sure that is going to go away. Or at certain moments, I am sure there are always moments as a mom that you’re feeling like, “Did I make the right choice? Was that the right thing for my family, or for this individual child?”

Jen:  Yes. I think as Christians, in general we have a tendency to place a lot of emphasis on the decision point. We cease to recognize that God is way less invested in your decision than he is in what happens after the decision. He’s interested in who your child is, not where your child is educated. One or two things may relate to one another, but we tend to think like, “If I make the wrong decision, then all is lost.” That is not a true narrative. And not only that, but in trying to decide what is the “right” decision, it’s important for us to keep examining whether we are reaching our conclusion based on what our peers or other parents are saying. Parental peer pressure is a thing; we want the approval of our friends. We want to be perceived as being a good parent, not a bad parent. Depending on what little sub-culture you’re living in in your area, you can be heavily influenced just by what everybody else is doing because you don’t want to deal with the scrutiny of going against the grain. In fact in our case, I would say that by putting our kids in public school was the move that was going against the grain in some cases. When you’re in the church and you have four kids in four years, and you’re on record as being a committed believer, people automatically assume that you’re going to do homeschool or private school. I would get emails from women saying, “Can you tell me what curriculum you’re using in your homeschooling?” I would be like, “Oh gosh, I don’t know how to break this to them,” and thinking that they’d be disappointed to learn that we sent our kids to public school.

Emily:  One thing you’ve talked about a lot on other platforms that I really appreciated is influencers in our children’s lives – the influence of parents and the faith of mom and dad in living out the gospel in the home. One of my questions about public school and private school - but public school maybe even more so – is what does that look like then to be intentional in the home? How did you guys then teach your children scripture, bringing them up in the Lord when they did spend more time outside of the home? We definitely know that’s possible, but it’s good and helpful for us to hear what that looks like.

Jen:  Well, the teaching points just write themselves when your kids spend all their time in public school. That’s what you talk about when you’re together as a family, talking about spiritual things. That’s one of the things really that I have loved about the kids being in public school is there is no shilly-shallying around about who is a believer and who isn’t. Children and educators in the public schools are not trying to present themselves as one thing when in fact they’re another. They’re up front with where they’re coming from. The whole nominal Christian syndrome that can exist is just not in the public schools. If you do say that you are a Christian, it’s not going to garner you favor and friends. It’s probably going to make you seem a little bit weird and that means that when you get home, home is a place where you exhale and know this is where we have shared values and beliefs, and where we have those conversations. I think that too often, Christians who put their kids in public schools are seen as just sort of throwing their kids to the wolves. They are seen as not being sensitive to the influencers that they would come up against, not just from their peers, but also from their teachers. I just always like to remind parents that they don’t know anyone who got their world view from their third grade teacher. Children spend way more time around us on the whole than they do around these other people. We have way more capacity for modelling either good or bad for our children than any other adult in their lives. And certainly more than any kids sitting next to him at the lunch table, telling them all the things that you really don’t want them to know.

Laura: That’s a comfort. It really is because I do think that’s a genuine fear any time we’re sending our children out. Whether that’s mom sending her child to a childcare provider or a public school. We can often get way too caught up in the tiny, minutiae of a few moments that they were with that person and not pull back and look at the child’s life as a whole, and how they’re being influenced. That should hopefully be a great relief to moms in all stages of life for sure. Then coming back to people who are at the beginning stages because that’s the majority of our listeners who are just starting to navigate some of these decisions. Can you just offer some tips for how a mom and dad might thoughtfully or, preferably, work through their education options? Not just for public school, but just for all of the options in front of them because there are a lot.

Jen:  You need to start by asking what’s best for your child and your family. But that can’t be the only question you ask because if we only ever did what was best for our child and our family, we wouldn’t be very good citizens in our communities. It may be that your education isn’t as closely tied to the specific needs of a child or a specific aspect of your family’s needs. But there ought to be some way to make that decision that also takes into account the community in which you live. I do think it can be a danger of choosing non-public school options that we then don’t recognize some of the very real education needs that exist all around us, for people who are not able to choose homeschool or public school. For homeschool and public school, there are socio-economic implications for even being able to have those as an option for you to choose. We should be honest about that, and we should acknowledge that. We cannot say homeschooling is really the best way to educate our kids and everyone should be doing that. The single mom who’s working a minimum wage job does not have that as an option, and then is supposed to carry the stigma because she’s not a good enough mom. It doesn’t make any sense, right? Like, the only option is going to be public school. Whereas for my own family, I may decide educationally, I want to invest in them and do homeschooling. I am so going to look for ways to serve my community’s educational needs in addition to that. Just because I’ve settled what my own children need doesn’t mean that I get to turn my eyes away from what the other children in my community also might need.

Homeschooling could be a valid choice. If you’re thinking through the decision, at some point it’s important to first of all not make it a fear-based decision. Too often when we start thinking through these things, we’re trying to minimize fears instead of asking basic questions around why is this one particular approach better than this other approach? For the Wilkin family, we were not concerned about the spiritual component of sending our kids to public school. We felt like it actually challenged us appropriately, as parents, to take full responsibility for the spiritual nurture of our children. Which is not to say that it is wrong for your children to receive spiritual nurture in a private or homeschool setting. It’s simply that it was the right set of checks and balances for us to know that they were not going to be getting it at school. They might be getting the opposite of it at school, and that that was an opportunity, not a threat.

