From the Mailbox: Disrespectful Kids

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 am trying to homeschool my children, but they do not respect me. They refuse to learn from me, simply because I am Mom. The teens do not set a good example for the younger ones. The teens stay up much too late, then need to sleep all day. We are struggling to get by on a single income and live in very cramped quarters. My husband works hard and comes home too tired to be able to help me with anything. I feel like I am doing everything by myself. Why am I doing this?
–Mom

Dear Mom,
I am so glad that you have written to me. I am sure you have thought about giving up at this point, but instead you have reached out for one more thread of hope. I have that lifeline for you.

I will not pretend that I can offer a magic potion to make everything wonderful by this time tomorrow morning. The job ahead of you will be difficult, but it will be worth every drop of sweat and every tear you shed. I will list below several of my previous articles that will give you more insight into how to handle your situation. The order in which you read them and/or implement them is up to you, but I give the list as your homework. Some of the articles will address issues with your children, but others will address issues with you and your parenting role. The good news is that you can change your own attitude fairly easily.

Is this your first year of homeschooling? If so, the first year is always the toughest, no matter who you are. Do not become discouraged just because things are difficult during the first year — homeschooling becomes easier with each passing year as all family members learn the ropes and get accustomed to a new way of doing things. Students get used to having Mom for their teacher, and Mom learns the best ways to relate to each of her own children. It does not happen overnight, but perseverance will pay off.

I recommend spending time with your students, discussing and planning together for changes to your schedule for lessons plans and household chores. Shift your presentation of lessons to fit your children’s interests and help them get more excited about what they are learning. See Topical Index: Learning Styles for more help in this area.

As for the sleep schedules, are the older children staying up late because that is when Dad is home? Or are they just being undisciplined and defiant? There is no “rule” that homeschool classes must begin at 8am and be finished by noon. Adapt your lesson schedule to fit your family’s lifestyle: if Dad works a late shift and sleeps later in the mornings, you may be able to allow the children to sleep in and keep the household quieter for Dad’s sleeping habits. (I have included a link below that covers ways in which Dads can be involved with homeschooling without teaching formal lessons.) We knew one homeschooling family where the father worked a job that alternated shifts each week (week 1, days: week 2, evenings; week 3, nights; week 4, days; etc.). The Mom and children shifted their lesson times and sleep times as needed so that Dad and the children would always have opportunities to be together. It was difficult, but the relationship of father and children was more important to them than others’ opinions were, and they slept late or rose early to be able to have family times together.

Mom, this is a battle worth fighting, but the enemy is not your children. The enemy you are fighting is anything and everything that keeps your family from drawing closer together. Seeing that perspective can help you identify trouble spots more easily. Browse through the Titles Index and read anything else that catches your eye and scan through the topics covered in the Topical Index. You may especially benefit from the comfort offered in the Encouragement for Parents section.

And now, your homework assignment:
Respect Must Be Earned
Second-hand Attitudes
Meatball Education: Filling in the Potholes of Public School
Surviving the First Year of Homeschooling after Leaving Public School
Parent Is a Verb
If You Can Present Your Case with Facts and Logic and Without Whining, I Will Listen with an Open Mind
Limiting “Worldly” Vocabulary
Family Is Spelled T-E-A-M
Siblings as Best Friends
Involving Dads in Homeschooling
Who Wrote This “Rule Book” and Why Do I Think I Have to Follow It?
Homeschooling Is Hard Work
Reschedule, Refocus, Regroup
Redeeming a Disaster Day
We’re Not Raising Children — We’re Raising Adults

Tactile Lessons from Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

In studying learning styles, I became intrigued by the example of Helen Keller. Born as a normal baby, young Helen lost her sight and hearing during a serious illness at the tender age of 19 months. Trapped in a now dark and silent world, Helen struggled to communicate her desires with her family, and they struggled just as much to communicate with her. By age 6, Helen was a wild child, practically undisciplined, and inevitably self-focused. Her desperate parents, grasping at every straw of hope as any of us would, made a series of contacts which finally brought Anne Sullivan to their home as a teacher for Helen. Anne had lost her own sight for a period of several years, but also had learned to communicate with another deaf and blind woman through the manual alphabet. Those who have seen the movie version of this story, The Miracle Worker, know basically how the rest of the story progresses. My interest led me a step further, to Helen’s biography, The Story of My Life, recently restored to its original 1903 content.

The recently released volume includes Helen’s story from several points of view: Helen’s own accounts, Anne Sullivan’s notes and letters, and further reports and insights from John Macy (Anne’s husband and partner in working with the adult Helen) and other close acquaintances. The result is a comprehensive look at communicating with and educating a student who does not respond well to visual or auditory stimuli. The methods used by Miss Sullivan confirmed my hypotheses: 1) some children do not respond adequately to simply seeing or hearing lesson material but can become enthusiastic about learning through other methods; 2) certain children may need constant tactile stimuli to “break through” into their worlds of thought; 3) as educators, we should set our expectations high enough that our students have a goal to reach for; and 4) language should not be “dumbed down” for children.

Teaching the Tactile Child

1. There is a world that can be discovered beyond the average student’s visual or auditory capabilities. Visually motivated students are a teacher’s dream: put the information in front of them, and they will learn. Auditory learners pick up information simply by hearing it — with certain things once is enough, but at other times, hearing something over and over will lock the information in their minds without their ever having seen the material in printed form.

Other students have tactile needs. They may find looking at a picture book mildly interesting, and listening to a story will barely hold their attention, but pop-up storybooks with interactive mechanisms and touch-and-feel books with textured surfaces will draw the tactile learner in a much deeper way. I was never as interested in the plot of my storybook about a misbehaving kitty as much as I loved that book for its large fuzzy pictures of the beautiful black cat. I remember being disappointed that not every picture of Miss Sniff was textured and fuzzy. I still own the book, and most of the fuzziness has worn off from decades of loving touches, but enough traces of the texture remain to intrigue any tactile child. The first time I encountered a pop-up book, I found myself transported to new heights of imagination and wonder. I remember carefully and delicately manipulating the pull-tabs and slide levers, studying the mechanics of how all of these things worked. If someone else could fold and glue paper in such a way as to transform two-dimensions into glorious three-dimensional marvels upon opening the book, then perhaps I could, too. The tactile qualities of these books held my attention much longer than mere words or pictures could have.

