Parenting 101

I’ve often been asked how we raised our kids, by those who are up to their armpits in the midst of the power struggle that parenthood can sometimes be. The answer is one long day at a time, but with the help of some very consistent rules. I should clarify that many of these weren’t unbreakable rules as much as they were our family’s unique customs or our preferred methods for handling specific situations. I didn’t remember having a lot of rules for my kids, but my now-adult children have reminded me of several of them over the years. They recognize behaviors in others that they were not allowed to do and say “You never let us do that!”—and I’m pleased to say they mean it as a compliment. My daughter, Jennifer, has often caught herself watching her friends’ or coworkers’ exploits and thinking “If you were my mom’s child…” She has quoted some of our family rules as if they were The Wisdom of the Ages, only to have the hearer ask “Who says?” “Umm… my mom and I!” is her reply as she realizes that, unfortunately, the rest of civilization has yet to catch up to Mom’s Standards for Proper Conduct.

Some of our rules applied to my children, some to us as a family unit, and some were reminders for me as a parent that good kids don’t just happen. Kids obey best when they understand the reason behind a rule, whether they participated in the decision-making process that created that rule or not. Most rules are made to govern the future as well as the present: “Don’t run out into the street” is for right now, but also for every time in the future that a speeding car promises harm. Whatever rules your family makes, be sure to craft them with one eye on the future, and help your kids understand that the future-aspect is there to help them learn how to grow up into responsible adults. After all, “parent” is a verb, and you can’t expect great results from doing nothing. [“Parent” Is a Verb, linked below]

Overwhelmingly, I used the Golden Rule (Treat others as you wish to be treated—Luke 6:31, paraphrased) to teach my kids appropriate behavior and respect for others’ feelings and property. From toddlerhood on, I explained (in language suited to their understanding) what they had done wrong, why it was wrong, how it made the other person feel, and what their response should have been (the preferred behavior). Once they understood the situation from the other side, then they were able to offer a truly sincere apology, if circumstances required it. Beyond that, the detailed explanations helped those little people learn to think things through and anticipate the cause and effect relationship of actions to outcomes. You should not have kicked your ball into the neighbor’s flower bed. Your ball broke several of their pretty flowers, and they had just bought those plants and worked hard to get them all planted today. You can kick your ball over here where there is plenty of open space, but you may not kick it so hard that it lands near those flowers again. Do you understand the difference? If you disobey and kick the ball into the flowers again, you will be punished. Do you understand?

My kids were allowed to repeat certain actions only 3 times and no more. Whether it was running circles around the kitchen table or bouncing a beach ball off the top of my head, they could get away with it three times. Behavior that would have hurt someone or something was stopped immediately, but otherwise let’s just say that they learned to obey the limit.  Auditory learners and making noises go together like air and breathing, but the “Rule of 3” taught them to stop the repetitive noises after 3 times and save the remainder for more appropriate situations, such as when playing outside, or when in their rooms and not disturbing others. [My “Rule of 3,” linked below]

Nearly every “rule” we had was an extension of the respect relationship taught through the Golden Rule. Do you want your little brother barging into your room without knocking? Then be sure that you knock on his door before entering his room. The Rule of 3 was built upon respect for others’ personal space, and respect is in itself a Golden Rule relationship. Respect must be earned—it isn’t granted automatically. If you want it, what are you doing to deserve it? [Respect Must Be Earned, linked below]

Family is spelled T-E-A-M, and we are all on the same side. No one here is your enemy, especially not your siblings. Family is not a competition, and we’re all in this together. [Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M, linked below]

Speaking of teams, Mom should not be the only person working while everyone else is playing, because moms like to play, too. Get the household staff working—fill those machines and get them running, so you can feel good about all the jobs that are getting done. Teach your kids that if we get the chores out of the way first, then we can take a break, guilt-free. Work first, then play. [Using Your Household Staff, linked below]

I taught my kids not to interrupt a conversation (especially between adults), unless there was a true emergency involving large amounts of water, blood, and/or fire. I told them that if they stood quietly next to me while I was involved in a conversation that: 1) I would know they had something to tell me, 2) I would not forget about them being there, and 3) I would listen to them at the next appropriate moment. I also taught them to hold up one finger to help them remember what it was they wanted to say (or 2 fingers to remember 2 things—and it really does work). Yes, it was appropriate to wake Mom and Dad from a Sunday afternoon nap to report that the house next door was on fire. It led to very important life-lessons in how to remain calm in a crisis, how to use a fire extinguisher, and how long it takes from the time someone dials 911 until you can actually hear the fire truck’s siren. Good job! (Yes, that really happened, but no one was hurt, and insurance covered the damages.)

Whining, begging, nagging, and asking again and again will never convince me to change my mind. However, if you can present your case with facts and logic and without whining, then I will listen with an open mind. Notice that this is a two-way contract. My part of the agreement was to listen attentively to the logically reasoned case my kids presented, putting aside my preconceived notions about the topic and honestly considering the points they made. The result was that very often I had to reconsider and go with their proposal, because it truly was a better idea. [If You Can Present Your Case with Facts and Logic and Without Whining, I Will Listen with an Open Mind, linked below]

We discussed “our family’s values” so that each child understood why we do what we do, why we don’t do what someone else may do, and why we hold tightly to our specific beliefs and values. It made an amazing difference in helping our kids make up their own minds when confronted with peer pressure.

As part of understanding our family’s values, my kids were taught to respect the rules and value systems of other children’s parents by not sharing their opinions on whether they thought those rules were correct. When a friend said, “I wish my Mom used your Mom’s rule,” my daughter explained that our family probably also had a few rules that the friend wouldn’t like, so the friend shouldn’t automatically assume that one family was better than another. This also applied to individual privileges, schooling or homeschooling methods, TV or movie choices, church programs, family activities, and just about anything else that could prompt a comparative discussion.

My most controversial rule (as viewed by my peers) was that “authority” figures who had no true authority over my kids (not their parent or police, etc.) and/or who were clearly wrong (meaning they had the facts wrong) did not necessarily need to be listened to or obeyed. This came into play when a bully-parent (one of those aforementioned peers who disagreed with my views, particularly this one) made a faulty assumption about my son, after overhearing a snippet of conversation between my son and another boy at a homeschool group function. That parent attempted to exert her “authority” (just because she was an adult) over the boys because of what she thought she heard, but my son (knowing the full context of the conversation) knew she was in error and tried to explain the misunderstanding. She threatened to tell his mother (me) that he had argued with her, and he dared her to follow through on that, because he knew he wasn’t guilty of doing anything wrong. When she gave me her side of the story, it sounded completely out of character for my son, so I turned to him for his explanation (which made her even angrier to think that I would accept the word of a 13-year-old over her testimony). The outcome was that I didn’t destroy a family relationship because of another adult’s misconception. Adults can be wrong, and kids learn to honor truth by seeing their parents recognize that adults are not always right just because they are adults. A parallel rule to the false-authority issue was that if anyone said to my kids “Don’t tell your parents,” that was our family’s code for “Run immediately to your parents and tell them everything!” That was also played out, with the result that my child identified right away that the person saying it was up to no good. Reporting the conversation to her parents was the equivalent of calling in the cavalry and turning the problem over to someone who could stop it from escalating into a more harmful situation. Crisis averted; family relationships secured.

