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.

What Made This a “Bad” Homeschool Day?

This day started with such promise. You planned the lessons, and everyone took their places, but then something, somewhere went wrong. Very wrong. And you may have no idea why. Go fix yourself a refreshing beverage, and let’s see if we can analyze what happened.

In my personal vocabulary, a “bad homeschool day” has one basic meaning: We didn’t accomplish all of the lessons that I had planned for us to do. There can be multiple causes for this “failure,” which is probably not as much of an actual failure as it is just not hitting the bull’s-eye of your intended target of Lessons Mastered. To take this analogy just a bit further, think of your day’s homeschooling plans as a standard target of concentric rings. Landing an arrow anywhere on the target is a degree of success (a partially learned lesson), and even coming close to the target is still a degree of success (learning anything at all about any topic, but not necessarily the planned lesson). A complete and utter failure would mean that your arrow never even left the bow (although that in itself teaches a lesson, but we’ll get to that later*). Also notice that the bull’s-eye of that target is not a pinpoint. It is actually roomy enough to hold several arrows, meaning that two or three arrows can be separated by some distance while still occupying the official center of the target. Consider this for a moment: you can hit the bull’s-eye several times, with the arrows landing fairly far apart from each other. Different arrows in different parts of the bull’s-eye equate to different homeschooling days that reach the goal in different ways. You can achieve success while still not reaching pinpoint perfection. (Perfection and success are two entirely different things — and success is much easier to achieve than perfection!)

Now let’s look at some possible causes of today’s Bad Homeschooling Day.

1) A Family Emergency — File this under “Life Happens.” These often cannot be avoided. Emergency Room visits are often considered by active little boys to be sure indicators of bravery and manhood, veritable rites of passage. Other emergencies can come in the guise of a chronic illness, a death in the family, or an unexpected change in career or place of residence. Marriage, divorce, pregnancy, miscarriage, and many other events can have a resounding effect on homeschooling progress and for much longer than a single day. There is usually no way to schedule an emergency: it just happens. Please do not despair when some unexpected event disrupts your calendar. Do keep in mind that extremely valuable *life lessons will still be learned during family emergencies — lessons that do not come from textbooks and cannot be experienced in classroom situations.

2) Your Students Just Didn’t Get It — File this under “Not Unusual.” Students vary in how they learn: God made them that way. What bizarre sort of Stepford Wives-world would this be if everyone reacted exactly like everyone else? The lessons for today were probably not presented in ways that corresponded to your students’ learning styles. See the Titles Index and look for Alternate Methods of Teaching [for various subjects]. Even if the exact subject you need is not listed, the articles contain many suggestions for presenting material to the various learning styles, and you will find ideas that will help.

3) Your Students Would Not Stay On Task — File this under “Learning Styles.” Over there is a daydreamer, here is a wiggler, this one is a goof-off, and that one never stops talking. Sound familiar? This category can also be applied to your students’ styles of learning, but this, too, can be accommodated. It’s not that your students are trying purposely to ignore you; it’s just that they find other facets of life much more intriguing than the way this particular lesson is being presented.

A daydreamer may be thinking up a truly valuable invention, or mulling over a tidbit from a recent conversation or book or movie or song, or puzzling over why something works the way it does, and if that does then shouldn’t this be possible, too? Your daydreamer is very likely not dreaming at all, but thinking very deep and elaborate thoughts and ideas. Allow that child to keep an “idea notebook” handy for quickly jotting down thoughts to be explored more fully later, after the lessons are done. The journal will help the child remember those thoughts, and it just might help him get refocused on the lesson at hand. Plus, you get the bonus of voluntary writing: SHH — don’t let the child know that you are secretly counting this as a writing assignment! This is just a special, personal notebook that can be kept handy during any lesson and pulled out for scribbling a quick note without receiving a scolding for momentarily not paying attention. Assure him this journal will not to be corrected, graded, or even read by anyone else until he chooses to share his ideas. My son kept a notebook that we called his Invention Journal, which he filled with complicated drawings and detailed explanations for items he felt would be valuable, time-saving, or just plain fun.

A wiggler has a serious need to move, so use it to your advantage. Send him off to run an errand to the other end of the house or to run laps around the back yard before you begin presenting the lesson. Once his muscles are awake, he will be a much more attentive listener. Include stretch breaks between lessons or between sections of a long lesson. Hindering this child’s need for movement is equivalent to letting his brain run out of gas.