Helen Keller could not see anything, except for extremely bright lights, such as the sun’s rays reflecting off fresh snow. Helen could not hear any sounds at all. She did enjoy many physical activities (swimming, tandem-bicycling, and horseback riding) and probably had strong kinesthetic learning abilities, but those were also hindered by her blindness — it is difficult to run freely when you cannot see what you may trip over. Therefore, with her few remaining senses as her sole means for exploration, Helen became extremely adept at feeling textures, vibrations, and movements. After Helen had learned Morse code by having it tapped onto her hand, her teacher could communicate with Helen from across the room by tapping on the floor with her shoe. Helen identified flowers and other plants (and people) by their scents, but she could also describe the physical qualities in amazing detail. Those of us who function primarily with our visual and auditory senses tend to completely overlook the tactile characteristics of our everyday lives.

2. Idle hands can mean a disengaged mind. A child who just cannot seem to sit still and stop fidgeting during lessons may suddenly relax and become an academic sponge if allowed to draw, play with blocks, or hold a favorite toy while listening. To insist that students sit still with empty hands and give undivided attention to every spoken word is to hinder some students’ learning processes. Some children just cannot do that and learn at the same time: their movement is a vital part of how they take in information. Have you ever known a child who was so attached to his blanket or his favorite stuffed toy that he could barely endure the separation required for the laundering process? That child is most likely a tactile learner. His attachment is not emotional as much as it is necessary for concentration. Visual students absorb information through their eyes, auditory students absorb information through their ears, and tactile students absorb information through their hands. Giving their fingers something to “focus” on will stimulate their eyes and ears into “learning mode,” allowing their brains to absorb information through the other senses as well.

Upon meeting the unruly 6-year-old Helen, Anne Sullivan commented that Helen’s hands were untaught and unsatisfied, destroying anything they contacted, simply because they knew no other way. Anne’s greatest accomplishment, therefore, was in teaching the hands, and through them, she taught the mind. When Helen’s hands had interesting stimuli, Helen learned. Obviously, Helen Keller’s hands were the only portal through which knowledge could be imparted to her, but those of us with tactile children can learn from her example: gain the attention of the student’s hands and fingers and reach his mind through them.

3. Do not focus on what your child knows, but focus on what you want your child to learn. The break-through in teaching abstract concepts to Helen Keller came as Helen was stringing beads. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, had started a pattern of beads for Helen to copy. When Helen’s attempts proved incorrect, Anne removed them and encouraged Helen to begin again. After several failed attempts, Helen paused to consider her mistakes, and Anne touched Helen’s forehead and then spelled the word t-h-i-n-k into Helen’s hand. Helen quickly grasped that words could relate to ideas and intangible concepts, opening a world to her far beyond the straightforward naming of physical objects. Miss Sullivan never assumed that Helen was unteachable; she saw only that Helen was inexperienced.

Educational scope-and-sequence listings have probably done as much harm as they have done good for some not-so-average children by convincing educators and parents alike that certain benchmarks should be reached at certain ages. We tend to rely on that information more than on our instincts and become unduly concerned when our students reach those goals either before or after the scheduled date. How silly. In the immortal words of my local meteorologist, “There is no such thing as normal; there is only average.” He was speaking of temperatures and weather patterns, but in educational terms, quicker learners and slower learners combine to create the scope-and-sequence averages.

Our tendency as parents is to fluctuate between only two reactions to our children’s accomplishments: “Not yet!” (meaning “you’re not old enough to do that yet”) and “Not yet?” (meaning “every other child has already done this”). As the educators for our children, we need to follow the lead of the child who wants to take on an ambitious project, though perhaps helping him to scale it back as needed in the beginning. The child who has already learned a lesson is ready to move on, and we must be careful not to bury the student with boredom who is eager for more. Too often we can bog the student down with what we feel is appropriate to his age (or grade level) and completely disregard what is appropriate for his abilities. Working with the child to set goals will give him something to reach for, something to stretch his current abilities and broaden them into his future talents, no matter which side of average he may be.

Setting goals that are too lofty can overwhelm the less gifted student, leaving him floundering at simple lessons that have become overshadowed by looking too far into the future. Careful attention to each student’s abilities and personality will tell you when to press on and when to linger a bit longer. Scope-and-sequence guidelines should be taken as just that: guidelines — a map for the journey, but not a day-by-day itinerary. Taking longer to learn a certain lesson does not mean that the child has learned less that the quicker student; in fact, they have both achieved the same goal (learning a particular lesson), just at different rates. The slower student may actually be absorbing more detailed information than the quicker child does. Helping your slower learner to break down his goals into doable steps will give him more occasions to celebrate and prevent discouragement along the way.

While students at schools for the deaf or blind struggled with learning even basic reading and writing techniques, Anne Sullivan insisted on teaching Helen Keller at home, feeling it was a more natural environment for learning and exploring. Anne abandoned scheduled lessons and simply led Helen on daily adventures through normal life, believing that “lessons” might limit the range of knowledge Helen could absorb. Her hunch proved correct, as Helen excelled far beyond what anyone dreamed possible and far beyond any progress made by previous deaf-blind students. Helen rapidly made up for lost time by learning to “read” lips with her fingers, learning to speak audibly, learning to read five different versions of Braille and raised print, and learning to write with pencil and paper, as well as with a typewriter and a Braille-writer. Helen learned to read and speak in English, French, and German — all before she entered a private high school to prepare for college. Helen had set attending college as her own goal while still a young girl just beginning to learn and accomplished her graduation from Radcliffe College under a schedule considered normal for hearing and sighted students. I think there is a tremendous lesson for all of us in this example, whether we are homeschooling or not. We should set our goals high enough to stretch our current abilities and see what those abilities can become in the future.

