Homeschooling isn’t always easy, but you’re probably doing a better job than you give yourself credit for.
When you hit a plateau, you don't always need to look for a way to hurry ahead to the next thing. Sometimes homeschooling is all about slowing down.
Because you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, you’re really doing this whole homeschool thing just fine
Here is the thing about homeschooling: Most of the time, it is a one-person job. Even if you rely on tutors, outside classes, and other resources that don’t require you to be hands-on every minute, you’re probably still the one coordinating all that activity. It’s usually still your responsibility. You are your own boss and your own employee—and in that space, it’s often all to easy to focus on all the things you are doing wrong.
Maybe you were short-tempered during math—which obviously means that your son will be permanently traumatized, never grasp fractions, fail to get into college, and end up living under a bridge, resenting you forever. Maybe you were burned out on small talk and decided to skip your kid’s favorite park day—which, of course, will prevent your child from being properly socialized and turn her into the stereotype of the awkward homeschooler and ensure that she never makes any friends and lives the rest of her life in bleak and lonely isolation. Maybe you just realized that your nine-year-old doesn’t know the days of the week—which, of course, means that this is just the tip of the iceberg and you’ve utterly failed him academically and who knows what other embarrassing and life-limiting gaps you’ve left lying around in his education? When you’re the one responsible for such a big undertaking, it’s way too easy to jump to the worst case scenario.
But the truth is, most of us are actually doing a pretty darn good job. Sure, we mess up. Definitely, we’re not perfect. But mostly and most of the time, we’re better than just good enough. If we had bosses, they’d give us glowing reviews and be impressed by just how much we actually get done every single week, all year long. (Because even when you take a break, you’re still a homeschooling parent.) Homeschooling is not an easy job, even when it’s a wonderful one—it requires a balancing act of intellectual curiosity, academic knowledge, heroic patience, gentle guidance, and intelligent problem-solving. And we do it! Sometimes, OK, we do it better than others, but we do it. And we should give ourselves more credit for that.
Your challenge this week: When you catch yourself spiraling into negative self-talk (“I should have done that,” or “How could I skip a whole week of science again?”), instead of dwelling on your shortcomings, force yourself to focus on one great thing you did. (“I picked such a great readaloud this week” or “I really handled that handwriting meltdown so well.”) Skip the caveats and second-guessing, and just pause to appreciate a place where you did a great job.
When Holly Rauser announced to her family that she would be homeschooling her first child, her mother was horrified.
“I only know one girl who was homeschooled, and she was weird,” Rauser’s mom protested.
“I know hundreds of people who went to public school or private school, and some of them are beyond weird,” Rauser retorted.
Looking back, Rauser—an etiquette coach who is working on developing a homeschool etiquette curriculum for teens—acknowledges that she might have been less confrontational. But like many homeschoolers, she found herself in a weird social situation where people felt comfortable making very personal comments about her choices. Homeschooling isn’t the weird, crunchy-granola or hyper-religious activity it once was (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it’s still not mainstream enough to be unremarkable. And just as strangers feel entitled to touch a pregnant woman’s burgeoning belly, they can feel entitled to weigh in on your homeschool choices and success. And sadly, even fellow homeschoolers aren’t immune from rude behavior.
There are etiquette books on everything from minding your manners on Twitter to throwing an engagement party, but homeschool etiquette is a brave new field. So we’ve turned to the experts to help sort out the best way to respond to everything from nosy questions to rude comments.
Your child tells a curious stranger she’s homeschooled, then gets hit with an impromptu quiz on multiplication tables or geography facts.
What you’d like to say: “Let’s see how you like pop quizzes. What’s the capital of Madagascar?”
What you should probably say: “You must have loved math when you were in school. Was that your favorite subject?”
Quizzing anyone who hasn’t signed up for your class is just plain rude, says etiquette expert Sue Fox, author Etiquette for Dummies. But the first rule of good manners is not to respond to rudeness with rudeness, so instead of getting snippy, deflect the question by turning it into a conversation, suggests Maralee McKee, an Orlando homeschool mom and author of the book Manners That Matter for Moms. “Ask them about the subject they bring up—people like to talk about what they know, so someone asking your child about the dates of the Korean War may be a history buff,” she says. “Instead of rebuffing that person, engage him.” If you’re quick-witted, humor can also defuse the situation. Saying something like “We usually do a little cardio before our quizzes” lets the question asker know that you’re not comfortable with the quizzing without making a big thing out of it.
Just as important as how you handle these stranger interrogations is how your child handles them. Very young kids can get away with saying “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” but as children get older, they should be able to deal with an unexpected pop quiz using the same bounce-back method you’d use. A smile and a laughing response like “I usually do better on written tests,” will not only refocus the conversation; it will also help dispel the notion that homeschoolers are socially awkward or academic automatons.
If your child does end up blindsided by a self-appointed quizmaster and can’t answer the questions, support him. If you catch the tail end of the conversation, shift the focus to one of your child’s strong points: “Next time, ask him about dinosaurs. He knows more about the Mesozoic Era than I do.” Otherwise, let your child know when you’re alone again that the quizzer was out of line and that his academic work is up to snuff as far as you’re concerned: “It’s really rude to put people on the spot like that. I would have felt really confused and frustrated if someone came up to me and started quizzing me. I’m not sure I would have been able to come up with answers off the top of my head either.”
