Three years ago we embarked on our version of a family adventure. My husband Jay and I sold our large home in a great neighborhood in the suburbs with a giant swimming pool and tennis courts, and moved into an old, small house in a run-down neighborhood that smelled like old people. The house, not the entire neighborhood.
Along with this cracker-jack moving plan of ours, we took our kids out of public school and began homeschooling them. We also started traveling to see all 50 US States, but that’s a different article.
Our plan was that we would use the money we got from selling a good house and buying a worse one to fund our travel—and that we would homeschool for the 2.5 years it would take us to visit every state without having to chuck it all and live in a van.
And we did.
We moved into a crappier house. We learned the very uphill work of shifting from being a public school family to a homeschooling one. And we spent the night in all 50 States and saw everything you’ve ever thought looked wonderful in a movie location set in the US. (That’s not entirely true. We missed Devil’s Tower and Niagara Falls.)
Well, now we’re still homeschooling.
It turns out that despite my master’s degree in Education and my decade of experience teaching high school history in very high-performing public schools, I have learned more about how human beings do and do not learn in the last two years than I did in all the cumulative hours I spent in the traditional classroom. It has changed the way I parent my children. And, for right now at least, I am still just too curious about what else I might learn to give up the experiment quite yet.
Here are 8 ways in which our homeschooling journey has changed my parenting and how you can use what I’ve learned–whether or not you homeschool your kids.
1–I Ask Better Questions
With enough threats or demands, you can coerce kids into saying words, but you can’t get them to reveal what they actually think or feel or whether or not they’ve retained anything they’re learning. Kids only really talk to you when they feel like it. Usually when they are stalling for bedtime, but also in the car, or while you’re making dinner, or any number of totally inconvenient times for deep thought. But if I actually want to know how my kids’ lives are going, there have to be times when we’re around each other not doing anything special.
And I have to ask the right questions. Once I no longer had the go-to questions of “How was your day” or even “What did you do today,” I had to get more creative about talking with them. I now ask things like, “what is something that confused/worried/bothered you today” or “tell me what you thought about during lunch.” They still might not be completely open, but they’ll probably say something they weren’t going to just randomly volunteer.
2–I Teach Them What Really Matters
Adults know that just because you spent 4 hours at the DMV today doesn’t make it the most important event in your life. Kids don’t quite get that. They equate hours spent on an activity with deep significance. And, to be fair, the things they spend the most time on do tend to be important, like, say, their education. But not every value or significant task can be evaluated by time spent and kids often miss that distinction.
I figured this out one day when I became fixated on my son “getting” a concept we were covering at home and wouldn’t let him move on to the next item. He, beyond frustrated, finally blurted out “why is this so important to you?!” From my point of view, it just made sense to get this done now–from his point of view, Mom must deeply care about this or she wouldn’t keep talking about it.
I realized the opposite was also true; if we DON’T spend time talking about something, it must NOT be important to us. Kids need help identifying what our deep family values actually are: so I now point out choices we’ve made about finances, free time, and faith without assuming the kids are picking it up from the context clues. Throw in a “do you know WHY we just dropped off our stuff at Goodwill” or call a kid over on occasion when you’re looking at the bills. Skip practicing spelling words for the evening and instead make a card for a sick neighbor. They don’t automatically know what we value, and they might be making some bad assumptions. Besides, they will have spellcheck as adults.
3–I Speak to My Kids Like Individuals
Not all of us learn in the same way. In public school, students with learning exceptionalities, like dyslexia or ADHD, are afforded what are called “accommodations.” They are usually things like extra time on tests or separate testing facilities to limit distractions. What I’ve learned from teaching my own kids (who include learning exceptionalities on both ends of the spectrum) is that everyone learns better when given the opportunity to have some control over their learning environment. No one fits into boxes very well.
In our house, I’ve begun to apply that concept not just to school work, but to all the other tasks we have to learn. The kid who has a hard time following multi-step instructions? I don’t quit asking him to do those things, I just help him create “accommodations” to remember them better. So, instead of saying “unload the dryer, change the clothes from the washer to the dryer, and put in the load of towels on my floor” I say, “I have 3 things for you to do. Are you ready to hear the 3 things you need to finish before TV time?” It takes patience and a lot of observation to figure out what each kid needs to level up to adulthood, but when I adjust my communication depending on who I’m talking to, each kid is able to do more this time than they did the last time. That’s a pretty big win.
4–I Make Sure They Do Things With Their Siblings
For as much play as “Daddy-daughter Date Night” and the like get, it is funny to me that we just assume our kids get to spend plenty of time together as brothers and sisters. But, do they? When my kids went to school until I got off of work, had sports practices twice a week, and games on Saturday, when did they really play together?
One day recently I looked over and noticed that my 12-year-old daughter and my 5-year-old son were sitting on our kitchen stools eating lunch together at the counter while their brothers were sitting down eating at the table. They had paired up and were having one-on-one conversations with a sibling. It reminded me not only of how little time we really get with our kids before they’re grown, but also of how little time they get with each other.
If I want them to be adults who can depend on each other, who know each other and care about each others’ lives, they need to be creating bonds now. So I try to give them tasks to do together. Sure, one of them could take out the trash while the other gets the laundry, but I try to throw them together more often than not. Ask two kids at a time to rake the yard; get the oldest and youngest to unload the groceries. Give them a giant cardboard box and ask them what they can make out of it together. They need time to just be kids doing normal stuff with these people they are stuck being related to for the rest of their lives.
