Homeschooling: a learning experience for the whole family

Just recently, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District reversed its earlier ruling to make homeschooling in California illegal unless the parents had teacher certification. This ruling, which would have affected over 166,000 homeschoolers, ignited a huge outcry from people across the nation. So strong was the support for homeschoolers, that in the Court of Appeal, the three judges voted unanimously in favor of reversing the former ruling.

This incident sheds light on the fact that homeschoolers in the United States are now a force to be reckoned with. And their numbers are growing. According to a survey made by the US Department of Education, there were 850,000 homeschoolers in 1999. By 2003, the numbers had grown by 29 per cent to 1.1 million. In 2006, according to the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI), there were between 2.0 to 2.5 million children being educated at home. “Homeschooling,” writes the institute’s Dr Brian Ray, “is now bordering on ‘mainstream’ in the United States. It may be the fastest growing form of education in the United States.”

Why are so many parents choosing to educate their children at home? This is a question I asked as my husband and I began home educating our daughter. According to the same survey, put out by the US Department of Education, 31 per cent of parents chose to home school because of their concerns with the school environment, such as negative peer pressure and drugs. And 30 per cent of parents did so in order to give religious and moral instruction. Indeed, these would be our primary reasons for choosing this path.

Whether we are homeschooling or not, we have to make a very conscious effort to ensure that we are indeed the primary educators of
our children.

But just as compelling are the testimonies of many homeschoolers about their children’s higher standardized test scores, a safe home environment, a flexible family schedule, reading books together as a family, and vacationing in October.

And so it was with great anticipation that I began homeschooling my daughter last year. Having been a piano teacher and a high school teacher, I assumed that teaching one little five-year-old would be quite simple. Much to my surprise, it was more difficult than I could have imagined. At times it was so challenging that I found myself asking, “Now why are we doing this? And is it really worth it?”

This summer, as I prepared for another year of homeschooling, I took the time to reflect deeply upon the difficulties we had and to examine our reasons for homeschooling. Why are we homeschooling? What are the challenges, and how can we overcome them? This is what I would like to share.

Reasons for homeschooling

Do as the geniuses do. In college and graduate school I had a great admiration for homeschooling families. The parents were convinced of what they believed and the children were among the most well-behaved kids I ever knew. As a piano teacher I had the pleasure of teaching some homeschooled kids, and I found them to be very obedient and respectful, very consistent in their piano practicing and theory homework, and very hard workers. In group piano class, these children socialized very well with the other students. They were such a pleasure to teach, that I sometimes thought I would like to have a studio more or less devoted to them.

Among pianists, there is a saying: Do as the geniuses do. That is, if you want to perform like a great concert pianist, discover the way they practice and imitate their methods. I think this can be true of great families. I know several families that I would like to use as a model for our own, and it so happens that the majority are homeschoolers. I see the joy, the great relationships the kids have with their parents, the strong religious foundation, the innocence of the children, and I want to discover and imitate their methods. I think: Do as these geniuses are doing.

We are the primary educators of our children. As parents, we have the right and duty to be the primary educators of our children. This is a major part of living out our vocation as parents. However, at this point in time it is tremendously difficult:

The media and our culture in general are constantly undermining the authority of the parent. For example, in many states, teenage girls are given contraceptives or abortions without parental notice. Even for the youngest children there are many movies, TV shows and books where the dad is dumb and the kids outsmart their parents.

There is an over-emphasis on the importance of peers. Too often, parents allow a child’s peers to have far too much influence.

Television and the internet clamor for our children’s attention and seduce them with their glamour and empty promises of material happiness.

Long hours at school and a multitude of after-school activities can easily result in little time spent with the parents and siblings.

Whether we are homeschooling or not, we have to make a very conscious and heroic effort to ensure that we are indeed the primary educators of our children. Homeschooling parents have a little more control over what influences their children.

Religious education of children. We must also raise our children to know and understand their faith. However, the media and other sectors of society promote agendas that are diametrically opposed to our beliefs. We as parents are trying to encourage self control, restraint in spending and generosity with the poor, respect for the sanctity of life and for the dignity of human beings made in the image of God, and an understanding that truth is objective. But the media flatly contradict us with their own messages: indulge yourself; you can’t be happy unless you buy, buy, buy; all things are disposable, including people -- after you have finished using them; truth is relative -- “that’s only your belief”.

