Lifeschooling

This week, I am sharing a guest post I wrote for my wife’s homeschooling blog, Little Snail. I invite you to go there and read her insights about homeschooling and family life. 

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I wanted to write about Kyrie’s homeschooling from my perspective. It’s a pretty good one. My evenings and weekends with my family are the most important part of my life, and I see the evidence of her work in happy, healthy, curious children. I see it in the burnish of sun on their faces, and in the stories they can’t wait to tell me, simultaneously, as soon as I get out of the car. I see it in the projects they have laid out from the day, in the books across their laps (and stacked precariously on every surface), and in the baskets full of pinecones and flowers and eggshells and stones. I hear it in the questions they ask and the insights they unfurl at the dinner table. I know that whatever she is doing, she is doing right. I would not want their education to go any other way.

I work as a “parenting educator,” a title I will speak as well as type in quotes. The truth is that everything I know about parenting I learned from Kyrie: from her reading and her posts (hers is the only feed on my Instagram page); from the many links she shares with me; from the words she uses and the way she moves her body. The routines she has put in place I regard as sacred: I can only hope to help them run smoothly. In fact, I would be satisfied to work as a sort of machinist to her inventions; an acolyte; a bureaucrat of nurturing.

But I am much more fortunate than that. I have been in a unique position to see the evolution and the struggle of her schooling, in long conversations on the porch or in the car. I know that Kyrie has been building her curriculum from any and every material she can reach for (and many that are hidden, or obscured, or even broken). I have seen the strands of Waldorf, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, John Holt, Orthodoxy, unschooling, subschooling, counterschooling and just plain schooling, as they braid and unspool into new configurations, new structures. I know her struggles to come at content from historical and natural and philosophical perspectives. I know enough, from my foray into high school teaching, to grasp how difficult it is to scaffold material and to differentiate by age, ability, and developmental level. I know that much of the last year she has been occupied with finding the right rhythms and that she has often felt it simply is not working.

Recently we talked about what lies beneath all of this painstaking planning and restructuring, and that has been the subject of her recent posts: it is the day-to-day movement of life in our family, and the opportunities presented to our girls in such seemingly nonpedagogical routines as going outside, playing in the river, trips to the library. It is in cooking, chores, music, Church, and play. I see that regardless of the content that hangs on this bough, the roots of their days go deep, and the branches yearn their way into space. I see that homeschooling is not a structure, nor an ideology, nor a machine. It is simply life.

And my goodness, it is work.

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Use Your Words

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“Use your words.” This has been a familiar refrain in my household. Maybe you can identify. We want our kids to articulate their feelings and their needs when they are able to do so. This often turns out to be more complicated than it seems.

First, the child has to be old enough to have the words. My daughters, through a combination of exposure to wordy adults and siblings and a steady dose of audiobooks (often read in an English accent), have a lot of words at their disposal and know how to use them. The assumption I often make as a parent, then, is that they are able to connect the words to their feelings: that they know what it is they are feeling, and can identify to themselves what they need. You know what they say about assumptions, right?

Most behavior in children is the expression of an unmet need. We know that when they are cranky, or suddenly burst into tears, or are uncooperative with our requests, or mean to their brother or sister, there is something they need that they either can’t put their finger on or don’t know how to tell us about.

  • The first step for parents is knowing that this is what is happening (and not, say, that they are being defiant or trying to manipulate or thwart us in some way).
  • The second step is helping the child to recognize this. In our therapeutic classrooms at the Relief Nursery, there is a lot of work put into helping kids distinguish their different emotions and what they look and sound like. If they can see them in others, they can better negotiate their tiny social milieu and know how to respond to kids and adults. If they can see them in themselves, they can develop a vocabulary for the changes in their own moods and emotions and, ultimately, to tell us about them.

A toddler can tell us he is angry by biting us in the ankle. This is a very effective way of communicating a feeling, but for obvious reasons it is not ideal. The goal is for him to be able to know that he is angry and to tell us in a safe and appropriate way: through facial expressions, through body language, and ultimately with words.

As with pretty much any skill, there is a learning curve, and there are steps that we can take to bring us to understanding. Here’s how it works most often in my family:

Four year-old: (taking swings at her sister.)

Parent: “You’re feeling angry right now. We need you to be safe. I’m going to help you move away from your sister.”

