Bottom 10 Worst Parts of Homeschooling

Seriously.

We all know that nothing could be as consistently rosy as the way magazine photo-spreads try to paint homeschooling or as unfailingly cheerful as the above-average homeschooler’s daily blog entries.

For those who are genuinely investigating homeschooling for their children’s education, I would be remiss if I did not caution you in advance about the uglier moments of homeschooling: the dark days that inevitably occur and that no one wants to confess. Forewarned is forearmed, as the old saying goes, so take this list to heart and prepare yourselves as much as possible to prevent these stumbling blocks from stopping you in your tracks.

10. Sibling warfare. It will happen, and it will happen when you least expect it and are least prepared for it. From making faces at each other to kicking under the table, from stealing pencils to full-on hurling books… or worse. It may be momentary or it could be an on-going problem. Even in the calmest of families, even in the most serene households, even between the best of friends-as-siblings. It’s a consequence of the day in, day out continuous routine that causes boredom, weariness, restlessness, and disillusionment. A closely related side-issue is whether or not students will cooperate with a parent-teacher and a mixed-ages homeschooling atmosphere, particularly if these students have previously attended “real” school.

Coping strategies: Take breaks as often as necessary to break the negative patterns before they gain a firm foothold and to refresh everyone’s heart, mind, and body. Use multiple study areas, if possible, giving your students enough physical separation to allow each one to focus on his own work. (Siblings as Best Friends offers a more in-depth look at conquering this trouble spot. Also be sure to check out Respect Must Be Earned, Disrespectful Kids, and Troublesome Students.) Chores can be interspersed with learning to provide quick exercise breaks while maintaining productivity. This can be extremely helpful for separating restless siblings — send one off to do a chore or two while the others continue to work at lessons. A strategically chosen task can make sitting down to a lesson much more attractive! And while we’re on the subject of chores…

9. Chores. Taking out the trash, cleaning the bathrooms, tidying the living areas. Feeding the dog, sweeping the floor, shoveling the front walk. Did you remember to do your job? Did you finish every step? Whose sock is that? Did you brush your teeth? Did you make your bed? Whose turn is it to empty the dishwasher?

Coping strategies: Use reminder lists or charts to teach your children the responsibility of getting things done without prompting. Mom, you have more important things to do with your time than constantly reminding your children to do their jobs. My rule-of-thumb was to save my energies for the higher skilled jobs that only Mom could do, and get over my perfectionist tendencies relax my standards so that anyone else could do the lower skilled jobs. Use The Biblical Model of Discipleship to ensure each person knows how to do their chores, then walk away, and let them handle it. Tell yourself as often as necessary: it doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be done.

8. Housework. Cook, clean, wash, iron. Meals, dishes, laundry, vacuuming. Buy the food, freeze the food, thaw the food, cook the food. Gather the dirty laundry, shuffle the loads through the laundry process, restock the cleaned laundry. When is there time to teach? Plan a lesson? I’m supposed to plan lessons???

Coping strategies: Lower your Suzy Perfect Homemaker standards enough to allow your family members to help with all of the daily work. Treat yourselves to quick, easy meals on paper plates when your schedule gets crazy. Spread out the responsibility for chores and share the duties (re-read #9 above). Lessons don’t need to be planned down to the tiniest, word-for-word details. Spontaneous lessons will often be the most memorable ones. (Using Your Household Staff contains practical tips for squeezing more out of your busy, busy day. A Day Without Lessons shows how education lurks in the most unlikely places.)

7. Clutter. Books, books, and more books. Workbooks, worksheets, test papers, and writing assignments. Textbooks, teacher’s manuals, reading books, reference books. (When you envisioned your ideal homeschooling set-up, you didn’t picture this extensive home library, did you?) Pencils, erasers, scissors, rulers, markers, crayons. Art supplies, craft supplies, math manipulatives, maps, charts, and posters. Where can you possibly put it all, and how will you find what you’ve got when you need it?

Coping strategies: We started with a “cigar” box for each student’s personal writing supplies (my pencils, etc.). We purchased build-it-yourself bookcases and storage cupboards as our needs (and budget) increased. We added a few inexpensive plastic multi-drawer units to help control the growing collection of arts-and-crafts supplies. Basically, you’ll want to adapt each year as your needs change. I found a week at the start of summer to be a good time for sorting out what we wanted to keep from the past year and a day or two at the end of summer to be a good time for re-evaluating our needs for the upcoming year. The kids and I worked together to sort and toss and discuss what we had all learned, then rearrange and make plans and get prepared and excited for what would come next. Working together was key for us: the kids often had great ideas to try in our small porch-turned-schoolroom. Plus, the longer we were away from the public school atmosphere, the less we felt the need to separate his things from her things, and the more we felt the community, teamwork, and sharing spirit of family. (See Homeschool Gadgets: An Investment in Your future or a Waste of Money? for a unique look at what you do or don’t need.)