Homeschooling is a way we can ensure that we are the primary educators of our children and that we take full responsibility for our children’s formation and religious upbringing.

Finding and being able to afford the ideal school. We would consider sending our children to school if we could find and afford a school that served as an extension of our home. Such a school would not only have to provide religious and moral teaching in accord with the Catholic faith. All the faculty and staff should be excellent examples for our children of what it is to be a faithful Christian, and most of the families in the school should uphold church teaching. Our ideal school would have high academic standards, be in comfortable proximity to the home, be single-sex and have small class sizes.

In our area there are a few schools that may meet most of our criteria. However, these schools are also expensive – almost unaffordable, especially considering that we are hoping to be blessed with more children while remaining a family of single income. We also believe it is financially wiser to educate our children at home while they are young and to save the money otherwise spent on elementary school for an outstanding high school and college education.

The socialization issue. The definition of “socialization” in the American Heritage Dictionary is: 1. to place under government or group ownership or control; 2. to fit for companionship with others, make sociable. The first definition made me smile. It seems to me that the liberal minded media as well as those groups that target the young with their feminist/homosexual agendas would very much like children to be socialized and placed under their ownership and control. On this definition, therefore, we do not care to socialize our children. We want our children to be in control of themselves, of their passions and desires. In this way, they will have the freedom and ability to discern and do what is right. In this way they will find fulfillment and happiness.

Of course, when most people talk about the socialization of children they are referring to the second definition. It is only natural that parents are concerned about their children “fitting in” at school. It is so painful to watch a child suffer cruelty from other kids because he is “too different” in one way or another.

However, if my husband and I succeed in preserving our children’s innocence and prevent them from becoming materialistic they will, by necessity, be very different from many of their peers. For example, our children do not watch television. They do not have a superabundance of toys. They do not wear immodest clothing. They will not have lavish birthday parties. Carolyn will never own a Bratz doll. They are more familiar with classical music than rock music. They know more about real-life heroes than they do of movie stars. And we hope that Hannah Montana will simply remain a face on a t-shirt they don’t own. In coming years, their freedom in using the internet will be in proportion to their level of maturity and responsibility.

Our children are still very young, but as they get older the differences between them and most other children will be more apparent. In a school setting (particularly public school) they would probably cause our children to be excluded by others and give them reason for feeling discontent with what they have, what they wear, and what they are and are not allowed to do. And yet we do not want to compromise our moral standards.

On the other hand, our local Catholic home school group is full of families that share our beliefs, morals and values. In this group, the children find friends with whom they have much in common and meet older kids who are good role models. In fact, it may be that the best way to “socialize” our children is to surround them with love, first in the home and then in warm, caring environments outside the home.

Protecting our children and making them strong. We want to protect our children -- especially when they are so young, impressionable and vulnerable -- not only from the pain of being “too different”, but also from the negative influence of people (peers included!) who have bad attitudes, who are materialistic, who are immodest. We especially want to protect them from those people whose beliefs are contrary to ours and who seek to impose their agendas on our children.

As they grow physically, we hope and pray they will also grow to be strong emotionally and spiritually. A mother bird protects and nourishes her chicks in the nest until they are strong, before sending them out to fly. By homeschooling, are we being over-protective? Not if we are striving to make our children strong so they can go out into the world, hold their own in it and influence it for good.

Our other reasons for homeschooling include the following: each child’s learning style and pace can be identified, respected, and used; homeschooling gives us more time spent together as a family (the kids are growing so fast! We want to savor these moments); we also have more flexibility in our schedule; the children have more “free time” for playing, reading, using their imaginations.

And now, the challenges

A great balancing act. Homeschooling is a lot of work, especially when you’re new at it (and unsure of what you’re doing). You have to balance chores, cooking, running errands, and paying the bills with the kids’ social activities and, of course, school lessons. You have to balance spending quality time with each child. You have to balance your busy day with time spent nourishing your spiritual life and time spent just with your spouse.

Balancing all of this can be stressful! And when I’m stressed, I find it hard to be patient and charitable. When I’m not patient and charitable, I feel like a mean mommy and a terrible teacher. Then, the kids don’t learn well. Then I get frustrated and discouraged. Then the kids are frustrated and discouraged. This makes homeschooling a learning and character-building experience for me as well.