Four year-old: (crying loudly.)

Parent: “You sound sad. Do you need a hug?”

Four year-old: “YES!”

(Hugging ensues).

 

Or:

 

Seven year-old: (Sitting at table, making loud huffing sounds.)

Parent: “I can tell that you need something. Did you want to ask me for help?”

Seven year-old: “No one is getting me oatmeal.”

Parent: “You’re hungry and you would like some help. What does that sound like?”

Seven year-old: (Still clearly not amused) “Please can you serve me some oatmeal.”

(Eating ensues.)

 

Or:

 

Nine year-old: “I’m COLD.”

Parent: “You’re feeling cold. Is there something we can do to solve that problem?”

Nine year-old: “I can’t find any SOCKS.”

Parent: “You need help finding some socks to wear.”

Nine year-old: “They aren’t in my DRAWER.”

Parent: “You didn’t find them where you expected them to be, and you’re feeling frustrated. How can we solve this problem?”

Nine year-old: “But I’m COLD.”

Parent: “Have you looked in the clean laundry?”

(Dressing ensues.)

 

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The Parent as Coach

Baldhill kids

I mentioned that I’m managing a softball team, and that this is a completely new thing for me. In this post, I wrote in pretty vague terms about how a family can work as a team. This week, I have some thoughts about that, from the other side of the fence.

One of my duties as manager is to place the players in the most effective positions on the field. In softball, this will ideally be based upon each team member’s talents, limitations, and dynamics when playing with others. Let me just say that there has been a steep learning curve for me. But it got me to thinking about how the creation of a team relates to the shape of a family.

In debriefing with my coach about our last game, I came across some examples.

  • One of the first rules of coaching a sport is to always use positive language. To exhort a player to, say, “stop twisting the bat at the end of the swing,” is not nearly as respectful, or effective, as giving the positive direction to “swing level.” In the same way, reminding our children to put their “feet on the floor” is preferable to “don’t you lean back in that chair!”
  • Some players have more knowledge of the game and its workings than others. Sometimes this knowledge will lead a player to take on the role of “micro-coach” and tell other players what to do. When we talked about this, I immediately thought of my oldest daughter, who often takes on the responsibility, usually unasked and without—to put it lightly—the appreciation of her younger siblings, to impart the Family Rules to them. I try to remind her gently that this is not her job, and that there are already two parents here to take care of it. It’s a matter of appropriate roles in the family. When her mom or dad, as coaches, ask her to watch her sisters or put her in charge of a task, this is an appropriate role. When she takes it upon herself to do so, not so much.
  • Finally, trying to figure out what is not working with a player might be a matter of determining what their unmet need might be. Does the infielder who misses a grounder need glasses? Or maybe to switch corners so the sun is not in her eyes? Does the third place hitter need more time in the inning to prepare? Could he go to bat further down the lineup? Did the manager (ahem) decide to eat a heavy dinner before the game, thus giving him a poor chance to run bases today? Similarly, when our children are not doing what we expect, or what we know they’re capable of, are they tired, hungry, feeling unappreciated? Have they outgrown their shoes?

My interest in the ball game started as a way to teach family dynamics to fathers. This father, at least, has already learned a lot more than he bargained for. And there are still eight games to go.

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Free, and Priceless

This week’s guest post is by Julie Whitus. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Julie.

Baldhill kids

The other night I stopped and looked at my children playing. My youngest was dancing with a lampshade on her head while my nine-year-old was singing into a remote control. Then, my 11 year-old popped out of the clothes hamper to surprise me. I laughed to myself thinking how ridiculous this might have looked to an outsider, while admiring my children for their imaginations.

I thought back to my childhood and played back some happy memories. I remember walking outside in the rain catching earthworms for fishing, playing in a cardboard house, climbing trees, painting the garage with my dad, and exploring the empty field by my house. I realize that all these memories had two things in common: 1. My parents were spending time with me; and 2. these activities were free.

As a parent of six I know that having children is costly. However, spending time with them isn’t. I have to admit that sometimes I get caught up with wanting to give my children expensive toys or take them on grandiose outings. The reality is I really cannot afford it and would regret it later on. As I evaluate my childhood I realize that the most memorable moments involved my parents spending quality time with me for free.

