The following was originally written more than a decade ago in response to a post on a homeschooling board; it was then reshaped and published to my old site. The original poster asked about managing her child’s attitude toward schoolwork. She was having difficulty finishing lessons each week and felt they were falling behind. This repost (with minor edits) is provided at A.K.’s request.
It all begins with me.
Most of the time when things “break bad” here (and they do; not often, but they do), it’s more about me than about anyone else. When the work is taking forever to complete, when the quality is less than expected, when enthusiasm has waned, etc., I don’t need to look much further than the example I’ve been setting. Have I been on-task? Have I been doing my job(s) with attention to detail? Have I conveyed my love of the subject and of the family-centered learning project? Or have I been dealing with our accountant in a series of longwinded telephone calls? Spending twenty extra minutes on the treadmill? Checking email or blogging? Planning activities for next week, month, or year when we haven’t completed the activities for this week, month, or year? (Actually, I gave up that last bit during year one of this adventure. One of the first hard lessons I learned about home education is that my time is best spent not on elaborate lesson plans (no matter how ingenious, inventive, or inspiring to other hs-ing mothers), thumbing through catalogues, drafting curriculum wishlists, or bouncing from one resource to another but on the simple task of focusing on the moment we’re in. It has saved me years of angst and wasted time, talent, and treasure, that lesson has.)
Don’t misunderstand. I think that it’s important that we parent-educators tend to our needs, but I also think it’s critical that we do it on our own time. (For me, that’s in the wee, small hours of the morn’ or the late evening hours after they head to bed or, sometimes, during the day on “free” days (one benefit of year-round studies).) When I forget this self-mandate (e.g., when I take a call during lesson time or blog while the kids are laboring over math sheets), I send the following mixed message: Leading the family-centered learning project is my first and most important job — except when I want to do something else. Make that mistake too many times, and it’s really no wonder when the youngest dallies over a sheet she previously needed only thirty minutes to complete for three, four times longer than that; no wonder that they’re feeling recalcitrant, unmotivated; no wonder our interactions are laced with discontent.
Lest you or someone else click away in anger, note that this is not a criticism of any sort. I don’t know how you approach your work. You asked how to reach your child’s heart, though; I can only tell you how I reach my own children’s hearts and minds:
With as much consistency as possible, I model the behavior and standards I want the kids to maintain.
And I’ve been doing that since we began this adventure.
By necessity, this means I haven’t adopted then abandoned multiple approaches to parenting or learning. It means that I decided on a fairly certain course early on, a course chosen to match my personality and goals well.
And I’ve stuck with it.
There is an unmistakable rhythm to our days, a dance of daily routines and rituals that guide this family’s life, and everyone sways to the silent music
…because it has been playing since they they arrived.
Sure, there’s spontaneity. And fun. Lots of it. Surprise. Humor. Laughter. But that’s the harmony. The melody is one of clearly stated goals and plenty of examples of how to achieve them.
We parent-educators love to point out that the benefit of homeschooling is that we can tailor the curriculum and our approach to our students’ needs. I suspect, however, that there is a point at which this becomes too much of a good thing. Clearly, when an elementary school student fails to understand that his or her job is to play and learn and study and grow (and to do so without a big fuss), he or she needs less “heart talk” and more “stern talk” — mixed with a healthy dose of the teacher modeling the same level of commitment to task.
What is “stern talk”? It might look something like this: Quite simply, education is the law here; as in, parents must provide their children with an education. If my child isn’t learning (barring some sort of organic issue), we are not complying with the law. If I am doing my part (check), that leaves you, the child. You must do your part. In this house, that means that the following activities must be completed on a daily (weekly, monthly, annual) basis. Until we’re in compliance, we will skip the following activities: [insert favorite programs, extracurriculars here].
I’m going to circle back to my original premise: It all begins with the parent-educator. Anger and sadness are one response to a recalcitrant student. Humor is another approach. But, in the end, unwavering purposefulness may be the best choice, and that’s hard to achieve if we haven’t done the hard work of laying out our own courses. As I said, this is not a criticism but an observation based on my teaching and parenting experiences: Things work best when I work best.