I was hoping to get these posts written much more quickly than I have! So thank you for your patience in waiting for this one.
So what are the key ingredients for successful homeschooling? Keeping in mind everything in mind that I have shared in parts one and two of this series, I would say that I don’t believe the answers are related to academics. Of course, we want to do our best to teach our children well so they have the knowledge and tools to function effectively in this world. But if I had to choose, I would like to suggest that the key ingredients for successful homeschooling are love and time, not superior academic training. Often we are so focused on the academic side of homeschooling that we forget we are building relationships and shaping hearts. It’s really profound that when people reflect on their lives from their death beds, their greatest joys and their biggest regrets always have to do with relationships.
Relationships – Parent and Child
From birth, we are wired for relationships with others. Babies who are deprived of physical touch and emotional love will eventually die. And this time of lockdown has shown us all in a new way how very much we need people! We’ve seen the adverse effects when we are isolated and separated from those we love. As we homeschool our children, we need to remember that the most important thing we can give them is love. Specifically, love in the form of time. Time is the currency we use to fill the love banks in our child’s heart.
The reason why homeschooling has been so difficult for some people in this time of lockdown is that many parents have been put into a situation where they are trying to do their paid jobs as well as homeschool their children. This means they are lacking TIME – one of the key ingredients to successful homeschooling. My heart goes out to these parents. I know they are doing their best in a much less than ideal situation. However, if you have limited time (for COVID-19 or other reasons), you can still be intentional with the time you have. Put routines into place in your day and your week to make sure your children know that they are your most important priority. I will be the first to say that this takes effort – you need to fight for these routines! I find that over time, my routines always slip and I need to re-establish them, or try new ones that work better. This is normal. If something stops working, don’t give up. Start fresh today putting first things first (ie the people you love!).
Some practical tips on time and routines:
Bedtime is one of the best times of the day for relationship! Don’t rush through bedtime (I’m speaking to myself here, as I’m often guilty of doing this!). Take time to talk with your children, listen to them and read aloud to them. You can even save some of your “school” read-alouds for bedtime. This is a great way for Dad to get involved in the schooling too. If you are a Christian, this can also be a great time to help your children grow in their relationship with God by reading them Bible stories and praying together. Often we as parents are weary at this time of day, and it’s hard to slow down and make this time special. But think of how much love and time 18 years of bedtime routines adds up to (even if it’s only 15 minutes!). The little daily decisions we make (often hard-fought for routines) are very, very important.
NOTE: Reading aloud is not just for younger kids! After reading the inspirational book The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma, I asked my oldest daughter if she wanted to do a “reading streak” with me during her last year of school before she left home. I read aloud to her for at least 10 minutes a day for over a year and wow, it created so many precious memories and really strengthened the bond between us! (in only ten minutes a day) See Hannah’s 3 part blog post (part 1, part 2 and part 3) about the streak if you want to hear her beautifully written reflections on our streak.
Our phones and iPads and TVs are the number one enemy of relationships in our homes! When you are with your children, be fully present with them. Put your phone down!! Even better, put it away in a different room of your house – especially during the hours you are homeschooling. Give your children eye contact and listen to them (really listen!). Do a little experiment and check your daily screen time vs. the actual time you spend each day interacting with your child. Do any major changes need to be made?!!
Relationships and Homeschooling – How does this all relate to homeschooling? Well, I’ve always sought to homeschool in such a way that I’m building relationships with my children while I’m teaching them. When our relationships are strong, they are more open and receptive to me teaching them. And in the end, having a close relationship with my children trumps all my other desires for them (including academic success)!
So, how do we focus on relationships while homeschooling?
