Don’t Finish What You Start

Some people love making rules. The more rules the better, they think. I mean, haven’t we heard the adage, “Discipline is freedom?” Only in total discipline, in not making minute by minute decisions can you experience complete freedom, right?

Weeelll…. sort of.

If you’re the kind of person who does well with firm boundaries and enjoys having people depend on you, yes. The majority people fall into this group.

However, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like unnecessary rules, the idea of discipline being freedom will start to feel like a prison of your own making.

Consider something simple: reading a book. What if I asked you why we insist we finish one?

Well, well, because you finish what you start! you would reply.

And therein lies the rub.

Who made that rule?

I have written before about teaching children to quit. I think it’s important, if only for the reason that they ask themselves why.

Why, oh why, as adults, do we think it’s a failure to quit reading a book? It’s a book. Choosing to stop reading it because it’s become boring is not a test of your morality or your worth.

As I homeschool, I am painfully aware of rules. I am responsible for making good rules for my children to follow. But just as I make them, I begin to realize, I have to know when and if to break them. Sometimes, my daughter quips up about something I said years ago that inadvertently got turned into a law.

And I have to remind her that there are only ten commandments.

Don’t Finish What You Start

I understand the appeal of creating rules for oneself. I do it, too. It’s like a game you play with yourself. A budget is a rule, for example, that carries a lot of freedom with itself. A template to follow for homeschooling, a schedule is another one.

But if we’re not careful, this rule-making can get addictive. Like a bloated government – which we are as parents within a family, sorry to break it to you – we never relinquish control or power.

The more insidious side of it is when that power comes back to bite us in the behind. Exhibit one: finish what you start. Finish that book, that curriculum, that task, that program, that garden, that (insert whatever you feel guilty about quitting) long after its worth is diminished, its value lost.

You don’t need to, you know. You can stop at any time. Without guilt. Things outlive their worth. That’s how we distinguish what’s valuable and what’s merely nice.

You have finite time. Don’t waste it fulfilling unnecessary rules.

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It’s Okay to Change Your Mind

In a previous blog post titled Does Your Homeschool Match Your PersonalityI mentioned that reading some of Gretchen Rubin’s work changed how I thought. I could not understand, for example, why I resisted meeting demands even when I had imposed them on myself. Thanks to learning more about the four tendencies, I am beginning to learn how to use my dominant traits to work for me rather than against me.

It’s Okay to Change

I am always a little envious of people who seem to know themselves. You know the type – they’re articulate, they seem to have thought things through, they have opinions at the age of twenty about how the world works. I am not one of them. As I approach forty, I am beginning to realize I’m never going to have the world sorted out.

But that’s okay. Because all living things change. And change includes changing your mind.

By this, I don’t mean I know nothing. There are some basic things I have sorted out, but I am not in favor of clinging to something if it’s clearly not working.

Case in Point

We recently discovered that we have two out of three children motivated by gaining pleasure and one motivated only by avoiding pain. As you probably know, we had been paying our children to do chores around the home. As it turned out, one child took on more chores and accumulated a decent amount of wealth (for her!) while the other one had to be constantly reminded, goaded, nagged to get something done.

So we changed the structure. We began to give him a basic payment for regular chores and then added optional chores. And then we changed it again. The problem was, he was happy with too little. We had to go the all-or-nothing route.

So now he has mandatory tasks for which he gets nothing (well, he still gets bed and board, as I remind him often enough) and the optional, “in case you’d like to make money” tasks. These are nevertheless important tasks which we need done and appreciate.

Don’t be Married to Ideology

Look for results. This applies as much in your homeschool as it does to everything else. If we had decided we had arrived, chores would never get done, or at least be incredibly frustrating. So we changed our mind.

You can, too.


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Choose Education, Not An Affiliation

Here’s a question: what’s the easiest way to get frustrated as a homeschooler? Answer: trying to fit into a mold that is clearly not made for you. Or your kids.

There are a few ways this can happen. Here I will talk about three of the most common.

These mistakes happen most often around the first or second year of homeschooling. Usually, parents who persist beyond the third year figure things out and settle into some basic patterns comfortable to them.

Believing an Education Philosophy That Doesn’t Fit Your Personality

I write about this often enough that if you’re a reader of this blog, you’ve come across a few posts about this. I am still constantly surprised, though, at the number of people who tell me that they can’t homeschool because they’re not organized. The truth is if they’ve got an idea of how homeschooling is supposed to look  and that is the reason you’re afraid of it, that idea is probably the wrong one.