6. More clutter. Salt dough castles, vinegar and baking soda volcanoes, and eggshell mosaics. Oatmeal and salt box drum sets, tin can telephones, and paper plate clocks. Butterfly and moth specimens, leaf and wildflower collections, and rock and mineral displays. The educational value is undeniable, but does it need to occupy the entire kitchen table?

Coping strategies: Remember that a photo can be kept in a much smaller space than the actual salt-dough castle took up (or stashed invisibly in a computer file). My children were much more willing to take apart their fantastic K’Nex creations once we had taken photos of them. Digital cameras were not a part of our early days of homeschooling; now they seem like must-have equipment! Above all else, remind yourselves that the learning is the most important part of education, not the meaningless handprint art, not the endless worksheets filled with twaddle, not the vapid writing assignments given solely for the purpose of creating time-consuming busywork. Some lessons are learned at the first reading or the first explanation, freeing both student and teacher to move on to the next thing with no further ado. (People LIVE in This House offers encouragement to those of us who do not live inside magazine pictures! I Give One Grade: 100%–But You Get to Keep Trying Until You Get It points out that learning is learning, no matter how long it takes.)

5. Most clutter. Mounds of clean socks and underwear that haven’t yet been sorted. Last season’s clothing that needs a place to live until the weather changes back again. Outgrown clothing and that nagging pile of mending.

Coping strategies: I used my own chores as times to wean my students off of my constant attention and teach them to teach themselves. You work on this lesson while I go sew these buttons back on your shirts, and I’ll come check on you when I’m done. Kids can learn to do most household chores and be able to help out when needed — remember, many hands lighten the load. As for storing out-of-season items, you may want to consider adding storage shelves in the basement or garage, or evaluating which things really need to be kept. Teaching my children to donate good, usable items to thrift shops created a habit they have continued as adults. (Teach Your Students to Teach Themselves will give them more confidence and independence in their own lessons and give you a bit more time for switching laundry, starting supper, or visiting the bathroom… alone!)

4. Desperation. There will come a day around February or March when every member of the family has coughed, hacked, and sniffled his or her way right out of your heart. And that may also have been accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Mother Teresa herself would have been ready to throw in the towel, if it meant she could escape your home’s infirmary to a peaceful oasis free of sticky dishes, stinky laundry, smelly diapers, and drippy noses, even for a mere eight hour shift of answering someone else’s telephone, shuffling someone else’s papers, and just plain dealing with someone else’s dilemmas.

Coping strategies: Calling off school for a few days or a week can give everyone a blessed relief as you all try to recuperate. Get your strength back before you try to pick up the books again. Even if the latest virus is not to blame for your collective malaise, a day or two away from lessons can perk up spirits. Do a little spring cleaning, indulge in some retail therapy, declare a family game day, or call for a video marathon – whatever it takes to clear your heads and jump-start the enjoyment again. (See Reschedule, Refocus, Regroup for tips on perking up your schedule. Sick Days, Snow Days, and Other Interruptions offers welcome relief from the nagging feeling that you can’t stay home from homeschooling.)

3. Regrets. I shouldn’t have yelled. I should have been there. I should have left earlier. I shouldn’t have grounded him. I should have done a better job. I really should go. I should have taken them a casserole. I should have called her. I didn’t do enough. I did too much.

Coping strategies: Remind yourself that no one is perfect, then Do the Best Job You Can and Pray for God to Clean Up the Rest. Giving yourself a few moments to think before you make each decision can really improve the quality of those decisions and help you on the way toward Living Your Life with No Regrets.

2. Isolation. The other side of the socialization coin has to be endless days of seeing no one but your own family members. Tempers will flare without warning, boredom will soar to new heights, and lessons that seemed relatively simple will go misunderstood for no apparent reason. You will find yourselves waiting eagerly for a glimpse of the letter carrier’s face, delightedly anticipating a trip to the grocery store, and chatting like a giddy madman with total strangers in check-out lanes, just because you are amazingly grateful for the sound of another human voice and a new face to gaze upon, if only for a few seconds.

Coping strategies: You may need some fresh lesson ideas. See 10 Ways to Improve a Lesson and Back to Homeschool with New Ideas. Or it may be time to recognize The Value of Supplemental Activities. If you are forcing yourselves into isolation because you think you are required to spend every school day from 8am to 3pm indoors with your noses in books, please read “Why Aren’t You in SCHOOL?”

And finally, the absolute worst, most discouraging facet to homeschooling—

1. Lack of guidance. Parents who remove their children from institutional schools will feel this more acutely than any others. How do I learn how to homeschool? What do my children already know? What do they not know? How can I tell the difference? Which math program is best? How well does he read? What about grammar? Should I teach history chronologically, geographically, or alphabetically?

