We all want to believe that there’s some magical balance out there, but the truth is what you’ve probably always suspected on some level: There’s no such thing as perfect balance. There’s just finding an un-balance that works for you.
Your official last day of school can be whenever you want—so pick a date that matches your family’s homeschool rhythm (or don’t pick a date and have a year-round homeschool).
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.
I spent three different cafe writing sessions auditioning names for this column. I considered them while washing dishes and watering tiny kale plants in my backyard. I listed the best candidates on the idea file on my computer. Life Outside the Box. (Trying too hard to prove a point.) Learning What We Want. (Weird and too long, according to the 18-year-old.) Life Lessons. (For a homeschooling column? Cliché!)
The Wonder Files came up because I have a thing for the word wonder. Six years ago I named my blog Wonder Farm, and the word still hasn’t grown stale for me. Wonder is the stuff of homeschooling. The best homeschooling days are suffused with wonder—and the most challenging ones, well, they summon it.
Wonder can be a verb, as in: The four-year-old wonders if he can make a cake out of paper. Or: My son wonders why the Greek gods are always so irrational. Or: My daughter wonders what the women did while all those men killed each other on Civil War battlefields. Thoughts like those will take you places.
Wonder can be a noun: a surprise, a phenomenon, a state of amazement. It’s been interesting to see what my kids have embraced as personal wonders over the years. A few favorites: Greek myths, Pokemon, poetry, Broadway musicals, Marvel comics, historical fashion, Alfred Hitchcock, the Periodic Table, the American diet, the Duomo in Florence, the League of Legends video game.
Such wonders can derail a homeschooling day. How can we get to math when there’s a universe of Marvel villains to sort for a chart? When research on Broadway musicals leads to an impromptu mother/daughter sing-along? So we skip the math and hack our way down the kids’ wonder trails. We break out the glue guns. We watch YouTube videos. We dance around the kitchen.
Often these wonders have lasted months; many have gone on for years. They simply morph along with the kids. My two boys each grew out of their Pokemon fascination by the time they were nine, but both applied the game’s appeal of categorizing and sorting by power to subsequent interests, everything from the Periodic Table to military history. (A Roman centurion was more ranked than a munifex, Mama!) My daughter’s adoration of Shirley Hughes’ Rhymes for Annie Rose at three was the gateway to poetry slams and Franny and Zooey and witty rap music at seventeen.
You can build a homeschooling life around this sort of wonder. What starts as a wonder can lead to a calling.
Which is all well and glorious, these homeschooling days of wonder. But there are other days wracked with a whole different sort of wonder, particularly if you are a parent. Why can’t he write a paragraph by himself if school kids his age can? Should I push her to read instead of listening to audiobooks for hours on end? Do I really need to teach long division if it makes him throw things and his mental estimates come pretty close? Does watching back-to-back episodes of MythBusters count as science? Will he always do the least amount of work necessary to get what he wants? And does that prove that he’s lazy—or incredibly smart?
Maybe this isn’t the case for you. Lots of homeschoolers latch on to a particular style of homeschooling that manages to answer all the questions for them. You might find a philosophy that comes complete with online forums aimed at making clear what you should and should not do. That keeps your wondering at a gentle simmer. To you I say, Lucky duck! To the rest of you, who question the online forums, who question the philosophies, who question how to get your kid off that video game when it’s supposed to be homeschooling time, I say Join The Wondering Club.
After we’d homeschooled for a couple of years, I tried writing an essay on how we did it, on (insert deep and serious voice here) Our Homeschooling Philosophy. Every Wednesday night I went out to a cafe and worked on that essay—for a year and a half! I’d finally get a draft to start coming together, and I’d find myself unraveling it. That thing I was calling Our Homeschooling Philosophy kept wriggling away from me, just as I thought I’d captured it, exactly like our rabbit Rue does when she escapes into our neighbor’s backyard. Every time I assumed I’d nailed it down, daily life with the kids would raise new questions. Were we unschoolers? Not exactly. Were we school-at-homers? Not really. Did I assign work for the kids? Yes, at first. Then yes, sometimes. Then no, not usually. Then no. Then yes, sometimes. Depending.
I finally moved on to a different essay.
I began to notice that as soon as something worked in our homeschooling life, something else would change. The morning routine that rolled so well with a six and nine-year-old got knocked off-kilter when their baby brother was born. Leisurely days of homeschooling in fits and starts got compressed for afternoons of dance class and piano lessons. The reading that came so easily to one kid was a struggle for the next. The interest-driven learning approach that was a given for years suddenly seemed questionable when we had a high school-aged kid who would eventually need a transcript for college.
