The Surprise Advantages of Homeschooling

Whether they agree or not, everybody knows the obvious advantages of homeschooling: individualized education, more room for creativity, avoidance of ideas/practices that the family finds objectionable, and the opportunity to instill one’s child/ren with one’s own values. (FTR, not all of those are among my family’s reasons for homeschooling.) And everyone knows the disadvantages, too, chief among them the foregoing of a second income for most homeschooling families.

But what about all the little side benefits? The little things that nobody would use as a real reason to homeschool but that make life a little nicer, anyhow? Here are a few I’ve discovered so far:

  1. My dogs are so damn happy to have people home all day, they can hardly contain themselves.
  2. We can have whatever we want for lunch.
  3. Related to #2, leftovers never go bad in the fridge.
  4. The grocery, bank, pharmacy, or anywhere else when they’re crowded? NEVER!
  5. In the early afternoon, when all the school-age kids are in school and the preschoolers and toddlers are home taking naps, we have the park all to ourselves.

Aha… So THIS is Homeschooling Nirvana

In the few weeks since beginning our homeschooling adventure, I’ve had more self-doubting, confused, and scared days than I’ve had confident, productive ones. Probably to be expected, given the chaotic, sudden way we got our start. We were at first mostly focused on relieving Carter’s terrible fear, anxiety, and sleep trouble. Then we had a trip to SC to visit Brian’s parents. And finally, by the time the de-schooling process was complete and Carter was ready to get to work, I had barely begun to plan, gather materials, or create a space in which to organize our work.

While all of that organizing/planning is still definitely still in progress, we’ve come far enough to have some productive, interesting days and today, I understand what all the fuss about when it comes to this homeschooling thing, why so many people are so over-the-top enthusiastic about it.

We started the day out on a very sour note. Carter was crabby and uninterested in anything. He likes to start the day with some good, hard outdoor play, a preference I wholeheartedly endorse and try to accommodate every day. Unfortunately, this morning, the wind was blowing so hard that he got blown right off his scooter. I’m trying to think of how I’ll meet his need for physical activity at 7 am when the weather gets too cold for that. But at any rate, I stayed loose. Carter didn’t want to do anything; he scowled through Flat Stanley and wouldn’t even consider playing Phishing for Phonics. So we called a halt and I let him crab around the house for awhile. He stomped around and told the dogs off, complained about the lack of good breakfast options, ate some yogurt, and finally settled in to play Legos for awhile. Two hours later, after I had cleaned the kitchen, gotten dinner started in the slow-cooker, and finished editing an essay for the winter issue of Brain, Child magazine, Carter was ready to work.

So ready, in fact, that he asked me for an early lunch that he could eat while he worked. So I put some tomato soup in a traveler mug, gave him a baggie of crackers, and we got to it. We played Phonics Bingo, Math Match Mania, and Reading Roadblock (yes, we always play that many games; he’ll work his little butt off if I make a game of it), then spent some time exploring weather websites to learn why the wind blows. He drew some pictures and played with his clay. He told me some stories, and asked me to write one down. We read some Frog and Toad and played with Spencer’s gerbil (which unintentionally included a vocabulary lesson, since I always call the gerbil either “the rodent” or “that vermin”). We made plans for art projects we want to do when the leaves start to turn in earnest, and we ran out to pick up some free newspapers for the Papier-mâché balloons we’re going to make tomorrow. And now I’m happily blogging and Carter is outside throwing the ball for the dogs. Later we’ll read some more and tidy up the house.

So I’m starting to get it.

Fear

Since we have no firm mental health diagnosis for Carter (and wouldn’t want one; the chances of it being accurate while Carter is so young are slim), we also don’t have much by way of prognosis. It’s a challenge for us to stay loose, open to what the future may bring. Perhaps we are “just” dealing with severe anxiety, sensory processing dysfunction, and a combination of mild developmental delays. Maybe he will learn to cope with all of those things better as he grows older and will become a competent, comfortable man. Maybe, though, it’s something darker. The ugliest possibilities include the chronic, devastating mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or the terrifying combination of the two, schizoaffective disorder. Not that anything terrible is a foregone conclusion with any of those, either. Sometimes, with the appropriate medications and supports, people with those neurological differences live good lives.

Bottom line, my greatest fears are around Carter’s sense of well-being, his feeling of belonging-ness in the world. I look back on these first 7 years of his life and it takes my breath away, the amount of pain and fear he has suffered. He told me recently that he’s been afraid every minute of his whole life. That same day, he was angry and out-of-sorts and he told me, coldly (not in the tantrumy, please-react-to-me way that he sometimes does) that he would kill himself someday.

Dear God, save us all. If we can’t find ways to get him more comfortable, if he still feels this chaotic and scared and angry by the time he’s old enough to tie a noose or unlock the medicine cabinet or drive a car off a cliff… well, I don’t want to finish that thought. I try not to think about it, because what can I do other than make this day the most healing day possible? But always, at the back of my mind, there is this stark and hateful awareness that Carter may not be with us for long.