Our family used “Because I said so” as valid reasoning under very special conditions, usually a minor emergency or some similar circumstance. Spoken quietly and surreptitiously, it was another code phrase that meant “Do what I say now, and I will explain the why later, as soon as I have the chance.” Everyone recognized that hearing the phrase “because I said so” meant something was seriously wrong and immediate, unquestioned obedience was required for the safety and well-being of one or more family members. We were careful not to over-use this or use it frivolously, so that it maintained its emergency-situation-only status. In our family, it was used by both parents and children, depending on the circumstances, which varied from “That kid has been mean to me before, and I really don’t want to run into him right now” to quickly leaving public situations that suddenly became uncomfortable or appeared unsafe. The full explanation that came later always assured us that the hasty exit had been completely justified.

The “family whistle” was a signal we used to find each other in large stores, get someone’s attention, or call to each other in surroundings where shouting might not be noticed. We used a unique melody of 3-4 notes that signaled us to “Come now.” We started using the non-shrill whistle when our kids were nearing middle-school age, and it was a wonderfully subtle way to signal each other in large groups. Most by-standers never even noticed.

As with any set of rules, consistency is crucial. As adults, we need to know that other drivers will obey the rule that a red traffic light means Stop and a green light means Go. Kids need the exact same consistency in knowing that their parents’ rules mean what they say. Without consistency, the rules break down, and before you know it, everyone is going, no one is stopping, and chaos is the result. Set your family rules, be consistent in their execution, and enjoy the freedom that results.

See these articles for more complete explanations:

“Parent” Is a Verb

My “Rule of 3”

Respect Must Be Earned

Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M

Using Your Household Staff

If You Can Present Your Case with Facts and Logic and Without Whining, I Will Listen with an Open Mind

My “Rule of 3”

There’s no denying it: Kids can be irritating—if you let them. When my kids reached that age of wanting to do things just to irritate Mom, I knew I either had to take control of the situation or lose it forever. I also knew that preventing a child from expressing himself can leave him feeling frustrated, so I wanted a solution that would satisfy both of us. The result was my “Rule of 3.”

My Rule of 3 was simply stated as “You can do that three times, but only three times, and then you’re done.” Making an irritating sound? You can do it three times, then you’re done. Running circles around the kitchen table while I’m fixing dinner? You can do it three times, then you’re done. Poking your sibling in the ribs? You can do it three times, then you’re done. The Rule applied to things done to others or around others, not to actions done alone that annoyed no one else. Practicing your piano lesson? Great! Banging on the piano keys? Three bangs and you’re done; go back to the lesson or move on to another activity. Doing karate kicks or high dance kicks in the backyard? Wonderful! Kicking the back of my car seat while we’re running errands? Three kicks and you’re done; move your feet to another position and keep them still. Somersaulting into the pool? Cool! Combining your super-acrobatic somersault with a not-really-accidental splash of water into your sibling’s face? Three splashes and you are done; the acrobatics are fine, just do them farther away from others. The same rule applies to the child who is completely capable of coherent conversation, but who decides to stop replying to Mom’s questions with the correct answers and substitutes a high-pitched EEP instead. Three EEPs and this game is over! You’re done, and the next thing out of your mouth had better be the correct answer.

Why a limit of three? The first time may be funny; the second time might be cute; the third time is merely indulgence to let you get that one last effort out of your system, but anything after three is seriously pushing beyond the limits of respect for others. Acts that were clearly a danger to others or were purposely hurtful, those I stopped immediately. The Rule of 3 was never intended to permit harmful or hurtful behavior, even temporarily. No teasing, taunting, or otherwise disrespectful behavior—if you don’t want it done to you, don’t do it to someone else. (I suppose I do need to mention that this also applies to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and anyone else who feels they have the right to tease, tickle, and/or pick on my kids. Poke the Mother Bear at your own risk, but be prepared to face the inevitable consequences.) The Rule of 3 did fulfill its designed purpose of teaching my youngsters to govern their own actions, so that I wouldn’t someday find myself reminding my teenagers to show respect for others—something they should definitely know for themselves by then. The Rule of 3 was a stepping stone on the road to maturity, and each time my kids stopped themselves after the third repetition of something, I knew they were progressing well on their journey.

This Rule of 3-times-and-done gave my normal, fun-loving kids an outlet for the silly ideas and the what-if-I experiments running rampant in their heads, but at the same time, it prevented them from becoming frustrated by a sibling whose behavioral exploits never stopped. Yes, that also meant that Mom (or Dad) had to step in from time to time to stop the antics with the firm reminder, “That’s three—you’re done now.” A few times, I had to redirect my Tigger to move his antics to the backyard where no one would object, and he could repeat them as much as he himself could stand. (Although eliminating the audience was often enough to bring the activity to a quick finish.) Occasionally, I had to take possession of the ball being bounced indoors (preventing a fourth bounce) or the toy car being zoomed around the breakfast dishes (preventing a fourth zoom) to bring the Rule of 3 violation to a clear and concise end.

If I hadn’t enforced the Rule of 3-times, the rule itself would have dissolved into the mist of all other unfulfilled dreams and wishes. The method of enforcement may vary from family to family and incident to incident. Personally, I can administer a death glare that can be felt from across the room, even if it’s focused on the back of your head. Of course, the laser-stare only works if the kids already know what will happen next if they ignore the heat from my warning stare. If the rule-breaker knows what to expect as a just and fair punishment, The Look can work as well as the verbal reminder “That’s it—you’re done.” Kids usually have an innate sense of justice, so choose the punishment to fit both the individual and the infraction, then be consistently consistent. (Now to avoid further tangents, let’s return to today’s topic.)

My kids loved getting their 3-times chances. To them, it was a brief moment of indulgent freedom where they were in control of their universe. And then they knew when to stop and hand the reins back to Mom to maintain perfect order in their world. They’d had their taste of leadership, and while it was fun while it lasted, they knew it was a temporary role, a momentary glimpse of what future independence would hold. It was a lesson in cause and effect: actions have consequences, so take responsibility for them. Learn to control your behavior (or your reaction to undesirable behavior from others), because this is just a tiny sample of life in the adult world, a preview of coming attractions.

Because I began implementing this Rule of 3 when my kids were small, they learned respect for the feelings and the personal space of others, along with the self-control to be able to stop if Mom said “That’s three—you’re done.” We all learned patience and tolerance and flexibility, often with twinkles in our eyes as we watched the star-of-the-moment perform his latest trick… exactly three times. His eyes twinkled with the knowledge that he owned the moment and was in complete control for the time being. All the other eyes twinkled with the knowledge that he could only do it two more times… one more time… and then he would have to stop. There were even a few times that I remember offering, “Okay, that’s two—you can do that one more time.” And he usually did, while all eyes twinkled at the freedom contained in the Rule of 3.