Wonder, wonder, wonder.
We’ve hit on some practices that have held fast for us over the years, regardless of kid or age: Having a regular time of working together most days. Making sure the kids like how they’re learning. Letting their interests be the pulsing heart of all we do.
But mostly, seventeen years into this homeschooling gig, I still wonder plenty. It doesn’t seem to matter that I have one kid who has just graduated from college and another starting in the fall (after childhoods of homeschooling and a mix of homeschooling/high school.) 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. Why doesn’t this kid like making things like his siblings did? How could he possibly learn so much by simply reading, watching videos, and talking? Will he want to go to high school? Should I prepare him for that—or help him enjoy his learning freedom while he still has it?
Back when I was trying to write that homeschooling essay, all my wondering made me doubt myself. It made me feel confused, inexperienced, indecisive—not good qualities for someone taking on the responsibility of another person’s education. These days I’ve embraced the wondering. If I’d found a homeschooling philosophy that answered all the questions for me, I would have stopped asking questions. I would have stopped searching for cues in my kids. I might not have considered textbooks for some subjects—although they worked for my teenage son, who wanted lots of time for making movies, and also a high school transcript for his film school applications. If I’d known what we were going to do each day, my daughter might not have stumbled on her six-month project exploring how the American diet has changed over the past hundred years. If I’d found that elusive approach I’d sought—the one that would work beautifully day after day, year after year—there might not have been room for my youngest to research and build a complete periodic table of Marvel comic characters. And if I hadn’t continued questioning what learning means, I might not have recognized the depth of what he gleaned from a seems-sorta-silly project.
Maybe I’ve finally written that essay on our homeschooling philosophy, right here. I can sum it up in three words: wonder a lot.
I plan to do lots of wondering in this column. I don’t promise any answers—actually, I aspire to refrain from offering any. I’m hoping that my wondering here will prompt your own wondering, which will lead you toward your own answers.
At least until tomorrow rolls around and you start wondering all over again.
Patricia Zaballos writes about homeschooling and writing on her blog, Wonder Farm and in every issue of home/school/life. (You should subscribe just for her column. Trust me!) She is working on a book of essays. This column is reprinted from the summer 2014 issue.
Now that my son is in sixth grade, he’s doing work that requires him to really dig in and focus. He’s doing good work, but he’s so easily distracted, and he has trouble concentrating. Is there anything I can do to help improve his focus?
Learning to focus can be hard even for adults, but most of the time, all you need to boost your concentration is a change in your routine and regular practice, says Michael Coates, M.D., chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Try these easy-to-implement actions to help your son improve his focus.
Set a timer. Something about an established time limit — “Work on this math for 15 minutes” — inspires focus, so don’t hesitate to break out the kitchen timer when you get to a subject you know taxes your son’s concentration skills. Start with small increments of time, and gradually increase time spent until you reach the amount of focused time you’re shooting for. This works best if you don’t rush — you don’t have to increase the time every day. Instead, give your son a chance to really adjust to each increase before adding more time.
Check your sleep habits. Around sixth grade, some kids start making the shift to adolescent sleep habits, which means their bodies naturally want to stay up later and sleep longer in the mornings. Kids really need at least seven hours of sleep a night to concentrate during the day, so if your child’s sleep patterns are changing but your schedule isn’t, it may be time to try something different. Even just starting an hour later in the morning may be enough to improve your son’s concentration.
Practice mindfulness. If your son starts to drift off during reading assignments or conversations, it may be that he’s spoiled by the everything-now nature of video games, Wikipedia, and Twitter. To help him shake that I-could-be-doing-10-other-things-now feeling, encourage him to pause and wiggle his toes or snap his fingers. That moment of focused concentration will help his focus settle back down.
Have a glass of water. A 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that being as little as two percent dehydrated — such mild dehydration that your body doesn’t even feel thirsty — can negatively impact concentration. Pour your son a big glass of water before his next intensive focus session.
Jump around. Exercise is one of the best ways to improve focus, so take plenty of action breaks to walk around the block, kick a soccer ball in the backyard, do jumping jacks in the living room, or play a quick round of Wii Sports between subjects.
Bottom line: Don’t expect your son’s concentration abilities to develop on their own. Help him sharpen them over time by test-driving different focus-boosting techniques.
Originally published in the spring 2014 issue of home/school/life magazine. Subscribe to get great homeschool content every season.Do you have a question about homeschooling? Email us, and we'll try to help you find an answer. Questions may be published in future issues of home/school/life.