As funny as I find it, people seem to think of me as an experienced homeschooler. They must because they ask my advice all the time, especially this time of year, when people are starting to make plans and decisions for this fall. I still consider myself a newbie because I’m still figuring out the level my oldest is at. However, I have read a bunch, and have some experience with the early education age. That is the stage I have now done repetitively. I write this because I have friends who have talked to me about a dilemma in their homeschool. More friends than I can count on my hands, in fact.
The issue I find parents running into when starting to homeschool is how to approach the issue of teaching your kid to push through, work hard, and just learn it. Very often in these conversations, one parent (very often the dad, but not always) wants the kids to just push through and learn the material. They assume that obviously an issue of effort, if something isn’t going right. I say it’s often the dad pushing the hard work, and I think there’s a reason for this. I know this isn’t true across the board, but I know for Knut and I, Knut is always pushing the kids. He pushes them to adventure, explore and experiment. I am always telling them to be careful and don’t do anything stupid. (I push them too, and he protects them too, but it’s a matter of our first reaction and goal/mindset.) I think kids need both kinds of parents. They need the one telling them to push hard, and another one telling them to be cautious. It gives them balance. I think a lot of dads especially, can think of a defining moment in their life when hard work paid off. When they dug deep and it made a difference. They want that for their kids. That’s a good thing.
So here’s the story I hear over and over. It’s the classic story of parents who were never homeschooled, trying to homeschool their kids. All they have ever known is conventional schooling, and at least one parent is set on making school at home look just like that, as some means of a compromise. (I lived this story too to an extent, except Silje started out in a public school. I find this story more common with those who are starting out from home.) A family decides to start homeschooling. They start in kindergarten as a trial. After all, kindergarten can be skipped. You can’t screw up your kid too bad in kindergarten, so it’s “safe” to experiment that year. You buy a curriculum. You set goals. You have a schedule. You want to be smart. The goal is to prove to every nay-sayer that you actually know what you are doing. This will be the year that all future years of homeschooling will rest. If this year doesn’t work according to plan, then you are convinced homeschooling is not for you.
And your child resists. He/she doesn’t even care about the curriculum, schedule, or your goals. So the natural reaction is to push through. Make them do it. Get it done. School isn’t just unicorns and ice cream, it’s about work.
I’m not mocking this idea of pushing through. I agree with it to a large extent. The problem often found is there is a learning curve on when to push, and when to pull back. I’m learning a lot of it has to do with age and context, which I’ll talk about below. If I were to list the top 3 things I wish my kids knew well, “how to work hard” would be on it. So this goal of working hard is good. However, the way you approach this lesson is key. It’s so key.
So here are some things to think about as you brainstorm how to teach your child to push through and work hard. This isn’t a guide by any means. It’s just some things to try out or consider if this is something you struggle with. Perfect homeschool moms need not read further.
Kids Are People…Unique People
Of course they are not autonomous. They don’t make their own rules. We are not raising a flock of hippies. I am a fan of order. But let’s first acknowledge at least that your child will have certain God-given interests and gifts. There are things that will spark their imagination and things that will ruffle their feathers. Concentrating on what they are bad at is a bad way to teach. Especially in early elementary, the readiness of each child for each subject will vary, and pushing is the last thing you could do. It will destroy your child’s will to learn anything. That doesn’t mean you ignore the things they are uninterested in, it means that you introduce them very strategically. You don’t make it the center of your homeschool. Make their least favorite subject the school elective. That’s likely the role that subject will be in their life long term anyway. It’s how you customize their education.
Attach Hard Work to Things they Love
So often, we attach hard work to things kids hate. Hate handwriting? Well, don’t ever be afraid of hard work. Hate spelling? Well, work at it. I’ve learned this makes my kids despise the word “work” like some sort of gag reflex. Instead, I’ve learned to attach “hard work” to things that they love.