Granted, the Rule of 3 was most often enforced for my always-pushing-life’s-envelope son. However, my less-boisterous daughter appreciated its effects in that she didn’t feel a need to retaliate for something that Dear Little Brother was doing just to annoy her. She knew she could allow him three chances. After three, if he didn’t limit himself, then Mom’s Voice of Authority would take over, and peace would reign once again.

The Rule of 3 is so deeply ingrained in all of us now that it can be difficult to understand why that kid in the check-out lane is still doing whatever, and it’s been 5, 11… 27 times now! Why hasn’t the kid’s parent said “That’s three—you’re done”? And then I remember that not everyone knows about my sanity-saving Rule of 3.

Over the years, there were hundreds (maybe thousands) of Rule-of-3 stunts. I remember telling my kids that I didn’t care if they wanted to bounce a beach ball off my forehead—but they’d only get to do it three times—and then they would be DONE. Try it a fourth time, and… well, they never did try a fourth time, because they had learned respect for the Mom who would let them get away with the first three times. The Rule of 3 worked both for them and against them, but it worked consistently every time. If only it worked as well on those kids in the check-out lane.

Bullying

Everyone encounters bullies somewhere. Even homeschooled kids can be confronted by a bully in group activities or once they become old enough to enter the work force. “Forewarned is fore-armed,” so we are presenting several strategies for equipping your children to recognize bullying behavior and strengthening them to be able to deal with bullies effectively. The headlines are current proof that when allowed to continue unabated, bullying will escalate to extremely serious, even lethal consequences. Our aim is to help you stop it in its very early stages. Since not all of our readers are able to homeschool, this article also addresses bullying in school situations. Many of the scenarios presented here are also used by adults, whether deliberately or just out of habit. As parents and role-models, we must break the cycle of bullying among our own peers, as an example to our children. Some readers may object to the statements made in this article, and those who do are invited to take a long, hard look at their own behavior, beliefs, and values, because they may unintentionally be using bullying tactics themselves.

Why Bullies Bully

Bullying affects almost everyone in some way at one point or another. Some people willingly and eagerly push others around (whether physically or verbally) in an effort to make themselves feel more powerful or important. Some people become their unfortunate victims, just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Simply put, bullying is a way to manipulate and control other people.

Help your children see that people who pick on others have been picked on by someone else.  Explain that the kids at the park who say mean things are probably being verbally abused by others—very likely by their own family members. When kids have someone in their lives who is routinely insulting to them, they feel the need to pile insults on someone else. They have learned through what has been done to them that it is right and acceptable for them to do this to others. Many families know nothing else: all forms of abuse become generational, simply because no one knows any other way to behave. For someone who comes from an environment where name-calling and ridicule and manipulation are rampant, bullying becomes their interpretation of “appropriate” behavior. Knowing nothing other than this pitiful behavior, they grow up to continue the hurtful legacy with their own children. Breaking the bullying cycle requires adults who are willing to reassess their own value systems and stand up against the patterns of needless hurt, but it can be done successfully.

I know a woman who accepts bullying from her friends because she is dependent on the company and approval of others for entertainment and self-worth. She bullies her friends in return, trying to manipulate them into doing what she wants to do. She’s a grown-up who never learned to cope with bullying in a grown-up manner and therefore dishes it out herself as part of an endless cycle.

Subtler  Methods Used by Bullies

It’s easy to identify the playground bully who shoves other children out of his way and stomps on their toys. The adult bully who loudly curses at the Little League umpire or uses his vehicle as a road-rage weapon is also easy to spot. Recent headlines have provided horrifying examples of bullying taken to such extreme ends that it resulted in murders or suicides. However, most bullying begins with much simpler, less conspicuous methods. Beyond the obvious punching, hitting, and name-calling, there are many more subtle forms of bullying:

  • Putting down others just to make oneself feel good
  • Telling someone they are “useless,” “good at nothing,” “a baby,” “a loser,” or other demeaning labels
  • Making rude comments that only the bully considers to be funny, but everyone else recognizes as just rudeness
  • Not allowing others to voice their opinions (especially dissenting opinions), whether objecting face-to-face, behind the back, or through social media
  • Needing to have the last word
  • Touching someone who doesn’t want to be touched, no matter how lightly
  • Tickling!
  • Reprimanding a student for asking too many questions in class or for answering questions too frequently in class
  • Labeling a child as ADHD or other “disability” where none exists, just as a method of controlling the child’s thoughts and behavior. [I’ve seen teachers label eager-to-learn students as ADHD to make them be quiet, because they (consciously or subconsciously) didn’t like the student’s teach-me-more attitude.]
  • Exhibiting overly dramatic behavior or adding drama to nondramatic situations to gain attention, create or break alliances, and fuel their own desire for power or control
  • Bribing others to be nice (doing whatever it takes to maintain control)—not to be confused with rewarding good behavior [see Is This “Acceptable Behavior”?, linked below]
  • Insisting on being bribed to be civil
  • Being irresponsible as a means of controlling a situation, such as not doing a task that others are depending on
  • Making excuses and/or blaming others for their own irresponsibility, mistakes, and shortcomings; the need to assign blame for whatever goes against their wishes; not accepting the premise that they can be at fault
  • Keeping others waiting, as a means of control
  • Arriving unprepared and making excuses, rather than admitting it; forging ahead anyway, assuming his (or her) “talent” will make up for it
  • Whining, as a means of control
  • Treating every facet of life as a popularity contest
  • Assuming everyone adores and admires him (or her) and getting angry and vengeful when someone doesn’t
  • Not allowing others to learn to lead; won’t delegate or train a replacement; believes no one else could possibly do what he (or she) does as well as he does it
  • As a leader, serving his (or her) own purposes first, before the group’s

The most frequent bullying I had to endure in my own school years was from my teachers: drawing the other students into laughing at one who had fallen asleep or given a wrong answer, rolling his or her eyes at a student who asked a question that the teacher felt had an obvious answer, asking pointed questions of a poorly achieving student to emphasize his lack of preparedness. One of my teachers in high school dubbed one of my classmates “Flycatcher” because she yawned once without covering her mouth, and he called her that for the remainder of the year. I even had an elementary teacher who got angry with a little boy who kept putting his hands in the pockets of his jeans. She stood him at the front of the room, pinned his pockets closed with huge safety pins, and then forced him to stand there while she led the rest of the class in pointing fingers at him and singing a little ditty about putting his hands in his pockets, and not just once—she made us all repeat the song several times and encouraged us to repeat the song any time we noticed him with his hands in his pockets. I found it horribly humiliating, and I wasn’t even the boy being singled out for embarrassment by the teacher. Should I mention the set of monstrous rubber ears she made another student wear who was caught not paying attention? I doubt that any of her students went home to tell their parents about what a bully that woman was, just because she held that much power over them. Even if the parents had learned of her abhorrent methods, they were just as afraid of her as their children were, and no one would dare to cross her. That teacher had no respect for the children she taught, and she proved it through her bullying tactics.

In institutional school situations, teachers, staff members, and bus drivers are now being encouraged to stop bullying when they see it. Schools and communities are enrolling in popular anti-bullying campaigns today. However, those same authorities aren’t likely to judge a few quick remarks or intimidating glances from one student to another as bullying, but instead consider it just as “kids being kids.” After all, if they recognized those methods as bullying, they would have to stop using those methods themselves! A closer look at some of the anti-bullying propaganda reveals that they are attempting to bully the bullies into submission. Is that really supposed to be an improvement?