Homeschooling is going great, but you’re tired of having to defend your educational choices. Every time you get together with your family, someone questions your decision to homeschool.
What you’d like to say: “What we do with our kids’ education is none of your business, so shut about it already!”
What you should probably say: “I’ve listened to you, and I really hear what you’re saying. I am glad you love our children so much that you worry about their wellbeing. But now, I need you to understand that I love them, too, and they are our children. You have to know that I would not do something that I did not believe with all my heart was best for them. And right now, what’s best for them is homeschooling. We have made our decision.”
You can’t really fault a grandmother—or an aunt, or a brother-in-law—for caring enough about your children to express an opinion. After all, you want your family to care about your kids. “But ultimately, they’re your children, and you’re the one who is responsible for deciding what is best for them,” says McKee. Unlike rude strangers, who are best rebuffed by distraction, dealing with family etiquette blunders is something you should tackle directly.
Start by doing one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do: Just listen. Let your mother-in-law obsess about the perils of non-school socialization, let your dad worry that your weak math skills will make it impossible for you to teach your children math, let your sister obsess about how hard it will be for your kids to get into college. Resist the urge to counter with facts or opinions of your own—just listen. When your mother-in-law is done expressing her concerns—and only then—calmly and simply explain your own perspective: “You know, I was worried about socialization, too, but I find that my kids have even more opportunities to socialize with other kids now that we’re homeschooling and they aren’t stuck behind a desk all day,” or “I definitely hope my kids will be better at math than I am. That’s why I’m using this really great program that walks us through everything step by step. If we ever reach a point where I feel like I can’t teach them, there are some great homeschool math classes I can sign them up for.” Don’t get into too many details; you want to address the concern without falling into the trap of justifying your choices, explains McKee.
It’s unlikely that whatever you say—however intelligently reasoned or expressed—will change your mother-in-law’s mind about homeschooling. Like politics or religion, homeschooling can bring out strong opinions that aren’t easily shaken. You don’t have to change your dad’s mind—and good manners dictates that you shouldn’t even try, says McKee. Instead, you should focus on making him feel like his concerns matter to you, even if you don’t agree with him. Let him know you’ve heard what he has to say and care about it, but you’ve made your own decision. Then, resist the urge to get pulled back in. If the topic comes up again, say “I know you feel that way, Dad, but we’ve made our decision.”
If your family member just won’t let it drop, you’ll need to take a firmer position. (It’s best for the person who’s directly related to the worrier to handle this since these conversations can be tricky, says McKee.) Say, “I understand that you don’t understand our decision. But I ask that you respect it.” Repeat this whenever the topic comes up, and eventually you’ll quell the commentary. And take heart: While your words may never convince your mother-in-law you’re doing the right thing, your results may win her over in time. Rauser spent years asking her family not to second-guess her decision to homeschool. “Now my mom is proud to announce that her grandchildren were homeschooled because they turned out so well,” Rauser says.
You’re having a perfectly nice conversation with another mom on the playground when you mention that you homeschool. “Oh, wow, I could never be around my kids all day,” she says.
What you’d like to say: “I could never be around your kids all day either.”
What you should probably say: “I love the new landscaping they’ve done by the pavilion. Are those tulips?”
When another mom makes a comment like this, your immediate response is to feel embarrassed and flustered. Are you weird because you don’t mind hanging out with your kids all day? Is she weird because she can’t imagine hanging out with her own kids all day? Before you start stammering an apologetic explanation about how homeschoolers have hard days, too, take a deep breath. When someone makes a comment like this, she’s not usually looking for a response at all, says Rauser. If you smile and change the subject, you’ll defuse the moment before it even has a chance to become awkward.
If ignoring her comment feels too rude, McKee recommends acknowledging the other mom’s perspective without going into lots of details about your own. Say, “Well, there are some days where I would agree with you, but for the most part, it’s a pleasure.” Then switch the subject. While you may feel like this mom is putting you on some kind of Super Mommy pedestal, if you try to respond to her comment with a lengthy explanation of how great your kids are or an uneasy treatise on your failings as a mom, you’ll make both of you uncomfortable. Treat comments like this as off-hand remarks that require minimal response on your part, and you’ll be able to continue your conversation comfortably.
You mention to someone that your kids are homeschooled, and he immediately asks, “Why do you homeschool?”
What you’d like to say: “None of your business!”
What you should probably say: “Why do you ask?”
Some homeschoolers want to shout their educational choices from the rooftops, but for other families, the decision to homeschool may be more personal. Knowing why someone is asking you about homeschooling is the key to answering this question politely, says McKee. “People who are just being nosy deserve a minimalist answer—‘It just feels like the right thing for our kids for right now,’ is true and nonspecific—but you may be surprised by people’s reasons for asking and want to give a different answer.” McKee speaks from experience: More than once, a stranger has asked her reasons for homeschooling only to admit that she’s considering homeschooling herself.
“This is one of those situations where you can really be an ambassador for homeschooling,” says McKee. “Someone might have a good reason for asking, and you might be able to help point them in the right direction.” And if someone’s just prying? Well, you can smile and give a brief answer before changing the subject.
Remember that old adage, comparison is the thief of joy? We’ve all heard it. Heck, we may have even used that line on our own children at time or two.