Coping strategies: No one can (or should) give you a blanket summary of buy this program and it will fulfill all of your educational needs forever, since each of your children is different from the others, and they each have varied learning needs and academic interests which may change somewhat over time. Careful observation and good Mommy-instincts should tell you when a student is struggling to understand and when he is just plain bored and ready to move on because he already understands this material and it contains no challenge for him. Simple supplemental activities can adapt your present curriculum to your students’ learning styles, enabling each student to learn the lessons through his unique processing abilities. Answers to all other questions (well, many of them anyway) can be found here at Guilt-Free Homeschooling. Start with these articles:
So You Think You’re Not Smart Enough to Homeschool
Questions from a First-time Homeschooler
Surviving the First Year of Homeschooling After Leaving Public School
Curriculum Choices and Shoe Shopping, an Analogy
Meatball Education: Filling in the Potholes of Public School
Every Day Is a Learning Day, and Life Is Our Classroom
10 Ways to Ease into Homeschooling

Despite these downside aspects, homeschooling is absolutely the best thing you will ever do for your family! The intense contact of homeschooling will not just benefit your children, it can strengthen the entire family unit. Don’t let a few negative things keep you from trying the biggest positive of all, putting your children’s education on the right track.

Teaching the Satisfaction of a Job Well Done

Have you ever noticed that cooking is much easier to do if the counters are clear, and the dishwasher and dish drainer are empty? I think a clean kitchen is a pleasure to be in and to work in. A sparkling clean bathroom makes me feel more like I’m vacationing in a nice hotel room than enduring yet another ordinary day at home. When my family all pitched in, and we cleaned the house super-fast for short-notice visitors, I always marveled aloud at how nice it looked! I wanted my helpers to feel appreciated, but I also wanted them to focus on what they had accomplished and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

The big question on your mind may be how to get your children to pitch in and help. Should you bribe them? If you routinely reward them, will they always expect some tangible payment for helping? And would a regular reward really be any different from a bribe? A bribe is something promised in advance in order to obtain a desired result. A true reward should be a surprise given after the fact as a bonus for desirable behavior.

I gave my children occasional rewards for cooperation and patient endurance after a grueling day of errands or shopping. You did a great job of helping without whining or complaining, so now you can pick out a treat! Usually, the rewards were simple things like a candy bar or a small toy, nothing to break the budget, but enough to say Thanks — you’re appreciated! At other times, when our children mentioned a more expensive item they might like to save up for, we made them a surprise gift of it, as another unexpected reward for being a good, cooperative, and helpful member of the family on a regular basis.

My kids tidied up their own bedrooms as one of their normal duties, but about once each year I would help each of them with a thorough overhaul. We went through all of their clothing, culling the outgrown or damaged things. We deep-cleaned the closets and corners that usually got ignored. We rearranged the furniture to suit their latest whim or growing-up needs. That much work often took more than a single day, but when we were finished, I had helped each child see the benefits of all our progress: more floor space for playing board games, new bookshelves for organization, or a desk in their bedroom for a private work space. Many of the decisions along the way were left up to the child in question, so that they had a true sense of ownership in the reorganization process, and along with that came the satisfaction of having things the way they wanted them. Yes, sometimes it is difficult to part with a favorite shirt when the child can still get into it (sort of), but the feeling of moving on to a few new clothes (and making some new memories) will be well worth it. Completing this laborious task should be marked by several moments of admiration and recognizing the satisfaction in a job well done.

There is satisfaction to be found in even mundane tasks. Emptying the kitchen trash can is hardly anyone’s favorite job, but once it has been done, it is much easier to toss the next item in! Nothing falls out and slithers to the floor, you don’t have to cram the pile down to make room for anything else, and you won’t be reminded (again) that the trash still needs to be emptied, and it is still your turn to do it.

We moms often find ourselves expending all sorts of energy to get tasks done, but we need to save a little of that energy for praising the job well done and bestowing our satisfaction in the accomplished task. You worked a long time on that! It feels good, doesn’t it, to have it finally done! And you did a good job, too — I can tell that you put a lot of effort into your work! Who wouldn’t like to hear that? Even when no one else had helped me with my own large or time-consuming tasks, sometimes I still exclaimed aloud over a finished job and expressed how nice it looked or felt to have it completed, just to inspire my children to look for satisfaction in the completion of their own tasks.

You can bribe a student to complete a lesson on time (or ahead of time), or you can surprise them with a reward for the lessons they finish quickly under their own motivation. The latter will be less stressful and more beneficial to all involved. When the child is surprised with a reward, he feels satisfaction at knowing his accomplishment was appreciated by others. When he has been bribed, he feels relief that the distasteful task is now out of his life and (perhaps) a greedy glee that he tricked someone else into paying him to do said distasteful task. A student who learns to enjoy satisfaction as its own reward does not need constant tangible gifts, as the object of bribery does. Teach your children to find satisfaction in doing their best and completing their tasks in a timely manner. It will be a lesson they carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Are You an “Over-Protective” Mom?

I hear this from concerned, young moms all the time: “My friends tell me I’m an over-protective Mom.” I suspect your friends are wrong. What you are is a Mom — period. You should not be penalized or chastised for simply doing your job to the best of your ability. Neither should you lower your standards to match those of your acquaintances who may have chosen to offer their children on the sacrificial altar of peer pressure.

How many people would consider the following to be over-protective?

