On Homeschooling and Patience

On Homeschooling and Patience

It happens all the time. I’m chatting with a new acquaintance who either doesn’t have kids or has kids who go to school. I mention that I homeschool. And nine times out of ten, my new acquaintance looks at me with awed disbelief, shakes his or her head, and declares, “I just wouldn’t have the patience for that.” 

They’re right that homeschooling has required a lot of patience. But I’m not always sure the kind of patience I’ve needed is the kind of patience they mean.

If they mean that homeschooling must demand the patience to prepare lesson plans and quizzes and sit by my children at the kitchen table to explain and drill until they’ve mastered their multiplication tables or the finer points of diagramming sentences or the names of all the presidents, well, I know a lot of homeschoolers do have that kind of patience, but I’m definitely not one of them. 

I don’t prepare lesson plans or give formal lessons. I don’t administer quizzes. I don’t explain things or answer questions in a way that would remotely look like schooling to most people. What I do is explain things and answer questions (and ask plenty of questions, too) in a way that mostly just looks like ordinary conversation. A whole lot of learning happens while my kids, husband, and I are all just talking—at the dinner table, doing the dishes together, on drives, out for a hike, at our local coffee shop.

So I may not have the kind of patience that a lot of people assume a homeschooling parent has to have. But I do agree that homeschooling has demanded that I call on all sorts of reserves of patience I never knew I possessed. So what kind of patience has homeschooling required of me?

For starters, it’s required the patience to wait for my kid to be ready to learn something I think is important for them to learn, instead of forcing them to learn on my timetable. It took a whole lot of patience to back off on pushing phonics readers when my kids were little so they could experience the joy and empowerment of figuring out how to read on their own terms, painlessly, through their love of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes comics. 

Homeschooling, at least the way we do it around here, has required the patience to trust that something that looks like a frivolous pursuit with no discernible academic benefits may actually be a worthwhile endeavor for my kid—maybe because it sparks my son’s imagination, maybe because it gives my daughter a way to figure out some puzzle or question that doesn’t necessarily interest me but is hugely compelling to her. Maybe just because it’s fun. As a homeschooler, I’ve learned to value fun, not just as a tool to make learning more palatable, but as an end in itself.

Homeschooling has required the patience to wait out the long, seemingly fallow periods when not much learning seems to be going on, when our daily routine seems a bit flat and dull, and to trust that if I keep offering my kids new experiences and keep strewing intriguing books and movies in their paths, they will keep learning and growing. It’s required the humility to see that not all the learning experiences in our house have to emanate from me (sigh: what a relief). It’s also required the patience to keep offering new experiences and suggesting cool things we could do or make or try, even if I get turned down again. And again. And again. And. . . You get the idea.

Some kinds of patience come easily to me. I find it relatively easy to be patient when I’m cooking with a child, for example. I’m willing for a cooking project to be slower and messier than usual because it’s so important to me for my child to feel welcome in the kitchen and to have good associations with cooking. I’m easy-going when spills happen, nonchalant about mistakes. It’s harder, for some reason, for me to be patient with setbacks when we’re doing crafts, maybe because deep down, I don’t value making crafts the way I value cooking.

Other kinds of patience are much harder for me, too. When my child gets frustrated over a task and wails, “I just can’t do it” or “It’s too hard,” it’s really, really difficult for me to muster the patience to make space and time for my child’s frustration. All sorts of critical voices harp in my head: He’ll never develop grit if you don’t push him to finish this. . . It’s your fault your kid gets so easily frustrated. . . She’ll never succeed with an attitude like that. . .

It takes a lot of patience, with myself and my child, to slow down and listen to my kids’ frustration and self-doubt without lecturing them about the value of persistence or rushing them to get back to work. Give them time, I have to gently remind myself. Let them express those frustrations and self-doubt. Encourage them to take breaks if they need to, without fearing that they’ll be quitters. Trust.

That word “trust.” It’s such an important one for me as a homeschooler and a parent. As a homeschooler who’s foregoing traditional curricula for the most part (yeah, like a lot of wannabe unschoolers, we use a math curriculum), I sometimes feel quite anxious about the path I’ve chosen. Are we doing enough? (That perpetual question!) Is what we’re doing setting my children up for happy, fulfilling lives? 

I recently expressed some of that anxiety to my fourteen-year-old son as we talked about how to approach his high school years. 

“It’s hard for me sometimes,” I explained, “not having you follow a prescribed course of study that clearly points to a defined outcome the way traditional high school does. It’s hard to trust that it’ll lead you where you need to go.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but if I spend my time doing things that interest me and that I like, don’t you think that will probably lead me where I need to go?”

Ah. Well, yes. Probably. I think back on all the time I myself wasted as a young person, trying to jump through hoops that adults set up for me, not spending nearly enough time asking, “Hey, wait a minute. How do I want to spend this life of mine?” 

Is my son on to something here? I can’t help thinking of Buddhist scholar Howard Thurman’s advice: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

For me, homeschooling has required the patience to trust that letting my kids pursue what makes them feel most alive may not always feel like enough, but it may be just the thing they really need.