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.]

Possible Pitfalls in Homeschool Groups

In my eleven-year career as a homeschooling Mom, I met a lot of other homeschoolers and worked with many homeschool groups, both as a participating member and in collaboration for joint events. I have been asked to elaborate on some of the “pitfalls” that can come up in group situations, including warning signs and advice for how to avoid trouble. This will be a collection of problems I have seen over more than a decade; these are not inevitable trouble spots that every group is doomed to suffer. I read recently that a truly wise leader is able to discern trouble before it develops, and that this type of discernment is a rare quality. I believe that “forewarned is forearmed” — if you know what to watch out for, you will be more likely to avoid it.

Temporary Problems — associated with co-op classes, field trips, special events, etc.
Classes: Using sign-up sheets to anticipate attendance can eliminate many surprises. Start well in advance (3-4 meeting times, including Moms’ meetings, class days, etc.) to publicize upcoming activities and give families notice of what will be held, when it will occur, and what they need to provide (extra fee, special equipment or clothing). If your members know about it, they can plan for it. Asking families to sign up in advance allows the activity’s coordinator to plan for the size of the group: large enough facility, enough equipment and supplies, extra helpers, etc.

Field Trips: Crowd control and safety are probably my biggest concerns on a field trip. Parents need advance warning if there will be safety or space limitations: do they need to make alternate arrangements for their toddlers, should they bring the stroller or leave it at home, do their children need to wear specific clothing? (My children and I usually dressed nicely for public group outings, but if the field trip included touring a cattle barn, we did not want to wear sandals.) Once your group assembles at the field trip location, it is rather late to announce that no one under 5 is allowed on the tour. (It has happened.) Publicize the starting time for field trips and encourage everyone to be on time (although not too early), so that the business is not disrupted while waiting for stragglers. The sign-up sheet can come in handy here as well, giving the activity leader an idea of which families to expect. A warning phone call to the site’s tour guide a day or two ahead of time will also enable them to plan ahead, in case they need to split your group for more than one tour, have enough souvenir gifts for all, or mark out a special parking area.

Special Events: Again, sign-up sheets and advance publicity can solve a host of problems before they happen. With events that lean more towards a party atmosphere than educational endeavors, individual family standards of acceptability may raise concerns from time to time. Not all families will agree on music styles or games played at roller-skating parties: one Dad adamantly voiced his objections to nearly all the bring-your-favorite-Christian-music that was offered, unwilling to consider even straight-from-Scripture lyrics to be acceptable because of the instruments used or the “beat” of the music (even though the CD he brought used the same instruments and kept the same beat). We also found that doing the hokey-pokey and the “chicken dance” could be surprisingly controversial. Our local rink plays an elimination game using a large die and numbers on the rink floor — I had never considered that to be a “dice game of chance,” but others did.

Some people felt that music (other than hymns) should not be played at all for parties held in church buildings, so before the teens’ formal dinner the kids were expected to stand around discussing current events over hors d’oeuvres and punch. It resembled a bad cocktail party scene from a low-budget movie. After dinner, the teens were provided with ping-pong and foosball — one table each for two dozen people. No board games, no music, not even a hint of dancing, just a severe lack of forethought. (Another consideration: a strict dress code for modest attire was issued ahead of time, but nothing was said to those who chose to ignore it.)

One family hosted their own party for all the teens: everyone was invited to a private home, and the family imposed no restrictions on what music could be played (or how loud), or what games could be played, or how much food and soda the kids could consume. We parents relaxed and chatted in the kitchen and dining room, while our teens migrated from basement family room to living room/den to second floor kids’ rooms and back again. The teens had freedom to watch videos, play computer/video games, listen to contemporary music, and just be themselves, giggling all the while. It still ranks as one of the most enjoyable evenings in the group’s history.

Whether at a group-sanctioned event or a potential instructional class, we had a small disagreement over card games. A few of the boys were playing poker (not for money, just for fun) during free time on a co-op day; another time several teens requested a class on learning to play “Pepper,” a popular non-gambling card game. An assertion was made that some of our member families would be offended by standard playing cards, and that only “Uno” cards were acceptable. I did a little investigating on my own and never did find any families who actually objected to cards, but nevertheless our teens were scolded for even wanting to play.