Right now, with Summer vacation coming up, I am challenging myself to schedule time for free activities. Also, I challenge myself to forget the guilt of being unable to afford Disneyland, to picture my childrens’ carefree play with a lampshade and a remote control, and remember that making memories costs nothing and is priceless.

I encourage parents to respond to this blog by posting some low cost Summer activities that your family has enjoyed.

Julie Whitus is a Family Navigator at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

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Deliciousness

 

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I’m going to let you in on a secret family recipe. We call it cheesy egg toast, or egg and cheese toast, or sometimes just deliciousness (as in, “What’s for breakfast?” “Deliciousness.” “I know what that is,” etc).

There are a variety of reasons why it is so successful. For one thing, it’s incredible fast and easy. For another, it’s a great way for me to get a certain daughter to eat eggs without complaining (she knows who she is).

But most of all, it’s the perfect meal in whose preparation everyone can take part. The little ones can do the toasting and buttering; the eight year-old can grate the cheese (generally, they all taste some to make sure it’s okay); the eldest can scramble the eggs and take it out of the oven. Sometimes keeping the kids occupied during this time is of paramount importance. Am I right?

 

Deliciousness

Some bread

Some butter

Some eggs

Some cheese

 

  • Toast bread. Butter it.
  • Turn broiler on low.
  • Scramble eggs. Grate cheese.
  • Place toast on a cookie sheet. Scoop a portion of eggs onto each piece (we use an ice cream scoop because why not). Sprinkle cheese on top.
  • Place cookie sheet under broiler until cheese melts. Serve.
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Don’t Dream it, Be it

Gabe first day

Here’s something. Research indicates that children are much more likely to learn skills and thrive if parents praise them for “being” rather than “doing.” What does this mean? Basically, if you want to encourage your kids to help around the house, then instead of telling them, “It was so helpful when you cleared your dishes” or “You did such a good job with that,” you can say, “You are such a helper.” The difference here is that you are focusing not on what they did but on what they are: a helper. Sounds simple, right?

But wait a minute. Isn’t that “labeling?” And aren’t we supposed to avoid doing that? I have to admit that for this reason I have had a hard time getting my head around this. Especially since, as a new parent, I had read psychologist Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting, in which he insists that while criticizing our children is clearly not helpful, neither is praising them. According to Kohn, the best kind of discipline is intrinsic (coming from within) rather than from others. This stuck with me. So when in recent years I have learned more about what works with kids, I have had to adjust my thinking on this.

In addition, I have always been disturbed by what I saw as an overuse of the phrase “Good job.” As in, the child has climbed the steps of the play structure at the park and the parent calls out, “Good job!” The child goes down the slide and the parent says, “Good job!” Etc. Too much of this, I thought, would give the child an inflated sense that everything they did was valuable, special, amazing. Is this good for the child’s sense of self? I don’t think so.

Is there a place for “Good job?” Sure! When a child is working on a developmental milestone, such as reading or potty training, or even learning algebra, it is good and appropriate to acknowledge this.

The best way to do this, however, is to praise them for who they are, for being. “You’re such a good helper.” “You’re always so thoughtful.” “You’re such a good brother.” The research indicates that a child is much more likely to do helpful, or thoughtful, or brotherly things if they understand that it is part of who they are. This quality is not contingent upon their having accomplished a task well (how frustrating, then, when they are not able to do the good thing, or when something else—tiredness, hunger, a feeling of hurt, an unmet need—gets in the way). Rather, if doing these things is a quality they possess, the default setting, they will do it when they can. It’s simply who they are.

There is a practical side to this for parents. We don’t have to coax, or bribe, or cajole, or coerce, a child to do their chores if the chore is what they do because they are helpful, and helpful people do chores. The expectation takes care of itself. When I realized this, I was able to align it with Kohn’s ideal of intrinsic motivation: they will desire, on their own, to do the good thing if it is simply what they do. How cool is that?

Of course, there is always room for a well-placed “Good job.” Or just a hug.

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Daughterology

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As a father with four daughters, there are certain things I have experienced that are unique to my situation. Some of them were expected and simply come with the territory. Others came as quite a surprise. The following is a list of some of the more prominent revelations; I’ll leave you to decide which is which. Feel free to share your own experiences.

