Aminata and Malcolm have discovered that a purposeful morning routine is the perfect start to their homeschool day.
I’m totally lucky to get to balance a job I love with hands-on homeschooling, which I also love, but hitting that balance isn’t always easy, and I’m learning to be okay with that.
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).
Lauren’s excited to go back to work—but she’s not ready to give up homeschooling her two kids. We help her find a way to have it all.
Shelli's family watches documentaries every day—and screen time has become an important ritual for their homeschool routine. Here's why their daily documentary works for them.
Over the past eleven years, I've encountered many moments when my kids would not do what I wanted them to do. *insert laugh track* Does that sound familiar? Parenting can be wonderful, but it's also an endlessly bumpy road fraught with wondering and second-guessing.
Fortunately, I've picked up on a few observations about my kids that have helped me. I still face challenges sometimes, but since I have two awesome boys, either these things have helped, or I'm just very lucky.
Every child and family is different, so maybe these tips won't help everybody, but I offer them in case they will. I hope you’ll leave your own tips in the comments area.
I've learned that to get my boys to do the things I would like for them to do, I first need to:
- Examine my agenda. Is this for me and my ego, or is it really necessary for them to live a good life?
- Be explicit. I always have a good reason why I want them to behave a certain way, and I try to explain myself in language they can understand. However, very young kids don’t always understand reason, so I try not to over-explain either. Sometimes I just need to use a firm no. (See last point.)
- If it’s safe, non-destructive, and not bothering other people, let them do what they want to do. Usually, what they want to do is harmless and won't wreck my day. I find that the kids respect my wishes more, if I give them as much freedom as possible.
- Include them in planning. When it comes to the simple daily routine and planning, I seek their input and respect their opinion on what they want to do. This doesn’t mean I’ll always do what they want, but occasionally I’ve been known to go with their ideas instead of mine.
- Keep a regular routine. Until I had kids, I never knew how important a routine could be. My kids know what to expect and when. They complain less about the things they dislike because they know it lasts only so long, and they also know that their “fun time” will be coming regularly. They don’t need to ask for more because their day is filled with a variety of activities, and they always know it’ll be coming around again the next day.
- Do it myself. If it's something like cleaning the house or being polite to other people, then I have to be a role model before I ask them to help or explain why it’s a good idea. If it's something like getting my child to paint, or sew, or learn any new skill, then I should sit down and try doing it myself without worrying about whether they will join me. Kids often want to do what their parents are doing, but if they don't, I know this might not be for them, and that’s okay. They are still benefitting by watching me struggle to improve my skills.
- If it's something like learning math, then again, I should be willing to do it with them, and I need to pay close attention to them. Are they not developmentally ready for it, or are they capable, but they don't like it? Waiting a year or two can make a big difference. And if they don't like it, letting them know that they only have to do, say, 15 minutes a day works wonders.
- If it's something like getting them to take medicine that will save their life, then if I have done all the above, my child will know that when I'm non-negotiating, it's for a good reason, and they better obey me.
- Be firm. Similarly, when I say NO, I should mean no. (This takes practice.) I also need to watch my voice. A deeper, authoritative voice works much better than a soft, sing-songy voice. I can almost always tell when a mom is going to cave in on her “no” by the voice she is using — kids know, too!
What have you learned about your kids that make a big difference in your day?
Let’s face it. Some homeschool days can drag on and on. There are days we overschedule, days when the kids seem to take forever to complete the simplest of tasks, and still other days where an emergency visit to the doctor to have an eraser removed from your two-year-old’s nose takes precedence.
As the summer winds down, many homeschoolers are looking for ways to schedule their homeschool year without pulling their hair out. How do we balance it all without feeling like we are tied to textbooks at our kitchen table? Here are seven ways I’ve learned to relax and finish our day in record time.
1 :: STOP WHEN MASTERY HAS HAPPENED.
Does your child really need to do those thirty math problems just because they are in the workbook? Do they understand the concept by completing only ten problems? Go with that, and move on when your child has mastered the skill. Don’t feel obligated to complete work just because it’s there or because a textbook publisher thought six pages was the appropriate amount of learning in this lesson.
2 :: SKIP PARTS OF TEXT BOOKS THAT DON’T SPEAK TO YOU.
