Suzanne breaks out the laminating machine but still finds time to dive into some Edwardian lit and a little American history in this week's Library Chicken.
Sometimes I long for what seems like “simpler days.” I get this way whenever I visit an old homestead and wander through its log house and gardens, thinking about how people used to live off the land, and it was so much quieter. At least, I think it must have been quieter without televisions or cars or leaf blowers.
In reality, the past wasn’t simple at all, and it was much worse for many people. While we’re still working out some major “kinks” in the name of progress, and sometimes it feels like we’re taking a step backwards, the present does offer many gadgets that make our lives a little easier. Perhaps I could live without them, but frankly, I don’t want to.
Here’s a list of my favorite gadgets besides my computer. (A computer is just a given, right?) These have become indispensable while staying home full-time to homeschool my boys.
Roku Box :: Every day my family watches documentaries on Netflix, PBS, Amazon Prime or YouTube. The Roku Box gives us easy access to them on our television, and I think we have all become so much smarter by watching TV! We also have fun watching shows like Star Trek or Chopped. Despite the claims that television makes you disconnect, I would argue that we interact and converse over our family TV time just as much as any other part of the day.
Google Home :: This is a new gadget that I got for Christmas. To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I’d use it very much, but every morning, it tells me the weather, my appointments for the day and the news. Right now as I’m writing this, I asked it to play me some Miles Davis, and wow, the speakers are great. Earlier today, my seven-year-old asked it what the circumference of the Earth is and then asked what the population of the Earth is as well as several countries. Now when my boys ask me questions, if my arms are elbow deep in dishwater, I can say, “Go ask Google” instead of “Just a minute!” and risk losing their enthusiasm for the question. Indeed, this Google Home has increased our enthusiasm for asking questions. There are many other things it can do too, but if all it does is answer little boys’ questions and bring more jazz into my life, I’d say that it was a well spent hundred bucks.
Crock Pot :: I still have a lot to learn about slow cooking (I’d sure appreciate some more good recipes), but this gadget makes life so much easier. Fill it up with food in the morning, and then bam! Dinner is ready at five. Here’s a couple of good dishes we’ve found so far: a Mississippi Roast and Mexican Lasagna.
Mr. Robot :: We call it “Mr. Robot,” but it’s actually an Anker RoboVac 10. It’s a robotic vacuum cleaner, and yes, it works! In fact, this is my #1 can’t-live-without-gadget. It works great, and when I first began using it, I suddenly knew how housewives must have felt when they received the first washing machine or dishwasher. I tell everyone I know that they won’t regret buying a robotic vacuum, and I especially think that homeschooling moms should have one. You can turn it on while you’re homeschooling. As someone who has pets, two little boys, a (ahem) not-so-neat husband, and we’re all home 24/7, my house needs a lot of sweeping, so I’m extremely grateful for the robotic vacuum. (A bonus feature of the robotic vacuum is that it motivates little boys to pick up their toys!)
These are my must have gadgets. What are yours? And, as an added tip – keep an eye out for sales around the holidays or Mother’s Day. You may find good discounts on these products. Never pay full price!
Note: Unfortunately, Shelli was not paid any money for her glowing reviews of these products.
I don’t know about you, but when we started homeschooling, I actually thought the housework part of life would get a little easier. After all, we would all be home all day—surely that would making keeping up with the dishes/laundry/bathroom cleaning a little easier, right?
Nope. At least not for us. Homeschooling didn’t give me more housework time—it just meant we were home to make bigger and more exciting messes. I’ve accepted the fact that homeschooling and a shiny clean house don’t go together for everyone, but if we want to have a happy homeschool, it’s also important to recognize that the burden of housework should not fall on one person’s shoulders.
Even very young kids can help with things like sorting laundry or tearing up lettuce for a salad, and older kids can take ownership of tasks from start to finish. It makes sense to collaborate on this. Sit down with your kids and make a list of all the housework that has to get done every day, then figure out together a fair way to divide it up. Be clear about expectations—what, specifically, does picking up the family room entail?—and deadlines—should work be finished before lunch or before bedtime? Be open to changing things as you go along. Treat it like any homeschool project—a work in progress that you’ll figure out together. Don’t think of it assigning chores: Instead, treat housework as a shared responsibility that everyone participates in. Between reminders and overseeing and that never-ending to-do list, you might only squeeze out 30 minutes of free time a day from letting your kids take on some of the daily duty—but hey, that’s 30 minutes, and as you settle into your new routine, that time may grow.
