You can spend your entire homeschool life second-guessing yourself — or you can trust yourself (and your kids) to get where you need to go.
The holiday break for our family included two trips to the build-it-yourself store (lumber yard), at least four (I lost count) trips to the hardware store, three trips to the recycling center/dump, and one big trip to Goodwill. In short, we built a wall for Christmas (and got a little spring cleaning in as a bonus). All hands were on deck for a remodeling job that turned our small, three bedroom home into a still small, but four bedroom home.
But why… some of our friends and family have questioned… when you have one kid with one foot out the door (perhaps) and two more closer to on-their-own than just-beginning would you bother to add a fourth bedroom now? I have no better answer than that it simply seemed to be the right time. All five members of the family were in agreement, so we spent our holiday building a wall.
In fact, our family has talked about creating more space in this old house for years. We’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking about moving to a bigger, or at least a different house, altogether. So many options have been considered. The back porch could have been converted into a small bedroom or perhaps the side “deck” (which isn’t really a deck at all, but does have a small roof overhang). We’d even talked of a tiny bedroom in the spirit of the tiny house movement, parked in the yard and within easy commute.
But in mid-December, when I mused— “You know, we could move the kitchen table into the (imagine this) kitchen and move the living room furniture into the room where the kitchen table now resides and then put a wall right down the center of the living room with a door and, voila, we’ve got a fourth bedroom!” —that’s when the plan came together.
Anything is possible when the whole crew is on board.
Perhaps I should back up a bit and admit that we aren’t typically a family for whom construction, in the literal sense, is a standard pastime. We read books, we love movies, we take walks and we sometimes hike. We’ve been known to go camping, though travel most often requires a motel room and a hot shower at the end of the day. It would not be unusual to drop in on us at some random point in time and find someone knitting or weaving or sewing or playing a video game or writing a story... Our kitchen is often in use as we are bakers and love cooking from scratch so much that we often chose eating in over going out when we want to treat ourselves to a special meal.
But actually changing the configuration of our house? Not so much. Our tool selection is limited and our skill set, admittedly, on the shy side. In these situations, I close my eyes and do my best to channel my father (the house I grew up in was in a continual state of remodeling) and perhaps consult a how-to book or a wiki-how site.
“Can we build a wall?” the members of my family asked. “Would it remain standing? Could we put an actual door in it?”
“Sure. Why not?” I said. Those are three very powerful words, I have learned.
When the wall was complete, middle kid, recipient of the bedroom that was the product of the construction, said, “Wow. Do you know how empowered I feel? If I can build a wall; I can do anything.”
When I look back on my years as a parent, these are the words that have triggered some of the most worth-while, most memorable, and yes, most educational events of our lives. Can we stay up all night? Can I dig a big hole in the yard? Can we sleep outside? Can I cut my brother’s hair? Can I make up my own recipe? Can we make our own video game?
Sure. Why not?
My youngest just got his learner’s permit for driving. His sisters coached him through studying for the written test. I felt oddly removed from the process. I offered to help him study a couple of times, but he said, “No thanks, Mom. I’ve got it.” He passed on the first try.
Getting the permit was only step one, of course. He needs me for the next part because his sisters aren’t yet “of age” per Kansas law to be in the passenger seat while he learns to drive. So I am handing over the keys and wondering why it isn’t easier. I’ve been down this road twice. My oldest gets in her car at least once each day now, and I don’t always know where she is going. Middle kid is well on her way. She is three months from being a driver without restrictions, and in my mind (which is where it really counts) we are pretty much there, as well.
But here I am… actually making excuses for why my son might not want to try driving at highway speed for the first time today… the cold weather, the holiday traffic, the glare of the setting sun on the window… the fact that I just want to get there quickly (I don’t even speak this one out loud).
For the holiday weekend, I took my son and his sister back to the place of my birth for a two day visit. The roads in western Kansas (as opposed to east-central Kansas where we live now) are flat and straight and meet each other in tidy, perpendicular lines.
“These are the roads you need to learn to drive on,” I told my son, when the bulk of the trip was behind us. “There are no surprises. You can see the next car a mile or more away.”
