The Art of Knowing When to Push

The Art of Knowing When to Push

One of my guiding principles for homeschooling comes by way of unschooler Sandra Dodd: she says that when kids feel truly free to say, “More, please!” when something interests them and free to say, “No, thanks” when something doesn’t interest them, those kids can’t help but learn, and learn with joy and empowerment.

But what about when my kids say “No” not because they’re not interested, but because they’re afraid? What then?

I recently faced that thorny question while my two kids and I were on a trip to the Florida Keys.

My eleven-year-old daughter has long loved the ocean and its creatures. For years, she’s dreamed of snorkeling near coral reefs and seeing colorful tropical fish up close. While we were in Florida, we reserved spots on a snorkeling tour at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park near Key Largo, the first undersea park in the United States. 

A motorized catamaran carried us and about fifty other passengers of all ages to Grecian Rocks Reef, a smooth 30-minute ride southeast of the park visitor center. Our guides were a pair of enthusiastic young women named Brittany and Caitlyn who proudly informed us they were the park’s only all-female crew.

I was a little nervous as our boat skimmed toward our snorkeling destination, though for my daughter’s sake, I did my best to keep my fears to myself. What would it be like to swim with tropical fish? Would they brush up against me? Would I scratch myself on sharp coral or damage a reef? 

When we stopped and anchored near the Grecian Rocks, the other passengers started spraying defogger on their masks, gathering up their fins and snorkels, and heading for the ladders on either side of the boat without any visible trace of nervousness. I asked if my daughter wanted to go in first. She shook her head and said I could go ahead of her. 

The water was shockingly cold at first, and I felt awkward in my fins, mask, and snorkel. I also felt vulnerable. I’m used to swimming in pools with sides I can grab on to and shallow ends where I can easily touch the bottom. Now I was treading water in one of the world’s biggest oceans with no land in sight. I felt keenly that I was a land-based creature, an alien here.

I hung on to the bottom of the ladder to wait for my girl to join me. She made it halfway down the ladder and balked.

“I can’t do it!” she whimpered, her eyes wide with terror. “I don’t want to do it!”

My aspiration as a parent is to listen to my kids’ feelings and refrain from trying to talk them out of their emotions, no matter how inconvenient or unwelcome those emotions might be. If they say they’re not ready to try something, I figure they know better than I do what’s right for them in a given moment. 

My aspiration as a parent is to listen to my kids’ feelings and refrain from trying to talk them out of their emotions, no matter how inconvenient or unwelcome those emotions might be. If they say they’re not ready to try something, I figure they know better than I do what’s right for them in a given moment. 

But this time, my intuition told me that my daughter would regret it if she didn’t get in that water. I wasn’t ready to let her off the hook without trying for at least a little while to talk her through her fear.

“It does feel scary at first,” I said, hanging on at the foot of the ladder, still feeling clumsy and a bit scared myself. “But once you get used to it, I’ll bet you’ll really like it.”

I kept trying to pep-talk her, telling her that when we try something that scares us, we become bigger people. We’ve got one less thing to be afraid of and one more memory of tackling a challenge that we can call on for strength later on.

No dice. She was not budging off that ladder. 

My son had been less than enthused about this whole snorkeling business to begin with, but there’s nothing like having a younger sibling afraid to try something to motivate an older sibling to dive in and show ‘em how it’s done. He climbed down into the water and flopped in beside me, clearly feeling just as awkward as I did.

Brittany and Caitlyn encouraged my son and me to go ahead and swim around and check things out. They assured me they’d be happy to sit with my daughter while we explored. My daughter said that was all right with her, so my son and I kicked away from the boat. 

Only a few yards away from where we were anchored stood clumps of large, boulder-shaped corals swaying with sea fans and covered with forests of staghorn coral, brain coral, and elkhorn coral. Blue tangs, porcupine fish, and stoplight parrotfish nosed peacefully among the corals, oblivious to us humans hovering a few yards above them. 

Gradually, I started to relax. The fish were close enough for me to see them well, but not close enough to brush against me. We were at a comfortable distance from the coral, in no danger of touching or damaging it. 