Education does not happen because the children are ready at 9 am, hair and teeth brushed, pencils sharpened. It does not happen because you they can obey you or listen for your voice in a crowded room. They are not educated because they have manners. While these contribute to refinement and ease things in terms of interpersonal relationships, education can happen outside of these trappings.

Figure out your family’s characteristics, your own personality, your child’s personality and work with it. Don’t force homeschooling in a top down manner. You will fail.

Throwing Good Money After Bad Curricula

So let’s say you bought a bad curriculum. I’ve been there. There is a certain math curriculum out there that I’d really enjoy burning. So now what? Do you stick with it day in and day out even though you hate it? Or should you get another and make it work? Or should you dump the whole thing and start over? Do you even need curricula?

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: at any point in your homeschooling, you can choose to quit a certain way of doing things. If you are not seeing the results you want, if this is not the way you or your family does things, if the curriculum isn’t doing what you’d like it do for you, feel free to dump it. There is no reason to wait until the end of the year.

Listening to Too Many Education Experts

While most homeschoolers will agree with the above, I think this is one that trips up many. Choose an affiliation wisely is the best advice I can give you. At any point, if what the person/friend/blogger/expert/teacher says (and yes, I include myself here) you are free to disagree to him or her and do things your way. Yes, this counts even if the person is dead. (I’m looking at you, Mason and Montessori.)

Who cares if that’s not the way to establish a good habit? Who cares if that’s how children were taught in Ancient and Medieval times? If it doesn’t work for your family, do it the way it works. Period.

You’re in this for your children. You’re not in this for anyone else. Choose an education for them, not an affiliation for you.

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Homeschooler, Deschool Yourself!

It’s that time when everyone is returning to school. I’m sure your Facebook feed – like mine – is full of it. Parents are thrilled kids are back in school and to homeschoolers it seems like an odd thing that so many are so happy not to see their children for an entire day, day in and day out for weeks and months.

….until we realize that maybe it has little to do with physical proximity and more to do with worldview.

You see, in the public school worldview, everyone in a family goes off and does their thing individually in their specific “cubicles,” if you will. Everything is segregated. Everything is specialized. There are subjects and disciplines that do not intersect. Margins and borders are drawn in thick, black markers.

But is that truly the world we live in today?

Think about it. In a world where kindergartners are being groomed to go to college as an ultimate goal, are we truly ever done learning even after college? Do we even need a degree to learn something? In this age of information, what does a degree even signal? In a time when more and more employees are in charge of their own schedules and choose to work remotely, what exactly is the value of a cubicle?

It’s a great time to homeschool but we first have to deschool ourselves.

We have to stop thinking of education as something that comes from one benign source. We have to give up the desire to be spoonfed information. Deschooling, unlike what people might have in mind, requires constant, consistent learning. It is a shift in perspective from, “Teach me!” to “I’m going to find out!”

Before we homeschool effectively, we must deschool. We must get rid of the idea that anyone out there cares more about the education, information and knowledge that will come our way besides we ourselves.

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The Comfort of the Familiar

If you enter our home now, you will notice boxes piled high in all the rooms. We are moving house. And to make matters worse, we are doing it in two steps. There is no other word for it: it is difficult. It is also uncomfortable. Paring things down for daily use, deciding what is to be kept and what stored is not familiar territory to me. We don’t tend to have a lot of clutter, but I like what I have on hand and I usually know where to find what I need.

No more, though. Change is hard.

Sometimes, we tend to forget that as homeschoolers. When the routine becomes so familiar, we forget what it used to be when we were new. And that new ground is what some of you new homeschoolers are stepping into this August. So my best piece of advice is this: keep something familiar. Do not underestimate the comfort of that one familiar thing.

Change can be incredibly exciting.

I remember raring to go when I first decided to homeschool. It was an exciting time. We were embarking on an adventure, after all. I could smell it. There were decisions to be made, things to buy – everything was so new and fun!

But there was a downside. It was exhausting.

I had never done this before. My kids had never done this before. When we hit a snag, we didn’t know how to move forward. If my children didn’t react or learn the way the workbook said they should, I didn’t know what to do.

In those days, I realized the same thing I am discovering now in the midst of our move: there is comfort in the familiar. Instead of overhauling everything, keeping some things the same can be hugely motivating.

Ever heard the phrase “some things never change?” Notice the relief in that.

One thing I never took into account when we decided to move was how disruptive this would be for my children and how shaken they would feel as a result. Because our family thrives on our daily rhythms, the sudden change and discord became apparent. They became mopey and difficult. I began to wonder what had happened to my usually cheerful and happy kids.

