If you have been homeschooling your children for longer than 3 days, you have inevitably been faced with THE QUESTION from well-meaning family, friends, church members, doctors, dentists and neighbors; “How DO you DO IT?”
Or, better still, the “I could NEVER” statements.
“I could NEVER teach my children at home!”
“I would NEVER have enough patience!”
“I could NEVER get that kind of respect from MY children!”
When I am feeling charitable, I remind myself that people don’t MEAN to be stupid! But when I am feeling less so, I plaster my long-ago-perfected, slightly smug smile on my face and say: “Thank you!”
All the while SCREAMING in my head: “Are you KIDDING ME?!”
“Do you honestly think that just because these cute little demons have enough training in basic manners to stand straight, look you in the eye, smile and say ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, ma’am’ that they don’t possess the same black hearts as your little monsters?”
“Or do you think that MY black heart is somehow less sinful than YOUR black heart?”
I know what you know and what every home educating parent knows: it is only a profound sense of duty and vocation that holds us to this commitment we have made and returns us to the family altar again and again; day after day. This sense of duty coupled with our desires for our children and ourselves will form the basis for my article. But before delving into these ideas, I’d like to get up on my high horse for just a moment.
I would like to take just a moment to address not only homeschoolers, but pastors and teachers as well:
Do not be too hard on people for comments like the ones above and don’t be discouraged by it. When people misunderstand what we are about in this business; love them. Answer them gently. Pray for them . But also, tell the truth. Do not romanticize the homeschooling life; to them or yourself. Defend your choice with gentleness and respect. Speak truth about the daily grind and ask them for their prayers for your family. Be humble and be honest.
Your parishioners who home school are doing a hard thing and a good thing and a Godly thing. Support them. Pray for them. Seek to understand their decision and the thought and prayer that goes into it and encourage them with God’s Word for their strength and comfort when the days are long. Homeschooling mothers, especially, wear the weight of the world on their shoulders. Lead them to repentance and remind them that Jesus bore that weight in His hands and it is unbelief to place it in theirs. Point them away from the endless homeschooling blogs and Pinterest sites that make them feel “less than” and point them toward the Lord’s Table where they can be renewed and refreshed and forgiven; emboldened to face another week.
We are not judging you or your abilities as a teacher by choosing to homeschool. We respect your vocation and seek to emulate it. When a homeschooling mother or father comes to you with questions or insecurities or when life circumstances require that they put their child in your classroom, do not make them feel like a failure for the gaps that will inevitably exist as if no other child in the history of mankind has ever struggled in math except a former homeschooled child! Share your knowledge with them. Empathize with the struggle. Show them grace.
We in the church too often allow dividing lines to be drawn between those of us in church schools, public schools and home schools. We forget that we are all on the same team: team HEAVEN. We should be 100% united in our support of families and our prayers for the good of the other should be frequent and robust.
Remembering the Purpose of Homeschooling
That being said, the reality for the vast majority of us reading this is that we have made a life- altering choice for our families to facilitate our children’s learning and education within the walls of our homes. There is a great basis for this in Scripture, of course, but it is also well-supported throughout history. It was better understood in the past than it seems to be today, even in the church, that parents are the ones given the primary care and responsibility of their children’s souls. And what is education for if not for that? I realize I am preaching to the choir when I say these things here but any article which sets out to encourage the heart of the home educator as mine intends to do must include this reminder.
What else but this will encourage us when the days drag on with endless reading lessons and math corrections and salt-dough maps and diaper changes and laundry? What else but this will drive you forward through bad attitudes, laziness, learning disabilities, and ALGEBRA? You are laying the foundations of a cathedral and like the cathedral builders of old you are committing your time and treasure to the building of something that you may not see the completion of but whose sole purpose is the Glory of God.
It is a noble task, requiring sacrifice, time, and attention to detail. The work is grueling. You will get dusty and dirty and many times over, you will want to quit. Don’t quit. Whether you homeschool for one year or thirteen, don’t quit building and shaping the spires.
It is lofty, this vision! But, don’t worry, I will bring us back down to earth. However, without a vision and an ordering of our loves, we can lose our way. Without care, we can fall prey to what Luther talked about as falling off of one side of the horse or the other. In our effort to “protect” our children from the “evil public schools”, we bring them home and then beat them down in our efforts to “do school” in the exact same way. Or we hitch our wagon to the most recently touted method or curriculum on the market whether or not we can afford it and whether or not it is effective for our child.
I could talk to you all day long—passionately—about the Classical Education and Charlotte Mason Methods and nerd out about why they are THE MOST effective method for educating your children! But I won’t. Because it isn’t the point.
It isn’t the “why.”
It is the wrong side of the horse.