4. Language is the key to all learning. Anne Sullivan communicated with Helen Keller in complete sentences, even before young Helen understood all of the words in those sentences. Believing that language would be the magic that could bring Helen out of her prison of deafness and blindness, Anne strived for communication with Helen in as normal a fashion as possible. Once Helen had grasped the basic fundamentals of the manual alphabet and understood the words spelled into her hand, Anne began reading books to Helen, spelling word after word, sentence after sentence, and page after page into the eager hand of her knowledge-thirsty pupil. The resulting success was phenomenal: Helen’s dramatic progress astounded everyone as she quickly and easily surpassed the milestones of other deaf-blind students before her.

Miss Sullivan read book after book to Helen, whose mind soaked up the intricacies of language at an amazing rate. Having learned very little of spoken language before losing her hearing as a toddler and losing even that much in the years of silence that followed, Helen’s 7-year-old mind was virtually a blank page. However, she learned the grammar and sentence structure necessary for intelligent communication through the language of the books that were read to her. Later, as her writings were published in a children’s magazine, Helen’s command of language was so comprehensive that many skeptics viciously accused her and her dedicated teacher of fraud.

Time spent reading aloud to your children will never be time wasted. Their minds can comprehend the language far sooner than their eyes can read the words for themselves. Continue to read aloud to your students as they grow older, and enjoy a variety of books: poetry, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses; mysteries and adventure stories, such as Treasure Island; and histories, such as The Little House series, as well as such childhood standards as Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh. The beautifully rhythmic language of older books will prove far more desirable to modern tales, even if you have to stop to define a word or phrase now and then. Discussing how some words have changed meanings over time will become a fascinating supplemental lesson. Your student’s vocabulary will be increased through read-aloud time, as well as through conversation. Whenever we encountered a word of vague meaning, we grabbed the dictionary. It seldom cost us our concentration on the book’s plot and always increased our knowledge. I often used words that my students were not familiar with, but in defining a word for them, rather than not using it, the words were quickly added to their ever-increasing vocabularies.

The tactile learner will be better able to absorb read-aloud stories if his hands are allowed to keep busy. Drawing, coloring, painting, modeling with clay, building with blocks or construction sets, stringing beads, or assembling puzzles are all activities that can be quietly performed while also listening to a book being read aloud. Too many of us have been conditioned to think that a student can only pay attention as long as constant eye contact is maintained. While that technique may be necessary in a classroom with dozens of students and may be somewhat true for the more easily distracted students, it rarely applies to most auditory or tactile learners.

Exploring the world through textures and movements adds another dimension for visual and auditory learners, but it may also be the key that opens the door of learning for the tactile student. If you are not sure if your student is a tactile learner, try some of these methods and see if they make a difference. Instead of nagging a child to “put that down” or “keep your hands in your lap,” working with his constantly active hands will allow his fingers to lead his brain in the search for knowledge. Remember that the tactile learner absorbs information through his fingertips, and we should strive to give those fingers plenty of “reading material.”

For more tips on teaching a tactile learner, see Topical Index: Learning Styles.

Teach Your Children the Art of Amusing Themselves

“I’m bored.” “Mommy, come play with me.” Have you heard these laments lately? By teaching your children to enjoy a variety of “by-myself” activities, you can prevent the incessant whining, cure the boredom, and gain a tiny bit of free time for yourself. You will also be fostering independence in your children by teaching them the basics of teaching themselves.

Your time, Mom, is too valuable to be spent merely entertaining your children. Individual entertainment is a skill very valuable in homeschooling. A student of any age needs to be able to learn on his own, and solitary time is the ideal situation in which to practice independent study. Once they have acquired interest in a few solo activities, your students can entertain themselves while you tend to their siblings, to your housework, or to your own leisure pursuits. They can begin to see the advantages of striving to complete their schoolwork quickly in order to return to their own recreational activities. Children who learn how to entertain themselves will be much more content personally and able to adapt to new circumstances better than will their counterparts who rely on others for entertainment.

Just as some tiny tots need to be spoon-fed the first bite or two of a new food before taking over to feed themselves, some children may need guidance in learning to play by themselves. Start an activity with them, and then slowly wean yourself away from the action: dump out a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle, and get Sammy started on assembling the easy border pieces while you sort out the pieces for a few main elements in the puzzle. (Do not assemble the parts completely, just sort or put a few pieces together to help Sammy along. This is the all-important “teaser” stage: you want to make it irresistible for Sammy to finish the puzzle.) Before long, Sammy will be engrossed in his task with enough confidence to carry him through, and you can excuse yourself to shuffle the laundry, promising to check on his progress later (then be sure that you do come back to praise him). Sometimes, Mom or an older sibling may need to give a few quick lessons in a new activity, but the real learning sets in when the child begins to explore a craft or leisure pursuit on his own. Be sure to praise the child for his time dedicated to working alone, and show him how valuable the skills are that he is developing.

Consider these leisure pursuits that work well as independent activities:

–jigsaw puzzles
–crossword & other word puzzles
–sudoku & other number/logic puzzles
–solitaire card games
–sewing, crocheting, knitting & other needle arts
–painting & drawing
–whittling & woodworking
–Lego’s & other construction toys
–building models
–gardening
–reading
–bicycling, rollerblading, & other individual sports
–(what can you add to this list?)

On one particularly lazy day when my children were small, we had picnicked at a city park and the children were growing bored with the playground equipment. With too much month left at the end of the money, we were seeking no-cost diversions, but boredom was overtaking the usual ideas. As we sat at a picnic table discussing what else we could do for the day, I picked up a handful of the small stones and pea gravel that covered the playground surface. Fingering the tiny rocks led to watching them tumble across each other. Before long, we had stumbled upon a new and challenging game: Rock Stacking. We spent the next hour stacking up the pebbles and seeing who could create the tallest stacks. Height was replaced by quantity as we began counting who could stack the most rocks before their stack toppled over. Soon other children had joined us and we had several families involved with our new game, all cheering each other’s accomplishments. Steady hands were as valuable as a sharp eye for spotting flat surfaces on the rocks, and all participants had to be careful not to jiggle the table and send everyone’s stack back to the starting line. It was a wonderfully enjoyable afternoon that I will not soon forget, especially the amazement on the faces of the children we did not know, who begged to be included in our fun — with not a penny of expenditure to anyone. I am sure that none of those other children would ever previously have considered joining a friend who asked, “Hey, want to go stack rocks?”

