How Do You Homeschool? Some Thoughts on Children’s Choice, Parenting and Togetherness

How I homeschool is far different from what my initial expectations were, and it has changed drastically as my kids have gotten older. For me, the most unexpected aspect of homeschooling has been how interwoven it is with my parenting. I cannot separate homeschooling from the way my family lives together and relates to one another. Homeschooling is not some separate ‘thing’ that I send my children off to do. It is not about using some curriculum or ‘method’. For us, it is not about spelling or math, it is not about subjects or academics. What, then, is it about? How do I homeschool?

Nowadays, the core of my homeschooling is this: I sit down and meet with each of my kids several times a year (they are 10 and 12) and we discuss their needs and interests and goals – what do they want to learn and how? What is working? What isn’t? What are other ideas and options? What do they need to think about for their futures? What do they love? Once a goal is set, then there are certain expectations of carry-through on their part. So for example, my son wants to learn a particular level of math (he’s heard about college entrance exams and wants to be ready!). We explore and get resources that we both think will be helpful and we dive in. Together. I expect him to keep up with it; I keep up with it, too. I stay on top of his lessons; I make sure he does not have too much repetition while still understanding everything. I re-learn algebra with him. I listen to his feedback (I am still learning to listen, REALLY listen). And I find supplemental reading which we may do together or he may read alone. (In a future post I’ll write about the importance of not just doing a math text or program but also reading books as a family ABOUT math and mathematicians). Since summer we have been working occasional algebra problems together and I kid you not, this time is enjoyable and often times hysterically funny. I love it. I thrive on our learning and connection and humor. With both my kids. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It is what makes homeschooling utterly enjoyable.

An important aspect of our learning is this: if my son wants to quit math entirely, then that is his decision and he can quit. For a year, for three years, for whatever. You see, while I will support him however I can, and I will occasionally nudge him and remind him of his goals, I will not nag him or require him to do something he is entirely against. I will not use coercion or bribes or rewards or punishment or intimidation or fear. (If I wanted that for my kids, I could just send them to school. They also use yelling, berating, and humiliation there. I know. I worked for a public school system for 8 years). I will not use any of those things and then claim that is Love. So, on the one hand, if my son decides that he is going to learn something, then I expect him to keep up with it consistently. Doing an occasional math lesson here and there does not equal learning. If you’re going to do something, do it. Accomplishment takes persistence, and sometimes children need help in being persistent and in recognizing the fruits of persistence. On the other hand, learning is best done by choice. If my son decides he does not want to learn math, then I am prepared to accept and support that decision. Do something you enjoy and do it well. Don’t painfully drag it out, unless you want your child to forever learn to hate a topic.

And really, I think the best way to show a child that something is worth learning or doing is to learn it yourself or learn it together.

One additional point I want to share is this: if my son were to quit math, then I would expect him to find other ways to use that time well – reading challenging books, studying a different topic, learning a craft, building something, learning an instrument, etc.  We also value lots of play time, but that suggests that there is a distinction between (school)work and play, and that’s not necessarily the case. Maybe that’s a topic for another post…..

I support my kids in finding and exploring new interests, in setting new goals, because this time is precious. My kids will never get these years back. This is why I say that homeschooling is more about working together and parenting than about any sort of curriculum or academic choices we make. Kids, if they maintain their natural love of learning and understand the value of persistence, can do great things.

8 thoughts on “How Do You Homeschool? Some Thoughts on Children’s Choice, Parenting and Togetherness

  1. Kim, another well-written and thoughtful post! I had the same approach when homeschooling my children, at least until they reached high school age, but then new concerns arose. Do you ever worry that children may not be the best judge of what they “need” to know to make their way in the world? I found that as my children got closer and closer to the age at which they would leave home, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be remiss if I didn’t equip them with certain skills, knowledge, and strategies for negotiating the modern world. To use just one example, kids need to learn how to keep a budget, to learn how bank accounts work, to make prudent financial decisions. They don’t really need that knowledge when they are 10 and 12, but they might by the time they are 18. The same might go for certain basic literacy skills, which in the case of your two children is an unnecessary worry, but that isn’t the case for every homeschooling parent.
    Independent of whether our children decide at some point in their lives to pursue formal education after leaving home (be that a trade school, an apprenticeship, college, what have you), I can’t help but think that we owe them at least a rudimentary level of exposure to certain things, whether they are keen on it or not. I would include basic citizenship and an understanding of how the U.S. political processes works in such a list, both at the local and national level. They should know how to participate in the democracy they live in, with all its shortcomings.