As a homeschool parent, I witnessed bullying from adults in church situations—and I must admit that much too often in our experience, those adult bullies were closely connected to the public schools as teachers or support staff. They viewed their own behavior as being “instructional” or “disciplinary,” but it is just flat-out bullying when an adult ridicules another person (of any age) for any reason, especially when they encourage others in the room to ridicule and laugh at their victim, too—or they don’t stop those who are bullying through ridicule, name-calling, finger-pointing, or other unacceptable behavior.

Parents are not immune from bullying either, and often exhibit it toward other parents. Consider the moms who put hours and hours into organizing some mom-and-kids events, only to have other families arrive late or not show up at all (despite their promise to attend) or complain about the details of the events. They are showing disrespect for someone else’s work by making sure it doesn’t happen as planned. It’s subtle sabotage, and it’s bullying to maintain control. Yes, there are times when unavoidable delays happen, kids get sick on the way out the door, or numerous other problems might prevent a family from fulfilling their plans. However, one quick phone call can let the others know what has happened, and even if the apology comes a day after the missed event, respect and appreciation are still shown to the organizers. The person who undermines the plans and hard work of others is a bully who wants to control events to keep all the attention focused on himself. Ignoring the effort, commitment, and time expended by others on your behalf is a form of bullying. If you join a group, whether an organized club or an informal play group, you must be willing to set aside time on your calendar to participate. If your time, money, and energy are too important to be wasted on the group, do the other members a huge favor by dropping out and letting them get on with their plans.

This also applies to that one family whose single veto can shut down an event that all the other families in a group want to do. No matter if the group is made up of public school parents, homeschooling families, church members, sports teams, or dance moms, allowing a single voice to overrule the majority for his (or her) own selfish reasons, is openly granting bully privileges to the troublemaker. If one family doesn’t approve of a specific event, they don’t have to come. If they are not available during the scheduled time frame, the group shouldn’t be required to change the entire schedule to suit the bullies. On the other hand, if all members of the group are in agreement and are making a courteous effort to accommodate each other, that’s completely different from one member disrupting everyone else’s plans, just for his personal convenience. Mutual respect compromises; bullies command and control.

Some people are able to break the pattern of bullying and stop the abuse; others carry it on, and the bullies from high school become the bullies in the workplace. Bullying is nothing more than showing disrespect. Most bullies don’t even know they are bullies—they just know that they are only happy when they get everything they want. They don’t have enough consideration for anyone besides themselves to even know they are being disrespectful. Narcissism and bullying go hand in hand.

Ways to Deal with Bullies

Be extra-nice to take the power out of their “punch.”   Proverbs 25:21-22 “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” (NIV) Thinking back to the two main bullies I had in school, Mom pointed out Proverbs 25:21-22 and Matthew 5:44 to me and told me to be super-duper nice to them when they were being mean.  If they said something mean, then I said something complimentary to them. If that didn’t work, then I asked them if they wanted to hear about Jesus or pray with me, and they just started avoiding me. ~Jen

Pray: God can change what we can’t.  Matthew 5:44-45 “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (NIV) God loves the bullies just as much as He loves anyone else, so pray for Him to bless them and make their lives better, taking away their need to hurt others.

Empathize. Consider why the bully acts the way he does, perhaps he is being bullied by a family member or other authority, such as a teacher, coach, or boss. Understanding that, we can be sympathetic to him, although we probably can’t fix his problems. Parents can also help their kids to see that they don’t have that abuse happening elsewhere in their own lives (like the bully does), which is a good thing. It can confirm to the child that the name-calling is only the bully’s opinion and no one else’s.

Expend energy. Whether you’re crocheting an awesome princess costume for your friend’s cat, kicking a soccer ball around the yard as hard as you can, running a few miles, hammering nails into a block of wood, or cleaning out the shed just because it’s fun to break up all the junk and slam-dunk it into the trash can, finding a way to use up all your pent-up aggression will help you to decompress from the stress of the situation. While working at a consignment shop, my daughter would occasionally notice an employee being harassed by a rude customer and assign that co-worker the task of hauling discarded glassware out back to the dumpster. A session of practicing 3-point-shots with cracked plates and chipped vases never failed to redeem that person’s entire day!

Respect yourself. Finding your self-worth from what peers think of you makes you more susceptible to bullying and peer pressure.  If you have learned to find pleasure in your own company through hobbies and personal interests, you won’t be dependent on others to provide you with entertainment, and bullies won’t be able to control you by taking away your sources of pleasure and recreation.  Someone with hobbies, interests, and proficient talents is also less likely to believe another’s put-downs and more likely to have friends who will defend their worth. If your child is being bullied, build up his self-image by reminding him of the things he is good at and the things you as a family value in him. Give him a list of positives in his life, and let him know that you see worth and value and importance in his life. Can he make awesome origami animals? Does she have the recipe memorized for chocolate chip cookies? Has he never yet been stumped by a math problem? Has she picked up complex lesson concepts more quickly than you anticipated? Does he have flawless rhythm or a beautiful singing voice? Can he impress Grandma with his card tricks? Has he studied his hobby extensively and can rattle off dozens of facts about it? Think about all of the skills your child has that you consider ordinary just because you see them every day, and let that child know that not every kid can do these things. These are the skills that make him special and unique and important. Being able to entertain oneself through those hobbies and interests means that even when no one else is available, you can still be in the delightful company of yourself, where every activity is enjoyable.

Respect others. Respect and bullying are polar opposites. Teach your children that everyone has value, everyone is good at something, and everyone is knowledgeable in some area. A person who respects others can learn something from every person and every situation. Teach your children that unkind words are not acceptable. We had a favorite children’s book called Never Tease a Weasel that we quoted often, as a reminder that teasing was a form of bullying and unacceptable behavior: “Never tease a weasel, not even once or twice. The weasel will not like it, and teasing isn’t nice.” The excuse of “I was just teasing” is a definite sign of bullying.

Surround yourself with positive influences. If someone has enough supportive friends and family around them, a bully isn’t going to take them on—they’re too well protected.  In extreme cases, that may require walking away from an unsupportive, negative situation. If that means leaving public school and beginning homeschooling, or finding a better homeschool group, church youth group, club, or whatever—do it. After all, you joined these groups for their positive influences, so if they only offer negativity, then they aren’t the right groups for you. Removing yourself from a bad situation, leaving a group, not replying to a rude comment, or any other method of “walking away” is not defeat—it is actively taking back control over your own life by breaking the cycle the bully needs to continue to maintain his power and control.

Involve yourself in your child’s situation.  My husband used to join our daughter for lunch occasionally at her public school.  She felt protected and encouraged by his presence, and whenever a bully came up she could introduce her dad, and suddenly the bully wouldn’t want to bug her any more. (He also may have promised to hire a big 5th grader to beat the kid up if he didn’t stop behaving badly, but that’s mostly an unsubstantiated rumor.) Years later, when bullied in her workplace, Jen used her established friendships with her managers to let the bully know that she had influence in high places.  She could casually ask her managers “Do you know what’s wrong with Mary? She seems angry anytime I talk to her.” Then they would ask Mary why she was upset, sending the subtle message that they were looking out for Jen, too. By surrounding herself with metaphorical parents and siblings, she let the bully know she had a powerhouse of support.