Emily:  I love that you just shared that, and I am not sure if I’ve heard anybody put it into words quite like that. That can actually be the very thing that spurs parents on to have really intentional conversations. To be making sure when they are at home, that that investment is happening because you know that it’s not happening from the teachers or necessarily from the general peers. Another thing, we heard on another podcast where you talked about schooling is the diversity component, as well. My husband and I have a son that’s getting ready to enter the public school system because he’s got some special needs. He’s going to need help and a commendation, and a public school is probably the only place that’s really equipped to do that. One of the things his doctors said to us recently as we were discussing the options is, “You know, I think this is going to be more than just a blessing to you guys. It’s just going to bless other people to be around him and to see differences.” That was a good reminder to me of the differences that are in the public school setting often, and how that can really benefit kids.

Jen:  Absolutely. They encounter every form of diversity. Having the children with special needs who are in regular contact with the children who are in the average classroom was a huge thing for our kids and for a lot of their friends as well. The opportunities that are there for kids to go and help out in the classrooms with the children with special needs – it’s a lot of cross-pollination. Whereas when I was growing up, children with special needs were often in another room, and we didn’t see them. You didn’t know what to do and it was awkward and strange. It just isn’t like that anymore. I love that, and that you encounter socio-economic diversity and lot of really sad stories. That sounds like a terrible thing to be thankful for I guess. But my kids would come home in tears over something that they had learned about – seeing a friend’s parents’ marriage falling apart or something that had happened to someone, and just things that don’t always get talked about at a youth group. And yet they had to confront some really hard things early on in life, and ask some questions about where God is in the middle of all of this. And how can we speak words of comfort to someone who is going through this? Those were all just things that I really treasure about having them, then, in a public school.

People from different religions – we have a huge Mormon population at the high school where my kids went and in our community. We’ve, therefore, had a lot of really good conversations about Mormonism and the differences between Mormonism and Christianity. If you raise kids according to a Christian world view, when they’re staying out of some of the typical things that other people are doing, their good friends are probably going to end up being the Mormons. This is because the Mormons are probably avoiding a lot of the same behaviors. That was an opportunity for conversation. Then when they go off to college, or whatever is next after high school, they’re not encountering these questions for the first time.

Laura:  It definitely sounds like a wonderful training ground. Whereas if you were to select a different education option, you might just have to work harder to find those things that expose your children to those things. That certainly is just a beautiful thing, for the kids to be exposed to diversity early on, and even to the brokenness of the world. Like you were saying, those are great moments to train your child in biblical thinking and understanding where hope applies and where the gospel applies to their everyday. They need that; it’s a very real and bright thing in their daily life at school. Jen, is there any last thing that you would love to say to a mom? I feel like we have to start ending the interview because time always hits. But I am always like, “Jen, just talk a little bit more.” Is there one last encouragement that you would offer to a mom who’s kind of in our stage - at the beginning of this, and feeling like this is a big decision? Could you just share some gospel hope for her?

Jen:  Absolutely. You know, we’re not given to a spirit of fear, so this is a decision that you’re capable of making as the parent. If you make one decision and it’s not working out, then as the parent, you can make a different decision. Children are very resilient. My step-mom would always say that to me. But I am like “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe not my children.” [laughter]

Emily:   I know. [laughter]

Laura:  We always say our kids are made of rubber and they just bounce right back. [laughter]

Jen:   Yes, and she tried. If we view our education choices as which path will help my child avoid the most potential adversity, that’s a wrong way to think about it. I always like to be clear; we did not send our children to public school so they could be missionaries. We sent them there so that they could learn to read and to do math. Over time, of course as they grew into maturity, there were opportunities where they wanted to share their faith. But the point of your education choice, I would urge, should be primarily related to learning because children are going to face issues of faith differently, depending on what environment they’re in. Education environments have different sets of pressures, but they all have pressures associated with them. You could end up with your child in an environment where their faith is never challenged. Or you could have them in an environment where people pretend to be really good Christians and then are doing whatever covertly. There’s always a set of difficulties associated with any educational environment kids are going into go into. I would say start by weighing the merits of how good of an education is my child going to get? Then give yourself permission to course correct if you need to, and pray a whole lot. [Laughter]

Emily:  We really appreciate you coming on and sharing this. It’s just so encouraging, and you’re actually the third in the series that we’ve gone through. I hope that the moms that have tuned in, through this process, are feeling a little bit more like this is about giving glory to God in who we are, as you said. And not the minutiae of what we decide. He’s so much bigger and so much sovereign than that. We don’t know the end, but he does, and so we can just keep obeying him one step at a time. I am just so hopeful at the end of this, and I hope everyone who is listening feels that way as well. Thank you so much for the wisdom that you added to this conversation Jen.

Jen:  Thanks for letting me chime in.

Laura:  Thanks for tuning in today to the Risen Motherhood podcast. We encourage you to check out our web page, risenmotherhood.com/education. On that page, we’ve made it easy to find all our resources on this topic, with links to interviews and an education questionnaire. Plus tons of additional articles and tools that we found helpful for our families as we navigate this topic.

And of course we’d love it if you came and found us on social media, where you can keep up with the ministry of Risen Motherhood. You’ll find us @risenmotherhood on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Thanks for joining us.