    I guess my basic concern is just how long and how far we let homeschooled children set all of their learning goals. Parents have the wisdom of having been around much longer, and knowing how the adult world works. A child can’t be expected to fully understand all that will benefit her when it comes time for her to make her way in the world. I would be really curious to hear your thoughts in this regard, and Mr. Underhill’s also, as a parent of adult age homeschooled children.

    Thanks again for another stimulating post.

    • Thanks, David, for your very helpful comments and questions. In the near future, I’ll be writing more about how I did things when my kids were younger. I just assumed they’d learn to read, print, and do basic math; learning and doing those things were just part of how our family functioned. I agree with you that young children are not yet able to see the importance of learning things like basic literacy. I like to compare learning ‘the basics’ to eating. A child may want to eat sweets instead of healthy food, but most parents will not allow that and instead insist on healthy eating with only minimal sweets. But I understand and agree with your worry that some families allow children nearly unlimited freedom to decide how to spend their time / what to learn, and too little guidance and interaction.

      I do expose my kids to more than I have written about so far in my posts, especially through reading together. I express myself best through examples. So! For example, we love to read history together and through that reading we discuss other things that you mentioned such as basic citizenship and U.S. political processes. My kids go with me when I vote and on one occasion we all went to the mayor with a concern. Learning about citizenship may someday include a visit to Madison for Superior Days or in some other capacity. My daughter once wrote a letter to President and First Lady Obama suggesting that they consider homeschooling their children. So my kids are learning these things without a specific curriculum, they’re not being told “Now it’s time to learn this whether you want to or not”. But through experiences and indirect learning they are becoming competent citizens and learners. That type of learning may not be happening in some homes, though.

      I agree that hands-off parenting and schooling can be taken to an extreme. What I have seen from my own children is that they are curious and learn on their own (how did we live without Wikipedia?!), open to my guidance and suggestions, able to learn from a variety of sources, and, most importantly, by being included in planning and assessing their learning, they are learning HOW they learn best. But that’s another post!

      Thanks again, David, for your comments, concerns, questions and insights.

  2. Kim, being trained (poisoned?) in analytic philosophy, I will play devil’s advocate against myself and my earlier comment, but with a purpose:

    I think as a society we often underestimate people’s ability to learn things on their own, when the need arises and the motivation presents itself. Homeschoolers demonstrate repeatedly that we don’t always need a teacher standing over us to learn new skills. All 3 of my kids learned to read on their own (at different ages I might add). I suppose it wasn’t entirely on their own, as we read outloud to them all the time, but we never “taught” them how to read, they just picked it up. Maybe the same couldn’t be said for math, but I think when it comes to factual knowledge and specific problem solving skills (say learning how to balance chemical formulas), a person who has acquired basic literacy and math skills can learn those things on her own, with a good textbook, online sites, or what have you. Much of compulsory education ends up being baby sitting, and I was always amazed at how quickly homeschoolers could master a subject when they wanted to.

    My college honors seminar just finished reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which she wrote in her late teens! She was what you would call homeschooled, because back then, that was about the only option, especially for females. She taught herself how to write fiction by, well, reading and writing on her own. So to push back at myself and my original concern, if we succeed in raising life long learners who know how to learn, they can acquire much if not most knowledge without our help. Of course that still leaves the concern of children not knowing what they “should” know, but if and when they clue in, they will learn it if they want to. And if they don’t, then what are our choices? The bullying of schooling? The threat of bad grades?