Be weird. Weirdness scares bullies, who are counting on predictable reactions.  If you are a loose cannon, you are intimidating. Example 1: My daughter works in a retail store where she wears elf costumes to work during the Christmas season. Her curious attire and jovial spirit are welcoming to the innocent shopper and threatening to the co-worker bully who just doesn’t understand how anyone can be that happy all the time. Example 2: My son enjoyed his buddies and loved them like brothers, but one day things had gotten to the point of him always being the victim of their shenanigans. He restored balance quickly by seizing opportunity and turning his face to sneeze directly into the face of the oldest and largest boy, who didn’t mess with him after that. Incidentally, bullies usually don’t have a true sense of humor, since that requires showing appreciation for another’s creativity. A rubber chicken produced at an opportune moment can be a delightfully effective, yet harmless weapon against a bully. Hone your inner Robin Williams; yodel along with your iPod; disclose a secret wacky talent; scream like a velociraptor; or reply to a bully, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English,” spoken in perfect English.  Catch a bully off-guard with something bizarre, and he won’t have a prepared response, and that takes away his power and control.

These coping strategies may not completely convert a bully back into a human being, but they can enable someone to tactfully deal with him and remove his phony authority from the situation at hand. Family-as-a-team provides the wonderful advantage of familial support, giving children more reassurance of their worth and status, the things that help them recognize the lies that bullies spew. A child who knows his own value will not be intimidated by a bully—he will be more apt to scoff sarcastically, “Yeah, right, good one,” and walk away.

Teacher-bullies are an example of a bully that can’t usually be overcome by being nice or funny. They have all the control in their own territory, and as the supreme authority, they are power hungry. This is where parents can step in for their child and try to settle matters, but a true bully teacher still won’t be intimidated. They will hurl all the typical arguments (excuses) of how they know what’s best since they are the “professional,” they have taught this way for years, it’s your wimpy kid who’s the real problem, and so on, ad nauseum. The administration will stand behind their teacher, unless you can produce copious amounts of evidence and witnesses to the contrary. The only way out of that circumstance is to change classrooms, change schools, or homeschool—my preference.

The hurtful things that rude people say to us are like bags of garbage they throw onto our doorstep. We can’t stop them from dumping their garbage there, but we don’t have to drag the garbage into the house, dump it all out, and spread it around on the furniture. Let a bully’s hurtful words remain outside your door—they don’t belong to you. To counteract bullying, you have to break the cycle and disrupt the bully’s plans.  A bully cannot be a bully without a victim. Refuse to cooperate with him, walk away, or do anything necessary to leave him victimless.

See also:

The Socialization Code

Respect Must Be Earned

Becoming a Successful and Proud Quitter

Dropping the Drama

Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M

Siblings as Best Friends

Is This “Acceptable Behavior”?

If You Can Present Your Case with Facts and Logic and Without Whining, I Will Listen with an Open Mind

Teach Your Children the Art of Amusing Themselves

Never Tease a Weasel (children’s book)

Surviving the Mid-Year Slump

What is getting you down right now? The “We’re Only Halfway Through This School Year” blues? The “This Book Isn’t Working Any More” blahs? Or is it the “After-Christmas and No One Wants to Work” wall? Maybe you’ve been hit by the “Pestilence Apocalypse”? A suitable subtitle for this article might be “Stuck in the Middle with You,” since this is the time of year when homeschooling tends to take on a kids v. mom perspective. We want to turn that around to its proper alignment of us v. the books, proving to the kids that mom really is on their side in this educational endeavor.

Step One, get serious about what you want to learn. More than just getting serious, it’s time to get realistic about expectations. If your plans for the year were so incredibly lofty that your students have barely even completed the introduction to the material at the mid-year point, it’s time for some reevaluating. Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with having lofty goals, as long as you have the means to accomplish them. However, no one can run a 26-mile marathon in 4 minutes. You can make it your goal to run that full marathon or have the goal to run a mile in four minutes, but you can’t have it both ways, especially since either of those goals is still a lot of work!

When it comes to schoolwork, remember that publishers sell all-in-one products that cover a wide variety of needs, which is why teachers rarely use an entire book. (I’ll say rarely just in case there is a class out there somewhere that regularly completes every book from first chapter to last, but I haven’t seen it done yet, except by a few over-achieving homeschooling families who quickly burned out and then wondered why.) Therefore, don’t guilt yourself into thinking that just because the publisher included all those chapters in this book, that must mean that you must push your students to complete every one of them. Absolutely not! This now means that you and your students can browse through the rest of the book, deciding which chapters look the most interesting, which ones are repetitive or boring and can be skipped, and which ones might be included if you have enough time. Textbooks are the least efficient method for learning anything, since someone else had to pick and choose what would be included and what would be ignored. Biographies, autobiographies, journals, and first-hand-account histories give a much more accurate (and more interesting) portrayal of any topic, as far as books go (I like hands-on methods even better). Conquering the books puts you back in control of the lessons. Maybe you decide to skip the chapter on bugs that would have taken several days to go through, and instead you and your students spend an afternoon exploring everything you can find about bugs online. The intensity of the learning is what’s important, not the time involved. (More on this in Step Three)

Step Two, don’t let a schedule bog you down in unnecessary work. If a student gets it, let him move on. A wise mom once said, “If my kid knows how to start a sentence with a capital letter and end it with a period, why should I frustrate him by making him do 12 more lessons of starting a sentence with a capital letter and ending it with a period???” I regularly gave my kids a pep talk, reminding them that if they would take their time and get everything correct the first time, they wouldn’t have to go back over it again and again. Giving them incentive to pay closer attention made them more diligent at their work. By all means, stick with the child until he understands a concept, but once he’s definitely got it, let him move on.

Effective, daily communication requires a working knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and so on, and handling personal finances every day requires a working knowledge of basic math, so I taught those daily. Skills that will be used every day as an adult should be studied and practiced every day as a student, but Google and “Siri” can now supply quick answers for just about anything else that is not needed on a daily basis.

Step Three, get away from the books more often, which does not mean to stop learning. If your students have been learning how to multiply fractions, let them put that knowledge into practical practice by tripling their favorite recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Make them and bake them, or freeze little balls of cookie dough for a quick-to-bake treat another day, but measuring, mixing, and tasting will prove whether or not they did their math correctly (and since it’s a yummy treat, they will be extra careful to get it right, because no one wants to eat cookies with too much salt in them!). Now pick another cookie recipe and double or triple it for more fraction practice. (Bonus tip: freeze some baked cookies in grab-and-go bags for your next field trip day!)

