By Molly Aley
I am a perfectionist, but only in some areas. It’s a funny combination, but it’s true—there are some things that I want to win at, and other things that I couldn’t really care less about. I will create competition where there is none, just to feel the delight of working to “beat” someone else. Sometimes this trait inspires me to excellence. Other times, it is a difficult personality flaw that I have to work to overcome.
My passion for “winning” did me no favors as a first-time homeschool mom. My poor 4-year-old didn’t understand the fact that we “had” to prove her amazing genius (and prove the obviously dominant method of homeschooling versus regular schooling). Poor little Judah had no idea there was an imaginary contest her mother had determined to win. She was blissfully unaware of waging any wars (or showing up any doubting-Thomas relatives).
Thankfully, God placed a love for my daughter above my love for “beating competition.” When I saw that sweet glint dying out in her eyes, I knew something was going all wrong. Instead of having a prodigy child who read sixth-grade level books at age 4, I was fast creating a girl who equated learning with being pressured by Mom to somehow make sense of a confusing jumble of letters. My eager little learner was being replaced by a girl who begged not to “do school.”
So we stopped. We quit doing all that “school” stuff and started just reading lots of stories on the couch. Or rather, continued (just as we’d always done since she was old enough to sit with me on the couch). Judah pulled a stool up to the counter and helped Mom measure ingredients for dinner. She helped with the new baby. She played “house” in the living room with old blankets and dolls. She colored and cut and pasted whenever the urge hit (and learned to clean it all up when she was done, too). She played outside. She helped me grocery shop. She wrestled with her Daddy.
And when she turned 6, she was ready to read. I can’t explain how it happened or how we knew it—we just did. All of a sudden, phonics (from 100 Easy Lessons) went from a torturous exercise to a quickly mastered feat, and then she flew through the first grade Pathway Readers and the second grade Christian Light Readers with delight. Before she turned 7, Judah was reading with ease, and I went from wishing she would read to wishing she would slow down (hey, wholesome books can sometimes be hard to find in the library!). Mathematics, a subject that brought her to tears, suddenly “clicked,” and she went through six workbooks (Developmental Math) in one year. Writing had been a miserable thing for her, but now she was constantly crafting stories and filling pages in journals.
We learned. We learned that one of the most wonderful things about home education is that you get to work with the natural development of your child. It’s a lot like gardening. You don’t try to plant seedlings in the middle of winter, but you wait for the right season. Planted in spring, the young shoots take off, thriving because the conditions are right. Just because I wanted my 4-year-old to read was no indication that she was ready to read. What would have taken a year or two of struggle, frustration, and friction was accomplished in two simple, happy weeks—because she was ready.
The hilarious ending to that story is that our second child actually did learn to read at age 4! The poor child was beyond ready, and we kept putting her off, not wanting to repeat the mistake we had made with our older child. Anna learned anyway, despite us. You simply can’t stop a child when she is ready.
So I’m not in competitive homeschooling anymore. I’m just mothering my children—which includes educating them. We are not trying to compete with anybody. We’re just growing beautiful young seedlings in their seasons, enjoying the process along with the harvest.
There are five of them now, and our home is anything but quiet or boring. But we keep the same relaxed approach to learning—a relaxed environment within an organized structure. Upon waking, each child has a small list of morning chores. This was my husband’s idea, and he taught this “class” for one month, a half hour each morning, until even the toddler had his morning routine down pat. After breakfast, the two oldest do a page of math (we are currently using Modern Curriculum Press), a page of handwriting (Italic Handwriting Series and Draw?Write?Now!), piano, and 15 minutes of reading silently from books of our choosing (various classics at their reading level). Sometimes it’s handier to do this in the afternoon, so we keep our routine flexible and work with each day as it comes. It doesn’t so much matter when it all gets done, just so long as it gets done.
I make curriculum choices based on whether or not it can be done independently (using many ideas from the Robinson Curriculum philosophy). Juggling five children does not leave many spare moments, especially not when it comes to deciphering teacher’s manuals and the like. So … I don’t. Quarter Mile Math, for example, is a fun drill program that lets the computer do the work of teaching (not me). Books on CD are another blessing to a busy homeschooling mom. Our children know their oceans, continents, planets, and so many Scripture verses, all thanks to tapes we sing along with in the car. The Little House on the Prairie series came alive this year when the girls listened to each book on CD at bedtime. Probably the only exception to my “no-teaching” preference would be family games (such as Uno and chess) and our read-aloud times, which usually happen at the table during lunch. So far this year, we have loved Big Truths for Little Kids, Missionary Stories with the Millers, Jotham’s Journey, and A Child’s Geography.