    • Hi David, thanks for writing again. I actually really appreciated how your first comment challenged me to think more critically about my own homeschooling. I wish I’d had a better response to you; I’ve been mulling about your ideas, though. I think you really hit on something with this second comment when at first you state that your children learned to read “on their own” but then you go on to qualify that by saying “it wasn’t entirely on their own, as we read outloud to them…” It makes me see that there is this idea that a child-led education is a joyous and valid way to learn but really, the parents, (and this varies by the home) by doing what comes naturally to them, are first leading the children. It goes both ways but we don’t always see what we as parents are offering when we ‘simply’ provide a rich and varied environment full of interaction and guidance. Those things don’t sound ‘schoolish’, we’re not teaching in the school sense or having our child perform some curriculum, but we are nurturing them and leading them nonetheless. I believe the way ‘Mr. Underhill’ stated it once was that homeschooling can be about creating or nurturing an expansive mind that is open to the spectrum of human knowledge – the particulars are not that important. (The particulars in this case referring to using things like a specific curriculum to ‘teach’ selected facts which can then be tracked through tests).
      You are welcome to write a guest post for me anytime, David! Until then, I look forward to your further comments.

  3. Excellent article Kim! I do think that learning is best done by choice. If my child is interested in a subject, that is what he/she will be excited about and will retain. I’ve seen this over and over again. My schooling experience of learning information I wasn’t interested in, successfully spitting it back out onto a test and then forgetting it all was a sad waste of time.

    My homeschooling philosophy has evolved over the last 25 years. I’m realizing more and more that it isn’t even about “what” my children learn but about “how” they learn. What our children need to know is how to learn, where to get the information they are looking for. Seeing my adult children’s enthusiasm for learning and their ability to know how to obtain the information whether it is learning new job skills, learning a new hobby or sport, learning a new language, learning how to write well, etc. has given me confidence in homeschooling. It’s great to watch them and it causes me to be so much more relaxed in homeschooling Rasheed, Bosco and Siah. I realize I don’t have to worry about missing anything essential. If there is information or an ability that they didn’t learn, if they need it in the future they will know how to learn it and because the need or desire is there they will learn it a lot more quickly!

    • Thank you so much, Linda, for your comments. It is so helpful to hear from an experienced homeschooler who has grown children who are happily and successfully making their own way in the world while still remaining connected to their parents. My own traditional school experience was much like yours – do well on the test then forget what I learned. All those precious years wasted. Learning with my children now as an adult is so much more enjoyable and memorable. I appreciate your insights about what is important, the ‘how’ of learning instead of the ‘what’. Thank you for sharing – you have lucky kids!

  4. Having three grown children who have been public-schooled, I am going to tackle this concept of self-learning from another angle. Yes, I do agree that public schooling has become a form of babysitting. I also believe that my three adult children were self-learners. All three read before entering kindergarten. Often they would sit through a school day waiting for the chance to come home and discuss an idea that sprouted during a class at school or look up more information on a topic that piqued their interest. It is sad to think that this could not happen at school due to time restraints and having to stick to a school-selected curriculum calendar. Another reason was because they often could not find “like minds” to play with. Later in their teen years they gravitated toward more “like minds” but this was on their own. They all became writers and/or artists. This was evident from what would consume the backs of their worksheets or the volume of their notebooks.

    What does this say about homeschoolers and self-learners? I believe that as homeschooling parents we are acting as facilitators or guides while our children are learning. We have the opportunity to set up an environment both physical by providing books, equipment, and experiences and intellectual by prompting and conversation. We nurture them to become self-learners.

    This can also happen in an otherwise-schooled home but just think of the possibilities and opportunities that can be missed or overlooked. I have witnessed numerous occasions of children being bogged down by day to day school activities, life in general, and periods of educational ennui that is actually supported by many school systems.

    Now being a homeschooling parent, I have the luxury and increased responsibility of being there and part of that process that encourages my ten year old to become a self-learner. I observe and am prepared to take advantage of learning moments when they arise. When those questions are initially asked we can say together, “Let’s find out!” and begin that process. I also have the rewards of being there when those “aha!” moments occur. I can watch that smile of understanding grow and spread. This good feeling I call the “manure,” so to speak, that nurtures and supports that innate curiosity and journey of self-learning – one that I hope will continue throughout her life.

    • Thanks for writing, Lenore. I absolutely love everything you have written here. I like it that you also touch on something that I have felt myself about homeschooling – that it is not just about the kids but is also about me and how much I enjoy this time with them, learning alongside of them and watching their growth.

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