As they grow into adults, the inventiveness and creativity that has been developed through individual activities and solo entertainment will show forth in the ability to provide cheap (or free) alternatives to eating out or going to movies. Children who have grown up constantly being entertained by their parents or older siblings have little imagination for how to spend “down time,” so they continue to seek someone to entertain them and need a constant flurry of activity to keep them happy (usually at considerable financial cost). My daughter’s college friends quickly ran out of money and ideas for recreation, prompting the invention of her Shopping Trip Bingo game, an exercise in no-cost entertainment. We have often gone on short nature hikes as a family, and our children have continued their love of that no-cost activity by taking special friends back to our favorite lake for quiet walks and peaceful getaways.

To paraphrase an old saying, “If you give a man a fish, that man knows where to go to get fish.” So if you consistently entertain your children when they are bored, your children will always know whom to go to for entertainment. However, a child who can occupy himself with satisfying leisure activities is learning hobbies that will last a lifetime. The more he explores and learns on his own, the more he hones his skills for teaching himself — skills valuable for homeschooling and for continuing his education throughout life. Any time that you spend in teaching your child a solitary activity (knitting, for example), will be returned to you in multiplied hours that you can dedicate to other pursuits while your child carries on independent activities. Not every child can automatically see how to entertain himself, some need more guidance than others, and a few will continue to need Mom’s approval and encouragement from time to time, but a child who learns to amuse himself will be opening the door to a world full of knowledge and adventure.

Second-Hand Attitudes

I refer to a “second-hand attitude” as a mind-set that is not a part of your core family philosophy. It is an attitude that is held by another party outside of your immediate family and that has been subconsciously adopted by a member of your family who does not actually hold to those beliefs himself. It is not your attitude; it is someone else’s attitude, but you are wearing it. Second-hand attitudes can come from a wide variety of sources and show up in an equally wide variety of ways.

“When you put your hat on, the attitude just takes over, and you can’t stop it,” the older woman responded to a her adult daughter, who was concerned as to why her normally mild-mannered, very polite mother had suddenly become an obnoxiously loud, rude customer. The mother and her group of friends regularly don their unique wardrobe for social outings, but their uniform of choice has had a rather anti-social effect. Sales associates would often prefer to run and hide, rather than deal with these customers, and other shoppers can be seen giving them a wide berth, getting out of their way. This is not a scene from the Jim Carrey movie, The Mask, where an ancient tribal facemask holds mystical powers and transforms any wearer into an alter ego. This is real life. It causes me to wonder just how well the same argument of “I can’t help it” would have worked for the daughter, had she used that excuse when she was a misbehaving child. I am guessing it would not have worked well at all, so why does Mom think it is a valid excuse for herself now? The rudeness is simply a second-hand attitude that Mom picked up from her friends, but she is attributing it to an inanimate object from her closet.

My young daughter used to spend occasional nights at Grandma’s house, which were followed by extensive shopping excursions the next morning. They would make the rounds of dollar stores and half-price stores, prowling through the low-priced trinkets, and my daughter would usually come home lugging a bag of treasures that Grandma had purchased for her. The most serious item she brought home, however, was a change in attitude. Suddenly, in place of the kind, gentle, and helpful member of our family, there was a dramatic, selfish, commanding, and demanding Princess. Her every whim had been catered to and every desire had been fulfilled, to the point where she believed that she was entitled to that excessive amount of attention and expected that service to continue at home as well. Sorry. That ain’t happenin’ here. Grandma’s attempts at bonding resulting instead in a second-hand attitude.

During their high school years, my son and some other boys became good friends with a twenty-something single man at church. The young man felt he was mentoring the boys, but the results were so objectionable on our end that we had to curtail our son’s involvement in the relationship. He would come back from group activities with the guys wearing a very irresponsible attitude and stating that it should be acceptable for him to stay out until the wee hours of the morning just because his older friend was along, even though he himself was not yet even old enough to drive. Aside from the premature independence issues, “accidents” and “incidents” seemed to follow this group wherever they went, and the young “mentor” showed himself to be more of a ringleader in mischief than a role model for mature behavior. Again, sorry. That ain’t happenin’ here. Suffice it to say that a mid-teens boy should not take on the mind-set of a post-college man, and since the troublesome attitude enveloped someone too large for me to pick up and place in his bed for a nap, stronger measures were required. When he could not shake off the second-hand attitude, we removed him from the group.

In each of these cases, a second-hand attitude was inflicted by others, then adopted and brought home by an unwitting recipient. The infectious attitude was not previously held by the recipient, nor was it accepted by the recipient’s family, but there it was nonetheless. Second-hand attitudes do not have to stick. I usually had to explain in matter-of-fact terms exactly what I found undesirable about the attitudes that had come home with my children, but once they understood what to watch out for, they could more easily spot problematic attitudes in their friends. Their motivation for careful attitude analysis was the guarantee that the relationship would be terminated if the attitudes continued to come home. If the friendship itself was beneficial, it could be allowed to continue — but the poison attitude had to be eliminated.

A common childhood ploy is to say, “But Amanda’s Mom doesn’t care that she acts this way,” or “Joey talks like this all the time.” My response to that is, “Joey and Amanda should be very glad that they are not my children. If they were my children, they would not be allowed to act like that.” That reaction helped my children immeasurably to see that other families may have different values from ours, but it is our values that rule in our household. While it is rarely possible to discipline someone else’s child, I have gone so far as to look an offending child (who was not my offspring) straight in the eye and say with a firm smile and without flinching, “You are so lucky that I am not your mother.” My meaning was seldom lost; they nearly always stopped the unwanted behavior or dropped the selfish attitude and behaved in a more civilized manner. They already knew how far over the line of acceptability they were, but they needed a reminder that someone else was watching.

A positive viewpoint is a wonderful thing to bring home. An encouraging outlook cheers everyone. Conversely, an attitude that produces negative changes in behavior has a nasty effect on everyone who even comes near. I have learned the hard way that I cannot allow these unwanted attitudes to infect my family. I have no problem restricting associations that prove harmful to members of my family. I might decide to skip activities, stop arranging play dates, or just say, “If you continue to bring home _____’s attitude, you will no longer be allowed to go see him/her.” The friendships were not more important than the relationships within our family.