So I had to be intentional about the small things, I realized. Because to the kids those were the big things. In the midst of moving, we brought back family movies, read alouds; we brought back library days.

So when beginning homeschooling – as in when moving – remember to balance the new with the old. Newness can be fun but tiring. And sometimes we need the old to tie us down and make us feel grounded.

Never underestimate the comfort of the familiar.

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We Don’t Know How Good We Have It

For some odd reason my husband and I have decided that the children need the camping experience. They need to sleep uncomfortably on the hard ground under the stars, they need to be hot in the afternoon. Apparently, they need to “toughen up.”

I say this a little tongue in cheek, mind you. Because I’m as soft as they come. I love my little slice of suburbia. Who doesn’t love a soft, cushy couch and the temperature controlled to be no more than three degrees this way or that? I love a soft bed with a pillow contoured to fit my neck. I can count of having food at the grocery store when I need it, a fridge to keep it fresh when I bring it back. And… running hot water? Hello?! Luxury!

I Don’t Know How Good I Have It

And yet, I’m bored. Sometimes, I want to dump it all and move to another state, a different home, another neighborhood. I complain about noise, the boredom of repetitive tasks, day in and day out, the monotony – really, anything, everything, nothing and all of it. All together.

Homeschooling and being around the kids can feel like that on some days. Some days, all it feels like is plod, plod, plod. First we do one thing and then the next and the next. It’s all planned out, there’s no variation. And even when there is, there’s a certain monotony that comes into play – enough to make you want to chuck it all up.

And that is precisely when…

…you should take a break. Just make sure it’s fairly drastic. Like our camping trip (of one night – yes, go ahead and laugh at my weak self!) do something different. And I don’t mean sort of different like a field trip. I mean something that you have to go out of your way to style and create. Something not practical would be ideal.

So when you come back to your normal, boring homeschooling, it will feel just right.

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Homeschooling as Art: Don’t Explain Yourself

I often face a dilemma when it comes to writing. Whether it is fiction or a memoir or this blog, I find myself feeling the need to explain it.

When I share a blog post on Facebook or elsewhere, I feel an overwhelming urge to discuss my motivation behind writing it. Worse, sometimes, I want to explain what I meant to say when I wrote it.

As if the piece itself wasn’t there. As if the work couldn’t speak for itself.

If you’ve ever been in a homeschooling group – virtual or otherwise – you know this desire to explain is deep-seated.

If you’re an unschooler, you want to explain why you do what you do. Or if you follow the Charlotte Mason style, you feel the need to show that it works. If you tend to lean toward the Classical style, you want to show the benefits of that.

I’m not talking here about answering questions to newbie homeschoolers. That is one of the nicest things the homeschooling community does. I’m referring to the desire to prove that one’s style of teaching one’s own child is valid and that it “works” – whatever that means.

Tied in with that desire to convince someone else that your style works for your family is an inherent lack of self confidence.

By attempting to explain what you do and insisting that your children are “on track,” you are inadvertently giving a nod to the factory model of education. You are essentially saying, Look, I made this at home, but it’s just as good as what comes off the conveyor belt.

But let me show you a better way.

Don’t. Just don’t explain. Let the work you have done in your children speak for itself – even if it is years from now. Let your legacy tell the truth of your family and the work you have done. Let your homeschool be your masterpiece – one of a kind.

Don’t ruin it by explaining it.

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The Case for Reading Widely

An article about teachers not reading came to my attention the other day. You might remember that I have bemoaned the fact that not enough people read enough of the classics. But even with that, I sometimes think I have to make the case to read widely, not deeply.

Academia – in general – does not support a wide reading base, favoring depth over breadth. Wide knowledge comes mostly through interest and self directed learning.

Read Widely not Deeply

I am not a deep reader. I rarely read technical manuals – no surprise there. But I do read widely. I cannot name a favorite book. Most times we go to the library or the book store, I will wander the aisles and bring home to read whatever strikes my fancy.

I am not fussy when it comes to books.

As a result, I don’t know very much of any one thing, but I do have some knowledge of a wide range of things.

Now, lest I sound like I’m tooting my own horn, here’s my disclaimer. I only mention this because I see this in the reading habits of children.

Children Already Do This

My kids, I have noticed, will do exactly this.

They will wander the aisles of the library, find something that captures their attention and then grab the entire bookshelf of books about it. Next week, it’s onto something else. Or they will pick a book here and book there, not settling on any one subject.

As a result, they know a little bit about a lot.

Why Is Reading Widely Important?

