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Homeschooling For the Rest of Us

This article was originally published in the July-August 2007 edition of Home Education Magazine, and is reprinted here by the author (me!).

This week I caught myself longing again for that familiar, yet elusive feeling fed by images of Victorian Christmas scenes, Norman Rockwell paintings, and, especially, the ideal homeschooling family. You know the mythical family of which I write — the household where everything is so well organized it practically maintains itself. This is the family where the children spend all their time either reading classic literature or buiding forts in the backyard. They run inside, breathless, their ruddy cheeks glowing, while the baby toddles along behind. They eagerly sip hot cocoa while hanging onto every word of their mother’s latest read-aloud adventure, interrupting only to add insightful commentary about the story’s underlying theme of morality, particularly as it relates directly to situations in their own lives.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that family? Maybe you even come close to it on those delightful days when everything goes according to plan, or even exceeds your wildest expectations. On these days, the children breeze right through their math lesson while happily munching their milk and cookies.

What about the other days though? I’m talking about the days when the kids watch too much TV, and you let them because you want some time to yourself. Or what about the days when they squabble incessantly from dawn to dusk over who gets what color cup, or who got the biggest cookie, or whose fault it is that the cup of milk upended all over the $70 math curriculum (the one you’d been planning to sell on eBay at the end of the year.)

I like to think of those days as the ones that make the rare pearls that much more special. If every day went smoothly, we’d soon take it for granted. We’d be unable to truly appreciate the gift of a plan (finally) coming together the way we’d envisioned. Sure we can aspire to have that idyllic family culture, but on the days when things aren’t going exactly as planned, I find it helpful to cultivate some creative appreciation for other worthwhile homeschooling ideals, some of which you may be closer to than you think. Consider, for example:

The Adventure Family

This family with fortitude takes lemons and makes lemonade! When things aren’t going well, they hit the road. Learning along the way, they don’t mind driving miles to get to interesting and fun learning destinations. There, the kids learn by seeing and doing for themselves. No museum, zoo, park, historical monument or geographical feature is safe from this energetic family on the move.

The Thrill-of-Unschooling Family

The kids in this family are independent and industrious. Nonetheless, their parents go out of their way to support their children’s sometimes lengthy and involved quests to master a topic to their complete satisfaction. Whether the passion leads to detailed understanding of the customs of medieval chivalry or to raising baby chicks, these kids are doing what they love and loving what they do, until they find the next new passion to pursue.

The Family-Business Family

This family encourages every member to contribute to maintaining a family livelihood, whether full time or not. These kids learn their math by making change, and are often capable of responsibilities that belie their young years. If they don’t actually have a family business, they may compensate by opening a lemonade stand or selling Girl Scout cookies. The kids have ample opportunity to learn the value of hard work and the payoff of delayed gratification.

The Homesteading Family

Whether they literally commit to the “back to the land” lifestyle or not, many families extend self-sufficiency beyond the homeschooling arena to include everything from growing and raising their own food, to spinning, weaving, knitting, soap-making, carpentry, or even just making their own bread. These kids learn self-reliance (and patience) at a young age.

The Prodigy Family

One or more members of this family are devoted to particular longstanding interests. Whether the subject of attention is dancing with a company or making music, acting or animals, spelling or science, their homeschool lifestyle allows for unparalleled focus on, and celebration of, gifts, talents, and deep interests.

The Service Family

This family engages with the community on a sustained and committed basis. “Learn by Helping” is their motto, and they use their flexible schedules to make that motto a reality. They volunteer at soup kitchens, build Habitats for Humanity, bring food to those who need it, rescue animals in trouble, contribute holiday presents for families who would go without, serve as tutors and mentors and generally do what they can to fill the many needs of the larger community. While they are at it, they learn quite a bit about the things that are really important in life.

The Activitst Family

The Activist Family learns about causes and then woks to help those causes come to fruition. Whether it is political campaigns, social issues, educational affairs or spiritual and philosophicl concerns, these families aren’t content with quietly swimming in the mainstream. Some have great tact, and others are quite zealous, but they all want to change the world for the better.

Homeschooling mythology is full of these examples and many more besides. These prototypes point to inspirational, though admittedly rose-tinted possibilities. There is a good chance that many, if not all of these posibilities speak to you on some level. The problem is there’s almost always some ideal that you’re not living up to. It’s a recipe for burnout if you’re focused mainly on the areas where you’re coming up short. Maybe on the days when your life isn’t living up to your homeschool ideal of choice, you can gain fresh perspective by looking for an ideal that you are or could be approaching.

So your children watched too much TV this week. Maybe it was an exercise in allowing them to taste the fruits of self-determinism (or the lack thereof). Did they learn that it got boring after a while? Great! Did you learn that they might not be quite mature enough to appreciate the long-term consequences of their quest for easy entertainment? Great!

So your children fought over inconsequential minutia all day. They are providing an excellent foundation for character study! Begin by counting your blessings that your family is in the position to be quibbling over minutia in the first place. Then get busy with some meaningful volunteer work. Yes, it’ll be good for the kids, but mainly it’ll be good for you, because you’ll see how good you’ve got it, whiny children and all.

Archetypes are prototypes or models on which other things (like our lives) are based. They often reflect universal human longings and aspirations. We interweave the archetypes that speak to us to form goals for ourselves and our families.

What are your favorite archetypes? How do you feel when you come close to your favorite ideals? How do you feel when you (or your children) fall short? If you indulge me, I’ll share one last archetype with you.

The ‘Real’ Homeschooling Family

These families think all those other families are really cool. This type of family likes to incorporate interesting aspects of many of the others, but doesn’t expect perfection with regards to any of them. They remember there are so may exciting ways for each of us to live a good life, and there is no one right way to proceed. That means they don’t worry so much about making mistakes. Sometimes mistakes are the best ways to learn, after all.

They also remember that education is a means to a full and interesting life. It is not generally a good substitute for a full and interesting life. In a few years the parents’ homeschooling careers will be over. They recognize that in the end their children will choose their own paths. They won’t live out their parents’ dreams — they’ll be living out dreams of their own. Therefore, these parents do their best to work toward their own highest goals, hoping their example and support will leave their children free to do the same. They’ll savor the good days, and they’ll try their best to appreciate the not-so-great days, too.

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