We use textbooks as more of a guide, rather than a script to follow. We pull out what we need and what excites us, and ditch the rest. All of the links, bonus questions, extra experiments, and “check this out” areas need not be done. Keep it simple.
3 :: COMBINE SUBJECTS IF PRACTICAL.
Combining subjects is a great way to streamline homeschooling time. Work in language arts essays with history work. Combine art and language arts. We use unit studies when we can. Even if not embraced fully, combining subjects is a terrific way to seamlessly blend subjects into a cohesive learning experience.
4 :: MAKE A SCHEDULE THAT WORKS.
Not every subject or learning experience needs to be covered every day. Try a four-day schedule, and leave the fifth day for down time or for finishing up projects or work that needs more attention. Try a Monday, Wednesday, Friday/Tuesday, Thursday schedule. Maybe foreign language or physical education only needs to be done twice a week. If you are scheduling every subject daily, be sure that you are realistic about the amount of material you think you can cover.
5 :: DON’T LET YOUR SCHEDULE RULE THE DAY
Schedules and routines look great on paper, but the reality is that the day seldom goes as planned. If we miss an assignment due to illness, or life, we simply move it to the next day. I also evaluate the lesson to decide if this is something that can be tossed entirely. Certainly, you don’t want to skip learning that needs to happen in progression, but tossing an experiment, art project, or busy work is perfectly acceptable.
6 :: STOP COMPARING
Comparing your day or homeschool to others is a quick way to lose confidence. Comparing makes you feel as if you can’t keep up with what everyone else is doing. Set goals for your children and homeschool, and work toward those. On days when you fall short, look at the bigger picture of what has been accomplished and where learning has leapt ahead.
7 :: TRY A DIFFERENT METHOD
If you are feeling suffocated by a schedule, try tossing it to the side. Go with the flow for a few days and see how the kids are responding. If it’s working, great; if not, try again. Unschooling can be a great way to alleviate the pressure of a schedule. Give it a go to see if it works for your family.
Pinterest, blogs, curriculum providers, and Instagram can suck time from our day and make us want to try every new thing that comes along. Loosely schedule what you want to cover each week in a planner and then whittle it down to more specific details. Be flexible when you don’t get to everything. Tomorrow’s another day.
One time an acquaintance I know (who doesn’t homeschool her kids) told me that she imagined the homeschooling life to be very relaxing, and she thought that we would have lots of time during our days to do whatever we wanted. [Can we add a laugh track here?]
On one hand, I think homeschooling is pretty awesome because we’re in charge of our time, and there is a freedom in this. However, to say it’s always relaxing or that we can do whatever we want is a myth. As my children get older, and as they become more dedicated to certain interests, I have found our free time shrinking. I look back with nostalgia on those days when I had a toddler and 1st grader. We had fun doing easy activities, going on playdates, and exploring nature and storybooks. Although it’s very hard work to take care of small children, the work I did with them wasn’t hard, and I got to pick what we did!
This past year I had a 4th grader and a 1st grader, and it was a great year, but it was different from past years. It felt more academic and regimented. This was mostly because my 4th grader has been devoting himself to learning classical piano in a competitive way. This is his thing, and he wants to do it. It’s been an awesome journey for all of us, but relaxing? With lots of free time? Nope.
With this in mind, I thought I’d write what my daily schedule looked like this year—the whole day. Although, it makes me feel a little exposed to write about this. Parents can be so judgmental, and simply writing a list doesn’t give you the real picture of our daily life.
Keep in mind that no two days are the same. Three days a week I took one of my sons to an appointment or two. Some days we would take a break from something or everything! At least once a month we’d have a play date. Weekends were free. Next year, our schedule may change. Our days are always in flux, but in general, this is our daily routine. It’s a routine that has developed to work around our obligations as well as our personal interests. For the most part, it is fun! But it’s also a lot of work!
The times listed are approximate start times, but we’re often running late on everything!
7:30ish a.m. I wake up. Read news, yoga, check e-mail, sometimes write.
8:30-9:00 a.m. Boys wake up. I fix them breakfast and eat with them. I may put laundry in. Do some dishes. We get dressed. Boys will play before we transition to lesson time.