Two instances illuminate the need for reading widely. In The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean – an excellent book, by the way, and highly recommended – he mentions Gilbert Lewis. Chances are, you’ve never heard of him.

Lewis never secured the Nobel Prize because his work was broad
rather than deep. He never discovered one amazing thing, something you could point to and say, Wow! Instead, he spent his life refining how an atom’s electrons work in many contexts, especially the class of molecules known as acids and bases. In general, whenever atoms swap electrons to break or form new bonds, chemists say they’ve “reacted.” Lewis’s work on acids and bases did as much as anyone’s to show what exchanging electrons means on a submicroscopic level.

So without Lewis, we would know about acids and bases, but not much about how they actually exchanged electrons.

Here’s another example

In Kon-Tikianother fantastic book, the writer Thor Heyerdahl narrates his 1947 journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. His aim in mounting the Kon-Tiki expedition was to show, by using only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, that there were no technical reasons to prevent them from having done so.

But he ran into problems – partially because his theory covered a few academic areas, because he thought broadly, not deeply. Here’s a quote from the book, where someone who joins him on the expedition explains why he had trouble getting funding:

“Your way of approaching the problem. They’re specialists, the whole lot of them, and they don’t believe in a method of work which cuts into every field of science from botany to archaeology. They limit their own scope in order to be able to dig in the depths with more concentration for details. Modern research demands that every special branch shall dig in its own hole. It’s not usual for anyone to sort out what comes up out of the holes and try to put it all together.”

Yes, we need the technical, deep readers and thinkers, but we also especially need those who will pull up any book that looks interesting, will let the ideas slosh around inside their minds for a while. We need people who will pull threads from various sources, see similarities and create theories where there previously were none.

We need innovators.

Be those people. Let your children be those people. Don’t be afraid to read widely, not deeply.

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Motivation: Can It Be Taught?

I’ve been reading a fantastic new book by Charles Duhigg. He is the author of The Power of HabitThe new book is every bit as good as the first one. What particularly struck me was Duhigg’s assertion that motivation can be taught. This would interest us as homeschoolers in particular and parents in general.

Through various examples, in Smarter, Faster, Better Duhigg says that people who are motivated and self directed usually have an “internal locus of control.”

The Key to Motivation

People with an internal locus of control are more self assured, get better grades, work harder, get paid more. They also tend to be married longer. An internal locus of control is a belief that people can do something to change the outcome of their future. It is knowing that it is not something out there that is in control, but they themselves.

Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions: for example, when receiving exam results, people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves and their abilities. People with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors. – N.R.Carlson

The Way Forward

So based on this information, how do you motivate our children? Give them some control over their environment! It is another reason to avoid environments like public school that take choices away from children.

You really ought to read Duhigg’s book for the entire thrust of the argument along with the examples, but here’s the gist. If you want someone to be motivated, give him choices. Force them to make choices – often, even if they are small ones.

If you are dealing with unmotivated, lackadaisical children, try it. Give them more choices over their environment and watch them thrive.

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Homeschooling Is More Than Just A Schedule

The hyper-organized type A woman inside me likes a schedule. She likes checking things off; it makes her feel accomplished. The relaxed homeschooler, also inside me, knows that a schedule doesn’t count for much. What she needs is a template. And she says as long as the general rhythm of our work and play is good, we are on track.

But successful homeschooling is something else altogether: it is a mental map.

I’ve been reading Charles Duhigg’s new book Smarter, Better, Faster where he mentions the concept of a mental map. The people who are good at what they do, he says, are the ones who spend time dreaming, or better said, telling themselves stories. These stories are their mental maps.

One of his more harrowing examples is that of two plane landings – one that ends in disaster and one successful. The other and perhaps more relevant one to my case here is that of a nurse who spotted a baby in the NICU that “didn’t look right.”

The baby had sepsis, they later found, even though all the machines spit out normal data. If it hadn’t been for the nurse with her mental map of what a healthy baby ought to look like, the child could have died.

As homeschoolers, we should have mental maps of what we want our children to be. We should be spending more time day dreaming and less time planning a schedule. And even less time testing.

Too often, we get our mental maps from others – public schools, with their grade levels and subjects, teachers, questioning us about socialization and if we’re doing it right, various curricula and its scope and sequence. Do we ever stop and dream? Do we consult our mental maps? Do we even have any?

Start with dreaming up a mental map. Tell yourself a story. Then work your way backwards to a schedule. Setting aside all goals, tasks and curricula, what is it you want your child to be like? What is your ideal day with him or her? Start there. Check your days against those maps. They’re the most reliable navigators.

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