“Wow, you really like to tinker with tools don’t you? I’ll bet if you work hard, you could create something really fun!”
“I can tell you love reading. You know if you work hard, I bet you could read 100 books this year.”
When you think about it, if you hating ice skating, and your parents made you take figure skating lessons, and they kept telling you to work harder and harder, you might think it’s dumber and dumber. You may begin to enjoy it too. But there will be days of dread, that’s for sure. But lets say you wanted to play soccer and your parents put you in soccer. The drills and conditioning were harder than you thought they’d be, and your coach and parents push you anyway. You feel inspired because something you wanted to do seems out of reach and all these adults around you say that no, it’s not out of reach. You can do it. That’s when you learn how to work hard.
One thing I learned when trying to teach David self control is that I was consistently doing it from the standpoint of not moving. Sit still. Sit down. Stop kicking. Control yourself. When his doctor suggested putting him in Tae Kwon Do, she specifically said, “because likely his brain needs to learn self control through the means of action or movement.” Let me tell you, the boy loves self control now. He can even keep still sometimes… for short periods. It’s like a light switched in his brain.
When you think about it, one of the most tedious things in the world are working hard at things you really don’t care about. If you were an adult, stuck in a dead end job, and everyone around you said to just work harder, you would get angrier and angrier. However, if you were stuck in a dead end job, doing stuff you hated, and someone said, “Hey, let’s get you a job you do love.” You would probably kiss that person.
Be that person for your kids. You will build trust, and pretty soon, when you say “It’s time for school” they will anticipate learning, not recoil from it.
Inspriation is Key
Your kids won’t always like every subject, and every project. That’s a given. I think that every family has that one heckling kid too, who says that every project is “stupid.” So how do you deal with that? Well, that’s where the beauty of homeschooling kicks in. You have more tools in your toolbox in dealing with this, and it would be foolish to leave those tools unused. Here are some common techniques I use to introduce school stuff to the kids that sometimes work.
- Stop school. I mean, just stop doing it. But take away all screens in the house too. Just let them get good and bored. This may take a few days. Create an atmosphere of learning, where every option in front of them is equally educational and inciting. Let them rediscover that curiosity is fun. Let them remember imagination. After awhile, they’ll be begging you for grammar activities. Or they’ll be up to their ears in a project that is stimulating their brains and pushing themselves further than you could imagine. Both are pretty good outcomes.
- Read them inspiring stories about people involved in the areas that you are trying to introduce. Make this subject “live” a bit so they see the purpose behind it. Stories are powerful. Never ever underestimate them. There’s a reason Jesus used stories all the time.
- Use the skill in front of them. Trying to work on multiplication table? Figure something out, out loud, about how many ounces of something you will need to buy for a certain meal. Do a quilting project with them. Bake some cookies. When they see the application, the desire will start to flicker. This means that “school time” might look like following you around in your day to day life. Sometimes that’s exactly what a child needs to see the point in mastering a skill.
- Bribe them with “recess”. Make it a race. Set timers. Bring humor into it. Be silly. Lighten up. I know you feel the pressure to homeschool with excellence but take it down a notch. These are kids. They love to have fun. It’s part of their design, and the more you work with their design, the more you will accomplish. In fact, studies show that humor brings information from the short term to the long term section of a child’s brain. If you really want them to know it, be funny. If you really want them to black it out, make it torturous. It’s basic science.
- Feed them. My kids will do nearly any schoolwork if there are cookies on the table.
- Use music often. I learned this trick from my mom. Work is so much easier with music. You can manage the mood of your house, either wild and energetic, or calm and meditative based off of the background noise. This is a completely underused resource.
