Tips From An Imperfect Homeschooler


Some of you may know that I homeschool my three kids while also working outside the home. This is something we’ve always done, long before I came to All Souls. I graduated my oldest last year, and he’s currently a freshman at IU. It’s been a good choice for us, but juggling a job and your kids’ education can leave you feeling, as one person said to me this week, as though you’re not doing any of it well. This can become a worry we return to again and again, one that bruises our spirit and shakes our faith. I want to offer you some reassurance.

•No, you’re not homeschooling. In some ways that’s making this harder.

I have seen “homeschooling” bandied about on social media this week as if it’s basically synonymous with e-learning…but they are not the same thing. Homeschooling is voluntary, and if you chose to do it, you’d probably schedule time to research and prepare. You would choose the schedule, the content, and the curriculum…and you’d tweak these things as necessary. In short, you’d have autonomy. Instead, what most parents are dealing with right now is an imposed form of schooling at home, with varying levels of teacher oversight and support. Some of you are being told to “do school” at specific hours that don’t dovetail with your work schedule. Others are finding that the e-learning format doesn’t mesh with your child’s preferred learning style. There are pros and cons, but this emergency model, important as it is, lacks one thing homeschoolers prize: flexibility. Homeschoolers feel for y’all.

•School takes a lot less time at home

Are you wondering why the heck your kid is done with e-learning already, and what they’re supposed to do for the rest of the day? When I started homeschooling, it quickly became clear how much of my public school teaching day had been taken up by wrangling herds of kids through transitions…from subject to subject and room to room. The time it took to “finish” a school day at home was drastically shorter than I’d expected. Which brings me to my next point:

•Don’t try to program every minute of the day

You know all those science kits, craft sets, and games in the closet? Get them out. Don’t assign them; leave a few lying around. Rotate them out now and then. Open a few tabs on your kid’s device loaded with interesting resources, like virtual tours, “how to” videos, that kind of thing. Download a puzzle game or a birdwatching app without comment. “Forget” to recycle those cardboard boxes. Maybe leave some masking or duck tape nearby. This is what’s known as “creating an enriched environment.” Kids will find these things when they get bored. Which reminds me…

•Value boredom

As UUs, we prize creativity and curiosity; they are essential characteristics of our faith. Research shows that people who experience boredom become more creative problem solvers than those who don’t. However, we also know people will go to great lengths to avoid boredom, and this is important information for overtaxed parents who are quarantined with their kids. When you send your children outside to play, they’re going to come back in too soon. When you usher them to their rooms for quiet reading, they’re going to call out to you from their doorway a thousand times. It is perfectly all right to send them back and leave them to muddle through it themselves. And sometimes you’re going to have to turn off your Zoom camera and give them the stink-eye. Eventually they will find something to do. They will learn how to find something to do. And then you’ll get to interrupt them. Besides, while some of the activities they choose will definitely not be what you expected, they also might be genuinely useful.

•Encourage autonomy

This is when the true genius of Montessori and Waldorf education comes in handy. Even fairly small children can get themselves something to eat, but you have to think about the ergonomics from their point of view. Store approved snacks, dishes, and utensils within your kids’ reach. Put things that come in big, unwieldy jugs (like milk) in smaller containers so they’re easy to pour. If your kid’s a bit bigger, dig in the back of the drawer for that two-handed apple corer/slicer. Hummus and baby carrots, sandwiches, cereal with milk, yogurt with fruit…these are all things kids can safely serve themselves. They can also rinse dishes and wipe up, and they love child-sized tools like small dustpans and whisk brooms. (They also love songs about what they’re doing, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

Let’s be honest, with the whole family eating three squares a day at home, you need help with meals and chores. And it will be messy, long-way-round help to begin with, but I speak from experience when I say that help-in-training eventually becomes cook-an-entire-meal-from-scratch help, build-a-garden-bed help, and clean-the-whole-bathroom help. Take this opportunity to empower your children to contribute to the greater purpose of keeping a home that supports everyone’s self-care. There’s no better time to start.

•Your kids will be fine if they have to take a backseat to your job sometimes

For many of us, work has historically been very segregated from our home lives. When we’re home, books and experts tell us that our parenting should be child-led. So when we suddenly have to order our children to occupy themselves so we can do our jobs, we feel like terrible parents.

We’re not.

Folks who work in the gig economy, run their own businesses, or farm have always had to do this kind of juggling act. So have parents in poverty, who have to use time-consuming workarounds to get their family’s basic needs met, and who can’t simplify the small problems of daily life by purchasing conveniences that free them up to spend more time with their children. Use this moment to gain deeper empathy for those who were struggling with this problem long before the pandemic. Let it fuel your social justice work in the future.

Kids are not always developmentally ready to understand the seriousness of an individual moment to your larger work life. You may have to be more authoritative than you used to be…and that’s okay. There is a difference between being emotionally unavailable in general and being literally unavailable in that moment. Over time, they will learn to understand this difference, as well as the importance of the work you do, both in terms of its benefit to your family (housing, food, etc.) and its benefit to society. When you shut your laptop for the day, make sure you have that conversation, too. Rinse. Repeat. And quit punishing yourself for putting your kid in front of a screen during that big work call. The stakes are what they are, and you’re doing the best you can.

•Families are stronger than their present circumstances

Let me sum up by saying something I know you’re going to hate. Children are resilient. It sounds like a cop out, and I know that. It’s exactly what someone would say to deflect responsibility, and I know that, too.

It’s also true.

All the worrying I did about shoo-ing my kids out of the way so I could work or till the garden was out of step with their experiences and takeaways. Sometimes we argued. Sometimes I felt like a crappy parent. But they also found the one frog that dwelled on our property, caught it a hundred times, and thought we lived in the land of a hundred frogs. They took a sheet off the clothesline to use as a sail and made a pirate ship out of the front porch. And sometimes they watched too much TV or played more Minecraft than any human needs to play. But they also learned the difference between an impulse and a need, a need and a want, something urgent and something that could happen in due time. Your kids will too, and it will make them stronger Unitarian Universalists.

You’re doing a good job.

In Fellowship,

One Response to “Tips From An Imperfect Homeschooler

  1. Thanks for this such and multifaceted blog. Very helpful in its concreteness.

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