My son Michael wasn’t all that thrilled to be homeschooled the first year we started. He gave me a month and then took matters into his own hands. He said we needed to set a schedule. We were doing something different every day! He wanted to have math at the same time followed by spelling (which I should be teaching, by the way) and then he wanted to go outside at 10:15 am. I said “sure,” and did my best to accommodate his desires because I was that kind of child-centered homeschooler. At the end of the first week I asked him why he was swinging so furiously on the swing set when he took his morning break. He hadn’t been interested in that for quite some time now.
Turns out, he’d surveyed the neighborhood kids who went to a “real” school and following a schedule was how they did things there. The best part of the day, they had reported, was recess. Mike probed deeper and found out what you do at recess is swing on the swings. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Mike was doing his best to be a “real” student so he could hold his own with his more conventionally-educated friends.
Many of us start our homeschool adventure with the same concerns my son Mike had. We want to be taken seriously, and we want others (including our spouse and children) to treat our homeschool as a “real” school, too. If you are anything like me, this can lead to a lot of angst and earnestness that puts undue pressure on us and fills the air with tension (just sayin’). Now with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight (my gang of four are all graduated—and they even have jobs!), I’m eager to pass along a few things I wish I’d known. It would have made the journey a bit more pleasant for all.
- There is a learning curve. My good friend, Marie, an experienced homeschooler, told me, “The first year’s the hardest. It gets easier after that.” I didn’t really believe her. I mean I was only tackling kindergarten back then. I couldn’t imagine that being harder than, say, high school physics. Now speaking from the other side of high school physics, Marie was right. Figuring out how to homeschool is really the toughest task of all. Tell your kids to expect the unexpected. In fact, the first years of homeschooling are really about finding out what doesn’t work. Ask any veteran, they’ll tell you, “Nobody does what they did the first year again!” So relax. Enjoy the process. That’s part of the fun. There isn’t just one way to homeschool your kids. You have a lot of options. It’s okay to try out a few different resources, schedules, philosophies, curricula, etc. until you finally settle into a groove. And just when you think you’ve found that groove, your kids’ needs will change; your family circumstances will shift; new options will come down the pike, and you’ll be on the upside of that learning curve again.
- Kids are resilient. Just in case you fear all this trial and error will mess up your kids, the good news is kids are pretty adaptable. Learning how to adjust and flex is an important life skill they are going to need in the future—you’re just giving them a head start. The best thing you can do is admit that you don’t have it all together. Ask your kids to pray for you. Mine let me know they were already on that when I suggested this source of comfort.
- You are going to skip something. And worse, it will be something really important. My twin sons enjoyed calling me from college their freshman year to report in on yet another news flash that would have been good to know! I told them thanks, and that I’d make sure their younger siblings benefited from their feedback. Seriously speaking, we are living in a world of rapid transformation. The skills and knowledge base our kids will need for their future lives is anybody’s guess. That’s why majoring on learning how to learn is the very best use of our time. My sons were teasing me when they called; they knew I was at home sweating bullets that first semester they were away at school. Fortunately, raising an independent learner had been a focus of our homeschool. And they just headed over to the library, searched online or visited their professors during office hours to get the information they needed to be successful.
Posture yourself as a fellow lifelong learner alongside your kids. Modeling a love for learning and taking joy in the process will be a powerful influence on your children’s attitudes toward education and the effort they put into it. It’s also the best backup plan to offset the effects of your inevitable failures and oversights.
- What’s the rush? You have a lot more time than you think. I was always in a hurry with my homeschooling, fueled by a nagging sense of falling behind. I see now that was just a cultural norm not rooted in reality. God has created an inner timetable for each child called development. And it is not the smooth trajectory we see drawn on the pediatrician’s charts. Our kids’ physical, psychological and cognitive growth moves forward in fits and starts often preceded by seasons of dormancy. Kids need time to ponder, to experiment, to rest and to play—even into their teenage years. That’s how their brains develop; that’s how they learn anything deeply. We support this God-designed process by filling our homes with books and resources that pique their curiosity, by building leisure into their schedule and by bringing a sense of playfulness to our homeschooling endeavors.
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- Enjoy the choices. A couple of decades ago, we didn’t have a lot of options. There were only a few curricula suppliers; co-operative activities for homeschoolers were non-existent; the Internet was in its infancy. Today, the challenge is sifting through all the choices available. There are any number of good phonics-based reading programs you can try; conventions are held in nearly every state with a full slate of speakers and a vendor hall filled with wares; support groups and co-ops in many towns offer monthly opportunities for parents and kids, and even those of us living remotely can find virtual classes and support online. For most of us, all these options are stress-inducing. We assume there is only right answer in each of these decisions, and we equate a choice that doesn’t work out well with failure. Not true. As long as we learn something from decisions we later need to abandon or tweak, our kids benefit from the process. It will help them become risk-takers themselves and give them a healthy attitude toward their own missteps and mess-ups.
- Don’t try this alone. I need my girlfriends, and I’m grateful the women I shared my homeschooling years with are still among my dearest friends. My kids are still close with the friends they made during our homeschooling years, too. I didn’t anticipate this side benefit to homeschooling. Find out where your local homeschool community is hanging out (in real time or online) and start networking like a pro. Your best advice is going to come from those in your neck of the woods. They’ll know the ins and outs of complying with state regulations; they can recommend the resources that have worked best for them; they can keep you abreast of all that’s happening in your area. Your kids will likely enjoy homeschooling more if they have their own network of support as well. So don’t let the curriculum enslave you. Seize opportunities to take field trips with others or join in some co-operative classes such as, a homeschool chorus, Spanish class or basketball team.
- Exploit the advantages of homeschooling. Don’t re-create conventional schooling in your home. There’s no need to. Homeschooling looks more like mentoring or tutoring. You don’t have to use materials created for a classroom of twenty kids—you can use your local library for a lot of stuff—and it is usually more engaging. Tests and quizzes don’t need to be the only method of evaluations. You have time for projects, papers and performances—the kinds of activities that kids will remember and value. Get out of the house and into the world; you have the time and freedom to explore. When I was a classroom teacher, I could only take one field trip a year with my students. With my own kids, we did a dozen or more a year. Some were pre-planned and carefully built into the curricula, but some of the best were on a whim often after catching a notice in the morning’s paper.
I enjoy asking my adult children what they remember most from our homeschooling years. They each take a shot at teasing me about the math program that flopped or the history lessons I skipped. But then they list the field trips, the projects, the friendships, the plays, the interesting people we met and the wonderful children’s literature we shared together. Their childhood friends from our homeschool community tell me the same. Homeschooling your kids will certainly give them a different education but it will be a “real” education, too.