And don’t think divvying up the housework list is just for you: Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that helping with household tasks is the number-one predictor for future success—more than IQ, more than extracurricular activities, more than social status.
Your challenge this week: Sit down with your kids to plot a new daily schedule that lets everyone share in the everyday household duties. Try to take at least one task completely off your to-do list.
I once walked into the house after a two-week holiday and immediately thought, “The neighbors must have had a party in here! We couldn’t possibly live like this!” But alas, we do live “like this,” and the grime in the sink and the Lego blocks on the floor were wholly of our own making.
Before I had children, when my husband and I both worked outside he home all day, the house was always clean and tidy. We hardly owned anything and our home only really consisted of a few small rooms. As our family grew, so did our possessions. I had less and less time to clean, dwindling enthusiasm for tidying up toys that would just get dragged out again, and I wanted to spend my time with my babies, not with my clutter.
It used to really bother me that my house was untidy. It bothered me a lot. I used to think to myself that I wanted people to walk into my house and feel relaxed, not stressed by having to move toy train tracks or Spiderman magazines off the seat before they could sit down. I didn’t want people to have to step over big bags of outgrown clothes in the hallway, waiting patiently to be given away to charity. I wanted people to feel at home here.
Back on that day we’d just returned from our holiday, when my house was in such a state it looked as though it had been ransacked by burglars, I noticed how my children reacted when we walked in. The six-year-old put his pjs on then went straight into the living room, lay on the sofa and started looking at his Spiderman magazines. My 10-year-old stepped over those charity cast-offs and went upstairs to listen to an audiobook. My 13-year-old went to the kitchen and started baking cookies. They felt at home.
Noticing all of this inspired me to look again at my goals for my home. I wanted people to feel relaxed and comfortable here. Which people? Visitors who hardly ever come? People who might raise their eyebrows at my clutter or criticize me for having a messy house? Naysayers who question my life choices and shrink from the chaos of my life? No. The people who I want to feel relaxed and at home here are the only people that matter: my family.
I’ve taken to saying that my home is a “working home.” When you visit a “working farm,” you’d expect rather a lot of mud and straw and dust and mess, because it is a place of work. Similarly, when you come to my home, expect mess because this is a place of work and creativity and imperfection. And we embrace all of that.
When you visit us you may have to cleave a path to the sofa, but I can always guarantee excellent reading material (particularly if you are a Spiderman fan) and excellent home baking.
Sometimes, the perfect life looks a little messier than you might have expected. Shelli explores the surprising beauty of a messy house.
There are four baskets of unfolded laundry at the foot of your bed. The afternoon light streaming through the window is shining a spotlight on dusty floors. It’s almost time for dinner, and you haven’t even thought about it yet.
Other mothers are so much better at all this stuff. They plan meals, keep their houses clean, play with their children and watch prime time T.V. while snuggling with their husbands after the children go to bed. Maybe that is an unrealistic image, but other moms seem so much better at this.
You were never a neat freak by any means, but before the children came along, the house was at least tidy. Now the clutter, oh, the clutter that comes with children and—especially— homeschooling.
A new neighbor stops by with her son, and you look over your dining room before you answer the door. Only, it’s a not a dining room anymore. It’s been converted into the “school room,” and it is cluttered with all your homeschooling books, games, projects, and more. The mess is not pretty like the messes you see in parenting magazines. It is cardboard-dust, glue-stains, puzzle-boxes-dangerously-stacked, broken-crafts-crammed-onto-the- shelves messy,
You wish you didn’t always feel the need to apologize for the mess, but you can’t help it. You do it anyway, and you expect your neighbor to give the routine reply. “Oh, don’t worry about it! I completely understand.” (That’s what you always say.)
Instead, she stands there quietly, look- ing around, and she says slowly, “Do you know what this says to me?”
You shake your head. Messes can speak?
She says, “This tells me that you spend a lot of time doing activities with your children. I would like to do more of that.”
You feel something akin to light shining around your head. It’s more than a light bulb. It’s a new perspective. You would like to kiss your new neighbor, but you control yourself.
No mother is perfect, and every mother has her own talents. Some are good at cooking. Some are good at organizing. Others are good at being spontaneous. Some are good at creating structure. Some encourage messes because they know their kids are creating and using their imaginations.
Some mothers and fathers work full-time or part-time, and some of them do that while also homeschooling their children. Some spouses help out more than other spouses. Every household has its own way of splitting up the duties of making a living, keeping the house clean, and giving the children an education.