Yet, have you ever thought to yourself in regards to homeschooling: Am I doing enough? Are my kids going to be okay? Have you ever heard an offhand comment by a schooled friend, or even another homeschooler, and thought to yourself: Oh my goodness, my child hasn’t learned that! I am not doing enough! I’m betting you have had those thoughts; I’ve been around the block enough to know that most homeschoolers feel like that at one time or another.
The why is obvious when we stop and think about it: we are so in the thick of it. We are so daily confronted, obviously and nakedly, by a struggling reader or a child who has yet to grasp simple algebra. And when the fear and self-doubt start to seep in, it’s easy to ask ourselves, and really mean it: Can I fix this? Am I up to this task?
And then, accompanying those nagging fears, are those Neighbor McPerfect types. Their children all play soccer, receive perfect grades, and every one of those little buggars takes part in academic summer enrichment activities; and no one at their house seems much worried about hitting certain benchmarks by a certain time because they all surpassed the benchmarks earlier than anyone else in their class. Their children are all college bound, not because its where they necessarily belong, but because it is the next rung on the ladder of how to do life. There is a neat, tidy bow wrapped so perfectly around their lives that it almost makes you want to weep with feelings of inadequacy.
Yes, ’tis true, comparison is the thief of joy.
Take a breath and pause for a minute. Why do you homeschool? Take some time— a lot of it if it’s needed— and remind yourself what you’re about.
Of course our homeschooled kids aren’t exact replicas of their schooled peers. Call me crazy, but isn’t that pretty much exactly why we do this? In all honestly, if we cared about following the traditional formula of doing life right, our kids wouldn’t have come home from a traditional school in the first place. No, they’d be in school. Where, I might add, our struggling reader would still be struggling to read, but instead of receiving one-on-one, positive attention in a place where it’s safe to fail, she would likely struggle to hide her perceived inadequacies from her peers.
That kid that just isn’t getting algebra? They’d not be understanding it in school either, and unlike at school, at home you have the option to change the approach you’re using, or buy a different curriculum. You can even shut the algebra book for a bit knowing that when you come back to it, your child’s brain will likely be ready to make sense of what was confusing before.
So why do we compare ourselves (or, let’s be honest, our kids) to our (their) peers? Why do we let ourselves feel so very badly that the very outcomes we wanted (independent thinkers! individualized learning!) are the outcomes we get?
The reality is we all maybe kind of want to parent that child that wins the national spelling bee. That child so very obviously excels at something, and it is so easy to defend homeschooling and demonstrate its efficacy. But the child who struggles to read in third grade? Has homeschooling failed her? On our worst days we maybe kind of believe that it might have.
What if though, instead of examining the minutia of our homeschooling successes and failures, we instead examined what we are all climbing toward? Schools don’t have a monopoly on getting it right. So what if your local public school requires memorization of multiplication factors in third grade? If your gaze is focused on your academic end goals, you might more clearly see that a love of math is more important long term to the child you see mathematical promise in than getting those times tables memorized at the assigned time. A focus that has its sites set on the academic finish line might more clearly see the value in a child forgetting to do her geometry lesson because she was so wrapped up with her charcoal pencils and her sketchbook. Why is it worse to learn basic geography solely through computer games while never picking up a geography text? Is the knowledge less real because it wasn’t absorbed through textbook and lecture?
It’s not that the way schools do things is necessarily wrong. For many kids those ways work well, and we, like so many of you, do use a lot of traditional things in our homeschool. But my point is this: please don’t allow yourself to get bogged down in the mire. Every parent experiences self-doubt when it comes to their kids, even the ones who are doing it the traditional way. Second-guessing ourselves just means we care about the outcome; it doesn’t validate our doubts.
If you simply must compare a child to someone, compare him against himself. Can he do more today than he could yesterday? Is she an inquisitive soul who last year knew more than you ever imagined a person could know about every dog breed on the planet, and yet continues to learn more in her free time? Can your struggling reader read more today than yesterday? When comparing by those metrics, which are the only ones that matter, there is no joy stealing from the comparison. In fact, I would wager that by those measurements, your child looks pretty darn good, just as they ought.
Comparison can be the thief of joy. . . but only if you let it. I hope you won’t.
Once upon a time, homeschoolers were more likely to turn to traditional schools when high school rolled around—fewer than 17 percent of the 210,000 homeschooled kids reported by the U.S. Department of Education in 2001 were high school students. There are lots of reasons parents may choose not to homeschool their teens through high school, but don't let false fear be one of them.
Myth: High school is too difficult for the average parent to teach.
Fact: You don’t have to teach everything.
In many ways, homeschooling high school can be much simpler than the early years because your teen is capable of independent study. Just be honest with yourself: What are you capable and willing to teach, and what do you need to outsource? Maybe you love the thought of digging deeper into history, but the prospect of teaching trig makes you want to break out in a cold sweat. Outsource subjects you don’t want to tackle—co-op classes, tutors, community college, online classes are all great options. As your student advances, your job will shift from teacher to educational coordinator—listening to him and guiding his class choices and extracurricular activities to prepare him for the college or whatever post-high school path he's interested in. It also means keeping track of classes for his transcript, staying on top of testing deadlines for standardized and achievement tests, and helping him start to hone in on the best people to ask for letters of recommendation.
Myth: Homeschoolers can’t take Advanced Placement (AP) tests.
Fact: Homeschoolers can take AP tests—whether they take official AP classes or not.