Hosting sports tournaments, theatrical performances, or other invitational events will require accommodating strangers to your facility: directing traffic from the parking lots to the restrooms, providing food or drinks at a concession stand, or providing secure dressing rooms for participants.

Food presents another concern all by itself: how far should you go to accommodate people with food allergies? What types of food should be made available at certain events? Will beverages be enough or will you need something more substantial? Is the food allowed in all parts of your building or must it be restricted to one area? Do not overlook recruiting a large clean-up crew!

Discipline (More in-depth aspects of this will be addressed in a future post.)
Any significant problems that arise during field trips and classes should be the responsibility of the parents of the children involved. In the rare event that some children are not accompanied by their own parent(s), they should be designated as the responsibility of some parent who is present. The leader of one group I was (briefly) associated with insisted that all discipline was to be handled by the event coordinator of each day’s activity — oddly, the same super-controlling woman was always in charge. I did not agree — nobody supercedes my authority over my own children. However, an activity’s coordinator will receive any negative feedback from businesses that your group tours, and she will be expected to contact individual families to resolve problems.

Administration
Some type of group administration will be necessary, if only to facilitate planning meetings, serve as a contact person for the group, or make short-notice decisions on behalf of the group. Some groups have bypassed a formal administrative body by delegating all planning responsibilities for one month to a member family, with all families alternating in turn. New families are allowed to watch and learn for several months before taking their turn at coordinating activities.

Officers: When a more active schedule requires advance planning and coordinating multiple events at once, the family-of-the-month method may not work, and your group may choose to elect officers and/or delegate responsibilities to specific committees. A governing body reduces the risk of burdening one Mom/family for life while the others casually revel under her fabulous gift for organization. However, there are many concerns that are often overlooked in the zeal to establish a more formal administration. How long will the term of service be: one year, two years? Can a member serve multiple terms in succession? Can a member resign from her position for a season and then serve again at a later date? If an officer is obligated to step down (i.e. due to health reasons or moving away), how will her position be filled? Can you recall (force out) a leader who later proves to be unqualified or a Nazi-like control freak? Right now, you are undoubtedly thinking of the wonderful, caring women in your group and cannot imagine an uncooperative person in the bunch, but beware — I have seen difficult problems arise from the meekest individuals.

When taking nominations for officers, select an impartial member (or possibly more than one) to contact each nominee as to whether or not she is willing to serve if elected. I witnessed an eager volunteer who telephoned each fellow nominee individually (yes, she was nominated herself) and worded the conversation so that each other nominee humbly decided to remove her own name from the ballot on the assumption that she did not want to detract from the election of someone more qualified. Mrs. Zealot happily succeeded in running unopposed, although each of the others was much more qualified. After the election was final, the others casually conferred and discovered exactly how they had all been duped, and it was a devastating loss to the group as a whole.

Another sly character to watch out for is the self-appointing power-seeker. She rises to power in a small group that has been coordinated primarily by one person, by repeatedly offering to pick up the mundane tasks. She appears at first to be a godsend, since she does relieve much of the busywork and often shows up early at events to help set up and stays late to clean up. However, her personal agenda will be evident to the watchful eye: she rarely speaks about the desires of the group, preferring to steer all activities toward her own tastes. Waiting patiently for the traditional group leader to suffer an illness or family emergency, Mrs. Usurper will then make her move, volunteering to “help out poor Mrs. Leader” by taking on even more of the administrative duties. The other members, innocently caught by surprise, will not feel justified in objecting, since the normal leader does seem to be overwhelmed by her temporary circumstances. Once the power-seeker has obtained her seat of authority, watch out: things can only go downhill from here.

Meetings: When Moms’ Meetings are held in the evening, snacks and desserts can usually be skipped or replaced by ice water. Any one truly needing extra calories will probably bring her own snack. Fellowship inevitably occurs during every lull in a meeting, but softly ringing a small bell is a gentler reminder than a gavel that more business remains.

A printed agenda is a handy tool to let everyone know what topics will be addressed and how quickly each needs to be handled, but be sure to allow some time for any new concerns that arise. (If there is no other new business, you get more time to fellowship.) Encourage the group to make firm decisions, and then quickly move on to the next item of business.