- OK, make them, but choose your battles. I mean, make it really worth it. Don’t be a pushover. I’m certainly not saying let them run the show. There are sometimes you just have to do stuff you don’t like to do. That’s a fact of life. You cannot avoid this step throughout childhood. Ha…especially with some kids. But this should not be step 1. You will use this occasionally, but this is not the foundation of your school day. If it is, then you have a perfect recipe for mutual misery. Personally? The battles I pick are for chores more than schoolwork. There are a few reasons for that, the first being that they don’t fight me much in schoolwork anymore. If I can push them to service, to doing the dishes well, to sweeping the floor well, reading to a younger sibling even if they don’t want to, they learn more skills and learn compassion and teamwork in the process.
Get Them on Your Team, or in other words, Be on Their Team
Excellence has to come from the child. If you can lay a foundation for your child that they have the world at their fingertips, that they can figure anything out if they work at it enough, that it’s ultimately up to them…they will step up. Kids love responsibility, and they love being apart of something important. The age in which they step up to the plate will vary from child to child. It cannot be controlled. It can be encouraged and inspired. Believe me, the sooner you get your child on board with owning their educational experience, the better…for both of you. This does require giving up some control. It will take wisdom to see or sense that the time is right, because sometimes we as parents do need to come in and take over. But this goal should take center stage, and the sooner the better.
The Curriculum is a Tool
With my son with some learning disabilities, we did a little bit of OT exercises for his reading every day so his brain would start developing in the way that was necessary. But then we’d put it aside and he’d do a month’s worth of math in one day. Because he loved math. He just couldn’t get enough of it. This route was much less fight, and he didn’t lose his learning momentum. He’s now not only at the point where he’s reading for fun, he’s reading and I don’t even know about it. Yesterday he was telling me about the burden on Christian’s shoulders from Pilgrim’s Progress, and how there was so much more to that story. (Actually, it was a abridged and extraordinarily illustrated version called The Dangerous Journey. ) “Bud, when did you read The Dangerous Journey? I read you like a chapter out loud 3 months ago, and then I decided to do a different book instead.” I said.
“Oh, I finished it later Mom. I just had to find out what happened. It’s a great story!” (Take note this book was 2 grade levels above where he’s at. But he wanted to find out how it ended, and that’s the point.)
When you have a strong willed child, the most powerful thing you can do for their education is give it to them. Introduce, inspire. They will take it further than you could have possibly imagined.
This will REQUIRE, (and this is the hard part) it will require that you limit “twaddle.” In those early years it’s especially important that you limit the stupid commercial cartoon books from the library, hours of television, and computer games. I’m not saying get rid of them, I’m saying limit them. You want to develop their tastes during this time. Don’t feed them sugar all day. Just like you don’t feed babies fruit baby food before the vegetables, you don’t let your kids free on twaddle, and expect them to sit down to great pieces of literature. We got rid of all Disney books, My Little Pony books, and Star Wars books from our home bookshelves. They’re words on paper pages, yes, but they’re not literature. I’m not saying you should get rid of “sugar” things completely, but we have had to go through seasons of fasting from these things in order to retrain their brains to think and play, because they get so obsessed. Right now my kids are allowed to take home 1 “twaddle” book from the library, but the rest are quality literature. They work from a list. When they argue with me about it, they get a fast from twaddle so they can remember there are better books out there. If they don’t ever pick up any of the “quality” books the whole week, then they get a break from the twaddle too. I want to teach them moderation. A child who is fed cookies all day will resist the juicy meat. Put your kids in a position where everything in front of them is delightfully educational. It’s all about the home environment, and what you make available.
It doesn’t have to be a lot. We want them learning deeply, and learning things that matter. We don’t want them just doing stuff everyday, we want them learning stuff everyday. If your curriculum is not helping you achieve that, then skip that part. It’s dragging you down. Teach your kids to prioritize which things stay in your lives and which things don’t. Set something aside for the next year, or wait a month or two. Years can be wasted just spinning wheels.
I hope this helps those of you who are in the early years. Also, since it’s that time of year when I start to get all sorts of inquiries about homeschooling, so for those who want more details on my advice for those who are in that place, here is last year’s post for those considering it.