AP is a brand-name—like Kleenex or Band-Aid—which means the College Board gets to decide whether or not you can call your child’s course an AP class. (The College Board has a fairly straightforward process for getting your class syllabus approved on their website, and few homeschoolers run into problems getting their class approved.) You can build your own AP class using the materials and test examples on the College Board website and call the class “Honors” or “Advanced” on your transcript—and your child can take the AP test in that subject as long as you sign him up on time and pay the test fee. (Homeschoolers have to find a school administering the test willing to allow outside students, which may take some time. You’ll want to start calling well before the deadline.) If you’re nervous about teaching without an official syllabus, you can sign up for an online AP class or order an AP-approved curriculum. And remember: just because you take an AP class doesn’t mean you have to take the test.
Myth: It’s hard for homeschoolers to get into college.
Fact: Homeschooled kids may actually be more likely to go to college than their traditionally schooled peers.
This myth may have been true 20 years ago, but not anymore. Researchers at the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) found that 74 percent of homeschooled kids between age 18 and 24 had taken college classes, compared to just 46 percent of non-homeschoolers. In fact, many universities now include a section on their admission pages specifically addressing the admissions requirements for homeschooled students. In 1999, Stanford University accepted 27 percent of its homeschooled applicants—twice the rate for public and private school students admitted at the same time. Brown University representative Joyce Reed says homeschoolers are often a perfect fit at Brown because they know how to be self-directed learners, they are willing to take take risks, they are ready to tackle challenges, and they know how to persist when things get hard.
Myth: You need an accredited diploma to apply to college.
Fact: You need outside verification of ability to get into college.
Just a decade or so ago, many colleges didn’t know what to do with homeschoolers, and an accredited diploma helped normalize them. That’s not true anymore. (In fact, you may be interested to know that not all public high schools are accredited—only 77 percent of the high schools in Virginia, for example, have accreditation.) What you do want your child’s transcript to reflect is non-parent-provided proof of academic prowess. This can come in the form of graded co-op classes, dual enrollment courses at your local college, SAT or ACT scores, awards, etc. Most colleges are not going to consider whether your child’s high school transcript was accredited or not when deciding on admissions and financial aid.
Myth: A portfolio is superior to a transcript.
Fact: The Common App makes transcripts a more versatile choice.
Portfolios used to be the recommended way for homeschoolers to show off their outside-the-box education, but since more and more schools rely on the transcript-style Common Application, portfolios have become a hindrance. (Obviously, portfolios are still important for students studying art or creative writing, where work samples are routinely requested as part of the application process.) In some ways, this format is even easier to manage than a portfolio—you can record high school-level classes your student took before 9th grade and college courses he took during high school in convenient little boxes. And don’t worry that your student won’t be able to show what makes him special: The application essay remains one of the best places to stand out as an individual. Some schools even include fun questions to elicit personal responses: The University of North Carolina, for instance, asks students what they hope to find over the rainbow.
Myth: Homeschooled kids don’t test well.
Fact: On average, homeschoolers outperform their traditionally schooled peers on standardized tests.
All that emphasis on test prep in schools doesn’t seem to provide kids with a clear advantage come test time. Homeschooled students score 15 to 30 percentile points above the national average on standardized achievement tests regardless of their parents’ level of education or the amount of money parents spend on homeschooling. That includes college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT. Research compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics shows that homeschoolers scored an average 1083—67 points above the national average of 1016—on the SAT in 1999 and an average 22.6 (compared to the national average of 21.0) on the ACT in 1997. This doesn’t mean these tests aren’t important—good scores can open academic doors—but it does mean you may not have to worry about them as much you’d thought.
Myth: Homeschooled kids are not prepared for college.
Fact: Homeschooled kids adapt to college life better than their traditionally schooled peers.
This one always makes me laugh. Homeschooled kids probably have more hands-on life experience than their traditionally schooled counterparts. Homeschooled kids are usually more active in their communities, and because homeschooling is a family affair, they are more likely to have everyday life skills—the ones you need to make lunch for yourself or comparison shop for a tablet. Homeschooled teens also tend to be active participants in their own education, figuring out ways to manage their time and workload with their social lives long before they start college. Most importantly, they are able to interact and work with people of different ages, backgrounds, and cultures in a positive way, which is really the most important life skill of all. Perhaps that’s why homeschoolers are more likely to graduate from college (66.7 percent of homeschoolers graduate within four years of entering college, compared to 57.5 percent of public and private school students) and to graduate with a higher G.P.A. than their peers. Homeschoolers graduate with an average 3.46 G.P.A., compared to the average 3.16 senior G.P.A. for public and private school students, found St. Thomas University researcher Michael Cogan, who compared grades and graduation rates at doctoral universities between 2004 and 2009.
This article was originally published in the spring 2014 issue of home | school | life, and we’re reprinting it online in 2016.
One of the hardest things about homeschooling is that there’s no report card at the end of year telling you how you’re doing. We tend to chalk up our successes to good luck or fortuitous timing and to take all the blame for every challenge we run into. But chances are, you’re doing better with this whole homeschool thing than you think you are. These six signs are all indicators that you’re on the right track—and we think that’s something you should celebrate with pride.
You’re happy to start your day.
One of the best signs that you’re doing just fine as a homeschooler is that you like doing it. Sure, there are bad days—but if for the most part, you’re upbeat, energetic, and excited about the prospect of a new homeschool day, there’s a good chance your homeschooling reflects that.