A few practical tips:
- Have fun! My personality is very goal-oriented and I can tend to be way too serious. Look for ways to learn that are genuinely FUN! One recent example: my two younger girls have been loving “playing school” while we are actually homeschooling. This usually involves them packing backpacks with their books, choosing a different name and age and some imaginary interaction with me. Yes, it slows things down for us a bit (and I have to remember their new “names” each day but, they love it! 🙂
- As much as you can, let them choose parts of what you study, read, and do for school. For example, I have a series of great books called Usborne Beginners on different topics (many are scientific). My 4 1/2 year old loves to choose one each week to go through. I also let her choose the read-alouds we are doing each day (she chooses from a selection I’ve put on our school shelf) and choose the order of things we do each day. I also make my 8 year old a list of work to do for the day and then she can choose when she does what (my 13 year old gets a list for the week). When children are allowed to choose (within reason), they are much more invested in what they’re doing. Letting them choose says to them that we think their ideas and thinking are truly valuable. Also, if they come up with ideas (ie Let’s go on a nature walk today mummy!) or topics they want to study, do your best to go with their interests!
- Be encouraging! As parents we often need to spend lots of time correcting our children, and rightly so. However, as humans we are all starving for words of affirmation and praise and our children are no different. I like to focus on praising them for things like their hard work, perseverance, choosing to pay attention, etc. (rather then . . . you are so clever, you are so skilled at this).
- Be affectionate. Physical touch is vital for building close relationships. Make sure to hug, kiss, cuddle, wrestle, snuggle and just be physically near to each other. These are massive investments in your child’s love tank. The amazing thing is that homeschooling offers us the opportunity to do all these things – in the middle of a school day!
- Lastly, at the risk of sounding like a broken record: Focus on reading aloud (see part 2 post for more on this!). Part of the reason why reading aloud to your child is so powerful, is that in the act of reading to them, you yourself are fully present with them! Which equals TIME invested. Being fully present says to your child, I love you enough to focus on just you . . . you are so valuable that I want to be with you (more than do other things!). This is a simple but very powerful gift you can give your child – the gift of your full attention. With younger children, reading aloud often means holding them on your lap or cuddling next to them – which means physical affection is being shared too. Also, sharing a good story often means sharing emotions – even if there is no conversation afterwards about the book. Good stories, in and of themselves, deal with emotions and the heart and teach us empathy for others.
Relationships with Others and Character Training
I remember the sweet joy of holding our children in our arms when they were brand new. Nothing really compares to those precious first moments with a new baby. As a parent, your heart is filled with so much love and joy and also so much hope! We look forward to watching this child learn to walk, hearing them start to talk and then grow into a unique person with talents, gifts and personality. We anticipate the years ahead with this child and we imagine what this little person will be like, how they will grow and what they will become.
If I asked you what you are hoping your child will have learned by the time they leave home, what would you say? Of course, we all want our children to succeed academically. But is this the most important thing? If you had to choose, wouldn’t you rather your child grow up to be kind, generous and able to relate well to others than to come out at the top of the academic ladder?
In order to help your child grow into the kind of person you want them to be, you need to almost think of character training as a school “subject!” This will hopefully give you the permission to stop during the school day and take the time to address issues that come up. And come up they will! Some days (often Mondays!!) I feel like I spend more time addressing bad attitudes and sibling arguing than I spend teaching academics. And you know what? That’s 100% OK. In fact, it’s the time we spend teaching our children to be aware of their own selfishness or helping them learn to be kind and patient that will pay the real dividends in your child’s heart and life. And yes, this takes lots of time and patience! Instead of just telling them to “stop it,” we need to take time to address what’s really going on inside them, to listen to them and teach them gently. I used to view these frustrating moments (ie my child refuses to do their math or my child has been rude to me or one of their siblings) as interruptions to my schooling day. But even though I still have to battle with my own frustration, I now try to see these “interruptions” as an actual part of our homeschooling. We are working on character/heart development and in the end it’s going to be the condition of heart of my child that really matters.
Sometimes we think of love as just “niceness on steroids.” We forget that as parents, our deep love for our children should mean that we set up boundaries for them. Love has a tough side, and yes, it takes work to make sure our discipline and training of our kids stays loving (ie about them and their growth, not about our need to vent our own feelings or create peace for ourselves!)
A few practical tips on setting boundaries:
- Try not to set up too many rules, but make the ones that you do set up related to the important stuff of life! And don’t set up a rule that you aren’t willing to consistently address when it gets broken. Have clear consequences and implement them consistently. Children learn fast whether or not we mean what we say.