10:00 a.m. Begin morning lessons. I try to read aloud to both boys for about 30 minutes. Then my 10-year-old works on math, grammar, music theory, etc. My 7-year-old gets to play while 10-year-old does one-on-one lessons with me. We usually do this until lunchtime.
12:00-12:30 p.m. Lunch time. Boys play while I make lunch. My husband joins us while we watch part of a nature, history, or science documentary. (He works from home.)
1:00-1:30 p.m. Clean up dishes. Boys help sweep & clear dishes. More “transitional” play.
1:30 p.m. Husband sits with my 10-year-old while he practices piano for at least an hour, sometimes more. I go upstairs to do one-on-one lessons with my 7-year-old. We do math, reading, handwriting, a science book readaloud, play games, and read about birds.
2:30 or 3:00 p.m. Whew. We’re all tired now. The boys watch a kids’ program and then play games on their digital tablets and/or computer. This is my 1~1.5 hours of free time when I might do any of the following: take a walk, nap, cook, bake, write, check social media, clean, more laundry (always laundry). I tend to rotate these activities and do what seems most pressing at the time.
4:00 p.m. Boys finish playing games and the 10-year-old will go outside to play. 7-year-old either plays inside with his toys or goes outside. If I haven’t already, I need to start thinking about dinner, but I usually put this off. I prefer to sit on the front porch and watch the boys play. Or I putter in the garden.
4:30 p.m. This is the time that my 7-year-old likes to practice piano. I sit and listen and/or run back and forth to kitchen while cooking dinner.
5:00 or 5:30 p.m. Dinner. Lately we’ve been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation together. This show starts lots of great conversations!
6:00 or 6:30 p.m. I do the dishes. Boys help clean up. More play.
6:30 or 7:00 p.m. My 10-year-old practices piano again for another hour. My husband is his audience again, and many times, I am too. But I usually go off with the 7-year-old to either play a game, sketch together or paint…. whatever he wants to do.
7:30 or 8:00p.m. Boys take showers & get ready for bed.
8:30-9:00p.m. Boys watch gaming YouTube videos. Eat snacks. I take my shower and get ready for bed. Then I curl up in bed and watch something on Masterpiece Theatre.
9:30ish p.m. Boys clean up and go upstairs. I read books to them. Daddy talks with them about their day.
10:15 p.m. Lights out for the boys. I retreat to my bed to read a book!
11:00 p.m. Lights out for me!
Does anyone else’s schedule resemble mine? Let’s commiserate/celebrate together!
“I love the idea of unschooling, but I’m never going to be an unschooler,” says Jennifer Harris. Jenn homeschools her 9-year-old son Ian in a style that she calls Charlotte Mason-ish—“but lately, it’s feeling like all workbooks and dictation and sitting-at-the-desk time, which is too far in the other direction,” Jenn says. Jenn’s been struggling to find a balance between the structure and academics she needs and the fun, laid- back vibe she wants her homeschool to have.
We asked Jenn to track her time over a couple of weeks so that we could get a clearer idea of what a typical day in her homeschool looked like. Jenn was surprised to discover that she and Ian usually spent about two hours a day on school time—“it feels like so much more,” Jenn says. On most days, they’d start school after breakfast, then sit down together at the table to work. Sometimes Ian would read independently, sometimes Jenn would read aloud, but they’d stay at the table, working their way through one subject at a time, until it was time to start lunch. Jenn’s husband, Frank, comes home for lunch every day, so she and Ian hurry to get the table cleaned up and lunch prepared so that they can all enjoy the meal together.
“It’s gotten to the point where school feels like work to both of us,” says Jenn. “I care about staying on top of things academically, but I hate the way our learning process is starting to feel like a job. Is there a way to bring back fun without sacrificing academics?”
Since it was pretty clear that Jenn wasn’t overdoing it time-wise—two to three hours is a reasonable amount of hands-on school time for a third-grader—we decided to focus on the way she was using her time. By spending all their school time at the table and keeping an eye on the clock ticking toward a lunchtime deadline, Jenn and Ian weren’t able to relax into their routine. Here’s how we changed things up:
Moving classes to the afternoon. When I asked Jenn why they were doing all their school work before lunch, she paused and said, “You know what? I don’t even know.” It turns out that afternoons are quiet at the Harris house. Except for a regular Friday park day, Jenn and Ian are hanging out at home in the afternoons. We suggested moving their second hour of school time to the afternoon to make the morning more relaxed. Instead of jumping into their next lesson after handwriting, Ian starts his independent reading and Jenn gets household stuff out of the way until it’s time to prep lunch.
