7 Lessons I've Learned from Homeschooling That All Parents Will Appreciate

Parents who opt to homeschool their kids wear many hats and take on multiple responsibilities. Noodle Expert Powell Berger has been doing it for seven years. Here’s what she wants to share with everyone.

All the back-to-school photos circulating on my Facebook feed remind me that it’s time to get my tenth-grade daughter’s curriculum sorted.

With her older brother away at college, it’s just the two of us in our homeschool classroom now — a change we both relish and lament in equal measure. Differing voices and opinions make high school more interesting. Fighting over who gets the printer next? Not so much.

Now entering our seventh year of homeschooling, I laugh when I look back on how nervous I was that first day, and how perhaps the best counsel I ever got was from another homeschool mom. “Relax,” she told me. “It all comes out in the wash. Just like blue crayon.”

Being both mom and teacher isn’t always easy. But it comes with perks: a unique perspective on education, a better sense of my kids’ limitations and abilities, and a healthy awareness of when it’s time to get out of their way.

I’ve still got three more years left to wear both hats, but ask me what I’ve learned so far, and I can boil it down to this:

Embrace failure — both yours and your kids’.

Maybe you’ve seen recent writing and studies on precisely this point. In the 2014 book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz explains that kids can be “haunted their whole lives by a fear of failure.” He goes on to say that they usually develop such feelings by observing this reaction in their parents — the cost of which “becomes not merely practical but existential.”

Watch out: Our kids are paying attention to what we do, not to what we say.

My daughter’s become an impressive cook and baker, tackling recipes whose complexity makes me shudder. When she recently set out to make French macarons, I timidly mentioned that I’d heard they’re difficult to master.

“That’s okay,” she said. “If I get the first batch wrong, I’ll figure it out and do another batch.” The prospect of failure might have intimidated me, but not her. She explained that she’d seen my successes (and failures) in the kitchen over the years, and that in her mind, an unsuccessful batch of cookies wasn’t a big deal.

On the one hand, she was right: I don’t make a big deal out of failed kitchen experiences (which happen frequently). On the other hand, there was no room for self-congratulatory high-fives: My fear of failure, in this case, was not about the cookies, but rather a worry that she’d somehow be bruised or diminished by her inability to master the macaron on the first try. I was trying to shield her from something she wasn’t the least bit concerned about. Fortunately, in our case, she ignored me, and the macarons were brilliant (by the second batch).

Embrace failure as an everyday occurrence. Laugh at the little things and remember to find lessons in the bigger ones. When our kids see us admit to a mistake, they learn the value of growth and responsibility. They also view us as equals, fellow-players on our quest to perfection.

Foster self-reliance — again — yours and your kids’.

Author and former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims claims in her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success that “[a]cademically overbearing parents are doing great harm.” This assertion comes with evidence from a 2013 American College Health Association survey, which found (among other things) that more than 84 percent of students felt overwhelmed by what they had to do in school; 57 percent felt very lonely, and 51 percent felt overwhelming anxiety.

Lythcott-Haims says that while we want the best for our kids, a number of factors — fear for their safety and anxiety about college acceptance among them — distort our sense of what “best” really means.

As hard as it is to resist the urge, don’t go running back to school with the work or lunch your child forgot, particularly when it starts to happen regularly. Don’t jump in to help with the homework, don’t give a quick pass on the night’s reading assignment because of a family commitment, and don’t secure an extension on that science project for her.

When we support our son by encouraging him to tackle these issues on his own — that is, to talk with his teacher and explain the situation clearly — he is forced to rely on himself. He may not like it, but he’s empowered, and he has come to understand that he has control over his life, academic and otherwise.

Don’t worry; your child knows you’ve got her back. But by the time you ship her off to college, you (and she) can rest easy, confident that she knows what to do.

Take advantage of boredom — it’s brilliance waiting to happen.

In our overscheduled, overcommitted, overcompetitive world, boredom teeters on the brink of extinction. Fight back! Resist it!

When kids get bored, they find something to fill their time. If they are given the resources, time, and space to cultivate interests and hobbies, they may fill their downtime productively – and quite possibly discover a lifelong passion.

Remember, too, that as kids get older, their daily pressures at school are getting heavier. When they come home, collapse on their bed, and stare at the ceiling, give them space. Odds are they are just processing their day.

Model the same behavior. Catch yourself when you’re multi-tasking or asking too much of yourself. Slow down occasionally to make time for something you love — your kid’s watching.