 

It is possible to wash more than one entire load of pink clothing.

 

A lot of toilet paper is used. I mean, a lot.

 

Hearing “Just wait until they’re teenagers” (coupled with “You’re going to need a shotgun”).

 

Don’t get me wrong: they like to watch a backhoe tearing up the pavement just like anyone else. But the princess thing cannot be avoided. There will be princesses.

 

Beard related kiss goodnight injuries (self-reported).

 

Bathroom time-sharing has not yet become an issue. But. I’m starting to imagine what it will be like, and I’m a little scared.

 

Explaining that, while it is not considered polite for little girls to burp in public, that was very impressive.

 

Not always knowing the difference between tights, leggings and pants.

 

Ponytails I can do. Braids are still in process.

 

Explaining that of course you can be President someday. But you have to be 40.

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A Panel of Experts

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Happy New Year, everybody. I’m not much with New Year’s resolutions, but I decided to ask for some guidance from my kids tonight.

I asked them, separately through the evening, what they thought it was most important for parents to do. I explained that I was going to write about their answers.

The eight year-old was first. She answered immediately and with much conviction:

“Love your children. Love each other. That’s it, really.” This was her final answer.

As I was putting the little ones to bed I asked my six year-old. She equivocated for a few minutes, arranging the various stuffed cats (wild and domestic) that lurk about her pillow and said, “Spend time with your children. You know, like sitting with them and snuggling and stuff.”

The four year-old was next. She was, characteristically, suspicious of the whole enterprise. “I don’t know what parents do! I’m a child. I only think about play.” I pointed out that when she plays she often pretends to be a mother. She thought about this. After a time she said, “Cook. Work. Take care of us.” Then, after a pause, “And pets.” Okay, then.

The ten year-old needed time to think about it. She has been looking and behaving an awful lot like a teenager lately, but now she lay on her back, rocking back and forth, holding her feet which were suspended in the air. She asked the eight year-old what she had told me, but she wasn’t going to share. “It’s private,” she said. Finally my eldest answered, “Love your kids and have special time with them. Hang out with them.”

It didn’t hit me until later how much they had given me to work with. What does “Love your children” mean? They understand love as an action rather than a feeling. In our family we say “I love you” with much frequency (a phrase with which I had never been comfortable until I became a parent). I don’t know what to do with that as a resolution other than to acknowledge that the act of loving your kids, which is in one sense automatic and, you know, of course, also entails to struggle to do it well, from day to day, from moment to moment.

So I thought, spending time with them. I can do that. I do that. I thought back through the day. I was at home, as work was canceled due to inclement weather. I spent much of the day washing their bedding, tidying their rooms, vacuuming, preparing meals, doing the dishes. To me, these tasks are acts of love and I approach them that way. But how much time did I spend with them? How brief were my check-ins with them? How much attention did I give to their drawings and projects and imaginative games?

Thanks for the reminder, girls. This is simple, but it’s not easy. There’s always work to be done.

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The “No/Don’t” Problem

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There is something that comes up a lot in my work as a parenting educator. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is something that also comes up a lot in my work as a parent. I call it the “No/Don’t” statement.

You can guess what it sounds like. A child is grabbing something (your phone, the edge of the tablecloth, a sibling’s toy) and you say, “No!” Or alternately, “Don’t do that.” Or alternately, “Stop!” Sometimes it takes on extra dimensions, such as, “How many times have I told you not to do that?” You might even provide an answer to the question, giving a possibly spurious and invariable round number: “I have told you a hundred thousand times not to do that.”

Having fallen into this rut again and again myself, I believe that it is a response that comes fairly naturally to us. Just as every kid I’ve ever met will walk straight into the path of someone who is swinging, so every parent defaults to the negative when attempting to teach proper behavior to a child.

So what’s wrong with that? Are there occasions in which it is perfectly appropriate, or at least when it will do in a pinch? I can think of a few. When your child is about to walk into traffic, yelling “STOP!” with startling volume is probably the way to go (the nuances of why can come later when the child is out of danger). Similarly, if the child is currently holding the cat upside down by the tail, “Don’t do that to the cat!” may be the way to go, and will certainly be appreciated by the cat.

As a general practice, though, the “No/Don’t” statement runs into problems when we look at how we can teach things to our kids. Here are a couple of points (I’m sure there are other good ones as well).