  • Mom wants to have a say in what her child is taught.
  • Mom wants to have a say in when he is taught it.
  • Mom wants to have a say in what friends her child associates with.
  • Mom wants to have a say in when he associates with them.
  • Mom wants to have a say in what type of food her child eats.
  • Mom wants her child to avoid substances that will cause him to suffer allergic reactions.
  • Mom wants her child to be safe from harmful substances.
  • Mom wants her child to be safe from harmful influences.
  • Mom wants her child to be safe from harmful situations.
  • Mom wants her child’s needs to be met in a reasonable manner and time period.
  • Mom wants her child to know unrestrained love.

Just in case you are not sure how to answer the above question, let me broaden the subject a little bit. Suppose that instead of talking about an ordinary Mom, we are discussing the owner of a business:

  • The employer insists that his staff members learn to do their projects to his standards.
  • The employer insists that his staff members complete their projects according to his schedule.
  • The employer insists on hiring only staff members who exhibit a work ethic similar to his own.
  • The employer insists on establishing safety regulations and further insists that all employees follow those regulations.
  • The employer insists on approving the production materials that are used.
  • The employer insists on exercising his right to reward superior performance.

Essentially, a Mom performs all the same general functions that a business owner does, but the businessman is usually praised by his peers for his efforts to achieve excellence in productivity. The Mom is, unfortunately, scolded by her peers as being over-protective.

  • Where the employer may be seen as caring and compassionate, Mom is considered “smothering.”
  • Where an employer may be considered efficient, Mom is called “dictatorial.”
  • When an employer chooses high standards to produce an excellent product, a Mom, doing exactly the same thing for the same reasons, is often regarded as “too picky” and “a perfectionist.”

Moms, take a good, long, serious look at your principles and your standards and your reasons for choosing them. If those standards and principles were applied in a business setting, would they be praised by your customers and envied by your competitors? If your methods would be lauded for their excellence by the business world, then you can tell your critics to go find someone else to harass, because you will no longer be listening to them. (Then walk away with your fingers in your ears to prove that they have lost their audience.)

As just another Mom myself, I understand that caring Moms are not trying to control their universe; they are simply trying to do what is best for their children’s well-being. No sane mother wants to see her child kept isolated on a silken pillow as an object of adoration. On the contrary, mothers have hopes and dreams and aspirations for whatever level of success each child will attain, and every sane mother knows that this success cannot be achieved without hard work. Hard work means struggles, and those struggles come from encountering difficulties. Therefore, mothers actually want their children to confront and overcome certain difficulties, since that means that they are on the road to success.

Our job as Moms means that we act as road maps, traffic cops, crossing guards, and travel guides to help our children learn where to go, how to go, when it will be safe to go there, and how to get around once they arrive. Anyone who sees that as being “over-protective” is in the same category as those who feel automotive seat belts, traffic lights, and speed limits are “restrictive” infringements on their self-expression.

A caring Mom keeps her children from being side-tracked away from the truly important issues. A diligent Mom keeps her children moving in the proper direction and at a pace appropriate to the circumstances. A conscientious Mom is not being over-protective: she is doing her job and doing it well. Go, then, and do your job as a Mom, raising your children to the best of your ability. You have my approval.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy Standing Up Against “The Lie”.

Becoming a Successful and Proud Quitter

[This article was written by Jennifer (Morrison) Leonhard: Guilt-Free daughter and homeschool graduate.]

My mom (your usual Guilt-Free Homeschooling author) and I recently spoke at a homeschool conference. In one of our workshops, a mother commented that although she and her husband know the school system in which their child is currently enrolled is failing their child in several subjects, they did not want to pull him out to homeschool until the following fall because they do not want to set a bad example for him of quitting.

***Let’s take a reality check time-out here. By leaving the child in a school system that is not teaching him, or that is teaching him incorrectly, what you, the parent, are teaching him is that quitting is not ok, but failing is awesome.***

One of the most important lessons that we learned during our first year of homeschooling was that sometimes quitting is the best thing you can do for your family. This is not to say that quitting is always the solution to a bad situation, but as a society we shun the idea of quitting as if it were a sign of failure. However, if you are already failing, sometimes it is because you have not quit something that you should not have done to begin with.

For example, at one point our family was a part of several homeschool groups at once, and we were going to every event, meeting, play date, field trip, and class day that came up in every one of them. We were over-committed, frustrated, and undernourished in good old-fashioned study and family time. Realizing that we didn’t have to be at every event, or a part of every group in the area gave us more time to concentrate on what parts of education were important to our family — and honestly, sometimes the best field trips are the ones you find yourselves on topics your family is interested in, and in a time frame that works best for, again, your family.

This idea transitions to real, grown-up life, too. I have grown up to be a manager in several retail environments. I was a sales leader in my company and was promoted to management, and when I changed jobs, I was asked to be a manager again after a very short time of being an average joe. After nearly a year and a half of being a manager at the second location, I found myself frustrated that I was never seeing my husband, since we were both too involved in our jobs. I was not getting enough time with the rest of my family — I had to hire my brother and invite him to live with us just to be able to see him once in a while (huge blessing, although it took a little transitioning). And my focus in life was just not where I wanted it to be in the big picture. However, I felt pressure from my bosses that to leave my position for any reason beyond moving away or finding a more profitable job, would be failure. One weekend, filled with tears because it was the first time in 6 weeks that I had much time to see my husband, under huge pressure from work to spend extended hours at the store on a rare weekend off, and under the looming deadline of the homeschool conference that was really a highlight to my year (but for which I had no time to even delight in its proximity), I made the decision that would best benefit my health and my family — I had to quit. At first I felt shame, that I had failed, that I was a “quitter.” I wondered how my friends and extended family would view this decision.