He did drive a bit on those roads, but he didn’t see them as superior. He said, after a couple of miles, that there was a kind of hypnotizing quality to driving in such a straight line. We came upon a cross on the side of the road, less than a mile from my father’s rural home. It can be easy to forget that believing there are no surprises on the road ahead isn’t necessarily the way to live.
I would like to say that after so many years of unschooling, it is easy now to trust, to embrace the sometimes jerky starts and stops, the sudden braking when you thought you were accelerating and vice versa. I would like to claim I have learned better, but I am still guilty of embracing those old straight roads of my past. I am tempted to say to my son, “Just let me take you there. I will do the hard part. I’ll keep driving; you just tell me where you want to go.”
The thing about this lifestyle that we have chosen is that it is so fluid, so ever-changing, and while it was often easy to see, living day-by-day, that unschooling was a good fit for our family, I’ve had to remind myself now and again that not knowing exactly where we were going and how we were getting there was okay.
Driving is one of those milestones that has stuck as a reminder to me of just how close we are to the other end of things – fewer years ahead of the intense, time-together, days filled with each other than there are behind. Perhaps, because he is the last of my children, I feel the sting of days gone by more sharply. I find myself in a questioning place… What is my role here? How do I contribute now?
I am handing over the keys. I am riding in the passenger seat. I will soon be standing outside the car, waving as he drives away. Knowing. Trusting. Believing that he will master any surprises on his own road, in his own way. That has been the point all along, after all.
Today, he did not ask directions to our destination, and I did not offer. He took a new road, one different from our usual path, and he got us there all the same.
Once upon a time, I looked forward to arriving on the other side of this unschooling journey. I thought that if I would only wait and watch and learn long enough, I would eventually reach a point where I could fully articulate how a child learns.
In the fall issue of home/school/life, Amy shared a list of books on writing. I believe she was right on target when she wrote, “The best books for young writers inspire as much as they instruct, giving kids enthusiasm for writing as well as tools they can use to improve their stories, essays, poems, scripts, and other work.”
Inspiration, enthusiasm, and tools are all words that have been common to my vocabulary over the years, and I have learned that it is as important (maybe more) for me as mom to be inspired and enthused as it is for my kids. The tools for gaining knowledge are the ultimate goal, after all. It is not nearly as important that kids pick up the various facts and figures that are so commonly thought of as scholarly matter as it is that they gain practice and skill with the many tools of knowledge acquisition.
I now live in a house with three young people who are certainly independent writers and I’m still not sure I can explain it exactly. They are three very different kinds of writers even though they have enjoyed many of same introductions to reading and writing activities over the years.
I thought I would share a few of those activities and my thoughts about growing writers here:
Read, read, read, and read some more. There is no substitute for reading together and reading out loud. Every day you should be reading together, and don’t stick to age-appropriate books alone. Read the stories you remember loving as a kid. Read the stories your kids pick up at the library. Read even the bad ones, and when somebody says, “I really don’t like this book,” stop and have a discussion about what makes it a bad book. Put that book down and start another. I read to my kids from the newspaper, from news magazines, and often from the books I was reading for my own pleasure. As soon as they began reading on their own, we took turns reading out loud together. Books on tape are great, too, but the real power comes from reading with your own voice.
Make your own books. Starting as early as ages 3 and 4, I encouraged my kids to tell stories that I would write down. I returned these stories to them in booklet form. Their stories would be divided by scenes that they could illustrate. We made copies of these books to share with grandparents, aunts and uncles. The books we made went on the shelves beside other books and we were just as likely to read the stories they had written as others. This taught them that they had the power to manipulate words and that their efforts were legitimate.
Play word games while on the go. Mad Libs is the bomb. It is simply fun and no homeschooling family should be without a book or two of Mad Libs. It is easy to keep in a copy in a bag to pull out when entertainment is needed to fill some time. Most word games, however, require nothing more than your imagination. Time in the car, for our family, was typically filled with word games. Make it rhyme – I have a pet snake, his name is Jake; I have a pet flea, his name is Larry… Add it alphabetically – I’m going to the store and I’ve got an apple in my cart; I’m going to the store and I have an apple and a banana in my cart; I’m going to the store and I have an apple, a banana, and a cucumber in my cart… Tell round-robin stories!