By homeschooling, our children’s friendships are naturally more limited than those of their public schooled counterparts. If my children were only going to have one or two good friends, I wanted those relationships to be worthwhile. Another mom I knew from a very remote area would travel any distance to allow her teen to interact with any other teens, even those of questionable character. I disagreed; I was willing to “go the distance” for a positive, worthwhile experience, but not just because a child demanded to go. Perhaps I have the mercenary tendencies of “what’s in it for me,” but I believe there should be some benefit to my child to make the relationship valid. My child may merely gain experience as a mentor or role model by befriending someone less outgoing than himself, but that in itself is a healthy, positive thing. Picking up harmful second-hand attitudes from those friendships is neither healthy nor positive.

Parents, you have permission to control who your children’s friends are. If your children are old enough or stubborn enough to react negatively to your decision to end their friendship with an unfavorable character, let me assure you that God is just as concerned for your child’s welfare as you are. I have seen many cases where parents prayed for a friendship to dissolve, leaving their child unaffected, and watched exactly that take place. Usually, the offending “friend” became disinterested in continuing the relationship and moved on. At other times, the child’s eyes were suddenly opened to how he was being misused in the relationship, and he broke it off himself.

It took a few tries, but my children finally learned that they could recognize the symptoms of an unwelcome attitude and take steps not to adopt it themselves. In the case of my small daughter going to Grandma’s house, I told her before she left that I expected her to behave the same way at home after visiting Grandma that she had behaved before she went to Grandma’s. She understood that I expected her to be just as helpful and kind when she returned, even though she had not had to lift a finger to help while she was away. There were several times after that that I would notice her begin to respond one way, then catch herself, and change her reaction. Sometimes, she would change a verbal response. At other times, it was just a look on her face that betrayed the presence of The Attitude, and then The Attitude disappeared, leaving her countenance clear and free. In my son’s situation, it was beneficial for the other boys to have him present as a positive role model, but even that relationship had to be ended when it did more harm to him than it did good for them. The welfare of our own family had to take priority.

I read once that the things other people do to us are like bags of garbage they leave on our doorstep. We cannot prevent them from dropping their trash here, but we do not have to bring it inside and spread it around on the furniture. A Second-hand Attitude is nothing more than someone else’s garbage that gets dropped on our doorstep. However, we can recognize it as their trash and refuse to put it on and wear it as our own. If your children bring home an undesirable attitude, help them to recognize it, eliminate it, and take steps to avoid it in the future. If the attitude continues to prevail, do not be reluctant to break off the relationship that generated the attitude change. Second-hand attitudes are infectious, and the welfare of your family must take priority.

Surviving the First Year of Homeschooling after Leaving Public School

I understand your frustration. We began homeschooling after our older child had spent several years in public school (our younger child spent only Kindergarten in The System). We felt strongly that God was leading us to take responsibility for our children’s education, but we had a difficult time finding adequate support from other homeschoolers. Most of the other homeschooling families we knew at that time had been educating their own children from the beginning and had never experienced the trauma of feeling that public school had failed them. Parents often write to me, seeking encouragement and advice in surviving this transition from public school to homeschool. I know exactly what they mean. It is a completely foreign situation, somewhat like starting over from the beginning, but with students who cannot afford to lose any ground.

Children who undergo this change from public school to homeschool will experience abrupt (but not disastrous) changes in environment, teaching styles, and learning situations. These changes will usually affect behavioral changes in the child — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

The environmental changes may put the child on an emotional roller coaster. If he had difficulties at public school or did not enjoy that experience, he may be relieved to be away from that setting. At the same time, he may miss some of his acquaintances or the reliable routine of scheduled activities. Enjoying school, not enjoying school; missing the other students, not missing the other students; excitement, depression; up, down — most children do not have the maturity to effectively cope with the emotions they will experience through this process without help and hugs from their understanding parents.

If the student is eager to adapt to homeschooling, the teaching parent will not have much difficulty during the transition phase. However, some students are not in agreement with a parental decision to leave the public school and view the change as something to rebel against. In this case, their behavior may become uncooperative and stubborn and include what I call the “Limp Spine Syndrome,” that tendency for a child’s entire body to go completely limp whenever you urge him to pick up a pencil. The simplest assignments may drag on and on, and work that the child could easily have accomplished within a few minutes’ time may stretch out to last an entire day. If the child had formerly been an attentive student in the public classroom, he may just be dawdling at his work in an effort to substitute Mom’s companionship for the classmates he is missing, or he may be seeing this extended class time as a way to monopolize Mom’s time, keeping her from completing other household tasks, and thereby punishing her for taking him away from his former friends and associates. Students who are used to having homework assigned to be done later may not immediately grasp the concept of doing their work during class time. A casual discussion of expectations between teaching-parent and student may clear up many misunderstandings and motivate the child with the promise of free-time activities once the schoolwork has been completed.

Since this new arrangement is homeschooling, not school at home, it will undeniably be different from what the student had been used to. The style of teaching necessary for a roomful of children is not at all suitable for just a few students. At the same time, the learning skills used in the large group setting are not the same skills necessary for the more self-directed format of homeschooling. Another common cause of disinterested learners is lesson presentation in a manner that does not appeal to the child’s learning style: giving oral explanations to a student who learns best through building 3-D models, or assigning a student to read a chapter of history when he would rather participate in a reenactment.

Spend some one-on-one time with your child, endeavoring to learn what things he is interested in and how he would prefer to study them, and then tailor a few lessons specifically towards those areas. Topical Index: Learning Outside the Books contains ideas for lessons that will be more appealing than the average dry textbook. If your reluctant student is interested in guns and soldiers, rent a few factual war movies (look for older movies that do not require the modern cautions against adult scenes or foul language) and watch them together, followed with brief discussions of various scenes or characters. If he is car crazy, challenge him to research comparisons on new models or prototypes. Find his areas of personal interest and focus on those. It can make a tremendous difference in his level of motivation and create a valuable bond between the two of you at the same time. (Mom is letting me study this?) Remember, education was taking place long before the first textbook was ever written. [Also see Topical Index: Learning Styles.]