Allow all concerns to be heard and addressed fairly. Understand that one person voicing a concern represents at least 10% of your group, perhaps more. (If the group leader has an intimidating personality, 90% of the people may disagree with her but be afraid to speak up.) Many women will extend their “submissive wife” role to the point where they are unwilling to voice any dissenting opinion, even for the good of the group, feeling it is their “duty” to accept what life deals them and carry on.

Growth: Expect change in your group. Anticipate it and be ready for it. Welcome new families who will join for your advantages and your fellowship. If your group offers an environment that others find desirable, your numbers will increase. If your group refuses to adapt, you will lose members. Either way, you will experience change. Look at your group as you look at your children: you want your children to grow and mature and learn; desire that for your group’s membership as well. I included new people into my conversations with old friends and encouraged shy members to be my helpers, and they all eventually became active contributors to the group. [Note: I have led student classes and delivered topical addresses to Moms’ meetings, but I have served only on planning committees. While some of my suggestions may sound as though I was an “important” member of a group, I never held an office — these are roles I expect any average member to be able to fulfill. The “members” of today are the “leaders” of tomorrow.]

I found it surprising how many people were afraid (or too conceited?) to speak to newcomers, feeling the newbies should introduce themselves and automatically know who was responsible for what. “Primary group” is the syndrome of allowing new people to come, but never really allowing them to become part of the group — always reminding them that they are newcomers, no matter how long they have been attending. Some of the original members may protest (or even depart) at any changes or styles that they do not like. Be sensitive to the needs and desires of all, but do not become a doormat for the few who insist everything meets with their approval. Newcomers need to be welcomed, introduced around, and encouraged to help out. If you plan your activities very far in advance, they will have a good feel for the spirit of the group by the time they are ready to lead something themselves.

Religious or Political Differences: “Christian” groups may want to publicize their faith base (including it in the group name is often enough) so that newcomers will know what to expect. The same applies to any group that is trying to maintain a specific emphasis, such as a Jewish group, Latter Day Saints, or even a strictly secular group (desiring no religious emphasis). In my experience, it is not necessary to require members to sign a statement of faith or contract for membership. Welcome any who want to join your group, knowing that if they are not comfortable with your emphasis, they may choose to leave again.

Politics, while important to all of us, are best left out of the group environment. One group I attended was led by a family of extremely zealous political affiliation. They had no qualms about calling each family, requesting support for the candidates of their choice. While I may have agreed with their choice on some candidates, I did not agree as vehemently on all, and it made for uncomfortable group relations. I also feel that all contact information gathered from group members (addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, etc) should be kept private (within the group) and used for group business only. I do not need any more unsolicited requests to support another member’s church, missions outreach, political campaign, or business venture.

Most problems that arise in homeschool groups can be avoided through careful advance planning, trusting your fellow members to handle their own families, and being cooperative and considerate of others. If a member of your group is concerned about a potential trouble spot, discuss it with her, and work together to prevent its becoming a real problem. Some problems happen only once and serve as learning experiences for us all (such as how to transport a Mom with a badly broken arm from the center of the roller rink floor to the nearest Emergency Room). Other trouble spots can be the tip of the proverbial iceberg, concealing a huge problem that lurks just out of sight. Anything that causes concern is worthy of attention, and often difficulties can be simply resolved with a kind word at the appropriate time and place. Ignored problems rarely solve themselves, but the person who is brave enough to confront trouble head-on before it gets out of control is nearly always victorious.

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

Choose Your Battles

As a parent, you realize this child-rearing business is war. However, your opponent is not your children; your opponent is every evil influence that tries to come between you and your children. The winning strategy in this war is to choose which battles you want to fight. Some battles are much more easily won than others are. Some battles are not worth your time and energy at all.

We went to church one warm, Sunday morning. There in the entry hall was another family greeting everyone who came in, but never acknowledging the appearance of their young son. Little Man stood proudly beside Mom and Dad in his Hawaiian shirt, soccer shorts, and cowboy boots. It was a moving moment for me to watch each family walk in, dressed in their “Sunday best,” greet Mom and Dad, glance down at Little Man, and then smile at the parents with only a silent nod as they moved on into the sanctuary. When one person did finally question Dad as to the unusual attire, Dad just chuckled and said, “You have to choose your battles.” The battle over shorts with cowboy boots was just not worth fighting, especially since this was merely a 4-year-old boy.