Looking back on my life, though, I saw a lot of situations in which it had benefited our family that we had quit something. Whether it was a textbook that was not suited to our needs, an activity or group that did not fit our schedule, or a day that simply was not going well and we all just needed a day off before diving back into the normal routine, there were many times when quitting was the best thing we ever did for our family. Since having left my position a little over a month ago, I have such a joy that cannot be compared. It was the right decision for my family — and sure, my bosses thought it was a mistake, but it felt really good when they asked me to rethink my decision. They did not think I was a failure, they asked me back because they felt I was a success. There are many times in life when quitting may be a bad decision, having one bad day may not constitute a valid reason for quitting, but there are other times when it can lead to great freedom and joy, and even other opportunities that are better for you and your family. Do not let the word “quit” scare you away from a different opportunity that may equal success.

21 Things That Can Slow Homeschooling Progress

Typically, homeschoolers talk about the blessings and benefits of homeschooling, which are myriad. However, sometimes Life throws us a curveball — and once in a while, several curveballs — too many to deal with casually as part of the normal course of events. If you have found yourself the unwitting recipient of these circumstances, you may be worrying that your family is just not progressing with homeschooling as quickly as you should or even as well as you used to do. If you feel you are on the verge of a homeschool breakdown, the cause may not necessarily be something you are doing wrong — it may just be due to too many complex situations occurring at the same time or in rapid succession. The following list of unique situations may contain some of the things your family has experienced that you previously had not considered as being directly related to your rate of academic progress (or lack of progress).

1. Homeschooling for the first time
2. Leaving public or private school to switch to homeschooling
3. A reluctant learner who balks at the idea of schoolwork in general
4. An eager learner who wants to explore extensively into each topic
5. Pregnancy
6. Childbirth
7. Adoption
8. An infant
9. A toddler
10. A special needs child
11. A chronic illness or other health crisis affecting any family member
12. A severe injury requiring extended recovery or rehabilitation for any family member
13. An elderly parent/grandparent who needs care or must be moved to a care facility
14. Extensive property damage from fire, flood, or natural disaster
15. A legal or financial crisis
16. A job change
17. Moving to a different home
18. A wedding
19. A divorce
20. A death in the family
21. Miscarriage or stillbirth

Please note that this list is not complete. You may be experiencing some things that are not listed here and yet have been just as devastating to your “normal” routine. If your family has experienced more than one of these items in the past year or in consecutive years, please consult the article Top 10 Benefits of Homeschooling with Grace and Topical Index: Doing Your “Best” and Topical Index: Encouragement for Parents for some much-needed comfort and uplifting encouragement. If you have reason to anticipate any of these events in your foreseeable future, try to plan ahead as much as is humanly possible in order to prepare yourselves for the upcoming event and its schedule-altering effects. Please note that some of these factors cannot be predicted at all, some will last only a few months, but others may continue for years or for a lifetime (such as a special needs child).

Above all else, know that when your family encounters the types of situations listed above, your children will have experienced Life up-close and personally, and that in itself is an education that no textbook can provide!

Holiday Survival Tips for Toxic Family Gatherings

The topic of holiday gatherings with extended families was being discussed recently among some friends of mine, and it became apparent that many families dread The Big Family Holiday Dinner because it can take place under very undesirable circumstances. Regardless of socio-economic status, it seems that nearly every extended family includes a few rotten apples along with the pretty, shiny ones. In some cases, the rottenness is merely aggravating, while in others it can be seriously intimidating… or worse. If you are blessed with a truly wonderful family, take some time to concentrate on just how blessed you really are. For the rest of you, allow me to share the following holiday survival tips and advance planning secrets that worked well for getting us through less-than-festive holidays in classic Guilt-Free style. As always, I advocate doing what works best for your immediate family: your children, your spouse, and yourself. Never mind what the grandparents or siblings or aunts and uncles want you to do, expect you to do, or freely tell you that you should do — Guilt-Free Homeschooling (or Guilt-Free Life in general) is not accomplished according to others’ expectations. Let them do what works for them; you need to do what is best for you.

Absolutely, definitely, unquestionably prepare your children in advance for things that you expect might come up in the extended family situation, such as excessive consumption of alcohol, smoking, or bad language, and discuss how you want your children to react to the types of behavior they do not normally see at home. Forewarned is forearmed, and no family is perfect. Talk with your children beforehand, preparing them for what they will likely see and/or hear and from whom (read: which people to avoid). If your polite, well-behaved, morally upstanding children know ahead of time that Auntie Mary or Uncle Henry will be chain-smoking and downing an endless supply of adult beverages, they will be less likely to be shocked into uttering a potentially embarrassing response and igniting a scene that would stun the Hatfields and McCoys.