5–I am Rabid About Their Opportunities to Rest
I need more sleep. You’d think, now that I don’t have to put kids on the bus at 7am, that I would get all the sleep I want. But I stay up way too late now because it is literally the only time I’m ever alone. And you know that your kids become evil monsters when they are sleep deprived. But it’s not just bedtimes and actual minutes asleep that make us tired. It’s also emotional stress and changes to our schedules and the ability to turn off our brains at night. Kids get tired from every one of those things just like adults do, but their tired probably looks more like a raving angry Cookie Monster on cocaine than sleepy.
Before homeschooling, I depended on our very structured schedule to provide the guardrails to overtired. Once those were gone, I had to start creating my own. I had to really assess what causes stress and wears down the kids AND the adults and make plans accordingly. For instance, if one kid is playing baseball that adds a layer of tired to the family. If two kids are playing there’s another layer. If three kids are playing…or four…there is not enough rest in the world to come back from that. It means, for us, there are no year-round sports. Every kid is allowed to play something if they want, but everyone needs seasons off, too. Figure out what causes your family to get worn down and become crazily protective of the time you have without those stressors. Our kids need to learn how to say no, even to good things sometimes, BEFORE they have kids of their own.
6–I Talk About Things That are Hard for Me
My kids now see me a lot more than they used to. And they see me when I get frustrated and when I get overwhelmed and when I struggle with finishing a task I’ve been working on forever. It’s not that they didn’t know that about me before homeschooling, but when I worked they didn’t see me have to work through it in the same way. They never saw me have to really concentrate because I usually did those tasks when I wasn’t with them so that I could give them my complete attention when I was home.
I’ve now realized that they kind of like it when I have a hard day. It’s relatable. It’s understandable. “Huh,” they think, “Mom didn’t get all of her work right the first time, either.” They tend to ask questions and want details that I would have thought bored them because it’s about Mom. Recently, I had an appointment with a literary agent that did not go all that well. Maybe. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t really tell. So, at dinner, when we had our “highs and lows” sharing time, I shared that as my low. I actually told the kids I was uncertain and nervous and didn’t feel great about it.
I don’t recommend sharing things like “I might lose my job” over dinner because that seems traumatic, but kid-appropriate stories about working hard on something and it still not being quite right have changed our relationships for the better. They see me as more of a person and they learn that effort and success are not exactly the same thing.
7–I Leave the Children Alone
When I was a kid, the idea of not having anyone to play with was horrible. How very boring. What a terrible day. But I also had my own room and only one sibling and my parents were teachers so I spent every summer of my life basically doing nothing. And my brain and creativity flourished because of it. Kids need those minutes by themselves.
I don’t know if you’ve been in a public school for any length of time in a while, but there’s a lot going on. There are friends and colorful wall decorations and giant racecar tracks that measure how many reading points you’ve earned this year. It’s a lot of stimuli. Since we started learning at home, I’ve realized how much time my kids, depending on their particular personalities and needs, will choose to go do something quietly. They need it. Frankly, we all do.
Sometimes I just ignore them. Sometimes, within reason and for short amounts of time, I literally leave them home alone. Often, I make sure that they have time to just wander off and do nothing for as long as they choose. I also make sure that they have enough time doing nothing to get bored–that’s when the deep thoughts of children finally wake back up.
8–I Let Them Do a Bad Job at Things
Kids are not as good at things as adults are. They are, in fact, bad at things. Things like laundry and dishes and raking leaves. They are bad at sweeping and picking up toys and cleaning bathrooms and vacuuming. Really, they aren’t useful at all. But they feel SO VERY IMPORTANT when they do something practically useful. When I was a teacher, one of the more painful cultural shifts I observed in teenagers was the movement toward a lack of any meaningful work. Parents, in an attempt to have their children focus on their academics, tended to steer kids away from part-time jobs and large scale household projects.
But students want, more than anything else, to have purpose. To matter. To be known and loved anyway. They are a lot like adults in that. And there is no faster way to get to an adult who feels useful than to be a teenager who feels useful. And, as we all know, teenagers are somewhat more resistant to parental instruction than school-aged children. Which brings me back to why I let my children do a bad job at things around my house.
In the past, I would have swept that floor myself. It would have been faster and done better and, besides, the kids were tired. Being at home with them shifted that perspective. I’m certainly not going to sweep the floor while you sit there and watch. So I started having them do work while I do work, every day, in all parts of the house. And although they are still worse at the tasks than I am, they are getting better. I do not pay them or reward them because no one pays or rewards me for cleaning. I do tell them “thank you” and point out what they’ve done to “help the family team” to the rest of the family. I am doing less housework than I have in a decade, the children are learning practical life skills, and the house is clean-ish. Most importantly, the children know that their physical effort contributed to the good work of running our household.
There are other things I have learned and shifted since we began homeschooling, but these are a good start. I’m sure, as the children and I all learn and grow together, there will be other things that rise to the surface. But the underlying ideals behind all of them are rather simple.
I listen. I Wait. I get out of the way. I am learning, slowly, that the best way to love these small people is to remember that they are, in fact, people–and to give them the respect and room to grow that all people deserve. I will be forever grateful for our homeschooling experiment for that.