You’re always surprised by lunchtime.
Time drags when things are hard, but the hours seem to fly by when everything is going well. If lunchtime manages to get the jump on your and your kids most days, that’s a sign that you’re all really engaged in what you’re doing—which is a sign that your homeschool is a productive, positive place.
You’ve gotten comfortable with moving past mistakes, wrong turns, and things that just aren’t working.
You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to try curriculum materials that don’t work, classes that feel like curses, and being too strict about something that turns out to be not all that important. When you’ve hit your stride as a homeschooler, you’ll be able to recognize your mistakes, own them, and move on, a little wiser.
You find yourself taking a new homeschooler under your wing.
A sure sign you feel confident about how you’re doing as a homeschooler: You’re willing to share your experiences and insight with other people. When this happens, you’ve become an expert—maybe not in homeschooling in general but certainly in your particular homeschool.
It’s sometimes hard to plan your days—not because you don’t know what to do but because there are so many things you want to do that you don’t know where to start.
When your to-do list is so exciting that it’s actually a pleasure, you know you’ve figured out a system that’s really working for you. Yes, it may turn out that you can’t actually do all the things you’d like to—but that’s a much happier challenge than feeling like there’s nothing you want to do.
You don’t feel the need to defend homeschooling every time someone makes a rude comment about it.
It’s very human to feel defensive when you’re still figuring things out—and some comments deserve a reasoned rebuttal. But as you grow more confident as a homeschooler, you’ll realize that you don’t have to engage with every misinformed stranger you meet. Sometimes, you just smile and walk away.
Fear is a normal part of life; and can certainly be a part of homeschooling. Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Are we out of the house too often? Are my children learning all they need to be learning? Is my teen going to be ready to move out and live on his own? You get the idea.
Most of us have these moments of uncertainty and fear. Right? They’re especially common when you first step onto the homeschooling path, but, to be honest, mine still pop up from time to time, even though I’ve been at this for 18 years. While I’m confident in our decision to homeschool, and love the life we’ve created around our homeschooling journey, I still have to be mindful and notice when fear starts creeping in.
The funny thing about these homeschooling fears, is that most of them aren’t based on the “truth of what is” in this moment, but instead are worries about the future – things that haven’t happened yet; things that might never happen. So why do we put energy towards that?
Now, when I talk about fears here, I don’t mean the very real fears that come from living in a crazy, sometimes dangerous world. I’m talking about fears and anxiety directly related to the homeschooling path. These fears, I believe, come from a space of “not enough.” These fears come from comparison.
When we look at our children and ourselves where we are in each moment, with clear eyes, and open heart, we can accept where we are without fear. But when we start comparing our homeschooling, and our kids, with others—either schooled-kids or other homeschoolers or even to ourselves when we were their age—we open ourselves up to fear.
During my own moments of deep anxiety, I’ve found myself awake at 3 in the morning, heart pounding, mind racing, not really worried about where my boys are right now, but worried about where they’ll be in the future. What if my little one never learns to read? (His brother was reading by this age.) What if he hates learning new things and he goes through life barely able to have an intelligent conversation? What if my teen never becomes a good driver or never wants to cook for himself? What if he never learns to balance his checkbook and pay bills? (When I was his age I was already working and had a car payment, and made most of my own meals.)
I know, in my rational mind, that these particular fears are self-created, and stem from my own insecurities about my role as homeschooling mom, and my own expectations around who I want my children to be. They are based on what-ifs, not what-is. Fortunately, I’ve gotten better over the years at recognizing this and learning how to move past the anxiety. I’ve even started to figure out how to use my worries and fears for good, instead of letting them keep me awake at night.
What I’ve come to realize is that, in certain situations, fear can be useful. It tells us to run or fight when danger is near. It can prompt us to stop what we’re doing and try something new. Unfortunately, most of the time our fears just keep us stuck. Fear keeps us in our head and out of the present moment. And it can be damaging to our relationships with our children, who most definitely pick up on our fears and anxiety, even if we never talk about it with them. In fact, research has shown that parents with high levels of anxiety tend to have children with high levels of fear and anxiety. And none of us want that.
So what can we do, and teach our children to do, to let go of these fears when they arise? Here is what works for me:
- Bring focus to the fear. Don’t fight it or try to distract yourself from it. Instead, take a moment to stop what you’re doing and really look at it.
- Trace the fear back to its source. What is the fear really about? Do you really believe your child will not be reading when he’s an adult? Are you truly worried that you’ve made the wrong choice? Or is it something else? Where does the fear originate?
- Look at it without attachment. Once you stop and examine the fear, and trace it to its source, try to sit with it without attachment. Say to yourself, “I am feeling fear,” not “I am afraid.” Notice the feeling in your body. But don’t judge the feeling or identify with it. See it as a temporary state.
- Turn to the breath. Following the breath can calm the nervous system. First, notice the breath flowing in, and notice the breath flowing out. If you’d like to take it further, you can do a four-count breath: breath in, deeply, for a count of four; hold the breath in for a count of four; exhale, deeply, for a count of four; and hold the breath out for a count of four. Repeat as needed.