Talkers have just as great a need to express themselves as the wiggler has a need to move. These are the students who can easily be engaged in discussions, debates, and question-and-answer sessions about lesson concepts. They are not likely to read directions themselves: they are much more likely to ask you to tell them what to do. [See Teach Your Students to Teach Themselves for help with this.] A budding comedian needs to get the funny story out of his system before he will be able to concentrate on any academic input, so invite him to tell it, and enjoy a hearty laugh together. He will be much more attentive to your lessons when he knows you appreciate his humor. You can trust me on this one — by the time my son turned six, I had developed a great empathy for what Jerry Seinfeld’s mother must have endured.

A student who cannot keep his hands still is often accused of goofing off and delaying his work by fiddling with anything within reach. This one will drive you straight to the room with the thickly padded rubber wallpaper unless you realize that those busy fingers are the keys to his ears. Just like the wiggler who must move his legs to activate his brain, The Busy Fingers Kid must have something in his hands to stimulate his brain. Once again, you can use this to your advantage: let him hold a favorite toy or keep his special blanket folded underneath him on his chair or give him modeling clay to work with while you read aloud or explain a lesson concept. Do not insist on eye contact with this child to prove he is paying attention — his ears will only be able to listen to you if his hands are busy, and his eyes may or may not focus on you. This child will respond especially well to manipulatives, learning aids, and educational gadgets. It’s not that he wants something to play with, he just needs to feel something with his fingers to be able to learn.

4) A Defiant Student — File this under “Needs a Little More Time.” This most often occurs when a family is involved in a major change, such as the transition from public or private school to homeschooling, especially if the student is not completely thrilled with the idea. Students who have previously been in a classroom situation need time to decompress and shift gears into the more relaxed atmosphere of homeschooling. A good rule of thumb for the length of the transition is one month for every year the child spent in school, double that if the child went to preschool. That period will be a time of adjustment: expect to find and repair potholes, expect to share tears and triumphs, and be as patient, loving, and forgiving as you possibly can muster. Know that every rough patch you can bring your student through will lead to smoother sailing later on. Remember that this child’s entire academic world is undergoing dramatic changes, and your student has no idea what to expect next. Treat your defiant student with respect, and he will respect you in return. [See Troublesome Students for more specific suggestions.]

5) Using a Homeschooling Style That Is Counter to Your Family’s Lifestyle — File this under “Common Mistakes.” Many families who are new to homeschooling, especially families who are leaving public or private school, make the all-too-common-but-well-intended mistake of trying to duplicate a formal school routine at home. Reasoning that the children have been used to precisely timed periods, clocks and bells to signal those periods, structured lessons, and periodic tests, innocent first-time homeschoolers may think it is wrong to finish a subject in less than 30 minutes (or to extend it longer than 60 minutes), wrong to start the day’s lessons after 10 AM (or before 8 AM), or wrong to finish all of the day’s lessons in only 2 hours (or wrong not to have everything finished up by 3:15 PM). Let me assure you that you may use as much or as little time as seems fitting to your students’ abilities, and daily variances are not at all uncommon. Furthermore, it is absolutely permissible to take stretch breaks and play breaks and snack breaks as often as they may be necessary. You are allowed to teach students of close but differing ages as though they were in the same grade at the same time, if that fits well into your situation and their needs. You are allowed to skip a lesson now and then, spread a single lesson over several days, take a day off when you really need it, and choose educational materials that match your family’s values and interests.

If your students need structure and precise scheduling, then by all means use it. But if your family feels stifled and pressured by demanding schedules and tedious lessons, explore learning in a more relaxed, more motivating environment. Perhaps your plans have been too aggressive. Perhaps you do need more personal discipline. Whatever your family’s needs may be, find the combination of lesson materials and supplemental activities that works for your family and begin to thrive.

I cannot promise that you will never again have a Bad Homeschooling Day. I cannot promise that every Bad Homeschooling Day can be magically transformed into an Exceptional Learning Day. What I can guarantee is that you will get out of homeschooling exactly what you will put into it: if you work toward teaching your students in the ways they learn best, you will reap attentive, eager learners who may often be several steps ahead of you. When a student’s interest veers away from the planned lesson, do not be afraid to pursue his suggestion — you may both end up learning much more than the textbook’s authors intended.

The poet Robert Burns is often paraphrased, The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Proverbs 16:9 provides a more optimistic conclusion: The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. No matter what your plans may be, remember that they are only plans: ideas and intentions of what you hope to accomplish with your students during a set period of time. Some days are slow learning days — you know yourself that on some days you can think faster or more clearly than you can on other days, depending on the weather, a mild illness, or the unpredictable distractions of life. Your children are exactly the same: some days their progress will be slow, and on other days they will make up for lost time and amaze your socks off! Give yourselves time to adapt to learning at home, and experiment with schedule changes until you find the ideal solution for your family’s needs. Use Life’s interruptions to teach the lessons not found in books, and recognize the lessons your students are learning, whether or not the worksheets get completed today.

