Homeschooling families are often criticized by other Christian families for removing our children - and their witness - from the public school. And one of the more common reasons why Christian families choose not to homeschool is that they want their children to be "salt and light" in the schools.
Sally Thomas, on First Things today, has perhaps the best article I've ever read on the topic. She points out how difficult it is for a Christian child to survive and thrive in the public schools. She describes her own family's experience with their oldest daughter in the English school system, and tells how her daughter became increasingly withdrawn. She then goes on to explain eloquently why we believers have a first duty to our children, not to our communities.
What Sally hints at, but doesn't develop fully, is the idea that children are not equipped to really be "salt and light" in the public schools. The very definition of "child" requires a certain level of immaturity. I Corinthians 13 says, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child." How does a child reason? Even the most mature eight-year-old is still only an eight-year-old, unable to reason in a mature fashion, and only partly acquainted with the world in which he or she lives.
If we take an immature child and put that child in a public school classroom, what is he or she confronted with? Twenty-five or thirty other children of the same age, holding a huge range of beliefs, coming from a significant number of different religious and cultural backgrounds, and with many different definitions of acceptable behavior. Which of these children should the child seek out? How will he be able to determine which children are likely to be influenced by him and which will influence him for evil? Can she figure what approach is most likely to reach this or that friend? How does he protect his image of himself when others make fun of his looks or his beliefs? And if that classroom full of peers presents tremendous challenge, what about the playground, full of hundreds of children, some older and stronger? And besides the other children, there is this tremendous authority figure named "Teacher," who generally perceives herself or himself as the fount of all wisdom and knowledge, at least in the classroom, and who often does not share the child's Christian belief system or even his or her basic worldview.
Given all this, which is more likely: that the Christian child will share his beliefs and bring his friends to Christ, or that he will instead be influenced by the environment in which he finds himself? Proverbs 13:20 says, "He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm," and I Corinthians 15:33 says, "Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character." If we insist on our children's associating, for the majority of their waking hours, with "fools," and "bad company," we ought not to be surprised when they become like those with whom they associate. Even adults struggle to hold firmly to their faith when surrounded constantly by those who disagree; how can we expect our children to survive?
There will be plenty of time for our children to be salt and light, without surrounding them for many hours each week with those who will harm them spiritually. I'd prefer my children spend most of their time with "the wise." When they have reached maturity, they will have the reasoning power to deal with the arguments of those who disagree.
Sally Thomas points out, too, that just because children don't go to school doesn't mean they aren't in the world. She illustrates by discussing how her children interact often with their neighbors and witness, in their own little way, to the people they come in contact with. My own children also interact with and pray for their friends in the neighborhood, and provide a positive influence on those friends. Even as children, they can share their faith - but they can do it in a way that doesn't endanger that faith by exposing them to forces they are not yet ready to cope with.