Teaching and learning are difficult enough with only a few subjects — there is no reason to complicate matters by tackling too many subjects at once. When neither your student nor you as teacher has had any experience at homeschooling, allow yourselves plenty of time to adapt to this new routine before worrying about covering all the bases. A student who cannot read well cannot fully grasp history. A student who has not mastered handwriting will find creative writing to be needlessly tedious. Get the basics covered well first, and then other academic subjects may be added in later. [Depending on the ages of your students, you may be able to adapt some ideas from Start with Reading, Handwriting, & Arithmetic, and Save the Rest for Later.]

A parent recently mentioned to me that her student had previously been given prescription medication to compensate for a learning disability while in public school, but he did not seem to have a need for the medication at home. The child also seemed to be struggling with that inconsistency — why was the medicine needed for learning at school, but it is not needed for learning at home? Let me bluntly say that I feel public schools have become much too liberal in assigning “disability” labels, and children are being over-medicated, sometimes needlessly medicated. I do not discount the possibility of children with legitimate problems in learning, but I also think medication should not be the first choice in conquering those problems.

If you are struggling with homeschooling, be encouraged — the first year is always the toughest. Remind yourself that you have chosen to homeschool your children for very important reasons. There is a definite adjustment period involved in switching from public school to homeschooling, and that period can last at least a year. If you are currently in the critical transition stage between public schools and homeschooling, I suggest you browse through my Indexes for a larger dose of encouragement. I will list a few past articles here for you to start with:
Questions from a First-time Homeschooler
Homeschooling Is Hard Work
Do the Best Job You Can, and Pray for God to Clean Up the Rest
What Didn’t Work for Today Can Be Changed for Tomorrow
Homeschooling an Only Child
Meatball Education: Filling in the Potholes of Public School
Spoken Destinies and Learned Behaviors
Are We Homeschooling or Schooling at Home?

Limiting “Worldly” Vocabulary

It happened again. I was sitting with a group of believers, enjoying the fellowship, and it happened. Someone felt it was necessary and strangely appropriate to share a “funny story” that included vulgar language or references to vulgar topics. Uncomfortable faces dotted the circle as a few people looked at the floor, others smirked, and a few let slip some mostly stifled laughter.

I have been in many home fellowships, organized church groups, Christian conferences, and just about any other form of Christian gathering you can think of. In every setting, sooner or later, someone uses language he should not or brings up a topic that is better left untouched. I am not trying to be an extremist or self-righteous: there are a couple of carelessly used slang words that I am trying to purge from my own vocabulary. However, I am more willing to extend grace to the new believer than I am to the Christian who is “old enough to know better.” When the offending party is not a brand-new believer, but instead is a pastor, study leader, or other semi-mature believer, I cannot help but be saddened by the influence of the world on a Godly person.

I was appalled into a speechless stupor one night as two men whom I had (until this point) admired as dedicated Christians held a casual discussion on which obscenities had become mere slang terms in our culture and which ones they considered to still be true swear words. Not only did I consider this to be a completely inappropriate discussion, but it also was neither encouraging nor edifying to the other members of the Body of Christ who were present. To say I was offended by their behavior would be a gross understatement. I deeply regret being shocked beyond words — I wished that I (or anyone present) had had the fortitude to speak a word of rebuke.

As Christians, we are admonished not to conform to the world (Romans 12:2) and not to speak unwholesome words (Ephesians 4:29). Therefore, I was greatly encouraged by my own homeschool mentor who, years ago, told me that she had required her family to substitute less-offensive words for what she considered “worldly” terms: words for certain bodily functions, topics that should not be brought up in public gatherings, “mild” swear words — the things that many Christians say just because “everyone else” does.

I find this language among professing Christians to be not only offensive, but it also has the effect of bringing us down to the level of the world. We can effectively communicate without having to stoop to the level of the world — we do not have to use their vocabulary. We all should have learned by an early age that certain topics are best discussed in private or in the doctor’s office, and Jesus encouraged us to let our “yes” and “no” mean exactly that, so that we do not have to reinforce them with stronger words.

Our presence as representatives of Jesus in this world is to be as salt (either adding flavor or bringing healing) and light (vanquishing the darkness). Nowhere in scripture are we advised to lower ourselves to the standards of the world. However, we are urged to build up the Body of Christ and encourage each other in the faith (Hebrews 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:11). Our prudent choice of words will help.

Rules and Discipline within the Co-op Group Setting

In discussing the many different aspects of co-op group activities, I have so far avoided an in-depth examination of discipline within the group setting. While I have touched upon the ability of homeschooling co-op groups to offer opportunities to expand children’s individual talents and interests, I have only hinted at any disciplinary restrictions for the group itself. This, then, is a further consideration of group dynamics and some of the “hot spots” that I have seen arise in multiple homeschool group situations. I am also including certain specific episodes that resulted in group discipline: rules that ultimately restricted everyone’s behavior, for better or worse.

“DO’s” — The Types of Rules to Consider Implementing
Time Segments? 1-hour classes? 2-hour classes? If your group is large enough to offer more than one class on co-op day, you probably need to consider the ideal length for those classes. When just a few families get together once-a-whenever for a project, the only limiting factor may be naptime for the youngest members. If you are attempting to schedule co-op classes for multiple age groups involving dozens of children, you may need more structure.

Hall Monitors? If you are blessed with a large facility (church or community center) where your students can spread out into multiple classrooms, you may be faced with occasionally wandering children. Students new to the facility may get lost or confused or need help finding their classroom, the restroom, or Mom (if she is occupied in another classroom). In such a case, an extra parent assigned to direct foot-traffic can be a wonderful blessing to the little lost soul who thought she knew the way to the restroom.

Children in Parking Lots? This is another aspect of the “wandering child” issue — Abbie left something important in the car and runs out to retrieve it, not expecting another family to be arriving late, and they are not expecting any children to be dashing through the parking lot. We all try to keep hold of our youngsters in large lots (such as Wal-Mart), but we tend to relax around our small group of friends. To prevent tragedy from sneaking up on us, small children should be discouraged from leaving the facility unless accompanied by an older sibling or parent. Any family attempting to move their vehicle should walk completely around it first — you may never discover a child sitting on the ground behind your car, but you might find Benji’s jacket or Charlie’s notebook before driving off without them.