When discussing expected behavior, I explained our family’s rules and standards and contrasted them with other family’s rules, so that my children would understand why we had the rules we did. (Pointing out the absence of certain rules in other families sufficiently explained why some of our cousins behaved the way they did.) When my youngsters questioned why another child was allowed to play a violent video game or watch an undesirable video, I had a response ready that usually settled the matter to their satisfaction: “Well, if he was my child, then he wouldn’t be allowed to do that.” Occasionally, that philosophy would backfire on me, and my children would point out some wonderful privilege that another cousin boasted (usually something that I didn’t want or couldn’t afford for my children). At that point, I had to use the “things are seldom what they seem” tactic and help my children see The Bigger Picture: was that single privilege taking the place of more important things (to us) that we enjoyed every day (such as the privilege of pursuing our own interests through homeschooling)? When we examine all the facets of others’ lives, we can nearly always find areas that we would not enjoy. The trick here is to help your child (or your spouse, or yourself) see all the areas of his own life as a whole, not just the overstocked toy room or the fancy electronic gadget du jour (or the island vacation or the 5-bathroom house or the 4-stall garage filled with shiny, sparkling chrome). A few minutes of focusing on the blessings in your own life will lead you to realize that you really wouldn’t want to trade lives (and problems, debts, or tax brackets) with anyone.

It helped us to have a “code word” worked out ahead of time — something my kids could come and safely tell me while I was surrounded by other relatives (“I have a headache” or “My tummy hurts”), usually spoken while trying to diminish the twinkle in their eyes, that would tell me they wanted Mom’s stealth-mode intervention. Since our large family gatherings were always loud and everyone tends to overeat, the headache and tummy ache lines were spoken in truth, but with the added benefit of our coded meaning. It was the timing of the comment that told me as much as the words themselves. “I’m a little tired” can easily hold the double meaning of “I need a break from all these hyper-sugar-buzzed cousins — please let me sit with you until they get tired of waiting for me and go off to do something else.” I would then invite my child to sit with me for a while, and we would start a table game and change the activity level to something much less toxic than what-new-swear-words-have-you-learned-in-public-school-this-week.

Let your kids take along a “bag of tricks,” containing an assortment of favorite by-myself activities: a book to read, a puzzle book, or a personal video game will allow your child a retreat into a semblance of personal space and provide a break in the midst of the chaos. [Caution: Do NOT take things that could be easily broken by bullying cousins.] Include some one-on-one games, such as Connect Four or Battleships, to play with one special person, and larger group games, such as Apples to Apples, Uno or SET cards, or dominoes so they can invite others to play along with them. Our experience was that the toxic cousins would run far away when my kids pulled out an educational game or activity, resulting in much-coveted peace and quiet! My kids quickly learned which games would attract the intelligent relatives and repel the undesirables, so you may correctly assume that those games became their favorites to take along to family gatherings. (We also learned that taking games with the fewest pieces possible helped avoid lost parts from their favorite games.)

A table game can improve a toxic atmosphere by refocusing some people and disinteresting others enough that they will leave the room. Play the game with just your children, if necessary, or include a few others — not everyone under the roof needs to be involved. My family’s gatherings usually included the men’s cribbage game at the card table, a television in one room dedicated to football and another television elsewhere dedicated to video games, one wide-spreading group game (such as dominoes) on the dining room table, and an assortment of smaller games for the kids to take wherever they could find room enough to play. Remember that the educational games (e.g. Scrabble) that may be fun for homeschooled kids will quickly turn away the cousins/aunts/uncles who do not value learning, knowledge, and brain exercises. Eliminating score-keeping will minimize undue competitiveness, and relaxing a few rules can maximize the fun and adapt the play for various ages and abilities. If you are plagued with know-it-all relatives, bring along a new game that they are less likely to be familiar with. You can selectively choose games that work with only a specific number of players or choose “party” games that work for any number, depending on how you need to manipulate the crowd to your advantage.

My children used to stick their noses in a book just long enough to get away from their cousins (who would flee from anything resembling education or schoolwork). Reading a book can give an introverted child an important quiet-time break, transporting him to a more secluded environment. Historical novels can carry the reader to a peaceful, civilized era where people spoke eloquent language and treated each other with dignity and respect. Detective stories & mysteries focus the thoughts on solving a specific problem, and biographies draw attention to someone else’s life for a while. (If those sound preferable to a day with your relatives, you may want to take along a book for yourself!)

Are you dreading the inevitable homeschooling interrogation? (See Discouraging Families) You don’t have to take on every debate that is proffered. A brief answer followed by smiling silence can do more to make your case than a well-rehearsed discourse. For example, the acid-tongued challenge of “Are you still homeschooling those kids?” can be answered by a very confident “Yes!” and nothing more. That effectively turns the tables back on your accuser, forcing him to come up with an actual line of reasoning against homeschooling, which you can then refute with facts, if you haven’t walked away from the debate by then. (Be aware that offering too much information at once can work against you.) Meanwhile, change your tactics from defense to offense: start dealing out the pack of SET cards and watch your kids astound the crowd with their warp-speed abilities to spot Sets. The same people who were so recently criticizing your “inadequate” academics will slink away and develop a sudden interest in the football game’s halftime show.