- Write it out. Once you have examined the fear and calmed your mind, you may find it useful to create a list of possible actions, scenarios, and outcomes, related to your fear. For example, if you’re worried that your teen will never learn to drive well, make a list of ways he can get more practice. What can he do on his own? And what are ways you can help? And then make a list of options related to the idea that he may never be a good driver or even want to drive. Uber. Taxis. Public transportation. Walking. Biking. These are all viable options that can be included. Whatever your parenting or homeschooling fear is at the moment, coming up with an action plan and also seeing alternate outcomes to your expectations can be tremendously helpful.
- Finally, focus on the great things about your homeschooling and your children. What are the things you are doing right? What are the things your children love? Find the joy in your relationships. Find the joy in your homeschooling. This could make a wonderful list too. Maybe you can add to it every day to help keep the fears at bay.
A teacher once told me that the opposite of fear is love. I like to think of it as joy. While fear keeps us stuck in our comfort zones, limiting our views of the world, joy opens us up to new possibilities. Joy helps us see the awesomeness in our every day activities and relationships. It creates flow in our lives and homes.
Becoming fearless doesn’t mean never being afraid. It just means being able to move beyond our fears into a space of openness. It means showing our children that it’s ok to risk, and fail, and try again. That it’s OK to change course. Learning to navigate our own fears and anxieties in our homeschooling, and in our lives, helps us build connections with our children and the world around us. And that’s why we homeschool, isn’t it?
So what are you afraid of? And how do you work through those fears?
When I was young, there were a lot of homeschooling parents who would brag about the chapter books their children were reading and how many grade levels ahead they were. I wasn’t reading yet, and my mother — feeling somewhat overwhelmed I’m sure — repeated for years, “She’ll learn to read when she’s ready.” It became a mantra of sorts, in the face of surrounding pressure. When she’s ready, she’ll learn.
My mother was right, of course. I was growing up in a very literate household, and without any learning disabilities. By the time I was 10, I was reading at least as well as my same-age peers. Surrounded by other parents who were very pleased to have poster children, my mother had resisted outside pressure and held true to her beliefs in natural learning.
When my family shifted more into unschooling-friendly circles, we started seeing less comparing of children to each other within the community. But holding up unschooling poster children — and poster young adults — to those new to or outside of the unschooling community seems every bit as common.
The message seems clear: In the face of widespread misunderstanding and criticism, we have something to prove — and the best way to prove it is to show how spectacularly impressive unschoolers can be.
I get the drive behind it. It’s hard to be such a small group doing something so unconventional, and it can be easy to feel a ton of pressure to prove the validity of our choices.
But, it can be really hard being one of those teens and young adults who are held up as examples, and even more difficult for the ones who end up feeling they don’t measure up to poster child status.
What success means is pretty subjective. In our culture it generally boils down to college degrees, a “good” job, money, prestige… Unschoolers often add some less conventional items, like traveling the world or starting a business, to the list. But whatever judgements are used, I think all young adults feel a lot of pressure to prove themselves capable adults. When you’re coming from an unschooling background, not only do you have something to prove personally, but suddenly you’ve become a stand-in for all unschoolers, a metric by which to judge the worth of an entire educational philosophy and group of people. Any success is seen as proof that maybe unschooling has some merit to it — and any failure? Well, that’s seen as proof that unschooling is a really bad idea to start with.
With that type of pressure coming from outside the community, it can feel especially hard to have that pressure coming from within the community as well.
I sort of accidentally fell into the role of unschooling example. When I first started writing my blog I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write. I never knew it would end up being so popular or lead to conference engagements and some level of notoriety in alternative education circles.
It’s a position that I sometimes feel very proud of, and that, at other times, makes me kind of uncomfortable. I love that my existence and my writing can help people see how valuable unschooling can be, but at the same time, I want to be looked at as just me, and to be representative only of my own life.
I want what I think we all want, no matter our education: to be seen as a unique individual with my very own aspirations and goals and experiences. I want my successes to be celebrated, and I want support and encouragement when I fail.
As a community, school-free learners want greater recognition and understanding. I want this as well, and have chosen to do what I can to advance that cause. But I also want each and every homeschooler and unschooler to be seen primarily as themselves, not as products of a philosophy, whether it’s believed to be good or bad.
As I wrote in a post last year:
I just hope, as unschoolers, we can hold tight to our shared value of appreciating learning for learning’s sake, whether it’s big or small, sung from the stages of a national singing competition, or curled up in a comfy chair in a nondescript house reading about Arthurian legends or the history of comics.
The goal should never be raising children who are impressive. It should be, instead, about nurturing and celebrating each individual, no matter who they are.
“Nooooooo!” he shouted, a fearful tone in his squeaky voice.
If you read my last installment, you will know that when my five-year-old son and I discuss what we’re doing each day, he sometimes sees the glass as half empty. But this wasn’t one of those times. Today we would be seeing friends he’d been asking to see for weeks. Today we would be going to a place he loves: a skate park and playground halfway along a bridge that crosses the bay. Until recently, he’d ask me every day whether we could go to that skate park. We go there a lot!
I was surprised at his reaction. This wasn’t a complaint. He explained, “I’m frightened of going there!” You see, partway along the bridge, the road lifts up to allow boats to pass through. A loud siren sounds, barriers come down, red flashing lights warn everyone that the bridge is about to open…. In the many years since it was built, it has never once swallowed anyone up. But still, it is a little disconcerting to have the ground that was, only moments ago, beneath your feet form a great chasm and lift into the air.