Starting the day with a meeting at the table. Jenn felt like table time was essential to starting their homeschool day. “I need the structure of sitting down in a consistent spot every day and saying okay, now we’re homeschooling,” Jenn says. We suggested that Jenn keep doing this— but instead of spending an entire morning at the table, she and Ian could get the same down-to-business boost from a morning meeting there right after breakfast. While they’re at the table, Ian does his daily copy work and handwriting practice.
Relocate for different subjects. The kitchen table is the best place for Ian to practice handwriting, but his other subjects might benefit from a change of scene. We suggested that Jenn and Ian switch locations each time they move to a new subject: math on the patio, history on the couch, spelling at the desk in Ian’s room, etc. This kind of musical chairs isn’t just a way to transition between subjects—researchers have discovered that students who work on material in different places retain it better than those who sit in the same spot to study every day.
Integrate more reading aloud. Ian’s a strong reader, and Jenn’s been encouraging him to do more independent reading, but since readalouds are one of the things Jenn and Ian like best about homeschooling, we suggested that they bring back the readaloud. (Kids benefit from being read to long after they’re able to finish chapter books on their own, and reading together means you get to learn together—which is one of the best ways to feel like your homeschool is a fun, relaxed place.) We suggested that Jenn and Ian go back to doing book-based subjects, including history and science, as readalouds and letting Ian keep his reading skills sharp with independent reading.
“I didn’t realize such simple changes could make such a big difference, but they really have,” Jenn says when we follow up with her. She and Ian have been implementing their new routine over the past month, and Jenn says everything is working better than she had hoped.
“I think I bought into the idea that when we hit third grade, school should become more school-like,” Jenn says. “And the result was that Ian was learning about the same amount but we were having a lot less fun. I think I needed someone to say ‘Hey, you can teach your kid what he needs to know and still have fun doing it.’”
This column is excerpted from the summer 2016 issue of HSL. Do you need a homeschool makeover? Email us at email@example.com with a description of what’s tripping up your homeschool life, and we may feature your makeover in an upcoming issue.
Summer can have a mind of its own, so I know that making a firm agenda for these hot months is futile. Still, past summers have proved that we benefit from a little structure in our days. So I do a few homeschool lessons during the summer, and I also make summertime my time for planning, record-keeping, and cleaning up for a new year. While I do these “administrative” things, my boys have extra time to play, so that makes them happy.
First, I keep our homeschool lessons light. This year, I decided to only do Spanish and readalouds during our morning lesson time. I’ve struggled to include a foreign language in our homeschool in the past, so by putting away almost everything else for now, it’s easy to do one Spanish lesson per day. (I’m trying out Calico Spanish Level A right now, and I’ll let you know how we like it!) I also have a number of books that I never get around to reading to the boys during the winter months, so now is my chance.
It’s great to take a long time to plan and think about what I want to do with the boys in the fall. I have some new curricula to try out, and instead of feeling like I have to read through it all and understand how to use it right away, I have all summer to peruse it. I use my time wisely by going through my curricula (old and new) about once a week until I’ve looked at everything and made my plans. I’m very excited to begin exploring the Institute for Excellence in Writing’s Teaching Writing: Structure and Style and Student Writing Intensive DVD courses this summer. I hope that they may be a good fit for my son beginning in the fall.
The biggest project I undertake every summer is our record keeping. By law, I have to write progress reports for both my boys, but since it’s for our eyes only, I consider it more of a keepsake. I write a list of every subject, and under each heading, I use bullet points to list all the curriculum, books, field trips, and classes that my boys have completed that year. Then, since I’m a photographer, I create a slideshow of the photographs from our homeschool year. My boys love watching the slideshow because they’ve usually forgotten what they were doing at the beginning of the year!
