I was in the middle of an online mom group conversation when the subject turned to education. One mama commented that her family had decided to send their kids to private Christian school. “It’s a big sacrifice,” she said, “but it’s worth it.  I just couldn’t bear to throw my kids to the wolves of public school.”

I read that comment and thought about my own children, sitting among those wolves at that very moment. And they were there not because my husband and I couldn’t or wouldn’t make the sacrifice to send them somewhere else—but because we’d deliberately, intentionally chosen not to send them somewhere else.

I am not saying—not at all—that one type of education is right for every family, Christian or otherwise. There’s no one right way to raise kids, and because of that, parenting is a constant series of choices. In between figuring out who to see for prenatal care for our babies and where (or if) we should send those babies to college, hundreds of decisions lie in wait. And we want to get those decisions right, for the sake of the kids we love so much. But “right” for one child or one family or one season often looks radically different from “right” for another family or another time.

Months before we got married and years before we became parents, my husband and I discussed where we would send our hypothetical children to school. We were both Christians raised in Christian families, and we had both been public-schooled. But we did not choose public schooling for our kids based on tradition; we chose it based on intention. We did not choose to send our children to public schools by default, but by decision.

We wanted our kids to regularly spend time in a place where they could build on the foundation of faith we would lay for them in our home and at church. We wanted their faith to be tested and tried and challenged and refined . . . and to come out stronger than it was when they went in. We wanted them to be around kids who did not believe what they did, so that they might clarify what they themselves believed. We wanted them to learn, gradually and carefully, how to live in the world but not be “of” it (John 17:14-18).

We did not, as some have suggested, send our children to public school to be missionaries; we sent them to public school to be students and friends—guided by the greatest Teacher and Friend, who regularly spent a lot of time in close contact with “the public”.

We’re all the way through thirteen years of public schooling with our firstborn, and we have the finish line in sight with our youngest. Along the way, our children have had many Christian educators, including their mutual third-grade teacher, who addressed the first instance of “oh my God” in her classroom each year with a stern directive: “God is very important to me and to many other people, and you will not use His name that way in my classroom.”

They’ve had friends who shared their faith and many more who didn’t. They’ve prayed around flagpoles. They’ve gathered outside the school cafeteria for weekly student-initiated/student-led prayer groups.

In public school, our children have learned math and science and English and history. But there they have also learned to initiate the faith they once imitated. They have learned to pray when they are not prompted. They have learned to trust God when they are tested.

Could they have learned these things in some other educational setting? Of course. But the fact is that our children learned them in a public school setting. And while I’ve never doubted this was the right place for our children in our family and in our community, any doubts I might have had would have been erased by a single conversation I had with my younger daughter.

She had a teacher who let his students listen to music (via headphones) while they were doing daily work. My daughter always listened to Christian music. She told me that for a while, she’d sensed God telling her He wanted her to be bolder in her faith in school and that she felt He had given her a test. Three times, when other students had noticed her listening to music, they’d asked what kind of music she liked. The first time, she hedged and said, “All different kinds.” The second time she was asked, she named a popular secular artist whose music she did actually like but did not, in fact, often listen to. The third time (God often works in threes), she answered honestly, naming a Christian artist who’s one of her favorites. She told me she felt liked she’d passed a test. And then she told me, “Thank you for putting me in public school, because if you hadn’t, I don’t think I would have learned to be bolder about sharing my faith.”

And then there was the moment a couple of years ago when my older daughter walked across the stage at her public high school graduation, her mortar board decorated with the words of Proverbs 31:25—“She is clothed with strength and dignity.” I watched her and thought, “Yes. That’s absolutely what she’s clothed with. And she put on some of those clothes right here.” Which told me that for her and for our family, it was exactly the right place to be.

Elizabeth Spencer

Elizabeth Spencer is mom to two teenage daughters who regularly dispense love, affection, and brutally honest fashion advice. She writes about faith, food, and family (with some occasional funny thrown in) at Guilty Chocoholic Mama and avoids working on her 100-year-old farmhouse by spending time on Facebook and Twitter.