Give them reasons to write. Here’s the thing about writing. The power of words can quickly be diminished when they are turned into worksheets and steps you are required to learn. My kids learned about punctuation when they asked, “Why do they put those dots in there? Why does the dot sometimes have that little tail that drops below the line? What’s that squiggle mean?” If I had to name the single most powerful tool my children received early on, in regards to their development as writers, it was power over the list. We moved our grocery list to kid height and announced that everyone in the house should add to it when they saw there was something we needed from the store. The list was one area where I didn’t take dictation, at least not throughout the week. If you wanted it, you had to put it there.
But don’t force them to write. I just wrote that the list was the one area where I didn’t take dictation. I should emphasize, however, that I did take dictation. I took a lot of dictation when my kids were young. I wrote whole stories as they were told to me. I typed letters that they mailed to their cousins. I encouraged storytelling, both fact and fiction, and I preserved those stories in printed form until they had mastered the skills to preserve what they wanted on their own. And gradually, as they did begin to write, I found myself taking less and less dictation (though occasionally they still came to me because I typed faster, or perhaps they just felt the need for some one-on-one time with mom…) There were times in my life where I was writing by hand for one kid and spelling words out loud for another while reviewing the third kid’s email because she wanted it to be “all right” and I thought my brain might explode from all the different directions it was going. Then, almost as quickly, I realized that nobody was asking me for help anymore. Last week, I proofed one college composition paper the morning it was to be turned in and reviewed an email my son had written for an event he was organizing. That was it. An entire week, and nobody needed any real help with writing.
Withhold judgment, at least until they ask for it. When you homeschool, it is tempting to turn every moment into a teachable lesson. Learn to bite your tongue. If your child brings you a handwritten note, a love letter, a book they made, a poem, whatever… simply observe and appreciate. Don’t point out the words they have misspelled, or the fact that it’s hard to read because they haven’t really put any spaces between their words. If they ask what you think about it, start with what you like. Then ask what they think about it. Children will often recognize their own mistakes, and if you start a conversation about the work they have written, the conversation becomes the lesson they need at that moment.
For my debut entry at the home/school/life Magazine blog, I thought I’d write about one of those happy side-effects of thirteen (or so) years of unschooling three kids. I call this side-effect: Unschooled Mom Friends.
This past week, you see, I drove to a playdate… alone.
It was the same highway that has been host to hundreds of games of I Spy With My Little Eye and a maybe a dozen versions each of 20 questions, the alphabet game, and can-you-rhyme that once kept my children entertained for the hour-long ride to the at-least-once-weekly playdates with our eclectic mix of homeschool friends. It was the same highway, but without the backseat full of chatter and kid/DJ riding shotgun, customizing song selections to set the mood for the day.
Our Mom-gatherings started as Mom’s Night Out, an occasion to dine together without anyone having to worry about house or kitchen clean-up. For several years, we called our meetings Book Club. We were even studious, intentionally broadening our horizons by occasionally reading books.
Playdates evolved. The kids did what kids grow to do. They went from trampolines and skateboards to driving around in cars. Some got jobs, joined clubs, tried out school, got girlfriends/boyfriends, suffered broken hearts…
With kids in tow, and sometimes without, we moms continued to gather as schedules allowed. Where we once assured each other over late readers and screen time, we continued to assure each other over our children’s relationship developments and first apartments.
Get-togethers without the kids began as our way of helping each other remember that the job of being Mom, while big, was not all-encompassing. We still needed to make time for ourselves, once in a while, and in doing it together, we gained experiences and explored and socialized, much like our kids.
The kids who once filled our houses and backyards when we gathered, or wandered off on park trails for hours at a time, got busy with their own lives, and my Unschool Mom Friends and I… we made a conscious decision, at some point, to keep getting together regardless of kid schedules, because we still had so much to learn from one another.
New friends for myself was not a perk I expected when I started on this journey so many years ago, but it’s one I would encourage every mom who makes a commitment to homeschooling to look for. Make sure you take some time to make friends with parents who are embarking on similar journeys. They will make you stronger, over time. They will help lift you when you are down. They will give you words you need to hear when you are at a loss for comforting your child, your teen, your young adult.
Your kids will refer to you collectively as “The Moms” and you will appreciate having adults in the lives of your children who understand the kind of investment and choices you are making as a family.
Yes, you are doing this for your children, but you are growing in your own right, as well.