Is your problem that your toxic older parent treats you (an adult parent yourself) as though you were still a child? Your first duty is to your own children, not to your overly-controlling parent. (See “Parent” Is a Verb) Yes, it is possible to respect an older parent while still standing up for your own children. Others of us may have to deal with the Know-It-All relative, the one who feels the need to be involved in every generation’s decisions, from what foods go on your child’s plate to who puts what decoration on which part of the Christmas tree. (See The Know-It-All Attitude) When a Know-It-All starts imposing his or her views on your unfortunate child, it’s time to intervene and disrupt that negativity.

Let me make this very clear: your family (your spouse and children) are your #1 priority.

  • IT IS OKAY to limit contact (shortened periods of interaction) with those whose rules/standards will have a serious, negative impact over an extended period of time (and your gut instinct will accurately tell you when that time has been reached).
  • IT IS OKAY to supervise contact with those who cannot be trusted to behave in a civilized manner on their own.
  • IT IS OKAY to cut off contact with those who may actually cause harm.
  • IT IS OKAY to leave early! Make whatever excuse you need to, and leave. You can still redeem the remainder of a miserable day with a *good* family activity with just your own kids: pizza, ice cream, a movie out, family game night, or just a favorite video and popcorn at home. (Trust me — it works!) If you absolutely cannot depart, take your kids for a walk or go into a back bedroom and read them a story or watch a family-friendly video or do whatever you can do to disrupt the impact of the negative influences and create some happier moments in the day.
  • These are YOUR children: if you need to limit, supervise, or cut off their exposure to certain toxic relatives, do it. Nothing — especially not the pseudo-feelings of a drunken, vulgar, distant relative who won’t remember his abhorrent behavior tomorrow and would deny it anyway — nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of your children (and your spouse) in these formative years. (You will be surprised at the amount of respect you will gain by standing up to oafish brutes who can’t remember how to behave in public.)

Don’t shut family members out completely UNLESS they have proven themselves so extremely toxic as to be a genuine danger to the health or safety of your children, your spouse, or yourself. That circumstance is at an entirely different level from the typical family gathering with merely annoying relatives. This may include your child’s extreme food allergies and the relative who thinks “it’s all in your head” and insists on slipping the child some of the suspect food when you’re not looking, or it could be a relative with pedophilia issues that the rest of the family casually dismisses as “harmless.” Follow your instincts: they will seldom be wrong. Don’t allow something now that you will regret later.

It is not necessary to be insulting or to purposely hurt feelings by bluntly declaring “We can’t stand to be around you any longer!!” It is usually enough to say “We need to go now.” Use the weather or the traffic as an excuse, if needed, or say “Joey’s tired, and we need to take him home.” (Little Joey may not actually be in need of immediate sleep, but Joey may certainly be tired of being picked on by his bigger cousins, or he’s tired of Aunt Sarah pinching his cheeks every 8.3 minutes, or he’s tired of Uncle Joe reminding him of how Joey is his namesake — when the last thing Joey ever wants in this life is to grow up to be anything at all like creepy, stinky Uncle Joe!) Family is forever, so tolerate as much as is reasonable by finding ways to make the uncomfortable situations more bearable. You could ultimately end up with a fabulous reputation for being the fun and smart branch of the family who always bring those great games!

What if you’re destined to spend several days with tiring relatives due to air travel restrictions? Take your children for a walk around the neighborhood, take them to a movie, play a game with your kids, read a chapter or two from a good book together. Change the activity. Change the topic of conversation. Change the channel. Do something to break the cycle and disrupt the toxic flow. Even if you are not normally the intermediary type, try to stretch yourself in this situation for the sake of your children. Speaking up once may be all that is required to let others know where the line is and when they have stepped over it. There may come a point where continued exposure to certain relatives can become a negative influence to your children, instead of your presence being a positive influence to the others. If affordable, retreating to a cheap motel for even one night will give your family a break from all the relatives and allow you a few blessed private moments to yourselves. You may indeed by trapped in a relative’s home this year, but you can plan ahead for diversions while you are there and make other arrangements for next year.

Are you hosting this year’s family dinner? Invite an individual or family from church/work/etc. to join your family gathering who would not otherwise have close family with whom to share the holidays. They can serve as a “buffer” for keeping your relatives on their best behavior — most people are less relaxed around strangers and won’t be as likely to speak or act as freely. Use this to your advantage! You get the double blessing of hosting your friends (and the alternate topics of conversation they provide), and your troublesome relatives will be more likely to behave themselves.

Remember that your lives may be the only “Bible” your extended family will ever read. Don’t take that lightly. While there may be relatives who won’t listen to (or won’t allow) your testimony or attempts at sharing your faith, they will still see your lives, your actions, and your reactions. That “silent” witness will speak to them much more loudly than mere words ever could.