I remembered that the last few times we’d visited the bridge park, my little boy expressed worries about falling through into the fathomless sea below. The last time we went, he crossed over with his eyes closed, while I led the way. Today his fears peaked, and he asked plaintively, “Please can we not go there?”
Children are frightened of all sorts of things. It’s understandable. The world is large and they are only small. If you can’t swim, the prospect of falling into a grey, churning sea is terrifying. Come to think of it, even if you can swim it’s pretty scary.
When my eldest was very young, mannequins were high on her list of fears. Spiders; the wind; sudden, loud noises; sleeping alone; the creaking of the radiators as the heating kicks on; the dark—all of these have been my children’s fears at one time or another. With my first child I didn’t know that I couldn’t logic her out of her fears. I didn’t know that I couldn’t convince her to let go of fear and be brave. I didn’t know that I couldn’t just explain that the mannequins wouldn’t move and haunt her with their empty eyes (even though I wasn’t really sure of that myself, you know). I tried all of those things, and still she cried. Still she clung to me.
Today my son’s older sister felt frustrated with him. She’s grown out of many of her fears, and the prospect of missing out on seeing friends was too much for her. “Oh, stop being silly! It’ll be fine.” Her reaction was all too familiar. From the experience of saying similar things in the past, I knew it wouldn’t work. “Ugh. You always ruin everything!” she raged. And although I’ve never said those words to my son, I have certainly experienced the exasperation of having to go to considerable lengths to work around the fears of a small child.
Fortunately, we can be completely flexible in our plans. So, sure, let’s go somewhere else. Fortunately, our friends are flexible too, and they were happy to change the location of our meet-up. Everyone was happy.
Two summers ago my family went for a camping holiday on a remote and beautiful Scottish island. We did a lot of hiking, and on one such hike, the steady wind picked up to be gale force strength. We walked along a hillside, the land sloping steeply and dramatically down into the dangerous blue and white swells of the angry Atlantic Ocean. It’s not only children who have fears. I, too, have fears. I am frightened of cliffs, of falling into the sea, of my children being dragged off a hillside by a strong wind. Normally I am able to use coping mechanisms to get through my fear and enjoy a hike. That day, the wind was too strong, the ocean too threatening, my children too small and vulnerable… and I… I realized I was impotent in the face of such forces of nature. As the wind picked up speed, tears wicked from my cheeks. I knelt with shaking legs, and pressed my body to the hillside. Beneath my tear-stained cheek, tiny blades of grass and resilient flowers shook as my body spasmed in fear. “Just get them to lower ground,” I shouted. Paralysed with fear, ashamed of what my children were witnessing, my dry mouth clamped shut and I cried.
Minutes passed slowly as the wind whistled and gusted around my bare head. After taking the children to safety, my sure-footed husband returned to me, knelt beside me and uttered soothing words. So close I could feel the warmth of his humid breath on my ear, he told me everything would be fine, to just crawl down the hillside toward the valley. I could take my time. The children were fine. Gradually, I moved. I crawled down the hill, shielding my peripheral vision from the sea’s threatening breakers and made it to the valley. My children hugged me. They offered me chocolate. They told me they were fine and I would be too.
Nothing they could have said would have stopped me from feeling afraid. They didn’t tell me I was being silly. They didn’t explain why my fears were irrational. They accepted me and respected me and reassured me. They knew that, just like my son and his fear of the bridge that opens, I might get over my fear one day, or I might not.
Because, as with so many things, the antidote to fear is love.
My son spends a lot of time on his computer. And when I say a lot, I mean hours… and hours… and sometimes even more hours at a time. Experts would more than likely advise that he is spending way more time than is healthy playing video games, watching YouTube programs, and being in front of a screen, in general. I’ve learned to blow those experts off, for the most part. I know that they mean well, but I’m certainly not convinced that the problems they claim exist by letting a kid have too much screen time, are actually problems when that kid is given unlimited access (without judgment) to the computers/game consoles/electronic gadgetry of his choice.
I actually contemplated a technology-free lifestyle when my kids were little. I liked the idea of all-natural toys, a focus on outdoor play, and reliance on imagination over television and electronics. There was one big obstacle, however. My husband and I both really enjoy activities that involve electronics, screens of many kinds, and new-fangled gadgets, in general.
So our family ended up taking a little different path. My desk soon had two computers. My kids had the option of working alongside me, or going out to play, or doing any of the myriad of activities they spent their time doing, pretty much any time and for as long as they wished. My kids reached for a keyboard and a mouse probably as often as they reached for building blocks and crayons.
It wasn’t a perfect system. I’d be lying if I claimed I never worried about it, but any effort I ever made to control screen time only served to make it a more valuable commodity. If I placed time limits, for instance, I could be sure that each kid demanded they receive their maximized time each day. With no limits, they might spend a lot of time playing a video game, but they might also go for days without spending any time on the computer at all.
Another approach? Join in their screen-time games.
As my children became savvy consumers of video games, websites, movies, and the endless varieties of media now out there, I came to rely on them to educate me. Instead of worrying that they were spending countless hours playing a Harry Potter video game, I sat down with them and had them teach me how to play. I was actually quite bad at it, but my son, at six, was satisfied with my skill level. The girls tackled the game together, making it all the way to the end (where they conquered Voldemort – yay!) weeks before my son and I got there. And yes, I found myself obsessing over the game, and together we spent hours playing, side-by-side—learning, improving, and having tons of fun together.
