When Homeschooling is Hard

How was your first month of homeschooling this year?

Here’s how ours began: at 4am in the morning of our first official day of school, Sparky came running into our room. “I’m sick!” he gasped. Then he rushed into the bathroom and threw up.

The rest of the day went downhill from there… or rather uphill, as in rolling a boulder up a hill. That’s how much effort it takes to begin a new routine and get the kids back into the school groove. That first day of school, I felt like a zombie trying to herd a pack of monkeys. As soon as one child would settle down to work, another would get up and wander off. Or one would complain that the work was too hard, or start drumming on his desk. All day long I found myself barking, “Sit down! You’re not done your work!”, “Stop talking and focus on your math!”, and “DON’T WAKE THE BABY!”

By the end of the day, I was in the doldrums of discouragement. And I was asking myself, Why is homeschooling so hard? What am I doing wrong?

You would think that a mama with ten years of homeschooling experience would have known better. I should have known better than to expect the first day, week, or even month to go smoothly. Not with a teenager beginning highschool, a new special-needs baby, and four talkative, energetic kids to homeschool in between. I should have known better than to think that with all my careful planning, homeschooling would be easy.

Why is homeschooling so hard?

It’s hard for the same reasons that parenting is hard, that life is hard, that suffering exists. It’s hard because of Original sin. We are broken, sinful people and so are our children. Human nature prefers laziness over diligence, selfishness over love, and pleasure over piety. As imperfect parents trying to educate imperfect children, we are taking on a difficult, if not impossible task, but for the grace of God.

The root of all our difficulties, whether we homeschool or not, lies in sin. The only antidote to sin is love. Not that mushy-wushy feel-good type of love, although that sometimes help. I’m talking about real love, sacrificial love, love that freely chooses the good of the other over our own. And as you all know, homeschooling is a form of sacrificial love. It’s a path we freely choose that is strewn with crosses. When done out of love and with love, homeschooling is an antidote to sin. (Although, I must admit, there are days when it is also a near occasion of sin!) If we can only persevere in educating our children for and with love, with the grace of God, we will wear down the effects of original sin on our families.

So just because homeschooling is hard, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It could simply mean that Our Lord is allowing you to share plentifully in His cross for the salvation of your children.

For me, however, I was doing something wrong: Although I tried to be patient and good-humored,  I had forgotten that I needed to homeschool for love and with love. I had gotten caught up in the checklist mentality. The days were too often about getting the work done with as little fuss as possible.

Often during Mass that first week of school,  I would hear the words come to me clearly: Educate in love. “Yes, Lord, I know!” I’d pray. “But can’t you just tell me what I should cut out of my life to lessen my stress? Should I take out All-Star’s Latin? Should I change Sparky’s math program?” And the same response would come to my mind: Educate in love.

Clearly Our Lord wanted  me to think and pray more deeply about this, and not just stop at practicality. Changing the curriculum might ease the stress, but it wouldn’t get to the root of our difficulties. We need to focus on educating in love, teaching our children how to love. But how?

Since love is a choice, we first need to teach our children to choose well and to make the right decisions. We need to form their consciences and to model for them the virtues of prudence and justice.  We can and should use the study of history, religion, and literature to develop our children’s moral compass. Let there be no moral relativity or obscurity in the books and stories we use to teach with. Our children need to have a strong sense of right and wrong, of justice and compassion.

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Knowing the right thing and choosing it, however, is only the first step. We must then teach our children to persevere in doing what is right, even when it is hard. We need to form their wills. This is where homeschooling can become really challenging, because day in and day out, hour after hour, we are essentially doing just that: teaching our children to persevere in their studies even when they are hard, frustrating, or mundane. Of course our kids will push back. They will tell us the work is too hard or too time consuming. They will resist, whine, and complain. And that is when we need to model and exercise our own patience and fortitude. Let’s remember that as we train their wills, we are ultimately enabling them to love, to choose what is right and stick with it.