Yes, most of these tactics will mean that you spend your holiday working like an activities director or referee, rather than sitting back and catching up on all of the family gossip. However, sailing through the day and avoiding any huge blow-ups will be worth every bit of effort on your part, and that in itself will bring blessed relief from the previously anticipated tensions. Plan ahead, prepare your secret bag of tricks (games, books, etc.), and enjoy your holiday the best you can. Being prepared means fewer surprises, fewer shocks, fewer uncomfortable moments, and truly happy holidays!

The Holidays Are Unit Studies — Learning During the Busy Season

[This article was written by Jennifer (Morrison) Leonhard: Guilt-Free daughter and homeschool graduate.]

The holidays are a hectic time: relatives are coming over, the house needs to be cleaned, presents must be bought and wrapped, and food must be prepared. The schoolwork either gets lost along the way or becomes an added frustration as we try to get everything done at once. Mom planned our school schedule with the knowledge that Dad would be home from work around this time and regular schoolwork wouldn’t get done, but the learning was just beginning.

Mom usually gave us a break from lessons during the entire week of Thanksgiving, and we often stopped our official schoolwork well before Christmas, since extra time before each holiday was more beneficial for Mom’s preparations than time off afterward. However, we found many opportunities for learning, even when the schoolbooks had been put back on the shelf.

Shop Class
Dad usually did some project around the house during his time off from work (after all, you can’t get Dad to just sit around the house doing nothing). We learned to fix cracks in walls, paint, and generally drive Mom crazy with home repairs, all while she was preparing to have people over. Creating homemade presents, like building blocks, picture frames, and ornaments, teach handcrafts while theoretically cutting down on the expenses for gifts.

Math
Mom has always used cooking as math. Make a recipe smaller or larger, and you are automatically learning fractions: 3/4 cup of flour times 2 equals 1 1/2 cups. (Sure you could just use the 3/4 cup twice, but then what are you learning?) The economics of having a budget for Christmas will never fail to provide an opportunity for learning. How about learning some geometry and spatial relationships when wrapping presents? A lesson in possibility vs. impossibility lurks in the concept of a jolly and fat Santa squeezing down a chimney (which also brings up the lesson of “don’t try this at home”) or reindeer in flight (although one can argue that bees are also supposed to be a flight impossibility, and yet they consistently defy logical aerodynamics).

Music
Obviously, Christmas includes music — but that can take on many different forms. You can find many genres of Christmas music, from a symphony orchestra to the sounds of animals barking and mewing Away in a Manger. The latter is rather amusing the first time, but it gets harder to appreciate with frequency. The library and your friends will likely have a variety of holiday music that you can sample. I found a simple song book and learned how to tap out a few tunes on the piano. I knew what Christmas songs were supposed to sound like, so they were easier to learn, and I got a small taste of playing the piano. Explore the lyrics of Christmas songs to learn a little about Christmas history — have you ever wondered why the lyrics to I’ll Be Home for Christmas talk about presents on the tree?

History
Beyond the lyrics of songs giving us a glimpse into Christmas Past, there are many other subjects you can study for history. Thanksgiving is a history lesson in itself, from the voyage of the Pilgrims to learning why we celebrate it in November. American history becomes an interesting pastime instead of boring history when reading a Pilgrim’s personal account of coming to this country. Do you know why we celebrate Christmas around a tree? Or who started the tradition of sending Christmas cards? Do you know how the first Christmas trees were decorated — or the stories behind your family’s favorite decorations?

Literature
From studying Christmases past to reading about the Ghost of Christmas Past, ample literature can be found about others celebrating Christmas. In the spirit of the season, reading holiday stories aloud by a fire while drinking hot cocoa certainly doesn’t feel much like schoolwork!

Spelling
The holidays can provide much inspiration for spelling, from Old World words in songs to sitting around after dinner, playing Scrabble with friends and family. Reindeer pulling a sleigh will provide you with more exceptions to the rule “I before E, except after C.”

Language, Geography & Social Studies
Research the different names for Santa Claus around the world. (And for math, estimate the number of stops he must make in a single night.) Various traditions surround Santa’s visit, from cookies and milk to leaving shoes instead of stockings to be filled. And don’t overlook the traditions of Hanukkah: many interesting studies reside in the holiday celebrations from other cultures.

Cooking
Besides being recruited to help Mom with preparations for large family dinners (and vying for turns at grinding the fruits for our traditional cranberry relish), we often made a variety of cookies and candies to have available during the season. Occasionally, we also made an assortment of mini-casseroles and other freezer meals as gifts for elderly grandparents. Perhaps you could experience popular foods from holiday celebrations in the past — and who doesn’t enjoy a chance to try yummy new foods? You may end up adding a new favorite to the season, or (if you don’t like the new dish) you can at least learn to be more thankful for the old standards your family regularly prepares for holidays.

Many more lessons can be found in the holiday seasons — just make sure to keep your eyes open for learning opportunities and your heart open to the most important lesson of all: being thankful for the Son.