My son (at age 14) wanted to bleach his hair. A friend from church was known for bleaching his own hair often and offered to do my son’s at no charge. I am partial to naturally beautiful hair (like my son’s) but agreed to let him do this once. (Famous Last Words — The bleached hair phase actually lasted about 3 years, then progressed into the how-long-can-I-grow-an-Afro phase, and is now followed by the hey-look-a-goatee phase.) Hair grows out. Bleach it, dye it, shave it, grow it out — hair is flexible. Piercings and tattoos are a different story. I do not permit anything that permanently disfigures. After all, wedding pictures can be humiliating enough after a few years; they do not need any help from artificial adornments.

Shortly after my son’s first bleach job (just the tips: light blond on his nearly black, oh-so-wavy hair), we were shopping in a large department store. The clerk who rang up my purchases felt compelled to comment on my son’s appearance. She did not like it. She did not think I should have allowed him to do it. Her son had wanted to bleach his hair, and she said NO. “So what did he do? He went right out and got a tattoo and two piercings!” I smiled and replied, “Hair grows out. I can live with it.”

Back when my dear son was a darling little boy discovering a mind of his own, I had daily (make that hourly) battles with him over everything you can imagine. One particular day, we were going head-to-head over some long-since-forgotten subject. I was frantically praying for guidance in this current set-to, when I clearly heard The Voice I was calling out to. “This is a critical battle — hold your ground for just 30 seconds more,” was the directive. “Yeah, like that will make a difference,” was my instinctive reply, but I hung in there. It only took about 17 more seconds, and my strong-willed son caved. Mom won a very important victory that day. It was a turning point for us in the “Who’s In Charge Here” department. All the battles since that day have been negligible.

I watched other parents interacting with their children before I had my own and later as mine were growing up — keeping abreast of what phases were coming next and how to (or not to) handle them. I watched parents draw a hard line on simple things, only to lose the battle to a much more serious attack. One teenaged boy from our church wanted very much to put gel in his hair, but his ultra-conservative father protested. The boy used every substance he could find in the house on his hair, from vegetable shortening to toothpaste. If only the father had given in on allowing what he considered a “cosmetic,” he may have saved himself from the pain to come. The father and son battled throughout the high school years, until the son finally left for college — not the college the son had chosen, where all of his supportive friends were going, but the college where Mom and Dad had attended and fell in love with each other. The son soon returned home as a college drop-out, dressed in total rebellion, and behaving in ways that put the hair gel battle in its proper perspective. If only Dad had wisely chosen his battles…

I read somewhere once that children need a little rebellion to help them discover their own identities. The secret is to allow them to have small rebellions so that they do not need large rebellions. Hair grows out — hair is a small rebellion. I allowed the bleached hair to avoid the need for any larger rebellion.

Many parents make the mistake of thinking that they have to win every battle, every time, on every subject in order to maintain their authority. I think they are wrong. All they will succeed in maintaining is a dictatorship. Surprise your children once in a while by letting them have their way in something that amounts to a small battle — it will save you from a much larger battle later on.

“Parent” Is a Verb

Pick a problem from society in general today. Chances are it could be solved or could have been prevented by active parenting. “Parent” is a verb. “A parent” is a noun phrase used to describe either of the two persons responsible for a child’s presence on this planet, but “parent” should be considered as a command to action.

There are reasons children have parents — children need parents to protect them, guide them, and instruct them. Television, books, and movies are filled with scenarios where children solve their own problems, help each other out of difficult situations, and save the world from imminent destruction. It may get ratings, but it is not a true representation of real life.

When my children were of lower elementary age, a large department store chain was running a program for recycling and ecological awareness using the slogan, “Kids Saving the Earth.” I had personally ignored it as so much New Age melodrama until the day my daughter picked up one of the flyers in the store. As I told her to put it back, she clutched it dearly, proclaiming, “But Mom, it’s KIDS — SAVING the earth!” I immediately recognized the scope of this propaganda campaign: bypass the adults and recruit the children. We had a quick heart-to-heart discussion about how it is not children’s responsibility to save the earth; it is the responsibility of adults to be good stewards of the planet God has given us. Great relief seemed to overtake my child’s face as she realized she was no longer personally burdened by the slovenliness of uncaring, hedonistic adults.