Swimming through the silence of the calm, clear water, immersed in a world I’d previously seen only in books and movies, I focused less on how alien I felt and more on how utterly amazing this place was. I bobbed my head above the surface and lifted my mask to see if I could spot my daughter back on the boat. She was sitting in the bow wrapped in a towel, dangling her legs over the side, squinting toward me in the bright sun. 

 “Let’s go see if she’s ready now,” I told my son, and we headed toward the catamaran.

By the time we’d gotten to the boat, my daughter was standing by the ladder with her wetsuit, snorkel, and mask on, her fins in her hand. 

 It still wasn’t easy talking her down that ladder. Tears fogged up her mask as she hit the water. Her body was stiff with fear. 

With my son on one side of her and me on the other, she took the risk of putting her face in the water. We swam side by side, my son holding her right hand and me holding her left.

Within seconds, I heard her gasping with wonder as she spotted her first fish. Gradually, she grew brave enough to briefly let go of my hand to point at especially big or colorful fish that caught her eye. 

By the end of our hour or so of snorkeling, she wasn’t holding my hand at all and was confidently swimming ahead of me. She’d conquered a fear. Her possibilities were just a little bit bigger than they’d been an hour earlier, and she’d fulfilled a dream she’s had since she was tiny.

So how do you answer that question of when to push a child who’s scared to try something? I think for me, the answer comes down to being clear about why I’m pushing. Is it because of some abstract idea about not wanting my child to be a scaredy-cat or a quitter? Or is it because I know deep down, based on my relationship with my child, that they’re more ready than they realize and just need a little encouragement, a gentle little nudge? Do I want my kid to overcome their fear to please me, or because I think overcoming that fear will please them? My answer to those questions makes all the difference.

Riding back to shore with my daughter huddled beside me in a damp beach towel, our minds brimming with the wonders we’d just seen below the waves, I felt confident that at least this time, I’d been right not to take “no” for an answer.

52 Weeks of Happier Homeschooling Week 15: Plan a Family Vacation

week 15.jpg

Here’s something nice to know: The anticipation of planning for your next vacation can give you the same mental and physical boost you get from actually taking a vacation. People may actually be happier in the weeks leading up to a holiday than they are in the weeks following one—which is the best argument we’ve heard for making vacations part of your homeschool routine.

To get maximum vacation bliss benefits, experts say you’re better off scheduling lots of small long-weekend-isn vacations throughout the year than saving up for one big multi-week holiday. Whether you’re planning an easy-on-the-budget campout (we’ve got some great starter camping tips in the summer 2016 issue of HSL) or an Airbnb city getaway for Black History Month (check out our destination list in the winter issue), collaborating with your clan to plan a long weekend getaway in the near future may be just the lift you need to get you through the mid-winter homeschool blahs. If your budget is tight, think cheap: You don’t have to travel far—or fancy—to reap vacation benefits.  Even a one-day escape can lift your spirits if you take the time to plan it and give yourself time to look forward to it.

As far as planning goes, vacation should definitely be a family project. Start an internet research campaign, and check out lots of travel guides at the library to help you plan a perfect trip. 

Your challenge this week: Come up with a doable destination you can visit sometime this winter, and start planning a trip with your kids.

The Pleasures of Summer Homeschooling: How to Have a NorCal Summer

Homeschooling summer break: A to-do list for a laid-back, life-enhancing summer holiday

When my kids were younger, I always intended to maintain some of our homeschool routine throughout the summer. Maybe we’d do math lessons three days a week, or finally listen to those “Learn to Speak Spanish” discs I bought at Costco. At the very least, we’d participate in the summer reading program at the library and earn free ice cream cones. But inevitably, the math books stayed close, the Spanish discs remained unplayed, and the books we read were never logged. Summer seeped in and took over, and we were all grateful for the break. 