I’m not talking about cleaning my house when I talk about cleaning up our homeschool, although the de-cluttering I do definitely benefits the house. First, I go through homeschool supplies and books and get rid of the things I don’t think we’ll need anymore. (I give good stuff to charity and throw away the rest.) I also like to go through anything the boys may have built or made that year, and I ask them what they want to keep and throw away. This year, I did a deep purge of craft supplies and the recyclables that my eldest son used to use to make things with. He just isn’t into building anymore, and his younger brother is more into drawing and painting. So I have made more room for paints and paper.
I also store away the binders with last year’s work, progress reports and everything else we finished. While I try to let go of things, I probably keep a lot more than I need. But there’s always time to declutter again next summer or the summer after that.
What is homeschooling like during the summer for you? Do you take a break from everything, or do you homeschool year-round?
Believe it or not, your family probably has a routine already — and if you step back and observe your life patterns for a week or two, you’ll start to see it emerge.
My homeschool organization method: A bullet journal and an as-we-go planner than lets me keep up with what we've done instead of trying to anticipate what we're going to do.
Every year, Shelli and Amy open the door and invite you to step inside their homeschool lives. (Please ignore the mess!) We talk about the resources we're using in our own homeschools and how we structure our days. There are lots of ways to homeschool, and we don't think our way is the best—just the one that happens to be working best for our particular families at this particular time. If nothing else, you will get a behind-the-scenes look in the homes of the editors of home / school / life, but if something here helps you, all the better! Today, Amy's talking about how she homeschooled 3rd grade this year.
Because there’s a pretty significant age gap between my kids (six years), I decided to do two separate posts to make things easy for myself. Today, I’m sharing some of the resources I use with my 3rd grader. (You can see what 1st grade and 2nd grade looked like for us in the archives.)
You would think that having homeschooled 3rd grade before (we pulled our daughter out of school in 2nd grade), homeschooling 3rd grade would be a breeze. You would be wrong. The part where you worry that you’re going to ruin your child’s life because you won’t teach him what he needs to know is mitigated a little by the fact that you didn’t actually ruin anyone’s life last go-round, but all the stuff you figured out by the end of 3rd grade with one child may or may not apply at all to your new 3rd grader. In our case, 3rd grade with my son looked completely different from 3rd grade with my daughter, so we were still figuring everything out as we went.
I’ve read a lot about the “3rd grade transition”—the place where homeschool materials stop being “fun” and start feeling like work. We didn’t really have that problem—maybe because we haven’t really used a lot of traditional materials, so there wasn’t that moment where we opened a book and everything was black-and-white and tons of fine print and we felt like “what happened?” We did shift gears to a little more academic work, though—3rd grade is when I like to start Latin and more thoughtful writing and reading—which had some challenging moments. All in all, though, I’ve enjoyed 3rd grade with my son, and I think he’s enjoyed it, too, which is really one of my big goals for each year.
We started Build Your Library’s 5th grade last year, so we just continued with that this year. (I explain my reasoning here, but it’s really just that I wanted to do U.S. History so that I could sync up readalouds with my daughter’s Georgia history last year and U.S. History this year.) The slower pace worked well for us—I like taking my time with a subject—and we added a bunch of nonfiction books to our reading list. (That’s my one complaint about Build Your Library, which I think is a nice program overall—I’d love to see more nonfiction on the reading list, especially because there’s so much great nonfiction out there.) Before this year, we’ve just done the reading for history—my son had a main lesson book, and sometimes he’d draw pictures as we read, but it was just because he felt like doing it and not something I asked him to do. This year, we’ve tried to be a little more deliberate. I’ve mentioned a few times how I rely on Patricia’s dictation method (if you have a reluctant writer, it will change your life), and we’ve been using that pretty heavily. I’ll say “so what do you think is the important thing about what we just read?,” and he’ll answer, and we’ll talk about, and then together we’ll summarize the main idea in a couple of sentences. I might prompt a little—“So what did a state have to do to get readmitted to the United States after the Civil War?”—but mostly I tried to let him focus on what felt important to him. It helps to know that we’re going to be revisiting these parts of history at least twice more in his educational life—so why not let him be interested in the parts that interest him? I do most of the actual physical writing, but he tells me what to write. It’s working well for us.