My son and I still reminisce about that Harry Potter video game. It was a good time of bonding for us. And he went on to spend several years where his interest in all things computer/video waxed and waned as often as the moon in the sky. There was summer when he was nine when my son spent hours, day after day, baking bread. Weird, I know, but he did it. And I gained ten pounds because, honestly, he soon made bread better than anyone else in the family.
The idea of spending each hour of a day focusing on a new and different subject is as foreign to my son as having to ask permission to go to the bathroom. He totally gets the state of flow, and I have learned to measure his subject interest by weeks and months rather than worrying about it moment to moment.
When he plugged in to his most recent video game/computer habit, about three years ago now, I was under the assumption that it would last for a season and then he’d move on to something else, as had been his pattern. His attention span is getting longer, however.
We saw a level of commitment to computer games that I had not imagined possible. He was playing them from beginning to end. He began researching the new games, and following the industry the way I might follow the local news or developments affecting Kansas farmers markets (of which I am a manager). He began writing reviews of his own experiences playing games and he experimented with recording his own video game playing YouTube channel.
My son’s interest grew into a desire to create, and so he forayed into programming. His computer, for which he saved his own money and purchased by unassembled pieces, he built from the motherboard up. It has become a tool for his life that goes well beyond the video game realm. Via an online program, he now works on learning Italian every day. His favorite games are on the subject of nation-building and he spends a considerable amount of time now reading the actual histories of the places and people he encounters in these games. He puts both my husband and I to shame when it comes to knowledge of world geography. He knows the chronological order of dynasties and dictators, world leaders and world wars. The historical and geographical subjects he is fluent in at the age of 14 are far beyond anything I encountered even in college.
And just when I began to worry that he wasn’t seeing enough (literal) light of day, he picked up a bicycling habit to get himself around town and an O’Dark-thirty workout routine that includes sit-ups, push-ups, and timed aerobic exercise. (There may be a girl influencing things here, but I’m going to remain happy in my denial. I’m not prepared to write that essay, just yet.)
It’s true, my son spends a lot of time on his computer, and I can’t imagine, at this point, how much damage I might have done had I insisted on only one hour, only once a day…
Can kids be trusted to moderate their own time, even when that time involves screens and electronics? Do we have the same worry when they dive headlong into books? Do we obsess if they spend hours outdoors, watching ants crawl across the garden gate or collecting sticks to build a fort?
I think my son is evidence that children can be trusted to choose their own screen time, and to indulge in it when and how they please. It doesn’t mean that they will 100-percent make wise choices, or that they’ll always be drawn toward studying subjects we immediately recognize and value as adults.
But if we are going to trust them, we have to trust them all the way. Trust and find the balance, but don’t sit in judgment about time wasted. If all you can see is time wasted playing a video game, force yourself to look a little closer. They need our engagement, as well as our permission to engage. They need us to believe that even though it may be okay to prod them in another direction for a while; it is also okay to follow their lead. Our doubts, our worries, are only going to impede the natural flow of things.
I haven’t done it perfectly. I’ve let the experts and their advice get in the way more times than I care to count. But I’m here to tell you, that even if they do play video games all day, it is not the end of the world. It’s just the beginning, most likely. Perhaps a world you don’t understand or have little experience in, but it’s a valid world to be in, nonetheless.
You can spend your entire homeschool life second-guessing yourself — or you can trust yourself (and your kids) to get where you need to go.
We hear this advice a lot. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” It sounds easy, but it’s not, and part of this is because when we’re worried about something, it doesn’t feel small. It feels big and important. In that moment, it may be.
You could try what I do. I ask myself: “In twenty years, will this matter?” That does help sometimes, but when it comes to homeschooling my children, the answer to that question isn’t as straightforward.
- If my son doesn’t learn to read, will that matter in twenty years? You bet!
- If I can’t find or create the perfect lesson plans, will that affect my child’s chances of getting into college? Gulp.
- If my son starts to talk back to me at the age of seven, are we going to be at odds when he’s an adult? (Holding back tears.)
When it comes to our children, how can we not worry? No one tells you before you have your first baby that having a child is like pulling your heart out of your chest and watching it walk around in this dangerous, complex world. And you never get it back.
I know logically that most of my worries are inconsequential. I remind myself that we will take it one step at a time. I know my child will learn how to read even though he struggles at the moment. It’s all about perseverance. And trial and error. We’ll get through all the bumps somehow.
I like to turn my worries into what Patricia Zaballos so eloquently called wondering in her first column. Not all wondering is bad, and it comes with the territory of homeschooling. Unfortunately, it sounds like it never goes away either:
“It doesn’t seem to matter that I have one kid who has just graduated from college and another starting in the fall…. It’s just the twelve-year-old and me homeschooling these days; you’d think after all this time I’d have things figured out. Nope. Still wondering constantly.”
~ Patricia Zaballos, The Wonder Files, home/school/life, Summer 2014.
I can let go of the inconsequential: The perfectionist in me. I can stop listening to bad advice on how to get my child to read. Instead, I can give it time and my patience. I can let go of wanting to do it my way and try other ways instead. We have the time after all. That’s why we’re homeschoolers.
What have you learned to let go of in your homeschooling journey?