Watch movies related to literature or history as another pleasant diversion from the printed pages, one that can impart basic themes in a quick but memorable way. My teenaged son enjoyed reading books more if he knew what to expect from the story, so we fell into the method of watching the video first, so that he could learn the plot twists and who was connected to whom, and then he wouldn’t lose interest while reading through the book at a much slower pace. There was one day when we rented an action-adventure-movie-made-from-a-book, only to find out that Jane Eyre had accidentally been slipped into the wrong case, the one we had just brought home. He watched it anyway, so as not to lose his allotted video-watching time and ended up knowing the story of Jane Eyre, a book/movie he would never have chosen on his own.

Explore online. Watch a tutorial video. Read a website. Follow a blog. Play a podcast. Find a live webcam. Search for images. Find an out-of-print book in eBook form. Read a review. Zoom in on Google maps’ street-view. Listen to music. Download an app. In this 21st century, electronic age, it’s becoming more and more vital to expand our definition of learning to include paperless forms of information. I can learn a new skill from watching a You Tube tutorial faster than I can find a printed version of the same instruction. And I have. Learning is learning, no matter what the source — it’s not cheating, just because I didn’t learn it from an over-priced, hardback book. A very old but very worthy book that libraries no longer stock can be downloaded as an eBook faster than I can say “for free.” An elderly neighbor can tell personal stories from World War II that will never be written in books, because he was there and lived through it. A great musician no one knows can demonstrate techniques in an online video, reaching students he will never meet. Learning is learning, no matter what the source.

Play games. Board games are an under-appreciated educational resource. If the game isn’t fun, find a better way to play it: drop the score-keeping, loosen up the rules a bit, or add three extra dice to get you around the board faster. Invent your own “house rules” for certain games, such as “Jabberwocky Scrabble,” where any nonsense word is allowed as long as the player can pronounce it and make up a reasonably-acceptable (and probably hysterical) definition for it. Create  “Slumlord Monopoly” by letting each player roll the dice to determine how many properties he can pick from the deck and roll again to see how many houses he can put on them for free, before normal game play begins. Put a simple jigsaw puzzle together upside-down, placing all the pieces face-down on the table. Players will be forced to rely on the shapes of the pieces alone, improving their visual skills.

My kids quickly learned that if they could spend a break playing games together without squabbling, they got to stretch that break into a longer time period — but a frivolous argument would land them right back at the school table for structured lessons. They became very adept at figuring out the rules, solving disputes… and getting along. I called that a Win in every column: they became good problem solvers, they learned how to teach themselves, and mom got more time with fewer interruptions. The lessons still got done, sometimes more quickly because of the lessons learned while playing games: reading the instructions, critical thinking, math practice, and so on. Kids view playing games as just playing, not learning, but the savvy mom knows what lessons are being learned through the playing!

Step Four, schools and colleges create their own special-interest classes, and so can you! Use a child’s unique interest as a mini-class that cuts through the twaddle and gives him a boost in learning something he really enjoys. Maybe Penelope is begging to raise rabbits. Encourage her to do some extensive research first, to guarantee her success, then suggest she enter her future bunnies in the county fair, ensuring her diligence. Stewart wants another bookcase in his bedroom, but he never gets enough time after lessons for woodworking — so turn the project into a lesson by challenging him to design the bookcase, double-check the measurements for accuracy, visit the lumberyard to note the cost of all materials and compare them to the cost of a ready-made bookcase of similar size and quality. His completed bookcase might also make it to the fair, along with the photos of him proudly doing every step. Victoria is bored with her history book, but is intrigued by Abraham Lincoln. Let her have some time away from the traditional books to read his speeches and letters and a biography or two. Listen as she recounts every interesting tidbit, because those are much more exciting than any stuffy book report ever written.

 

The key to surviving the mid-year slump is to change your methods enough to put the focus back on the learning and not get bogged down in the tedium of the methods themselves. Some families may only need a one-day break from the normal routine; others may need a full week or two of refreshing change; still others may decide to scrap their former routines altogether and adopt the completely new approach as a routine-less routine. The choice is yours, and you’ll know what you want when it starts to work.

See these articles for more slump-busting ideas:

10 Ways to Ease into Homeschooling (great for getting started again after a long break, whether from holidays or illness)

Reschedule, Refocus, Regroup

Redeeming a Disaster Day 

How to Adapt Lessons to Fit Your Student’s Interests and Make Learning Come Alive 

Applying Learning Styles with Skip-Counting

“Stealth Learning” Through Free Play

Mundanes, Too-days, & Woe-is-me-days

Knowing How to Find the Answer Is the Same as Knowing the Answer 

Troublesome Students

Disrespectful Kids 

Stuck in a Homeschool Rut? 

Family Planning (No, Not That Kind)

Planning is vital — but I don’t mean planning every moment of every day, deciding what lessons you will do when or to which organized activities you will deliver your children every day. The most important thing to schedule is your time together as a family. Set aside an evening for a light supper, then watch a family movie together, with plenty of popcorn and apple slices. Plan a family game night and try your hands at Jabberwocky Scrabble (anything goes, but players must pronounce and define each “word” — be prepared for side-splitting laughs) or a similarly fun twist on any other game that’s been gathering too much dust on the shelf. Reserve an entire day for a family outing: take sandwiches, fruit, and a large jug of ice water and head for a park with a lake or nature trails or playground equipment and spend the day disconnecting from everything and everyone else. Block out a weekend on the calendar for a family get-away and then get away from your normal schedule and routine.

Do only what your budget will allow, and trust me when I say that fun doesn’t have to cost anything. We tramped through the woods, stopped to look at the wildflowers, marveled at the tiny fish or tadpoles at the lake’s edge, or dipped our fingers and toes in the chilly water. We watched the clouds for drago-saurs and ele-raffes, skipped rocks on the lakes, and let the ripples on the water mesmerize us until we had forgotten everything else. Take turns playing follow-the-leader around, over, and through all of the swings and slides, take giant steps or silly, head-bobbing, arm-flapping walks round and round the trees, and let yourselves laugh freely and enjoy the company of the people who matter most in this world. Wander through a free museum or turn a lingering trip through an antique store into a spontaneous walk through history.

Why do these things need to be scheduled? Because if you don’t schedule time for your family first, your time will be scheduled for you by other people, other groups, or by other activities, and your family’s time together will be vaporized into the mist of a busy life. Family must come first, and it doesn’t count if you are all attending a group activity but participating as individuals instead of as a family unit. If this is a foreign concept to you, dare to try a brand new activity where you and your spouse and your children interact together for the entire time. It may take a while for this new bond to develop to fullness, but there is a unique and lasting experience ahead of you, and family is well worth cultivating.

Preschoolers’ Educational School-Time Activities

How much trouble can a bored preschooler get into while you are trying to help your older children with their lessons? Don’t answer that. Instead, let’s just focus on providing your preschooler with some fun activities as his own version of “schoolwork.”

Preschoolers can begin to learn school-time skills with a few simple projects of their own. Try some of these activities by setting up your preschooler with his own individual work area, just as though he were another “real” student, but your space allowances will determine whether your preschooler is seated near his siblings or in his own special location with plenty of elbow room. If it is possible to group your children together in the same area, your preschooler can begin to observe how his siblings sit and work independently, so that he can learn to duplicate their actions. Not every preschooler will be eager to sit still and “play” school for long periods, but for those who are determined to mimic their older siblings, these suggestions offer safe, semi-supervised activities that will develop essential skills. Activities can be changed periodically, just as your older students change subjects throughout the day. These projects can work to lengthen a short attention span, as well as keep your little one occupied in fascinating, educational activities while you explain a lesson concept or demonstrate a few math problems to your older students.

