Students at a Singapore high school in 2006. CC 3.0 via Wikipedia 

Over a hundred years ago, my maternal grandmother grew up in a village in Southern China, back when Chinese girls were not allowed to go to school, because they were seen as only good for childbearing and housework or farm labour. She was as sharp as a tack and often longed to join her brother at his studies instead of staying at the family farm to guard the sheep from tigers. When she started raising a family in Singapore, she made sure that all her children, boys and girls alike, received the best education available, in Catholic mission schools. My brother and I went on to attend our parents' alma maters.

Psycho-social effects: school vs homeschool

After going to college with homeschoolers, I am doubly glad for my school education. Not only was I taught academic discipline and a variety of skills in music, sports, metalworking, woodworking, cooking and sewing – I made friends, true friends who have proved lifelong companions, though we are geographically distant.

I was a shy introvert whose teachers often noted on report cards that I was “too quiet”, but I was able to befriend other bookish girls like myself – Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, Muslim, Presbyterian, Methodist and Catholic – and we supported each other through the challenges of examinations and physical fitness tests, writing notes of encouragement which I still treasure today. In school, we were also taught how to greet teachers, visitors to the school, and the janitors. This habit stayed with me in law school, where some of my best friends were the college kitchen staff and cleaners – we still keep in touch.

Certainly, there were well-adjusted homeschoolers at my college who were mature and socially adept. Their parents had sent them out to work in their mid-teens. However, there were too many maladjusted young people struggling with depression, severe mental health and body image issues, self-loathing and an inability to maintain healthy friendships. One of them, aged 20, cried to me: “How am I supposed to know how to be a friend, when I have never had a proper friend in my whole life? I only had three friends and I saw them once a year.”

In school, because you are compelled to stay in the same class for a year – barring extreme circumstances – you have to learn how to reconcile after arguments with friends, how to accept difficult classmates especially while engaging in group activities: how to cooperate with people you may not naturally get along with.

All this is very different to attending homeschooling camps once or twice a year. A classmate of mine said he avoided the other children at those camps because he thought they were weird. Sadly, he began to feel that he himself was weird and didn't deserve friends. He was also extremely afraid of interacting with non-Christians, having never really encountered them before, and only receiving distorted prejudices from his parents. In learning to love other imperfect people and in receiving love from them, we learn how to love ourselves and our own oddities. A lack of friends in adolescence is especially damaging. Friend groups strengthen our self-identity and self-esteem.

Children benefit from associating with people outside their families and religious or ethnic groups. This helps them practise etiquette, and develop their empathy and cultural awareness (one homeschooler, upon meeting me, asked: “Was it difficult to learn English?” She ended up asking me to proofread her essays. It is frustrating how many Australians do not know that Singapore was a British colony, and Singaporeans like my brother and our prime minister have regularly won the Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition).

School also helps young people become successful at networking (I am indebted to a Muslim friend for walking me through the Australian permanent residency application process, an agnostic acquaintance for rental accommodation, and a transgender friend for introducing me to Brunswick, Melbourne). In learning about others' beliefs and life experiences, I have deepened my appreciation of my own beliefs and upbringing, and I have come to understand why people, broken by trauma, may act in ways that defy logic. Instead of forming caricatures of people different to me, I am able to see the nuances in their individual circumstances, and delight in friendship with them despite our fundamental disagreements.

Some parents are afraid to send their children to school because of bullying. I was bullied for a year when I was 11, by someone who was like the girl with a curl in the nursery rhyme: “when she was good, she was very, very good/But when she was bad, she was horrid.” A friend of mine from Hong Kong was bullied all through primary school as well. He considers it a baptism of fire; he toughened up, while keeping a core of sensitivity for those in need.

Certainly, bullying has been exacerbated by social media, with cyberbullying giving some children no respite. However, if parents oversee their children's online presence according to their age and maturity, it is useful to teach children how to respond to bullying. This prepares them for potential predators and bullies in adult life, such as in the workplace and in parents' groups.

It is an unfortunate reality that there are hurt people who go on to hurt other people; instead of avoiding an entire community because of the toxic members, it is well to know how to manage these people when you encounter them. Sadly, I found that some sheltered homeschoolers became bullies themselves, abusing others as a manifestation of their deep insecurities. One lied about being raped, and another lied about being stalked. They had no concept or concern about how such falsehoods could severely damage the reputation and lives of the accused; they merely sought attention and self-aggrandisement in warped ways.

Failure and resilience

Moreover, these homeschoolers did not know how to cope with potential or actual failure, or with deadlines. I struggled to scrape through Mandarin classes for 13 years; in junior college, the principal upbraided my entire cohort for doing poorly in our mid-term examinations. In having multiple opportunities to fail before the final tests, many went on to succeed – my classmate who started with the worst grades graduated with the best.

Even failing final examinations is not a life sentence. My mother failed her A-level exams, retook them and made it into law school. So when I too failed my A-level exams – after spending too much time on extra-curricular activities like student council, choir and rock-climbing – I calmly retook my exams, with two friends for company. Then I made it into law school too. My homeschooled arts classmates, however, became suicidal over essays, depressed over poor grades. They lacked perspective. To them, failing was the end of the world.

Self-directed vs standardised rote learning

Some people laud homeschooling as a way to let children pursue the topics which they are truly passionate about. However, this leads to gaping holes in their education. The word “educate” comes from the Latin ex + ducere, “to lead out”. A true education leads a person out of his native ignorance and personal interests, forming him into a more well-rounded individual. In being compelled to study subjects in which I performed abysmally, like Mandarin, economics and, let's face it, law, I imbibed knowledge and skills which have served me well in my higher education plus my professional and personal life. My worldview has been enriched by these studies, though I hated them at the time.

A homeschooled student once commented in my presence that Asians, taught by rote learning, cannot possibly be creative. I found this a false dichotomy. Great musicians, artists, writers and athletes become great not by raw talent, but by talent combined with years upon years of practice. I have been able to compose poetry since I was eight, because I spent days memorising poems for school (a recent one won a college prize). The ubiquitous USB thumb drive was invented by a Singaporean. It was also a Singaporean company which invented the mp3 player interface, long before Apple came along with its iPod. Japan is renowned for its technological innovations. Discipline is required for the kind of creativity that is only possible when one has mastered a particular field.

There are good schools and bad schools; there are wonderful homeschooling families, and others who seem to be ill-equipped to homeschool their children. As Australia's homeschooling rate soars,  I hope that these children receive not only the best education possible, including opportunities to fail, but that they are also encouraged to make friends, to meet a variety of people, and to learn how to get along with others in spite of differences. For I have seen the catastrophic ramifications of over-sheltering your children from the world.

Mei Ling is a Singapore born freelance writer and social media manager living in Queensland, Australia.