When a friend recently shared a post about the homework assignment an Italian teacher gave his students, I was inspired to create a different sort of summer curriculum, free of traditional school subjects. The action items assigned by the Italian teacher encouraged his students to learn outside of the classroom, to take oneself as a subject to be studied, to become more fully present in one’s skin and in one’s environment. It’s an assignment for students - and teachers - of all ages. 

I have yet to enjoy an Italian summer (though I could imagine doing so), but here’s how I plan to enrich our NorCal summer:

1.  First thing in the morning while your dreams are fresh in your mind, write them down in a journal. Better yet, tell somebody about them. This is how you become a better dreamer and storyteller.

2.  Learn new words. Try to use them in writing or in conversation; or just chant them to yourself like a mantra, especially the words that make you feel something. Sophisticated, silly, smart, clever, wise. Words have power. Feel them out.

3.  Read what you want to read, but do yourself a favor and try a new genre. Graphic novels, sci-fi, short stories, travelogues, poetry, books turned into movies. Read outside your comfort zone.

4.  Spend more time with people who make you feel good—about yourself, about them, about the world—and less time with people who make you feel bad, sad, mad, or nothing at all. This goes for the people you spend time with online too.

5.  Remember: the days are long and hot, but the season is short. Create some bright memories and tuck them away for the cooler, shorter days to come. Also, wear sunscreen.

6.  Learn how to stand on your head. Start with a pillow for cushion and a wall for support. Then progress to standing on your hands. Try to take a few steps upside down, walking with your hands. If nothing else, you will learn how to fall.

7.  Fall in love. With a person, a place, a song, a movie, a food, a book, an idea. Love it passionately.

8.  Spend time outside alone, under the stars, facing the rising or setting sun, or just sitting in the shade. Practice not thinking during your alone time. A quiet mind is a gift you give to yourself.

9.  Practice gratitude and generosity. Name three things that bring you joy; it’s an instant mood changer. Give compliments; extra points if you compliment a stranger. Be kind. Assume the best about people (but don’t forget #4). 

10.  Don’t wait for invitations. Be the one who invites. It can be simple - a walk, a swim, an iced coffee. Or it can be big - a party, a day at the beach, a trip to an amusement park. Don’t wait for things to happen. Make things happen.

From one homeschooling mom to another, have a happy summer, wherever you are!

Taking a Step Back to Embrace Change in Your Homeschool

Great homeschool inspiration read: Sometimes you need to take a step back to move forward. Love this essay. #homeschool

The jet lag is tough. Four days ago we flew home to Great Britain, after a long holiday in North America where we visited friends and family. We’ve unpacked the suitcases, thrown several loads of laundry into the washing machine, been to the supermarket, and are now trying to get back into the groove. Well, almost.

Taking a holiday has always been an opportunity for my family to reevaluate our rhythms and routines. Stepping away from our various projects and commitments, leaving behind the pile of homeschool books and resources, is a chance to think about what we want for our family. Usually we don’t discover new goals, we simply come back to our family’s core values. Time together. A love of learning. Curiosity. Discovery. Fresh air. A concern for nature and our fellow human beings. Helping others. Love.

It’s not so much that we stray from these values and need to come back them; more that I forget that they’re there, and they become buried beneath the making­-breakfast­-practice-­the­-piano­-where­-did­-you­-put­-my­-shoes­-ness of daily life. I like it that I get wrapped up in the everyday, because to me that means I am present to my family. On the other hand, I don’t want to lose sight of what we as a family believe because I want everything in our lives to draw us closer to our core values.

To that effect, I apply my mind every summer to thinking about what we do and how we do it. Do we still want to have family games night on a Wednesday? Do our agreements about screen time still make sense? What direction do our projects seem to be taking, and how could I tweak things to better support the children in their work? Are we socializing enough, or perhaps too much? And the question of questions: are we happy?

Family life changes over time: babies become children who learn to read. Those children become teenagers: all limbs and mobile phones. Husbands turn grey and take up home brewing. For me, life seems too busy and I find myself hatching plans for how I can retreat to my rocking chair with my crochet. It all sounds like a slightly skewed Norman Rockwell painting, but you get the point: what worked for my family last year may not ring true for us now. Though most of us hold in our heads the idea that things are static, in fact they are in a constant state of flux.