Discipline? A Moms’ Meeting is the place to discuss and decide together how discipline should be administered during co-op classes, so that all parents are aware of what the agreed-upon procedure is. My personal recommendation is that the parent should deal with the offender for any significant problems; the teacher or other adult witness may need to describe the situation to the parent first, if the parent was not present during the incident, then leave the parent and child alone to work it out according to their family’s rules. [more on this below]

Gender Bias? Classes can be gender-specific without being gender-restricted. We once offered our teens a class in cake decorating, something many of the girls were interested in learning. One of the boys from the group also signed up to take the class; he had had some experience at home and was not intimidated by being the only male in the room. He also had the last laugh on the other boys who tried to tease him for taking the “girl class” — the boys did not have an alternative class that day and instead were recruited for an assortment of heavy-duty cleaning projects around the building.

Age Bias? An older student can effectively sit in on a class meant for a slightly younger age group, but a younger student may not work out as well in a class intended for older students. Accelerated learners may have an advantage in academics, but usually have not achieved the maturity to go with it. Our group had many such debates about “David” who was advanced several years in his schoolwork and wanted to attend all the group activities designed for the students in his grade level. However, the other students at that level were high school teenagers, and David was quite a few years younger. Although he (and his parents) believed he was the intellectual equal of the teens, he was not equipped emotionally, physically, or in any other way to participate in the teens’ social events. The high school classes also were not a good “fit” for him: even though he could handle algebra and read high school literature, he could not discuss many of the broader topics (such as current events, the stock market, or vocational options) that the other high school students were interested in studying. His emotional/philosophical level was still in elementary school, where his age placed him.

“DON’T’s” — The Types of Rules to Avoid
Public Schoolism: If your members are primarily unschooling types, definitely stay far away from any rules with a public school flavor, such as walking in precise lines to change classes. I have stated in previous articles that homeschooling brings out the individual differences in our children and that public school-ism emphasizes the one-size-fits-all approach. Avoid zero-tolerance-type universal rules for governing single incidents; instead, take the initiative to speak to the one at fault.

Dictatorships: Allowing or relying on only one person to coordinate all activities endangers your group’s unity and must be avoided at all costs — your desire is to have a homeschooling cooperative group, not to become the flying monkey minions of the Wicked Witch of the West. (Forgive my bias — not all people who lead groups fall into the control-freak category; I have just been stung too many times.) Discuss your concerns together as a group and make sure all opinions are expressed, polling each member individually, if necessary. Secret ballots and suggestion boxes will not encourage the timid member to speak up as much as a friendly, non-threatening atmosphere will. Welcome all opinions, whether agreeing or dissenting, and discuss the pro and con sides of all options. In the end, even the most adamant dissenter can feel good about a group decision if she feels her concerns have been listened to in the process.

Do Not Overrule Parental Authority: Assume that parents know what is best for their own children. Assume that parents already have their own set of rules for governing their family. Realize that what you do not allow in your family may be perfectly acceptable in another family, and what you find acceptable behavior may be extremely offensive to others. Realize that families will usually try to respect the wishes of the group, even if those rules do not mirror their family’s preferences.

To Discipline or Not to Discipline — What Happened & How I Viewed It
The following stories involve students of middle school and high school age, mostly because that is the time when children are more likely to exert their own opinions. Rebellion from good kids is often channeled toward creative outlets, rather than becoming destructive or damaging. What one adult considers “rebellion,” another adult may consider “self-control” — based on their point of reference. Over the years, I have witnessed some remarkably creative rule-breaking in otherwise well-behaved children, who had simply been pushed to their personal breaking points. These accounts are true; all names have been changed to protect the guilty. Learn from them what you can, realizing that no amount of planning can cover all contingencies, but it is better to speak to one individual about a problem than to try to legislate major rules that affect everyone else and still do not get through to the offending person.

Erica sneaked up behind Frank before class began and pinched a pressure point on his neck. Thinking it was his friend George, Frank whipped his arm around and caught George in a headlock — only George was really Erica. Not a problem, thought Frank, Erica is quite a tomboy herself and usually wins in a good wrestling match with her brothers, so Frank followed through with his takedown. Erica was delighted with the opportunity to wrestle someone besides her brothers and gave it her all. An unsuspecting adult happened to witness this seconds-long encounter, walking in just as Frank maneuvered Erica toward the edge of the stage they were wrestling on in an attempt to frighten her into letting up, since her strength and experience were greater than Frank had anticipated. Mrs. Conclusion Jumper immediately lived up to her name, shreiking for the “fight” to stop, and sending everyone within earshot into panic mode. Frank was severely reprimanded for exhibiting such behavior toward one of the girls, and Erica was never faulted for starting it all. Frank’s mother was finally summoned from another room when Frank protested that he was merely defending himself against an attack from behind. Frank and Erica’s parents saw through the whole scene immediately and concluded that nothing extraordinary had taken place, with the exception of Mrs. Conclusion Jumper’s reaction. Frank and Erica remained good friends, both knowing the incident was all in fun. Frank and Erica’s parents remained good friends as well, also knowing that their children were responding in ways that would not have been given a second glance at home. Mrs. Conclusion Jumper is still upset to this day. [Although no other wrestling matches ever took place, there was soon a rule forbidding any and all rough-housing, especially on the stage area.]

Harold and Ivan had opted not to participate in a class they found uninteresting. Finding themselves without a room to sit in, since all rooms were being utilized for classes, Harold and Ivan decided to wait on an entryway staircase until class was over. Then Harold and Ivan found a football. Being athletic teenage boys, they saw nothing wrong with carefully tossing the ball back and forth across the entryway, from one set of stairs to the other. Enter Mrs. Conclusion Jumper. Again. What had been a fun way of passing their time suddenly became a big deal — at least to Mrs. CJ. No windows had been broken, no property had been damaged, no small children had ever been put in danger, and no parents had objected to Harold and Ivan’s attempt to bypass boredom. Except Mrs. Conclusion Jumper. [Next rule on the ever-expanding list: no ball-throwing unless as part of a gym class.]