Love first; the other stuff comes later.

As parents, we are our kids’ fiercest advocates, loudest cheerleaders, and most feared disciplinarians. The parents of homeschooled kids are also their teachers, college counselors, and principals all rolled into one. It’s sometimes easy to forget that our first job is simply to love them.

Make time to laugh together, see a movie together, walk the dog together — all without asking about her homework or test scores or whether she thinks she’ll be starting in Saturday’s game.

“I finally got my son back,” my friend said when her child enrolled in a school specializing in teaching kids who learn differently. “They told me my job was to love him. They’d handle homework and school,” she said, crying. “I’d almost forgotten how much fun he is!”

When you love them, make time for them, and celebrate them for who they are, magic happens.

Let them teach you!

When I was about to head down the homeschool path, the headmaster at my kids’ school gave me a single, simple piece of advice. “Ask them a question. Then shut up and listen.”

On its face, it seems counter-intuitive. We want to “help” them or “teach” them or “share” what we know with them so they don’t make the same mistakes we made. But just as you probably knew a lot more than your parents gave you credit for, your kids have plenty to teach you. You just have to be ready to shut up and listen.

Our homeschool curriculum quickly evolved to include project-based learning, where my kids would each choose areas of exploration and then dive in. At the end of a specified period of time, they’d present to the rest of the family what they’d discovered. And when we traveled, each child took charge of different cities, setting the itinerary and learning what’s special about that location.

Ten years ago, I didn’t know there was a thing called a whale-shark (nor did I know that it’s not a shark at all). After my son became an expert on the species, we planned an entire summer around an opportunity to swim with them, and I’m forever indebted to him for the lesson.

Chances are your kids are better at using technology than you are, and almost certainly more adept at social media. Ask them to teach you, to explain it to you in terms you understand. By requesting their help, you are validating your children’s expertise, and by listening and learning, you affirm that you respect what they have to offer.

Now that’s the kind of validation we can all get behind, right?

Nurture self-awareness and self-care, and eradicate self-loathing and self-minimizing.

It took a while, but 21st-century education now embraces the notion that there’s not a single right way or wrong way to teach or learn. People gain knowledge differently, process information differently, and arrive at similar conclusions differently. By encouraging your child to figure out what works for her — rather than fretting about how she’s not doing something the same way her friends are — she can come to understand her unique learning style.

In our homeschool classroom, math provided an effective illustration of this point. If the three of us had to answer the same mental math question, we’d all come up with the same answer. But ask us to show you how we got there, and each of us would explain different paths.

Does your daughter prefer to do homework with music blaring? Is she a tactile learner? Does she remember everything she hears but struggle to retain written material? By developing an awareness of these differences – without feeling that this learning style makes her inadequate in some way — she can take better control of her education and process material in a way that works best for her.

Likewise, it’s your job not to judge or question what’s working for your kid. Remember that just because you need a desk lamp, a study chair, and a cup of tea before you can be productive, her perfect environment may be sprawled across a bed with papers everywhere and a loud soundtrack playing. Worry about the results, not how she gets there.

Build in mental health days.

An elementary school teacher whispered this nugget in my ear years ago. I can never repay the debt of gratitude. Each school year, my kids get three mental health days. They get to choose when they can use them, no questions asked. On these days, there’s no school, they do what they please, and I stay out of their way.

I was skeptical at first, figuring that all three days would be burned in the first six weeks, and that I’d be the fool for having suggested it. Once again, my kids are smarter than I am. They hoard these days, cherishing them, making sure they only cash one in when it’s really the right day. Just not feeling it this morning? They trudge on, knowing the day will get better. They’re late on a project? They double-down and get it done. A favorite relative or friend is coming to visit? They carefully consider, weighing the pros and cons, and more often than not, come back asking if they can just cash in a half-day.

The thing is, just having those days available to them gives them power and authority over their time. When you’re eight years old, that’s a pretty priceless treasure. Chances are, you’ll treat it that way. And the extra bonus? Your kid learns straight away there’s no need to lie or feign a stomach ache or some other mysterious malady. The truth is simpler, and everybody wins.

It’s true, there are plenty of disengaged, overworked parents out there, but you aren’t one of them. How do I know? You’re reading this. Relax. Get out of the way. It’s your kid’s turn now.

Want to read more? Check out additional articles by Powell Berger and other resources on homeschooling, parenting, and alternative education.

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