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A few days ago, my husband decided that he would take over Sparky’s math lessons. (God bless him!) It was a Saturday, and the last thing Sparky wanted to do was math. Sparky whined and wailed, but to no avail. Later that evening, I asked Sparky how the math lesson with Daddy went. “Terrible!” he exclaimed, emphatically. So I asked my husband how it went.

“Fantastic!” was his enthusiastic reply.

“Fantastic?” I asked, in disbelief. “Didn’t Sparky resist and fight you the whole time?”

“Yes,” replied my husband cheerfully. “but I’m thinking long term. We’re building character.”

Memorizing vocabulary, learning  to do long division, and writing essays are important skills, but far more important is that our children learn to persevere. Let’s not be afraid to let our children struggle. Even as we encourage and support them in their studies, we should try not to be dismayed or unnerved when they shed tears over an assignment. I know that’s hard. As Moms, we are so tied to our children emotionally. Why else do some nursing moms have let-downs when their babies cry?  My gut reaction when my children struggle with a subject is to find an easier way for them.  But I know I have to let them fight their way through, hard as it is to watch.

Before rushing to change difficult assignments, let’s help our children to stay the course. Our overall attitude should be one of cheerful firmness and confidence in their abilities, even if they are lamenting  over how hard the work is.  This is one way we can train their wills and help them exercise those virtues related to the will: fortitude, perseverance, industriousness, and responsibility. According to David Isaacs, the elementary years (8-12 years old) are well suited to the development of these virtues.

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More importantly, we have to lead by example. To educate in love (to teach our children how to love), we have to educate with love. We all know what St. Paul says about love: Love is patient, love is kind. And we’re all trying to be patient and kind, even when our kids are driving us batty. Some days we succeed, thanks to the grace of God. But other days we are humbled by our short temper or irritability. On those days, it can feel as if educating our children in love is a futile endeavour because we ourselves have not been loving.

But it occurred to me that even while we struggle to be patient and kind, there are many other ways to be loving.

For example, when grading our children’s work, we can scribble little love notes into their schoolwork.  Besides writing, “excellent!” or “good job!”, we can write “I love you!”, “You are awesome!”, or ” A great job by a great kid!”. The written word is often more meaningful than the spoken word because it can be read again and again. Writing words of love and affirmation only takes a few seconds at a time, but whether they are silly, funny, creative, or simply sweet, they are tangible proofs of our love.

Also, we can be deliberate about doling out affection. It’s so easy and natural to be affectionate towards the babies and toddlers. With bigger kids, however, we can easily forget how much they, too, need physical affection. They need the unspoken “I love you” which comes across in bear hugs, pats on the back, and hair tussles. Sometimes we can become so busy that we fail to notice that a child is craving affection. Having planned times for giving out hugs and kisses is a way to ensure each child gets that essential, non-verbal “I love you”. Even more, we can be deliberate about sprinkling the affection throughout the day. After all, it’s fun to attack an unsuspecting boy (only your own, of course) and engulf him in a “mother smother” (as Sparky aptly describes it).

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Finally, we can devote time and energy into making happy memories. Family traditions are a great way to do this. Children love having something to look forward to, and they enjoy remembering fun pastimes. Family traditions allow for both a looking forward to and looking back at happy times spent with the family. Our family traditions have mostly centered around the liturgical year: sewing All Saints Day costumes, filling an empty creche with  cotton ball sacrifices for Baby Jesus, the family Easter Egg hunt etc. This year, however, I hope to begin a few more traditions relating specifically to school. In our home, these will have to be super simple, easy-to-implement traditions that the kids will love, nonetheless. For example, Donut Day (get a donut hole every time you finish an assignment), Movie Day, Build a Historic Monument Lego Day, and Go Play and Let Mom Blog Day. I hope these traditions will  make my kids look back on their homeschooling years with fondness.

Hard, discouraging days are par for the course for any homeschooling parent. Naturally, we will always look for ways to make things smoother and easier. But let’s not forget to offer up our difficulties for our children’s souls, for there is merit in our sufferings if we give them to Our Lord. And then, let’s keep our eyes on the big picture, focussing on educating our children for love, with love, and in love.

Happy Homeschooling!

 

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