After the required subjects are completed (math, reading, and writing), the children are free to play and learn about whatever they like. We keep plenty of educational things around the house, most of which I have acquired via garage sales, older homeschooling families, or used-curriculum fairs. It’s amazing how many great resources you can find if you just keep your eyes open. Using a long, low shelf, we have books, puzzles, and art supplies aplenty, available for whoever gets the “urge” to explore or create. Rooms in our home have become elaborate restaurants, the ocean, a Post Office, the Wild West, a jungle canopy, and more. I’ll let them do pretty much anything, as long as they clean it all up when they’re done! (It’s amazing how imaginative children can be with a few pieces of construction paper and some Scotch Tape). Mix in helping Dad and Mom, some afternoon chores, and time outdoors, and we end up with a very full educational day.
Chores are a big part of homeschooling in our house, and the general rule is that the chore goes to the youngest person who can handle it. No fair loading up the oldest child with all the work. Spending a day or two teaching the 5-year-old how to unload a dishwasher means I free my 7-year-old up for a chore more on her level (something the 5- -year-old couldn’t handle yet). This helps tremendously with the housework, lessening my own burden and teaching the children good skills that will bless them for a lifetime. By the way, grumping about chores is treated like one of the seven deadly sins around here, which goes a long way toward making chore time quick and enjoyable.
The baby is a part of everything. My fifth child, Jireh, has been hauled around on my front or back for at least a couple of hours each day since birth, thanks to one of the best homeschool helpers I’ve ever had—a baby carrier. Believe it or not, a wonderful (and cheap!) carrier for newborns and small babies is a long piece of cloth (often referred to as a “baby wrap”—see www.mamatoto.org for details on how to make and use one). Now that Jireh is over 20 pounds, I can’t say enough good things about my Ergo, the “Cadillac of baby carriers.” We ordered our Ergo from www.NurtureCenter.com and were very pleased. Moms of many know how crazy it can be trying to help the toddler potty train, explain a math problem to the 7-year-old, and mediate a disagreement between the 5- and 4-year-old, all with a fussing baby in the background, right? Strapping Baby to my back makes it possible for this mom to meet everyone’s needs, and makes Baby happy too. Fussy baby noises are a thing of the past, which is nice for the baby and for my nerves!
The toddler is another story, because every toddler is another story. There are toddlers who sit and play quietly and happily, and then there are toddlers whose chunky legs move toward trouble with lightening speed as soon as your back is turned. Our current toddler, Israel, is one of the latter category, and I’m not sure if I could have survived him alongside a rigorous schooling schedule, me attempting to play “teacher” all morning while he attempted to scale the refrigerator. No thanks. Our relaxed/independent approach has been a lifesaver. He gets the attention he needs (T.I.M.E. with me, supervised constantly), and yet the other children don’t have to pay the price.
The same thing can be said for the preschooler. With a rich learning environment, Emmanuel can design Lego contraptions to his heart’s content, work on a coloring project, jump off boyish energy on the trampoline, or help Mom fix lunch. Since almost all of our toys and learning activities are contained in labeled plastic tubs, cleanup is something any preschooler can handle—or the toddler, for that matter. Children are drilled early that one tub comes out at a time and is picked up before moving on to anything else. This makes playtime and cleanup easy for everyone.
Thanks to the focus on independent learning, when baby is teething or I’m not feeling up to par, homeschooling keeps right on going without me. Which is exactly what my husband and I want to see happen, especially as the years go by. We want our children to know and love God, and secondly (though certainly a product of the first), we pray they would love to learn, just like we do. This can happen on the days when I feel like Queen of All I Survey, and it can also happen when I’m on the couch with a raging head cold. Why? Because the success of our homeschooling day isn’t contingent on bearing a heavy curriculum burden, but on the sparkling curiosity shining from five pairs of young smiling eyes, and a Daddy and Momma who love them.
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