You will probably need to work back and forth, setting up the preschooler with his activity, then starting the older children on their lessons, checking back on the preschooler, following up with the olders, and repeating the cycle as often as needed. Yes, at first you will feel as busy as the old-time plate juggler who balanced spinning plates on tall sticks placed around a table, running and spinning and running and spinning and running to catch the far one just before it falls, but your diligence will quickly pay off with rewards of students who can work independently for a few minutes until Mom is available for help.

The following is a list of materials and activities to help keep your preschooler occupied and give him a boost in the learning department, beyond the usual board books and wooden puzzles. Whether these activities look educational or not, they do include getting-ready-for-learning skills, often disguised as creative fun. Reserving these materials (especially the scissors and glue sticks) and activities for use only during school-time or at the school table will help reinforce the idea of schoolwork in your preschooler’s mind and help him become accustomed to your family’s homeschooling routine. If the “fun” activities can only be done during school, it helps to plant the idea that learning is fun — plus it keeps those activities from becoming boring. Many other activities and playthings also have educational benefits, so please extend this list with your own activities and variations to fit your child’s interests and skill level. Be sure to swap ideas with your friends, no matter what the ages of the children, because ideas can be adapted to suit any age level.

“Sample” Notebooks
Materials: an assortment of old magazines, newspapers, greeting cards, sales ads, junk mail, etc.; spiral notebooks and glue stick, or magnetic photo album/pages. Store these in a specific box for the preschooler’s use, to prevent him from cutting up your newest magazines, unpaid bills, and expensive set of leather-bound first edition books.
Method:Let your child find and cut out pictures, letters, or numbers that fit certain criteria:

  • Objects matching a specific color (use basic colors to allow for variations in shading);
  • Objects starting with a certain letter of the alphabet;
  • Letters and/or numbers in a variety of fonts/typefaces.

Use each of the above groups to create individual “sample” notebooks, making 1-2 pages for each category: color recognition (separate pages for red, yellow, etc), letter-symbol recognition (separate pages for a/A, b/B, etc), letter-sound recognition (separate pages for things that begin with “a,” “b,” etc), number-symbol recognition (separate pages for each numeral, 0-9 or higher, if desired), number-value recognition (groups of 2 items for “2’s,” groups of 3 items for “3’s,” etc.), etc. (Recognition of the letter or number symbols is important because the variations in fonts and typefaces can be quite confusing to beginning readers.)

Keep the child busy looking and searching on his own for the needed samples and let him do the cutting, so that this activity lasts more than a few seconds. Samples can be glued into an old spiral notebook with a glue-stick or put into an old photo album or 3-ring binder with “magnetic” photo pages for minimal mess. The notebooks can also be “studied” for help in recognizing colors, letters, etc. Occasional supervision may be necessary to help the beginner understand the placement of the samples. A younger child may just enjoy cutting/gluing random pictures into a notebook without any specific categories. Pictures can also be arranged so as to tell a wordless story: This little girl went to this house to visit her grandmother
Skills Developed: visual recognition, cutting with scissors, glue-stick, fine motor skills
Mess Alert: paper scraps from cutting; glue-stick residue

Tangram Pictures & Patterns
Materials: felt pieces, flat craft foam shapes, colored paper or card stock pieces (cut into circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, parallelograms, etc.)
Method: free play; challenge student to duplicate patterns; challenge student to keep enlarging designs
Skills Developed: eye/hand coordination, fine motor skills, pattern recognition
Mess Alert: pieces to pick up (Store the pieces in a box large enough that your child can easily return the pieces himself at clean-up time)

Stringing Beads
Materials: wooden, plastic, or craft foam beads; empty thread spools; leather boot laces, shoestrings, or plastic laces
Method: Tip of shoelaces can be stiffened by wrapping with masking tape to form a child-safe “needle” about 3″ long. Free play, or challenge student to duplicate patterns.
Skills Developed: eye/hand coordination, fine motor skills, pattern recognition
Mess Alert: pieces to pick up (Store the pieces in a box large enough that your child can easily return the pieces himself at clean-up time)

Sewing/Lacing Cards
Materials: cardboard or poster board shapes with holes punched close to the edges; plastic canvas; yarn, heavy string, shoelaces, or plastic laces
Method: Sew through the holes to outline the shape or loop around the edges. (See above for creating a safe “needle” with masking tape) Plastic canvas can be “stitched” randomly or into any pattern desired; it can be cut into shapes or used as squares or rectangles (circles can also be found in most craft stores). Blunt yarn needles (metal or plastic) can also be found in craft stores, if desired.
Skills Developed: eye/hand coordination, fine motor skills
Mess Alert: strings to pick up (Store the pieces in a box large enough that your child can easily return the pieces himself at clean-up time)

Building Blocks
Materials: Cuisenaire rods, building blocks, etc. (may be interlocking or non-interlocking)
Method: free play; building/stacking; pattern matching (include paper patterns to reproduce with blocks); counting, matching, & sorting. Simple patterns may be drawn as a guide for the child to reproduce over and over: red/red/blue or square/rectangle/triangle, etc.
Skills Developed: eye/hand coordination, fine motor skills, pattern recognition, basic math awareness
Mess Alert: pieces to pick up (Store the pieces in a box large enough that your child can easily return the pieces himself at clean-up time)

Buttons
Materials: jar or box of assorted clothing buttons
Method: free play; sorting, matching, & counting
Skills Developed: eye/hand coordination, fine motor skills, basic math awarenes
Mess Alert: pieces to pick up (Store the pieces in a box large enough that your child can easily return the pieces himself at clean-up time)

Wikki Stix
Materials: Wikki Stix (like chenille sticks, but made of wax)
Method: free play; pattern duplication; shaping into letters or numbers
Wikki Stix may be stuck to windows, table tops, paper, or stuck to each other for 3-D creations.
Skills Developed: eye/hand coordination, fine motor skills, pattern recognition, creativity
Mess Alert: may leave slight waxy residue on surfaces, depending on brand used

Cutting Practice
Materials: child-safe scissors, construction paper or newspapers (Again, have a designated supply of papers for the child to use, avoiding accidental cutting of valuable materials.)
Method: Let child practice cutting photos or ads from newspapers, cutting along lines, etc.
Let child practice cutting by reducing construction paper to bits! Leftover scraps of paper, torn sheets, or less-pretty colors may be used up in this manner, giving valuable practice in scissor skills.
Skills Developed: eye/hand coordination, fine motor skills, cutting with scissors
Mess Alert: paper scraps

Handwriting Practice
Materials: newspapers, junk mail (Again, have a designated supply of papers for the child to use, avoiding accidental drawing on valuable materials.)
Method: Let child practice handwriting by tracing lines inside the thick lines of headlines and large font letters and numbers. The child may also like to copy letters or entire words onto blank sheets of paper or wide-lined paper.
Skills Developed: eye/hand coordination, fine motor skills, pre-handwriting basics
Mess Alert: paper scraps; marks from pencils or other writing implements

Activity Jar
Materials: Activity Jar full of assorted items
Method: (see this article for details)
Skills Developed: sorting, matching, counting, fine motor skills
Mess Alert: pieces to pick up (children can easily help toss pieces back into the large container). Pieces may be poured out onto a cookie sheet or cake pan to minimize scattering.