But listen to this: No matter how you slice it up, something has to give. You are either giving up time with the children, or you are giving up time to take care of yourself. Absolutely nobody can do it all.
Make a list of your priorities. What do you want to accomplish? What are the most important things you can do to maintain a healthy quality of life for yourself and family? Put those at the top. (You better put self-care up there. If you don’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of your family?) Now, what’s the least important stuff?
Think about this. What’s the least important thing that you can let go of? One of these things is surely keeping a clean house. If you are always worrying about the clutter in your house, then you have too much clutter in your brain. Let it go.
Make your goal more reasonable. Think “sanitary and livable” but not perfect. Dust bunnies, clutter, and glitter in the carpet can wait. You have more important things to do.
On the crazy days when you feel most overwhelmed, go back to your list of priorities. Have you maintained that top one? If yes, pat yourself on the back. When life gets the most harried, that’s what is most important.
This article was originally published in the spring 2014 issue of home/school/life magazine.
One of the biggest practical challenges of homeschool life is feeding everybody all the time. And lunch — right smack in the middle of your day — can be the biggest challenge of all. These four strategies won’t make lunchtime hassle-free, but they will free up your brain enough to worry about what you're going to do for dinner instead.
Solution 1: Lunchboxes
- Pros: lunch is ready to go whenever you are
- Cons: requires night-time prep; not always the most budget-friendly option
Take a cue from the school set, and simplify lunchtime by packing it up the night before. Stick with the classics — we like hummus, quinoa, cucumber, and grated carrots on a spinach tortilla or peanut butter, honey, and banana on oatmeal bread for easy sandwiches, with little containers of yogurt, fruit, veggie chips, and a cookie for dessert. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can steal some cute bento box ideas, but kids who don’t pack a lunch every day are likely to be just as excited about a plain sandwich and apple combo. (I get all my best sandwich ideas from the Saltie cookbook.) Make a lunchbox or brown bag for each kid, stash it in the fridge, and lunch is ready to go even before you start your morning coffee.
Solution 2: Freezer Meals
- Pros: easy on the budget
- Cons: gets boring; does require some advance planning
Once-a-month freezer stocking ensures that you’ll always have a hot lunch at the ready. Our freezer faves include macaroni-and-cheese bowls; black bean and butternut squash burritos; soups and chili; and chicken potpies. There are lots of freezer meal cookbooks out there, but I’ve splattered and dog-eared Not Your Mother’s Make Ahead and Freeze Cookbook enough to recommend it. Freeze meals in individual portions (so you don’t have to listen to a 10-minute argument about whether you should heat up spinach lasagna or kale, sweet potato, and lentil hand pies), pop them in the fridge at bedtime, and they should be ready to heat up for the lunchtime rush.
Solution 3: Snack Plates
- Pros: great for picky eaters, no cooking needed
- Cons: assembly required; can be expensive
The beauty of this cheese plates-inspired lunch is that you can assemble it with all the random bits and pieces in your fridge and cupboards. Presentation is what makes a snack plate like this feel like lunch, so take the time to arrange small wedges of cheese, little stacks of chopped vegetables or fruits, cured or smoked meats, leftover tuna salad, and other hearty nibbles. Add crackers or vegetable chips — homemade or store-bought — and spoonfuls of mustard, jam, chutney, and purees to the plate. Set it out, and the kids can assemble their own lunches from the ingredients. It’s nice to give each kid her own plate, but you can also set up a fancy spread on a serving plate or cutting board for everyone to share.
Solution 4: Emergency Pizza
- Pros: versatile; easy to customize for picky eaters
- Cons: requires last-minute stove time
Until a genius friend introduced me to tortilla pizzas, I always thought pizza was too much hassle for lunchtime. But using a tortilla for a base makes a quick pizza as easy as a grilled cheese sandwich. The usual tomato-mozzarella-mushroom combo is great, but you can get adventurous with pesto topped with leftover grilled chicken, veggies, and fontina cheese; butternut squash puree topped with goat cheese and bacon; or even hummus with crispy chickpeas, avocados, and roasted garlic. Lay your tortilla flat in a cast-iron skillet, layer on toppings and cheese, and let it bake in a 375-degree oven for about 13 to 14 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned and crispy.
This article is reprinted from the fall 2014 issue of home/school/life.
A key to happy homeschooling is learning to recognize the creativity, imagination, exploration, learning, and joy that's happening amid the mess and noise.