Nor am I particularly interested in quoting all the statistics about the academic prowess of homeschoolers and how they handily measure up to their peers in most cases and are highly sought after by most colleges. I don’t doubt the validity of these facts, but they bore me. As a person who has at various times sent her children to homeschool, private school, public schools and co-ops, I can tell you with confidence: there are smart kids everywhere.
Don’t misunderstand me! I am not saying we do not have the great obligation to prayerfully consider how best to train the minds of our students, formulate habits toward diligence and excellence and to discover for ourselves the best method and curriculum that achieves that end for our families. But if we get caught in the weeds of educating the mind for academic excellence, high SAT scores, and generally just to stick it to all of the naysayers, we must repent. We have the very great task of training and filling our children up on the best there is to know. But it must be for the purpose of them knowing and loving their Heavenly Father; feasting on what is true and good and beautiful to the cultivation of their souls and toward the humility required to share that knowledge with a lost and dying world.
Charlotte Mason said:
The question is not ‘how much does the youth know?’ when he has finished his education, but ‘how much does he care?’ and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? And, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?
A Personal Journey
I began my homeschooling journey with all of the bravado and arrogance that a 22 year old adoptive mother could possess. 9 months into my marriage and with a baby due within a month of the school year starting, I thought “how hard can it be?” Well, let me answer that for you.
“PRETTY DARN HARD!”
Maggie and Noah were deeply grieving the loss of their mother and adjusting to life with a very young stepmother who was desperately trying to “figure it all out” and not sink under the weight of uncertainty, fear, and pregnancy hormones.
Academically, our first few years of homeschooling were dismal, at best.
But we read stories. We snuggled babies. We got to know each other. And, I am convinced that nothing could have knit our hearts together as a family the way homeschooling did. What if I would have quit? What if I would have looked at the academics and the gaps and deemed our homeschool a “failure”? Only God knows and, I am sure that, in His Mercy, He would have shown us other ways, but I am thankful that He allowed me to stay on the horse. And, today, those two flourishing adults are some of the dearest and wisest people that I know.
All of us clearly take our parental duties seriously, and that “seriousness” can lead us off track in our efforts to succeed. Whether you get distracted by academics or your children’s behavior or any other side road you may be tempted to take, remember to check your motives, asking God to show you where you may be drifting. He will lead you back. Seek first His kingdom; desire His kingdom above all else. This, parents, is your duty.
The Joy of Homeschooling
But. … all “duty” and no “desire” can leave mama a little burdened by the LAW! So what of our desires? What I hope you know and experience in your day to day homeschooling life is that it is FUN! You are giving your children a wonderful gift by keeping them home; the gift of a gentle childhood. Unhurried and safe, we can allow our children to begin their days together and spend their days together in their youngest, most vulnerable years; forming life-long bonds of friendship with their siblings. As routines form, your home can possess a kind of “liturgy” and rhythm under which education can thrive. Even squalor (most familiar to those of us that are honest), has a rhythm that can be predictable and “soothing”. The liturgy of our life at various times has been morning time devotions, muffin tin lunches on the lawn, reading in the branches of the apple tree, nature hikes, learning math lessons from a three year old desperate to take her part, and a world peopled with stories and characters that became lifelong friends. My children grew up with time to play and space to grow.
Their imaginations were sparked by fairy tales and myths, The Penderwicks, Adventures in Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings and Narnia, so that a mother never knew if she was encountering her son or the High King Peter when asking him to pick up his socks.
As we work on our “living epistles” whose Author and Finisher is Christ, we get to fill their minds and souls on the best stories and watch as God reveals Himself to them as they think and wrestle and see Truth between the pages. We get to choose what is most important to their education and order their days accordingly and we get to place God’s Word at the forefront. We get to bring the words on the page to life as they learn to decode and decipher those words for themselves. We get to watch their minds make sense of numbers and history and science and the wonders of the universe. And, if we are lucky, we get to redeem our own education as we fill in the gaps of things we missed or forgot we learned from our childhood. Most importantly, we get to give our children A CHILDHOOD. In his wonderful, satirical book “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child”, Anthony Esolen says:
If we loved children, we would have a few. If we had them, we would want them as children, and would love the wonder with which they behold the world, and would hope that some of it might open our own eyes a little. We would love their games, and would want to play them once in a while, stirring in ourselves those memories of play that no one regrets, and that are almost the only things an old man can look back on with complete satisfaction. We would want children tagging along after us, or if not, then only because we would understand that they had better things to do.”
The home education movement gives us hope that childhood can be reclaimed, to some extent, in our fast-paced, utilitarian, hedonistic society. It takes effort, even for us who are “home”. But the pay-off will be worth it. If we can resist the pull of society to hurry them along, I believe that we give them the best shot they have at becoming well-rounded, passionate adults who are hungry for knowledge and understanding, and committed to Truth. I know no better way to do this than to put good books in their path every chance you get; what Charlotte Mason calls “Living Books” (Do you notice how I said I wasn’t going to pontificate about my favorite methods and yet Charlotte just keeps showing up!).