We’re still doing Beast Academy, and it’s fine. We loved Miquon Math so much that I’m sure any math we did after it would seem less great by comparison, but Beast Academy works reasonably well for us. I like that it focuses on mathematical thinking and understanding bigger concepts and not just on learning how to deal with one particular kind of problem. My son likes that there are usually some genuinely challenging problems in the mix and, of course, that it comes in comic book format. My daughter would have hated this program, but it’s proven to be a good match for my math- and logic-loving son.
We started Latin this year, and I’m using the same method I used with my daughter: We use Ecce Romani and just work as far as get into it each year. In the fall, we’ll start over again at the beginning and do the same thing. My son hates writing, so I have him dictate his translations and I write them down—it’s slow going but not unpleasant. We do the exercises the same way, but he does write his own vocabulary cards. Studying Latin is my favorite way to learn English grammar.
We read all the time—mostly readalouds, since my son still isn’t a huge fan of independent reading. (He does read on his own more every year, and I love catching him reading in his room or in the backyard. I’m not sure that pushing him to read more would kill his potential love of learning, but I know that not pushing it seems to be—slowly—working out.) I don’t want to be the book police, but I will admit it was easier to manage this with my daughter, who always read so widely that I never worried whether she was reading junk or literature. It’s harder to be as relaxed with my son—since he’s such a reluctant reader, it’s tempting to force him toward the good stuff. But I remind myself that my goal isn’t for him to make it through a checklist of books but to develop an appreciation for the power and possibility of reading. Only he can decide what books will do that for him.
He did start his own official book log this year—again, he usually dictates, and I do the actual writing. Some of his favorite books-for-fun this year have included George and Martha, Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, Frindle, and Peter Pan. And we’ve continued our weekly-ish poetry memorization, which I love and my children tolerate.
We still do our nature journals pretty much every day. This is one subject where I don’t take dictation unless my son specifically asks me to—he’s usually happy drawing what he sees and writing the identifying labels or temperature or whatever. My son has gotten to the point where he likes to feel like there’s some “purpose” to his journaling, so we have projects: Right now, we’re checking the barometer every day and noting different cloud formations. I’m noticing that my son is the first person to pick up on when he’s ready for something more academic or more structured—this fall, he said he wanted his observations to “actually do something,” so we came up with a few projects we could do with our nature journals. (I borrowed some ideas from Handbook of Nature Study, some from Whatever the Weather, and a lot from the Nature Connection workbook.)
We also worked our way through Janice VanCleave's 201 Awesome, Magical, Bizarre, & Incredible Experiments, picking up books to go with experiments as they piqued our interest. Next year, we’ll probably do something a little more organized, but for now, I’m happy to be able to emphasize the scientific method and just follow our interests. I made up a very simple, minimalist lab report form and used my beloved padding compound to make it into a little lab report notepad for him.
Philosophy has been my son’s “favorite class” for a couple of years now. He loved Philosophy for Kids at our homeschool group, and this year we moved on to more structured logic lessons. (Logic is his big philosophical passion right now.) My best friend is a philosopher and one of my son’s favorite people, so we’re kind of spoiled when it comes to philosophy—she does one-on-one lessons with him.
Our schedule has always been a work in progress, but we usually have a pretty consistent rhythm to our days. I don’t plan to start at any particular time—my kids wake up when they wake up (usually around 9 a.m. for my son), have breakfast and what we like to call “morning acclimation.” Then, when he’s ready—which might be at 9:30 or 11:30—he brings me his little stack of things he wants to work on. Usually, it’s history, math, and Latin, and I add whatever readalouds we’re doing together. He tends to be interested in science in bursts and starts: He’ll want to do it every single day for a week or two and then not be interested at all for a couple of weeks. Sometimes he wants to do just math or just philosophy. I try not to dictate what we do and to let him take the lead. (There are definitely days—usually a couple a month—where he just says “Can we do nothing today?” and I say “Sure.” I really don’t worry about that at all—there are definitely times where I want to take a day off, too!) We work together, usually on the couch or on the back porch but sometimes at the table. Some days we’re fast and get a lot done, some days we take a lot of time and end by putting in a bookmark for the next day. Usually two to two and half hours of hands-on, active time like this is a full school day for us.