Life is a game of telephone…

My family (both sides do this, Brian’s people as well as mine, though this week it’s Brian’s family behaving badly) is once again bent on proving that there are no problems so great that a huge, steaming side of gossip cannot make them worse. Things (words spoken (or not), things done (or not)) come back to us incredibly warped, unrecognizable, and someone always has to play the villain in these new stories. And of course by “someone”, I mean “me”.

Having learned my lesson the hard way, I will not here recount the sins of my family, with their gossipy ways and their backbiting, two-faced behavior. No, I’m not going to do that, for several reasons. One is, God said don’t do that. Now, I’m not really great with the whole blind obedience thing, even when it’s appropriate, but eventually, through good old life experience, I always find out that God was right. (Duh, God being the creator of all reality and everything.) So there’s that. Also, even if gossiping didn’t come around to bite me in the ass, it makes me a smaller person. Sure, I can set up my evidence like bowling pins and convince all listeners of the infallibility of my position. And then what have I done? Assassinated someone’s character. Yay, me!

Finally, of course, there’s the fact that if I gossip, it WILL (without any doubt at all) come back to bite me in the ass. Count on it.

Gossip is the evil twin of an evil-er twin known as triangulation. Our families are especially masterful at this one. Of course, Brian and I are both divorced, so our ex-spouses make magical, convenient third players in this foul game.

The solution to all of this? We do our dead-level best to keep our own noses clean, to not participate in any of it. Much easier said than done, of course, especially while we still have minor children (as magical and convenient as pawns as the ex-spouses are as players) living at home, but we do our best.

And then we occupy ourselves with our own lives: raising kids, going to church, keeping house, earning a living. Also praying. Lots of praying. Sometimes I’m tempted to pray that the people who I’m mad at will fall off the edge of the earth, or at least lose their cell phones and stop calling me, but no. I pray for them, that they will have joyful, satisfying lives full of peace and contentment. They (“they” being my spiritual advisers) tell me that eventually this will work, that I will begin to soften in my feelings toward these people. I’m still waiting (and praying), but in spite of my apparent bitterness, I do have faith that God really isn’t interested in watching me get stuck in a quagmire of resentment and eventually I’ll get better at maintaining my boundaries.

Homeschoolers by Surprise

We’ve suddenly become a homeschooling family, more by default than by design. Carter had a brutally difficult summer characterized by sleep trouble, med changes, acute anxiety, and crowned with getting kicked out of the daycare where I was director. Such a misery and definitely among the most painful times in my life. But more on that another time.

We didn’t really anticipate much difficulty with getting Carter back to school. In fact, throughout most of the summer, we looked forward to the beginning of the new school year because we expected that things would improve. It was to be his third year at the same school (first grade after doing kinder twice) and he’d never had significant trouble there. Carter didn’t expect trouble, either! He charged in on the first day, excited to get started. Then, around mid-morning, he started to cry and was unable to stop. The second day a teacher had to drag him off of me and he cried much of the day. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat, but worse. He started crying about school as soon as he woke in the morning, screamed when I left him there, cried on and off all evening from anxiety about the next day, and couldn’t sleep at night.

There are lots of ways we could have handled this, and most people we’ve spoken to think that we chose the wrong way. Ultimately, though, no one knows Carter better than his father and I know him, and no one but us is 100% responsible for him. I honestly don’t know if I can do as good a job with his academic education as the school can do, but I know without a doubt that his father and I can help him manage his emotions better than anyone else, certainly better than teachers who are responsible for a large group of children in addition to our troubled little boy.

I heard from a number of people that I should make him go to school to force him to deal with his fears. That seems to be the professional opinion broadly among educators and mental health providers who are in our world. I can understand that; Carter does need to learn that he’s stronger than he knows. On the other hand, I wouldn’t teach a child to swim by throwing him into the deep end of the swimming pool, and I never practiced cry-it-out sleep training with Carter. Forcing him to go to school in spite of his terror would be the same thing. Brian and I decided that whatever else we may decide to do in the future, we had to stop re-traumatizing our little boy right now. It was the only decent, ethical choice for us in that place. Besides, who can learn anything when they’re terrified? Put me in the lion cage at the zoo with a chemistry book and just see how well I can do on a test afterward!

So we’re onto a new adventure. I don’t know yet if I’m up to the task, but my sad, vulnerable little boy feels safer and for right now, that’s enough.

The Truth

So here’s what I’ve noticed about the truth: we’re all convinced of the rightness of our own perception of it, and two perfectly reasonable, intelligent people can easily have vastly different interpretations of truth. Not like this is an original idea or anything, but I’ve become pretty damn aware of it of late. To put it simply: I’m never as good as the people who think most highly of me think I am, and I’m never as bad as the people who hold me in contempt believe me to be.