These books breathe. They inspire wonder. They bring science and history and mathematics and literature to life for children and adults alike and avoid the preaching moralism or depressing nihilism so prevalent in the average textbook and many modern novels. In what C. S. Lewis in “The Abolition of Man”calls the “tragicomedy” of our age, “ … we clamor for the qualities [of character and virtue in our children]” but “we are rendering [them] impossible … We make men without chests and expect of them virtue.”
If we desire virtue from our children and ourselves, then we ought to present it through the heroes of Scripture, the holy martyrs of the faith, and men and women throughout history who inspire, (in all of their human-ness,) courage and wisdom and faith. In our age of moral relativism where lines of right and wrong are blurry if not altogether obliterated, the best books are clear and concise and point our eyes to the Truth. So sit on the couch, (or in an apple tree) and read good books!
The Burdens of Homeschooling
However, the gentle childhood is not all roses and sunshine and story time. There is the stark reality of the sinful nature that is alive and well in every homeschooling home.
The gentle childhood also allows room for the battles to be fought. We see the character and lack of character in our children in bold, broad brushstrokes painted large across the walls of our homes. This means we are forced every day to confront the darkness; to continually prune and shape and burn away the dross. This is no fun!
It would be SO MUCH easier to watch the backside of that snarky, lazy, melodramatic, moody, mouthy, impatient, obnoxious little darling march up the steps of that big yellow bus every day with a “See ya!”.
We have chosen a different path. And that choice demands our attention and care and guidance over each of the things listed and so many more that will present themselves every day in the eyes of each child and the eyes staring back at us from the mirror.
This is a gift to your child to have the ability to know themselves from a young age; to have the space to confront themselves and to be led again and again, and again to the cross of Christ by the people who, by birth or by choice, have brought them home and kept them home and can train their souls as well as their minds in this daily endeavor.
But it isn’t just their sin that your children will have to contend with. You, human mothers and fathers, must know yourselves. The sin and weaknesses that you bring to the table have the potential to produce far more damage to your children than choosing the wrong math curriculum or any gaps left at graduation.
They must see you working on those weaknesses; repenting of them and growing in Christ each day. This is, perhaps, the most terrifying and sobering fact imaginable. You must tell the truth and with humility and honesty show your children that you see the reality of your sin.
They know it.
Believe me, they know it!
And if you pose or set yourself up as a paragon or God-forbid pretend to be anything other than a weak and tempted sinner, they will cry foul and will look for honesty elsewhere. As they mature, encourage them to call you out. Encourage them to hold you accountable. Encourage them to go to therapy.
Parent, you will lose your way at times on your path because the devil is a crafty and roaring lion and he wants to devour you and he wants you to make an idol of your children, your homeschool, and yourself. Be on your guard.
Tell your children you’re sorry. Forebearance in the homeschool is a two way street. You will watch your children suffer many times as they grow up and it will break your heart.
But worse, you will sometimes, without knowing it and certainly without meaning to, cause your children to suffer. And it will break your heart!
I have failures that take my breath away and send me to my knees decades later with the regret of things I harped on or that I missed or that I simply wasn’t equipped for at the time that caused wounds in my children that only the love of Christ can heal. Forgiveness is powerful and we have ample opportunity to extend it and receive it in our day to day interactions with each other. Embrace the struggle. Try not to be shocked by it and see it as a chance to GROW! I have been out of my depth most of my life as a mother and home educator! But God has always been my life-raft and taught me how to swim! (or at least how to tread water)
Before concluding, I want to offer a couple of practical suggestions especially for you mothers as you continue forward, juggling your many roles and trying to maintain some semblance of sanity!
The first is to “nourish your soul”. This is not modern-day “self-care” as it is commonly practiced. Rather, it is finding time and space to cultivate your own wisdom and create space for joy in your own spirit. Feed yourself first because you can’t draw from an empty well.
I’m not talking about locking yourself in the bathroom and reading a romance novel for three hours to the neglect of your duties and vocations. But there are many ways to create space in your day to nurture your interests and passions that don’t need to detract from your responsibilities.
Wake up a half an hour earlier to get some exercise or read a chapter in a good book. Listen to the Bible and audiobooks and podcasts while you shower, or do the dishes or fold laundry. Contemplate an article on educational philosophy that keeps you inspired and fresh. Start a Commonplace journal and copy quotes from Scripture, poetry, or a book you are reading that speaks to you.
Or sit in silence if you can find it.