  • Specificity. Younger children especially may not be ready to place actions, causes and effects into different contexts. So, knowing to not grab, say, the doll stroller from a sister in this instance may not translate to the time five minutes from now in which the sister is still playing with the stroller and you still want it. Or to taking the book out of her hand tomorrow because a book is nothing like a doll stroller. Here we get into philosophical conundrums as parents that we probably frankly don’t have time to go into.
  • Negativity. By this I don’t mean that it’s bad or wrong to say “no,” but simply that children respond better when we describe the behavior we do want to see rather than negate behavior we don’t. In other words, if we can help the child to see what it is we want, they are much more likely to accomplish it. “Put the cat down” is a start. That’s an action. They can do that. Then, “Pet him like this. He likes that. There. Nice kitty,” etc. Or, “Let’s make a sling for your doll so you can take her for a walk.” Or even, “See if your sister will trade the doll stroller for this toy.”

I have found that the extra work we put into describing what we want to see, or providing a positive alternative, is almost always worth it. And as a bonus, the child has learned something. Just as importantly, they are able to accomplish something. Kids want to be helpful, after all. They want to do the right thing. It’s so nice to give them the opportunity.

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Rest Time, Anyone?

Miriam kicking it

A couple of weeks ago I told you about a typical day in home school. I stopped at what is, to me, the most amazing part of the day: what we call rest time.

Rest time is a magical thing. It serves as a sort of hinge upon which the whole day turns. And I don’t know how or why it works so well. But I’d like to tell you about it.

Rest time, as I understand it, grew out of the days (actually the several years) during which we had one or more children young enough to need a nap in the middle of the day. As you probably know, it’s kind of important for the kids that are not sleeping to be, you know, quiet, and not jumping on their younger siblings’ beds or undertaking construction projects right outside their door. So, that’s a challenge.

The solution was to set up a routine for the others in which they had the opportunity to engage in a quiet, peaceful activity for the duration of naptime. As the little ones grew older and the need for naps subsided, we continued the practice of rest time for the whole family. Here’s how it works:

Like any routine for children—or anyone, for that matter—the transitions are the tricky part. It’s hard to move from one place or activity to the next, and this is precisely where many behavioral issues, tantrums, and resistance to adult expectations come about. So there are built-in rituals for moving into and out of rest time.

  • To set the stage, the kids know there are certain things they have to do when lunch is over: wash hands and face, make their beds, and tidy the area. Those that need help with these things may receive it, but at this point even the four and six year-old are able to undertake these tasks with minimal interference.
  • Once everyone is ready, rest time can begin. In our house the two youngest and two oldest share a bedroom, so there are two separate activities going on at once. Many parents find it easier to give everyone a separate space, or to keep them together; in our case, this is what works best.

The idea of rest time is spend an interval in some form of tranquil concentration, without a lot of movement and without noise or talking. We listen to a lot of audiobooks in our family, and rest time is a good opportunity for them to catch up on their stories. Right now the younger pair is listening to The Secret Garden, an old favorite, while the two oldest are deep in the latest book in the Redwall series. While they listen they remain in their room, and may have paper and drawing supplies, or books to look at, or puzzles to assemble. On other days, this would be a good time for them to watch something: a movie on Fridays, or a couple of episodes of Sesame Street or (for the eldest girls) a documentary series like Edwardian Farm (their choice, I swear).

  • If you are wanting to establish a routine like this, you might try starting out with smaller chunks of time—15 to 30 minutes, especially if you have toddlers or preschool aged kids. At this point, our grizzled veterans engage successfully in rest time for an hour to 90 minutes a day.
  • It’s just as important to have a way out of this activity and into the next, so in our house the end of rest time means afternoon tea (or snack, as the Americans call it). After that there is usually an outing of some sort, or it’s time to play outside. The upshot is that now it’s time for some movement and activity.

How does this work so well for us? Frankly, I’m baffled every time. Like any routine, consistency is the key. And of course, for a homeschooling family this is more or less a daily practice; you might want to try it on the weekends and experience the magic for yourself.

By the way, while the kids are in rest time, this is a great time for the adults to catch up on housework, pay the bills, or paint the porch, right?

Not so fast, pal. You should be resting.

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