Motivating your children. Many children do things for other adults more eagerly and docilely than they do for their parents, particularly their mothers. I had tremendous difficulty getting Carolyn to submerge her head under the water, but her swim teacher got her to do it at her first request. I know many wonderful piano teachers who refuse to teach their own children. After teaching Carolyn piano for a year, I know why! This fact of human nature, that children often put on better behavior for other adults, is maddening and a great challenge for homeschooling moms. However, it forces us to seek ways of understanding and motivating our children and this is a very important lesson for all parents.

Being objective about your children’s abilities. My father-in-law used to work in school admissions and he tells how, when a child was entering kindergarten, parents used to come into his office and say, “I know I’m his parent, but really and truly, this kid is gifted.” By fifth grade, the same parents would come to him and say, “I don’t know what’s the matter. He keeps on getting C’s.”

Mothers, I think, are prone to being too demanding or too soft. We have a tendency to expect too much of our oldest child and this can frustrate us when he or she does not meet our expectations. On the other hand, with the younger children we may easily come up with a myriad of excuses for under-achievement.

The group dynamic. There’s no denying it. There can be a wonderful positive energy that is generated when a group of children are together. Throw in a little healthy competition and you can have a great environment for learning. It is also very motivating; I’ve seen it a lot of times when teaching group piano. Unless you have a large family you may have to think up creative ways of capturing the benefits of a group dynamic. No wonder home school co-ops are so popular.

Who needs to be disciplined? Mom must be very, very disciplined. Some days I would much rather go shopping than teach math. Some days I want to sleep in and start the day late. And since I have no boss to penalize me for doing so, it is very easy to take the day off.

Sometimes I see or hear about a new and wonderful curriculum. And immediately, I want to incorporate it into my lesson plans. But soon after, I find out about another new and exciting way of teaching math or reading and I want to use that method.

It takes a lot of discipline to follow through with your schedule and your pre-determined course of study. At the same time, it takes wisdom and discernment to know when to change one’s schedule, approach or materials. But I have found that when I follow my schedule, the day goes more smoothly, and I am more serene, and consequently more patient and kind with my children.

Babies and toddlers. My friend Sue has it perfect. She home schools Audrey while Max takes his lovely two-hour nap in the afternoon. Audrey gets all her homeschooling done in 1.5 hours. What a breeze. I can’t wait till her baby is born and she starts homeschooling “on the fly”!

For us, homeschooling has not been such a walk in the park. Last year it was a real challenge keeping a fussy baby and an active toddler happy while trying to give Carolyn her lessons. There were constant interruptions: Thomas had to be nursed, Peter had to use the potty, it was Thomas’ nap time but he didn’t want to take a nap, Peter was thirsty and wanted a drink, Carolyn was thirsty and wanted a drink, Thomas pooped in his diaper... This year, I hope, it will be easier as the kids are a little older and we are finding new ways of keeping everyone relatively occupied and happy. A good sense of humor goes a long way.

Family and friends who don’t understand. As stated earlier, homeschooling is a fast-growing trend in the United States. Numbers are growing and many businesses that cater to children make special offers and programs for homeschoolers. When you tell people that you are homeschooling your children, they no longer look at you as if you had two heads.

Still, almost all of my homeschooling friends have family members and friends that do not understand and do not support their decision to home school. My husband and I have been very blessed to have supportive families, but for those who don’t, this can be a real source of contention or sensitivity. In such a case, homeschooling parents need to remember that their job is to educate their children in the manner they think is best, not to win the approval of others. Also, we can find tremendous support from other homeschoolers and we can persevere with the hope that our efforts will bear much fruit in the future. After all, the most rewarding endeavours are those that are the most challenging

A final thought…

I once heard a beautiful analogy about large families that I think can apply to all families, homeschooling or not. A family is like the fire in the hearth of a home. For those on the outside of the home looking in, the shining fire is warm and inviting. For those in the home, this fire gives light and warmth. It is vital for the comfort of those living in the home. But upon closer inspection, one sees the sparks flying, the wood crackling, and the messy ashes. It is not a pretty sight.

Our families are like that fire in the hearth. We have our difficulties and our moments of discouragement, stress and frustration. Tempers flare up, sparks fly, the house is, at times, a real mess. But despite this, our love for each other gives light and warmth and joy to those around us.

Mary Cooney writes from Baltimore, Maryland.


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