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.
It happens all the time. I’m chatting with a new acquaintance who either doesn’t have kids or has kids who go to school. I mention that I homeschool. And nine times out of ten, my new acquaintance looks at me with awed disbelief, shakes his or her head, and declares, “I just wouldn’t have the patience for that.”
They’re right that homeschooling has required a lot of patience. But I’m not always sure the kind of patience I’ve needed is the kind of patience they mean.
If they mean that homeschooling must demand the patience to prepare lesson plans and quizzes and sit by my children at the kitchen table to explain and drill until they’ve mastered their multiplication tables or the finer points of diagramming sentences or the names of all the presidents, well, I know a lot of homeschoolers do have that kind of patience, but I’m definitely not one of them.
I don’t prepare lesson plans or give formal lessons. I don’t administer quizzes. I don’t explain things or answer questions in a way that would remotely look like schooling to most people. What I do is explain things and answer questions (and ask plenty of questions, too) in a way that mostly just looks like ordinary conversation. A whole lot of learning happens while my kids, husband, and I are all just talking—at the dinner table, doing the dishes together, on drives, out for a hike, at our local coffee shop.
So I may not have the kind of patience that a lot of people assume a homeschooling parent has to have. But I do agree that homeschooling has demanded that I call on all sorts of reserves of patience I never knew I possessed. So what kind of patience has homeschooling required of me?
For starters, it’s required the patience to wait for my kid to be ready to learn something I think is important for them to learn, instead of forcing them to learn on my timetable. It took a whole lot of patience to back off on pushing phonics readers when my kids were little so they could experience the joy and empowerment of figuring out how to read on their own terms, painlessly, through their love of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes comics.
Homeschooling, at least the way we do it around here, has required the patience to trust that something that looks like a frivolous pursuit with no discernible academic benefits may actually be a worthwhile endeavor for my kid—maybe because it sparks my son’s imagination, maybe because it gives my daughter a way to figure out some puzzle or question that doesn’t necessarily interest me but is hugely compelling to her. Maybe just because it’s fun. As a homeschooler, I’ve learned to value fun, not just as a tool to make learning more palatable, but as an end in itself.
Homeschooling has required the patience to wait out the long, seemingly fallow periods when not much learning seems to be going on, when our daily routine seems a bit flat and dull, and to trust that if I keep offering my kids new experiences and keep strewing intriguing books and movies in their paths, they will keep learning and growing. It’s required the humility to see that not all the learning experiences in our house have to emanate from me (sigh: what a relief). It’s also required the patience to keep offering new experiences and suggesting cool things we could do or make or try, even if I get turned down again. And again. And again. And. . . You get the idea.
Some kinds of patience come easily to me. I find it relatively easy to be patient when I’m cooking with a child, for example. I’m willing for a cooking project to be slower and messier than usual because it’s so important to me for my child to feel welcome in the kitchen and to have good associations with cooking. I’m easy-going when spills happen, nonchalant about mistakes. It’s harder, for some reason, for me to be patient with setbacks when we’re doing crafts, maybe because deep down, I don’t value making crafts the way I value cooking.
Other kinds of patience are much harder for me, too. When my child gets frustrated over a task and wails, “I just can’t do it” or “It’s too hard,” it’s really, really difficult for me to muster the patience to make space and time for my child’s frustration. All sorts of critical voices harp in my head: He’ll never develop grit if you don’t push him to finish this. . . It’s your fault your kid gets so easily frustrated. . . She’ll never succeed with an attitude like that. . .
It takes a lot of patience, with myself and my child, to slow down and listen to my kids’ frustration and self-doubt without lecturing them about the value of persistence or rushing them to get back to work. Give them time, I have to gently remind myself. Let them express those frustrations and self-doubt. Encourage them to take breaks if they need to, without fearing that they’ll be quitters. Trust.
That word “trust.” It’s such an important one for me as a homeschooler and a parent. As a homeschooler who’s foregoing traditional curricula for the most part (yeah, like a lot of wannabe unschoolers, we use a math curriculum), I sometimes feel quite anxious about the path I’ve chosen. Are we doing enough? (That perpetual question!) Is what we’re doing setting my children up for happy, fulfilling lives?
I recently expressed some of that anxiety to my fourteen-year-old son as we talked about how to approach his high school years.
“It’s hard for me sometimes,” I explained, “not having you follow a prescribed course of study that clearly points to a defined outcome the way traditional high school does. It’s hard to trust that it’ll lead you where you need to go.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but if I spend my time doing things that interest me and that I like, don’t you think that will probably lead me where I need to go?”
Ah. Well, yes. Probably. I think back on all the time I myself wasted as a young person, trying to jump through hoops that adults set up for me, not spending nearly enough time asking, “Hey, wait a minute. How do I want to spend this life of mine?”
Is my son on to something here? I can’t help thinking of Buddhist scholar Howard Thurman’s advice: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
For me, homeschooling has required the patience to trust that letting my kids pursue what makes them feel most alive may not always feel like enough, but it may be just the thing they really need.
“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.
Failing — and trying again — may be more important to learning than getting it right the first time.