After lunch, we have our “crafternoon” projects. (I’m usually doing work with his 9th grade sister during this time, too.) My son enjoys soap carving, making art, crochet work, building marble runs, playing chess, and sorting his Pokemon cards, so he might do any of those things. Occasionally he reads, which fills my soul with delight. Often, he plays outside. I’m sure I’m forgetting things, but that makes sense, since this year he’s also been a lot more independent and interested in doing things on his own. My son does not always enjoy working on things like reading and handwriting, but this year, he’s started to appreciate the way that being able to do these things gives him more space to learn independently. There’s nothing dramatic to report with 3rd grade—no huge challenges or confetti-worthy accomplishments—just measured, steady progress. It’s been a good year.
OK, bear with me here. I promise I am not trying to sell you on the idea that your life will magically be a happier place if you get on top of the housework. I mean quite simply that making your bed in the morning—and asking your kids to make their beds—will make you a little happier every single day, even if it is the only housecleaning that gets done that day.
Making your bed is just one little thing—it only takes a few minutes to do, but it makes a big difference in the way your bedroom looks, not to mention the way it feels at the end of the day when you retreat back into your bedroom to relax. When your kids make the bed, their rooms look less messy, and they’re less likely to lose their shoes and whatever books or electronics they took to bed with them the night before. Because it’s so easy and you do it before your day kicks into high gear, it also feels totally doable—making your bed doesn't require a lot of extra energy or brain power.
Even more than the easy neatness factor, though, is the way that making your bed gives you a feeling of accomplishment—hey, look, I did this!—every morning that you do it. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says that morning bed-making is consistently one of the biggest happiness boosters for people who do it for this very reason: It lets you start every day feeling like you’re an organized, productive, efficient person.
Your mission this week: Give morning bed-making a try. Ideally, start with fresh clean sheets and blankets, but it’s also fine to just start where you are. How does making the bed change your morning routine? How does it change your bedtime routine? Do you feel any different about your homeschool life after a week of everyday bed making?
I know it sounds kind of counterintuitive—isn’t one of the best things about homeschooling that you get to set your own schedule and take as much time as you want with things?—but a few hard deadlines have the power to totally reshape your homeschool life.
Remember how sometimes you needed the pressure of a term paper being due in 24 hours to buckle down and start writing it? The way an actual looming deadline can motivate you to get stuff done is real phenomenon. (It’s called Parkinson’s law after a naval historian who famously said, “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”) The more time you have to work on something, the more time you’ll probably take to work on it. So if you give your kid, say, a month to work on a project, he’ll take the whole month—but he probably won’t be doing productive work until close to the actual deadline.
This doesn’t mean you should run around setting deadlines for everything. Some things work best when they’re open ended. Not everything needs to get wrapped up neatly with a bow. Rushing through something rarely turns out brilliantly. But giving yourself a deadline—“I will go with the best language arts curriculum I find by June 1”—or your kids a deadline—“Let’s plan to finish this book by next weekend”—can help you work more efficiently. Another plus: Setting deadlines can help your children (and you!) learn to make more accurate guesses about how long something takes. How much multiplication can you do in 10 minutes? What if you tried to take a 30 minute lunch? Can you write a great research paper in three weeks? Understanding the time that goes into different projects can help you plan smarter and work more effectively.
Your challenge this week: Set a short-term deadline, and stick to it. An easy place to start is to give your kids a small project—finishing a book, writing a short essay, finishing a math quiz—by a certain date. Pay attention to how they use their time, and notice whether having a set deadline changes the way they work or the way you feel about how they are working.
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.
Pretty much everyone could stand to get a little more sleep—and homeschoolers are fortunate enough to be in a position to actually get some.
We all know the benefits of getting enough sleep (which for most people is at least seven hours each night)—you’re more alert, more optimistic, and have more energy to get you through the day. What you may not know is that getting a little more sleep can actually make your life more fun. A Harvard Medical School study found that people who were sleep-deprived were less likely to get jokes and find everyday events funny. Well-rested folks, on the other hand, found much more to laugh at in their daily lives. This doesn’t mean you’ll magically find Monday morning handwriting battles hilarious, but it does mean that a little extra sleep can make your homeschool a little more fun, funnier place.
People often recommend hitting the sack an hour earlier, and if that works for your family, an earlier bedtime can be a great way to get a little more sleep. But if you’ve got a crew of night owls or just a long nighttime routine, consider pushing back your morning start time an hour instead.