The idea is to embrace change. I work at seeing it as my friend. I ask myself what I can change to lead us toward a greater experience of happiness. I attempt to make those changes. Sometimes they work. Other times we go back to the way things were and chalk it up to experience. Change can be hard to swallow and for the change­-averse needs to be gradual and ever so gentle. But if the alternative is to be stuck in a rut, I know what I’d choose. Right now, we are figuring out where our ruts are.

Stuff We Like :: 8.21.15

home|school|life's Friday roundup of the best homeschool links, reads, tools, and other fun stuff has lots of ideas and resources.

Shelli's taking a break from her busy week of birthday fun to round up some of the things that are making her homeschool life happy right now.  

at home

I’m in the midst of planning my soon-to-be-6-year-old’s birthday party, and I thought this nature-themed party I found online was adorable.

We just finished a short “staycation” of sorts, and we renewed our love of taking day trips to places we’ve never been before. We took three within a week and a half, and it was very relaxing to come home, sleep in our own beds, do minimal preparations for the trips, yet we have a handful of new memories to cherish. If you need some inspiration to take your own day trips, see Seven Reasons You Should Take a Day Trip.

I’m not much of a cook, but finding Alton Brown’s salsa recipe has given me another feather in my chef’s cap. (But I use only one jalapeno, 2 garlic cloves, 1 Tablespoon of dried ancho chili powder instead of fresh ancho chiles, and cilantro is always a must.) And that salsa made this Crockpot Mexican Tortilla Lasagna from even tastier.


at home/school/life

on the blog: I think these Gold Rush readalouds all look great.

on instagram: I love this quote.

from the magazine: There is so much practical inspiration for planning your homeschool year in this excerpt from our first issue.



We are still making our way through Wildest Africa Series 1 and Series 2, and I don’t think we ever watch it without saying, “This is so good,” and “I never knew that place existed,” and “Other documentaries about Africa never show you this.”

We also began our first documentary about human history with a docudrama about the history of archaeology and ancient history in Egypt. Egypt is fascinating, and it’s so well acted that it feels like watching a movie.I’m happy to say that my eight-year-old is enjoying it, and up until now, he’s had little interest in history that didn’t have to do with animals. It’s probably a little hard for my five-year-old to understand, but since watching documentaries is a daily ritual for us, he’s patiently watching it too.


in our homeschool

I finally managed to get Mathematicians are People Too, Volume 1, from the library, and now I understand why everyone wants to check out this book. My 8-year-old and I are thoroughly enjoying these mini-biographies of famous mathematicians.

One of my goals this coming school year is to get my 8-year-old to start reading silently to himself by finding books he’ll really love to read. Well, my husband took care of that by buying him several vintage comic books for $1 each in some antique stores we shopped at while on our day trips. I would have never guessed that all the cartoons I grew up with – Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Donald Duck and others– would someday motivate my son to sit down and read without being asked! So check in some antique stores, if you’re looking for some fun comics. (But be sure to check their prices. Some vintage comics can be quite pricey!)

My 5-year-old is all about birds lately, and I’ve been delighted to spend every evening with him perusing our iBird app in lieu of reading a bedtime story.


reading list

I'm thoroughly enjoying reading, for the first time, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum to my eight-year-old. I watched the movie multiple times as a child, and though the book is different, it's proving to be just as delightful.

I'm a little jealous that my husband snatched the first Harry Potter book to read to my son. I wanted to read it to him! Oh well. From their glowing reviews, I can tell I'll enjoy it whenever I get the chance.

As for me, I recently finished reading the adult novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and I loved it. It had been on my bookshelf for only 15 years. Why did I wait so long?

Speaking of neglected books, I'm determined to read those other books that have been on my bookshelf awhile, so I just picked up Lalita Tademy's Cane River, another adult novel that is fiction yet rooted in extensive research of Tademy's family history. It’s a family saga of four generations of women born into slavery in Louisiana.