From the Mailbox: Troublesome Students

This is part of a series of articles based on actual questions I have received and my replies to them. Real names will not be used, and I will address my responses to a generic “Mom”; if you are a homeschooling Dad, the advice can usually be applied to you as well. The wording will be altered from the original letters (and often assembled from multiple letters) and personal details will be omitted or disguised in order to protect the privacy of the writers while still maintaining the spirit of the question. If you have a specific homeschooling question that you would like me to address, please write to me at guiltfreehomeschooling@gmail.com. If part of your letter is used in an article, your identity will be concealed.

Dear Carolyn,
I have tried to homeschool both of my children at the same time, but I cannot make it work. They pick on each other, fight with each other, act up, act stupid, act silly, and do everything they possibly can think of to prevent any teaching, learning, or schoolwork from taking place. It is driving me crazy. I can send one or both of them to a Christian school, but my desire is to be able to teach them myself at home. Why can’t I handle this? They are my kids, and I love them dearly, but I can’t get the two of them to cooperate with me at the same time. What am I doing wrong???
–Mom

Dear Mom,
Please consider that my reply is accompanied by a great big hug. I do understand what you are going through, although much of my own similar experiences had been forgotten until your letter dredged up the memories of siblings kicking each other under the table and making faces at each other, disrupting each other’s concentration. I will offer multiple suggestions here, but you can decide what order of trying things works best for your situation.

Set your boundaries for acceptable behavior during class times, and make sure that your children understand what the limitations are. Establish exactly what the consequences will be for crossing those boundaries (I restricted privileges; it worked well for my son), then enforce your rules and reward good behavior. The rewards part is the most important, because no one wants to live in a world of only punishment. Remember, though, that this is homeschooling (not school-at-home), and try not to be overly strict on permissible behavior — relax and enjoy each other. When I made time for a little fun, we enjoyed our days so much more than if I had kept things strict and tedious.

Seating arrangements: My children (at first) sat opposite each other at a table approximately 3’x4′ with benches on the two long sides. Your letter quickly brought back the memories of how they would swing their legs (often without thinking about their actions) and end up kicking each other. I had to enforce a rule of “keep your feet under your own space” — and allow them stretch breaks to get away from our school table and exercise their muscles. Your letter also suddenly reminded me of setting up a visual barrier for a time: I propped up something tall in the middle of the table to prevent them from distracting each other with stares and goofy looks.

Broken Rules: When one of my kiddies did upset the other by breaking the no-kicking rule, I kept the rule breaker at the table with me, and allowed the “good” child to go elsewhere to work on his/her lesson. That way, they did not learn that breaking a rule earned them free time or a privilege or break — it backfired and earned the victim a privilege. However, beware of the sneaky child who can irritate a sibling just enough to force retaliation, making the instigator look like the innocent victim — it happens!

Spread out: Sometimes we moved to a larger space where I could sit between my two children with them both facing the same direction. No more foot contact or eye contact was possible, except through me.

Rewards: I praised them and gave rewards for good behavior, not just punishment for bad behavior. A behavior chart can be beneficial (especially for boys) to track how long each student can go without breaking the rules: how many lesson periods, or minutes, hours, or days. Again, give rewards — perhaps offer home-made coupons or tickets for each successful time period of good behavior and allow the tickets to be traded in for a special treat. Your goal is to establish a pattern of good behavior and turn that pattern into a habit.

Maturity comes with age: Discuss your expectations with your children, one on one, and explain how you expect their behavior to improve as they grow older. Do not underestimate how much your students are growing and maturing by expecting their previous (undesirable) behavior to continue. No one wants to be stereotyped for his entire life, so watch closely for every little sign of improvement in their behavior and praise, praise, praise.

Get the wiggles out: Your most important tool in changing your students’ behavior will be physical exercise. Boys, especially, have a difficult time sitting still for lessons — there are just too many fascinating things in this universe to be explored and investigated. I sent my son out into the backyard to burn off a little steam before trying to sit him down for schoolwork. I gave him frequent breaks to run, jump, and play. A friend had shared with me about sending her children outside to run laps around the house until they were so tired they could not do anything BUT sit still and listen to Mom. It works wonderfully! With a few repetitions of that preparation technique, your students will gladly sit down and behave themselves. Kinesthetic learners need to get their large muscles moving first, just to kick their brain cells into gear, as if their minds cannot process information until their hips and shoulders have been warmed up.

Physical Separation: As your children show ability and responsibility, you can separate them for lessons. If your home situation allows, place one child in the kitchen and the other in the living room, then you shuffle back and forth, giving assignments and checking on their progress. I do not expect you to do this forever — you are trying to teach each child how to work independently. When each one has understood how to do his OWN lessons, then you can begin to bring them back together for short periods and see their behavior improve.

Since your older child will probably spend more time at his lessons each day than the younger one needs to spend, try to stage the schoolwork so that the younger child can entertain himself during the periods when the older one needs your help. Allow the older child to do reading subjects or seatwork in his bedroom (away from his sibling), as he proves himself responsible at independent work, allowing you one-on-one time with the younger student. (Families with more than two students can expand these ideas as needed to suit their circumstances.)

Controlled Togetherness: Try reading aloud to them for together time — some fascinating, mind-stimulating books about mysteries or investigations. Seat them far enough apart to prevent physical contact, and let them use art materials or play with Lego’s quietly while you read to them. I strongly recommend that each child have his own activity during the read-aloud time, not letting them have a chance to quarrel over possession of the Lego’s or crayons. Again, you are trying to teach them how to behave when sharing the same space, so start with them apart and slowly bring them closer together while observing your boundaries of acceptable behavior.

You can do this, Mom. The first year of homeschooling is definitely the hardest, and if this is your first year of schooling both children at home, do not assume it will always be like this. Do not beat yourself up for past failures — learn from them. I was afraid to try homeschooling until my younger child was in 1st grade, simply because he was such an extremist toddler/preschooler that I thought he would consume all of my time and energy. Once he was old enough to sit down and do lessons, things went much better. Make your schedule work in your favor, separate your children when you must, and teach them how to co-exist by using controlled situations. Remember, Mom, our children may have more energy than we do, but we have the advantage of more experience!

For further tips on bringing peace to your homeschool, see the following articles:
Is This “Acceptable Behavior”?
“Parent” Is a Verb
Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M
Siblings As Best Friends
From the Mailbox: Disrespectful kids
Kids Will Be Kids
Spoken Destinies & Learned Behaviors
Teach Your Students to Teach Themselves
Teach Your Children the Art of Amusing Themselves
Your Children Will Not Always Be Like This
Homeschooling Failures I Have Known — and What Can Be Learned From Them
From the Mailbox: Read-Aloud Disruptions