Kip was the lone wolf of his church group, seldom joining in with activities, and preferring his own company to anyone else’s. I was illustrating a Sunday School lesson on Jesus calming the storm and had arranged the chairs into a long, narrow boat-shape and had the students choose their own seats as the “disciples.” Kip sat in the very back row. By himself. As I read the story and set the mood with a sound effects tape of thunder, wind, and rain, some of the students began saying they felt raindrops. There in the back was Kip, leaning his chair back far enough to reach the drinking fountain behind him and flicking handfuls of water over the group. Seeing that what probably began as a way to annoy his classmates was quickly becoming a valuable visual/tactile aide, I continued with my presentation. By the time Jesus had calmed the seas, Kip had stopped flicking water. As I later dismissed the class, I caught Kip by the arm and held him back while the others went on ahead. Expecting to be rebuked yet again for disruptive behavior, Kip was genuinely surprised as I thanked him for adding so much to my simple lesson and told him how much I truly appreciated his ingenuity and courage to do what many adults would have objected to. Kip beamed. From that day on, Kip was more attentive in my classes. Years have passed since then; Kip went to college and has become a teacher himself. [Not a homeschool group story, but valuable nonetheless as an example of a student’s “rebellion” being turned into something creative.]

Logan was not a teen fashion model, but he could have been. He followed many fashion trends, especially the pulling-your-jeans-way-down-to-expose-the-top-of-your-boxers fad. He would leave home wearing his belt, but remove it as soon as he got into a class without Mom. The other teens objected, but learned to ignore his less-than-modest couture. When the elementary girls began tripping on the stairs while watching Logan walk past, I knew it was time for something more to be done. I spoke with Logan’s mother, suggesting that perhaps a parental word could convince him of the far-reaching effects of his behavior. She insisted that what looked like boxers was not really underwear, that he was in fact wearing other underwear beneath them, and that the boxers were just decorative. In a group striving for modesty, her argument did not really work, especially when she called herself the group’s “Modesty Cop” and insisted on strict modesty from the girls (for the protection of her sons). [Countless rules were made regarding modesty, but the offenders seemed to be as energetic as the rule-writers, resulting in no changes — except perhaps in attitudes.]

Mark and Nyle were sitting in the designated “study hall” area, having opted out of an uninteresting class (with parental permission). The day was hot and the building was growing warm, despite the air conditioner’s best attempts at cooling. Mark and Nyle discussed their preferred outdoor activities for the period, not realizing that Mrs. Suspicious lurked within eavesdropping distance. When the boys rose to walk to the hallway drinking fountain, Mrs. Suspicious incorrectly assumed they were headed outdoors, in flagrant violation of a newly implemented rule against leaving the building during classtime. Mrs. Suspicious reported the suspected plot to her mentor, Mrs. Conclusion Jumper, who confronted Mark (Nyle had successfully managed to disappear when he realized what was about to happen). When Mark told Mrs. CJ that she did not have the facts straight, she blew up and took the matter (and him) to his mother. Mark’s mother defended her son, much to the dismay of both Mrs. Conclusion Jumper and Mrs. Suspicious, who still continue in their efforts to spread negativity wherever they go. [A rule was posted to forbid any child from leaving the building. However, it was so poorly written as to leave one questioning whether older students who drove themselves to classes would actually be allowed to return home.]

Oliver was a wonderful boy in a man’s body. A high school senior, older brother to many siblings, and one of the oldest students in our group, Oliver became a role model for the younger children, whether he wanted to be one or not, but took on that responsibility with great diligence. Oliver was genuinely respectful to all adults and other students, but exhibited a wry sense of humor that some stoics failed to understand. During one field trip to a mansion-turned-museum, his tour guide singled out Oliver as being The Ultimate Troublemaker, which Oliver assuredly was not. Mrs. Tour Guide continually directed snide remarks to Oliver, cautioning him not to touch things, not to do this, and not to do that — none of which Oliver would have considered doing in a place as renowned as this museum. After nearly an hour of such undeserved verbal abuse, Oliver reached above his 6-foot frame and flicked a small sign sticking out above a doorway. The sign spun around and around on its holder, revealing a very tiny portion of the emotions churning through Oliver’s mind. A new parent to our group witnessed only the sign-flicking incident, but not the insults which prompted it, and reported it to the trip’s coordinator a day later, feeling it had been disrespectful and improper public behavior. The coordinator contacted the parents who had been with that particular tour group to obtain as many facts as possible and was able to straighten out the entire ordeal to everyone’s satisfaction. Oliver was ultimately commended for exhibiting tremendous self-control in flicking only the sign, when undoubtedly the presumptuous tour guide deserved much worse. [A prime example of “rebellion” under self-control.]

Cross Jekyll and Hyde with Eddie Haskell for my personal pet peeve: children who change behavior as soon as their parents leave the room. You probably remember Eddie Haskell as the guy on “Leave It to Beaver” who spoke so politely to all the adults, but was the biggest jerk on the planet to the other kids. Fortunately for Wally and the Beav, Ward and June Cleaver saw right through Eddie. An Eddie obeys all the family rules until he gets away from his parents, Eddie speaks disrespectfully about his parents and all other adults, and Eddie encourages his friends to adopt similar attitudes toward their own parents. Eddie has not been taught to have respect for others but to act politely, especially to adults, so Eddie puts on that behavior around the adults and appears to be a model citizen and the ideal child. Once the adults leave the room, however, Eddie the Jerk comes forth. Eddie can be male or female and any age. My personal strategy to guard against my own children becoming an Eddie was to give them the freedom to be themselves around both their friends and me, without fear of my teasing them about things they said or did.

Most discipline problems that arise in a group can be dealt with individually, without affecting the entire group as a whole. Specific incidents often have the effect of illustrating to every child present what types of behavior are or are not acceptable, again without the need for universal legislation. Realizing that each family has its own policy for behavior and discipline and respecting those differences will go a long way toward balancing group dynamics. Often a simple explanation to my children that “if those were my kids, they wouldn’t get away with that” was enough to satisfy any protestations over differences in value systems. Open discussions, common sense, and respect for others will prevent most problems before they start.

[For more information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]