Many times I sat with my children watching a “children’s program” or cartoon show on television, just so that I could point out to them the inconsistencies in the logic of the writers. One particular cartoon that my daughter wanted to watch featured darling little bunny-children who were indeed captivating to watch. However, when I caught the plot of any given episode, it invariably involved incapable idiot-adults who desperately needed their children to show them what to do next. I not-so-patiently waited for the end of that scene, muted the sound, and explained to my children how unreal the setting was. Then I banned them from watching that program again. My general rule for acceptability was: who is portrayed as being the leaders in society — children or adults? If the adults are portrayed as stupid and helpless and the children are the broad-shouldered geniuses who solve all life’s difficulties (in 23 minutes or less), you may not watch it. That blanket policy applied to TV, movies, and books, as well as friends’ attitudes, church youth group activities, and homeschool group activities.

Children desire limitations; boundaries are a form of security blanket for children. It works this way: you set a boundary, and the child pushes against the boundary to see if it is strong and true. If the boundary gives way, the child no longer knows where the boundary is and must keep pushing to see where the boundary will really stop. If the boundary does not move from where the parents set it, the child is secure in knowing he is safe inside. Occasionally, the child may test the boundary again just to be sure of its position, and the entire process is repeated. A firm boundary makes for a secure child; a vague or non-existent boundary leaves a child fearful and insecure. Think of boundaries as walls protecting from the big, uncertain world and the concept will be much easier to grasp. Set reasonable boundaries that allow freedom of movement within, and then watch for them to be tested. Your children are not challenging your authority; they are simply testing the strength and security of the wall.

When they test it again later on, they are still not challenging your authority as a parent, they are making sure you still love them. An unmovable boundary equals unmovable love from the parent. Be flexible enough to allow for an occasional open window in your wall; realize that you can temporarily relax a boundary without destroying it completely. The rare exception to a rule does not negate the entire rule.

Moms and Dads, it is your responsibility to educate your children, to teach them manners and civil behavior, to raise them up to be productive members of society and contributors to civilization. It is not for us to pawn our children off on self-proclaimed “professional” educators to lecture the tykes on good versus bad behavior: we are to teach by example. Our lives are to be the primary exhibits from which all observers may take note. We are to take the lead role in nurturing and discipling our children, not relegating it to babysitters, Sunday school teachers, grandparents, or anyone else. Parent is a verb.

Bells on Their Toes and Other Means of Keeping Toddler Safe

Since when is just keeping track of your children considered to be child abuse or being “over-protective”? Is it child abuse to stop your child from running out into the street? NO! Is it being over-protective to teach your child not to touch the hot stove? NO! It is also not abusive to want to keep your child safe from any other significant dangers that may lurk just outside Mom or Dad’s line of sight. It is also much less stressful to have your child standing or walking close by your side, safely connected to your wrist by a “child leash,” rather than have to fight endless wrestling matches because the toddler simply wants to exercise the legs God gave him. Hot weather is the most obvious argument for letting the child walk on his own — it gets sticky here in Iowa in July, and both parent and child gain blessed relief from being able to be safely separated by a few inches. And yet, Moms and Dads know they will receive condemning stares from the general public if they seek to use a safety child harness or other such connecting life-line.

Attach bells to the little ones’ shoes so you can tell which direction they have wandered or put a leash on their arm and yours or whatever it takes to keep your child close to you, but safe. I got the same nasty stares from people that you are afraid of getting, but I held my head high and reassured myself that I was doing the right thing. I knew I was treating my child like an autonomous human being and not like a less-than-submissive domestic animal.

I bought tiny brass bells (not the round, miniature sleigh bell style) at a craft store and looped the bells over the shoelaces with small-size ponytail elastics (1″ diameter) the way you would loop rubber bands together to make a chain. The covered ponytail bands were stronger and longer lasting than rubber bands and allowed the bells enough room to flop around and jingle effectively. The bands could be quickly looped around shoelaces, Velcro straps, or sandal straps. The tiny bells gave off a quiet jingle that most people did not even notice, but our trained ears readily tuned in to.