Your challenge this week: Build an extra hour of sleep into your routine two nights this week.
The reason I wanted to take charge of this magazine’s “Balancing Act” is because I, like you, am seeking balance. If you have to write about something, you truly learn it, and I thought maybe this would be a good exercise for me. But to tell the truth, I don’t always feel up to the task. My life doesn’t feel very balanced at the moment.
For example, today. It's a few days after our summer issue came out, but I still have a long list of things I would like to accomplish for the magazine and myself. Those things take up room in my head, but I tell myself I deserve a break, and I try not to think about them much. So then plans for our homeschool start to bubble up, and I try to stifle those too.
The truth is I feel a little zombie-like today. My mind can't focus well. I'm grateful my husband suggested we go hiking, and it's the perfect weather for that. We go to a beautiful state park, and after that we take the long way home, driving through some historic towns and making some stops, includ- ing a meal at a restaurant. It's a great day.
When we get home at4 P.M., I am so sleepy all I can do is fall into bed for a nap while my boys play games on their tablets. I can't sleep well because my four-year-old cries out in frustration several times at his game.
When I finally get up, I ask the boys if they are hungry. All my seven-year-old wants to do is play on that tablet, and while we usually only let him play for about an hour, I decide we had a full morning, and I didn't care if he played longer. My four-year-old got bored of the tablet and started to do other things.
I'm still in a fog. I do a little straightening up in the kitchen, but I don't think about the time. I don't think about much. It’s actually just what I need, but later my husband comes home from a jog, and he questions why my son is still on the tablet. He’s been playing for four hours. Oops.
Believe me, I prefer that my boys do other things besides screen time. I used to imagine that our whole day would be about books and creating things. A little screen time is okay, but then my husband loves watching T.V. He introduced the boys to different shows and those games. I decided I needed to trust his judgment. I even did some research about screen time, and I realized that it's not so bad, especially in reasonable doses. Especially when I'm tired.
The thing is, there are days like this. I feel like a zombie. I don't want to think. And then when I finally give myself permission to not think, I get in trouble for it.
There's a lot I don't do in order to get it all done —cooking, for example, though I’m trying to get better at that. My house doesn't get a good cleaning very often either. My memory is the pits. I can’t remember anything anymore unless I write it down.
My personality type is someone who likes to organize and plan. But while homeschooling little boys, freelance writing and editing, and with a work-at-home husband, my life is beyond planning. I get jealous of families who have extended family who help out. Once I heard my neighbor's mother came by every week to do their laundry. Really? There are people who do that?
I am doing too much. Plain and simple. Even when my husband helps me, and with the shortcuts I take, I can't seem to catch up or feel like I have a handle on everything. The truth is, there are days I feel full of energy, and I get a lot done, and then later I crash and become zombie-like. There are things I can do to "relax," but none of it feels sufficient. I keep plowing through my to do list, though maybe a little slower. Then, at some point, I get my second wind.
- This is what I’ve realized. It’s not so much about balance as it is about going through the cycle. The cycle is something like this:
- Busy Mama has too much to do, deadlines, homeschool projects, events to attend, you-name-it. She’s getting overwhelmed.
- Mama starts to feel like a zombie.
- Suddenly, there’s an unexpected day when Daddy takes the boys to the park and Mama catches up. Mama feels better.
- It’s manageable for awhile. Mama tries to keep it here, but things start to pile up a little. More dates on the calendar. Usually last minute stuff she can’t control, and then it snowballs, and she’s back to feeling overwhelmed.
You can change the Mama to almost any person, and you can change the work to any work, and what you’ve got is a thing called Life. I remind myself that I’m actually lucky because I’m not stuck in a dead-end job I hate. I love the things I have to do. I have a creative life. I love writing and editing. I love being a mom and a homemaker. I love the family culture we’ve fostered of making time to spend in nature, read, create, and have long conversations even if all of it together can make me too busy sometimes.
Living a life worth living isn’t always easy. It’s downright exhausting and overwhelming sometimes. I’m learning that when I start to feel a little zombie-like, I just have to let it all go for a while. Watch a movie, read a book, take a walk, get a good night’s sleep. I know I’ll get it all done somehow. I know I’ll get my second wind.
This essay was originally published in the fall 2014 issue of HSL.