- Use sticker charts (with rewards) occasionally to help your younger child work on a specific issue (we have one going right now for bedtime behaviour!).
- I mentioned this in my first post, but it’s so important to teach children to be helpful around the house. Make sure that even the youngest children have regular jobs (we call them contributions) and that you teach them to do them cheerfully (yes, this is a long process but so worth it!) See my first post for more on this subject.
- Character training is hard, hard work. Especially when children are little. As a parent, it sometimes feel relentless. Children are human beings (like us!) and will often test your endurance your desire to teach and train them. Don’t give up! All the planting of seeds will be worth it and In the end you will reap a beautiful harvest. (If you are a Christian, see Galatians 6:9 – my favourite mummy Bible verse)
A Word on Teenagers: A lot of what I have written in this post has been more applicable to younger children. We currently have four teenagers in our house and they need love and time and boundaries just as much as the younger ones, though perhaps in a different way. Make sure to listen when they open up and don’t be repelled by their apparent lack of need for you! They do indeed need us! As parents we need to pursue a relationship with them while at the same time offering them ever-increasing freedom and respecting their opinions and feelings. We need courage to keep having the hard conversations with our teens when they cross boundaries. We need to identify when they need “tough” love and when they need “soft” love. And we need to keep on top of what they are doing in schoolwork, even if most of their assignments are done independently. There have been a number of times when I have gone weeks without checking if their work is getting done and then I’ve realised they are massively behind! Oops!! (Obviously this was an opportunity to address time management skills as well as character issues!) So, stay involved with your teens’ homeschooling. I find weekly meetings on Monday (to assign work) and on Fridays (to mark and check work) with some of my teenagers have worked really well.
If you have decided to homeschool by choice, you have chosen to make a major sacrifice. If you are homeschooling during lockdown, I applaud you for the sacrifice you are making which you didn’t choose for yourself! Whether by choice or not, you are giving your children the gift of your time with them, day in and day out. It’s not easy! Sometimes even the most dedicated homeschool mums among us (myself included!) feel resentful of this daily sacrifice of time – to help your child with one more math lesson, to do the very hard work of teaching a child to read, to fold one more load of laundry, mark one more math page or address one more attitude problem or sibling squabble. Just remember that massive and beautiful buildings are built one brick at a time. One choice at a time, you can put yourself and your own desires aside and give the gifts of LOVE and TIME to your children. The investment will be worth it!
Coming next: For the last instalment in this series, my daughter Hannah (19) is going to write a post about what she loved (and maybe didn’t love?) about homeschooling! Hopefully it will be helpful to someone.
Bonus section: Relationship With God (I have tried to make these posts accessible to everyone but here are some thoughts from my heart. If you are not a Christian and want to find out more, check out these four posts written by Peter at LookForHope.org)
If you are a Christian, teaching your children how to relate to others can be rooted in first teaching them about God’s deep love for them. When they begin to see God’s love, kindness, and patience toward them, it leads them to be learn to extend that love to others. I believe the love of God transforms us. We are changed from selfish people, turned in on ourselves, to people who are outward looking, always focused on the interests of others. If you are a Christian, your number one goal in educating your children should be to teach their deep need for a Saviour, who will forgive them and change their hearts, making them into the person he wants them to be. It’s when we allow our good God to transform us, that we find freedom and life becomes full of true joy! All this happens in a real relationship with Jesus. Their deepest need is a relationship with Him. It is vital for us to put in the effort to teach and train our children, but we can’t make our children “good” people. We need to point them to the One who can! It’s scary knowing that we can’t control how our children will turn out. This knowledge has always propelled me to pray more – to ask my children’s heavenly Father to do in them what only He can do.
This topic of introducing our children to a relationship with God and how this relates to homeschooling is a huge one which I don’t have the space to explore here! (Maybe I need to do another post!) For Christians, this isn’t just something we incorporate into our homeschooling – it should be the core of everything we do and teach. For now, can I recommend an excellent book: The Disciple Making Parent by Chap Bettis (here is his website, The Apollos Project or pretty much any book by Sally Clarkson! (She also has an excellent blog and podcast)