I retired after homeschooling for fourteen years. Our school graduated two students who moved on to college and then graduate school. Ours was not a perfect journey—far from it. We weathered multiple significant illnesses. We also lived through the aftermath of 9/11. Because my husband was a Middle East analyst, his weird work hours took him away from us for years on end. Financial difficulties left us wondering if we would make it through the year. In our homeschool, we never got through everything I had planned. We had to adapt. We had to adjust. We had to learn to support each other in ways I never expected. The interesting thing is that my story is basically no different than any of yours; living a successful life is about adapting and changing. We all face difficulties. There is no such thing as a tidy life-in-a-box, elegantly wrapped, perfect and organized. It’s just not a neat and clean world. It has never been; it never will be for anyone!

In hindsight, I see that the difficulties we went through fostered a degree of independence in the children. While there was still oversight during my cancer years, there was a lot less than there would normally be. At the time, I felt like I was ruining their lives, and that I needed to put them back in school—bad option. Maybe I needed tutors—we couldn’t afford them. During this time, the children rose to the opportunity and took on increased ownership of their learning. We missed some things along the way, and I worried about future setbacks. Still, they owned their education and continued to make progress. It was hard. It took grit and tears at times, but the learning continued. One of the things that makes them successful college students and grad students is that they aren’t waiting for anyone to tell them what to do or how to do it. They know how to figure things out, adhere to schedules, and manage complexity.

There were other things, too, that built us. My son is a third-degree black belt in HapKiDo, and my daughter achieved her second-degree black belt. The week-in and week-out practice of little details mounted in thousands of tidbits of learning over several years that made them strong. They internalized tremendous amounts of information and body knowledge that made them very good in that sport. The same principles apply in learning any sport, musical instrument, or preparing for any competition. It isn’t about what discipline we chose to learn; it’s about the practice. Practice takes grit. We don’t always want to do it on a given day, but we rise to the demand and meet it head-on. Practice is repetitive. Practice can be boring. It is that ongoing stamina that teaches us how to hang in for the long-haul, and those same skills morph into other areas of our lives. College careers take years, and there can be large projects and papers. Jobs aren’t usually short-term. The cool thing about practice is that it normally involves something they choose. That makes it easier to push through when the desire wanes for a period. They learn the value of practice as they see the progression of skills.

I will always feel that one of the things we did right was to invest in scholastic competitions. I know there are mixed philosophies about the value of competition. But I know that getting into college is competitive. Applying for and getting a job is competitive. Progressing on a career path is competitive. In short, life is often competitive. We chose competitions as part of schooling our children because they compel them to dig deeper, and that is the stuff of grit. We did MathCounts, the science fair, Envirothon, speech, and debate. All of these involve practice and a year-after-year progression of skills. There is always a higher goal. People you do not know evaluate what you do and provide feedback. The science fair and debate drive learning how to research, write, and publicly present your ideas. Debate teaches you to listen well and think quickly on your feet. There is nothing you will do in life where these skills are not valuable. I’m not saying that you must compete or that you must do multiple competitions. What I am saying is that I now see the skills that have helped my children excel as they have left the nest, and many of those were rooted in competitions and the sheer grit of preparation. They have learned to work hard and to prepare well. That will serve them for a lifetime!

The other side of competitions is that they teach you how to fail. We don’t always win. When we fail, if we spend some time evaluating the competition, we learn what we can do better. There are tears and sadness in failure, but if the attitude is that of failing forward, the lessons learned through failure are usually deeply planted and launch us to higher levels. In our society, I’m not sure we value failure, yet, those who learn to embrace it tend to be very successful. I am often reminded of Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Failure teaches perseverance. Failure teaches success, but not if you don’t have the grit to see it through.

In the end, I’m not sure it’s what we learned, but rather, how we learned it. If you separate what from how, the what can be anything. It’s the how that prepares you for what life puts in your path. Teach your children the value of grit and struggle. Teach them to love learning and to work hard; these will teach them how to learn anything and to achieve their goals. In the end, if you teach these two things, when you, too, are looking in the rear-view mirror I believe you will have found your homeschooling journey to be a successful one!

Diane Helfrich is a retired homeschooler, and she enjoys being a lifelong learner. Her husband, David, works for the Department of the Army as a civilian. She and her husband have two children: Ian is in a Ph.D. program in Economics at Georgia Tech, and Anna is in the Honors College at George Mason University, majoring in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Diane serves on the NCHE board as secretary and as the region 8 liaison.