We live in a time where there are so many resources available at our fingertips. But take that time for what is known as “schole”; restful learning so that your mind can stay engaged and active. Someday, believe it or not, you will no longer be a “homeschooling mother” and you want to feel ready to take on whatever new endeavor God sends your way with confidence!
The second tip goes hand in hand with the first and that is to “find your people”. Don’t try to do this alone. Stay close with your husband, of course, and nourish that relationship in the midst of all the craziness as best you can. But also seek to connect with other women who will encourage you in your own pursuit of knowledge and growth. I participate in one “real-life” book club and am part of several online groups that utilize Facebook and Marco Polo to facilitate discussion. My nieces and daughters have formed a structured reading group that gets together once a month to read and discuss an article or essay and wrestle with the ideas presented there. The group consists of women of a variety of ages and stages of life.
I love this and would have killed for such a group in my younger years. These types of things are soul-expanding and fun and decrease the sense of loneliness that can sometimes smother the mother who is pouring out so much of herself every day. And it cultivates deep friendships centered around a common mindset of growth. So seek out “your people” and GROW!
A Road with Potholes
I’d like to conclude by addressing two things that can rob us of our joy in homeschooling and in life if we are not careful: disappointment and fear. I hope that you have seen and felt my great love for the home educating lifestyle and all of the benefits I believe there are for your family.
But I also know it is important to remember that we are not the authors of our own stories and there may come a day when due to health or finances or circumstances or simply for the good of your relationship with your child, that you may have to give up on this mission.
Or you may get to the end of your years of homeschooling and find that your child becomes a prodigal who walks away from all that you have tried so hard to instill. This can produce anger and pain as we reckon with the reality of our disappointment and our fears over what the outcome may be for ourselves and our children.
This reckoning came for me five years ago when God called us to the foreign mission field of—
My world blew up as we were faced with the very great task of moving across the country with three well-established teenagers and a contented 9 year old, leaving behind two grown children who were just beginning to raise their families and whose lives we enjoyed being a regular part of. My heart was filled with anxiety and anger and disappointment as the enormity of the task yawned in front of me and everything familiar and known and comfortable faded behind me in the rearview mirror.
I wish I could tell you that that quickly faded and all my fears disappeared once we arrived and settled in.
But the road has been a long one with more than a few potholes.
And my stubborn heart has wrestled and questioned and worried for much of the time we have been there. In the months leading up to our move, it became clear to me that God was asking me to “lay my Isaacs down” and trust that He would provide and care for each of us. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is oh so weak and I have wrestled more in the last five years than at any other time in my life. I often “walk with a limp”.
After a long, hard year of struggling to “replace” the life we had become familiar with in Minnesota, we decided that it would be best for two of our girls to attend the Lutheran high school. It felt like a loss in many ways at the time, but in reality it was just another path that diverged from what I had created as the ideal and has produced many blessings and opportunities to grow and many new neighbors to serve and love.
Your choices may look different than mine, but if they come, do not cling so tightly to your children and your ideals that God has to pry them out of your hands. Hold loosely and remember that what God ordains is always good. He is working through each disappointment and change and upheaval to reveal Himself more fully to you and to your children. Do not deprive yourself or your children of the growth that can come through sadness, disappointment, and loss.
And don’t be afraid!
I don’t know what your personal fears are, but I know my own. And they are powerful and distracting and all-consuming when I take my eyes off of Christ.
We live in a dangerous world filled with bad ideas and faith destroying philosophies and our children DO need to be protected. You are an instrument of that protection, but you aren’t THE protection. You have no idea what temptations, trials, and fears your children will face and what sins they will wrestle with and you can’t know. They have their own souls that must be refined. Bring them to the baptismal font and to church and to the Lord’s Supper. Pray for them. Pray with them. Give thanks for them and the uniqueness God has built into them. But don’t let fear drive the car so that you take your eyes from Christ and His promises.
The title of my article is “The Gentle Childhood: A path Toward Home for Mother and Child” and I was very careful in choosing that article, because the homeschooling journey is wonderful and powerful and fruitful and life-changing; but it is not THE path toward Home.
Whatever twists and turns God takes you on on your path, be not afraid. He is with you. He is with your children . He has redeemed you and you are HIS! And it is finished! Nothing you do will add to what has already been won for them in Christ. So be faithful. Be wise and be willing. But be not afraid.
Let me close with one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther:
“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
May the Lord bless and keep you and give you His PEACE on your way Home.
Editorial Note: This article is an adaptation of a talk given to the ELS Homeschool Symposium on March 9, 2019.
Jenna Thompson is married to David, a pastor in the ELS; the mother of six children; and, a grandmother to eight. She has homeschooled for over twenty years and is employed as the Campus Coordinator of the Athenaeum after school program at Great Hearts Northern Oaks, a Classical Charter school.