For further encouragement, please see these additional articles:
Redeeming a Disaster Day
Homeschooling Is a Choice
What Is Your “Best”?
Reschedule, Refocus, Regroup

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 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???

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

From the Mailbox: Read-Aloud Disruptions

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 If part of your letter is used in an article, your identity will be concealed.

Dear Carolyn,
I am the HS mother of several children, with only two old enough for school. I really want to improve on reading aloud to my kids. They do okay with picture books, aside from the jockeying for position on Mom’s lap and crying about whether or not they can see the pictures well enough, but chapter books just don’t hold their interest. The kids are fighting, playing (loudly), leaving the room, and otherwise ignoring my attempt to read to them these wonderful books that I so enjoy. I am trying to pick age/gender appropriate books. Help! Do you have any suggestions? I feel like I’ve been waiting so long for them to be “ready” for chapter books. Should I have to discipline them into good behavior for listening to a good book? This seems to defeat the purpose for me–I want them to enjoy it! Do I have to wait for them to be older still? My oldest is very hands on, active, etc., and he tends to lead the behavior of the others (for the worst).

“Discipline,” meaning punishment, is probably not required, but “discipline” — by its definition of training — is definitely in order. This will be a fundamental learning experience for your children: your goal is not merely to read them a book, your goal is teaching your children how to listen and how to show respect.

Your older children can learn to enjoy longer stories, but the youngest ones will not be able to sit still for very long or comprehend the extended plot of a longer story. You may need to do read-aloud time when the youngest ones are napping, just to limit disruptions until the older children begin to understand what behavior you want them to exhibit.

Very few people (adults included) are able to sit absolutely still and listen with strict attention for more than a few minutes. Work with your oldest child’s hands-on needs and allow the children to color, paint, play with clay or Play-Doh, or build with Lego’s while you read to them. As long as they have a quiet activity, they can still hear you reading, and they will probably listen for a longer period of time if their hands are kept busy. The preschoolers might do wood or foam puzzles or lacing cards — I am sure you will come up with several ideas from your stash of toys and art materials. It is also a good idea for each child to have his own activity, to prevent squabbles over “I need that piece” during the story. You might also consider designating certain playthings for story-time only, making them more special and keeping the children from becoming bored with them.

Since your children’s behavior has not met your expectations up to this point, consider starting over by laying some ground rules. Allow each child to pick a quiet activity while you spread a bath towel on the floor for each child to sit on. Leave enough space between the towels so that the children will not be elbow-to-elbow. Explain to them that their towel is their personal space while Mom is reading the story, and they are to remain within its boundaries during story-time. Assure them that today’s story has no pictures (or that you will let each child see the pictures in turn), that each of them will be able to hear well from his space, and that, since each child’s arms and legs must remain within his towel-space, no one will be disturbing anyone else. Limit the interruptions by giving each child a chance to get a drink, go potty, and “get the wiggles out” before they all take their places for story-time.

Start this new routine of “personal space” with a short reading time from a book that the children already enjoy (especially the oldest “ringleader”). If anyone disrupts the story, you may allow one or two warnings on the first day as practice, but close the book at the next infraction. Stop reading and put the book, toys, and towels away for the day. It may take several days for them to adapt to the new routine, but your persistence will pay off, and they will gradually learn that leaving their space means that the reading time comes to an abrupt end for everyone.

Once the children have mastered the lesson of staying within their own spaces to listen, you may want to allow the older ones to change their space from a towel on the floor to a seat at the table, allowing them to do a wider variety of quiet activities during the reading. The older children may even be able to work together on a jigsaw puzzle while you read. However, your toddlers may take longer to understand the “space” limitations, so do not advance the older students too quickly, before the younger children are able to understand the purpose behind the concept.

Bit by bit, your children will learn how to sit quietly, how to listen, and how to respect their siblings. Start with a short reading time, and increase it gradually as a reward to your children for their improved behavior. Minor setbacks are temporary: remember that your children are practicing a new skill. Above all else, praise your children for their accomplishments!

[For further insight, see the articles linked below]
Is This “Acceptable Behavior”?
“Parent” Is a Verb
Respect Must Be Earned
Siblings as Best Friends
Learning to Walk — Seen as a New Lesson
Social Skills — What Should I Teach My Preschooler?

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 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?

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

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.