My son wore bells on his shoes until he was five. For him it meant freedom: Mom and Dad could tell where he was or if he was wandering off. We actually bought a little device once that would sound an alarm if the child got more than a certain distance from the “base unit” attached to Dad’s belt. We returned it to the store after only one weekend’s use — we could not tell which way the toddler had wandered. The ear-piercing shriek told us he was gone, but gave us no clue which direction to start looking. The bells went back on the shoes and stayed there for several more years.

We also purchased a “leash” and developed creative ways to use it. It was the coiled “telephone wire” type with Velcro straps to fasten around your wrist and the child’s wrist. That worked wonderfully until I needed to hold onto two children at the same time. Then I attached the “child-proof” end to my younger child and the “parent” end to my older child (with an appropriate explanation of why it was important not to remove it), and I held onto the middle of the stretchy cord. At least if I needed to let go momentarily, my children would stay together.

I only had two children to worry about, and many readers are now wondering how they can deal with their “added blessings.” It is a technique that is too often overlooked: teach your older children the importance of being Mom’s helpers. You are not doing yourself any favors by permitting the “I don’t want to touch him/her” frame of mind. I recently observed a Mom-of-three walking out of a store, clutching the hands of her two youngest and casting worried glances over her shoulder to make sure Child #1 was still following behind. That oldest child also had hands and was therefore sufficiently equipped to hold onto either of his siblings, but Mom was allowing him to poke along by himself, slowing down the whole family. (That allows Junior to set the pace and call all the shots — Mom is no longer in control, Junior has now become The Boss.) Mom, make that child hold onto his sibling’s hand and keep up with the rest of you! The fenced-in backyard is your child’s safe area for running around free — shopping trips are a different story.

One more important note: hiding in store clothing racks was not something I tolerated! I went through enough panic the first time that happened to know I never wanted a repeat occurrence. Children do get bored when shopping and see ducking inside racks as a harmless distraction and a delightful game. Take the time to explain to the child why you cannot allow them to sit underneath the clothing where they cannot be seen by an adult. Also, offer an alternative to them: show them where they can sit on the floor so you can see them, lift them into your shopping cart for a rest, or start an observation game as a distraction while you quickly finish your shopping (I see something green and square… do you?). Incidentally, I have found that for most discipline problems, a little explanation goes a long way! Once the child understands the reason for the rule, it is much easier for them to obey the rule.

The people who would consider us “over-protective” are those who grew up in a different world from the one we now live in. Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time to a day when Opie and his friends would ride their bicycles out into the country unsupervised, or when Beaver would walk across town to the movie matinee and get distracted for hours on end exploring construction sites. Although those were fictional scenarios, we must face facts and realize that our children are children, and children need parents to guide them, protect them, and watch over them. We should not allow anyone to make us feel guilty for doing our job to the best of our ability.

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

Teach your students that facts and logic are the only way to plead a case. Whining is never allowed.

My students have made the case for eliminating tests in our school, even in math. In fact, when my students want to present a case to me, I know to be fully attentive so that I do not get caught by surprise. They are very good arguers, able to make their position fully understood. (However, I cannot remember them just arguing with each other or with us as parents.)

“Will my answer change?” was my standard reply to my children when they repeated a request. For them, that meant “end of discussion” — Mom never changes her mind, unless you can come up with enough facts and logic to present your issue. When the request had nothing to do with facts or logic, the issue passed peacefully away — they did not whine, and I did not have to scold. My daughter later used that same line successfully on college friends, who did not understand how to ask for anything without whining.

Many times my children have convinced me of the wisdom of changing our plans. Why do we need to answer the questions at the end of the chapter? If they have already told me about the book they just read, do they really need to get frustrated trying to write it all down into a stuffy book report (that I do not want to read anyway)? If they get truly grossed-out even thinking about dissecting, is it really necessary to do it? (I have lived my entire life without anyone asking me if I have dissected anything.)

Lunch Will Be Served When the Math Lesson Is Finished

My daughter was recently describing this process to a middle-school-aged friend who was curious as to how a mom could possibly hold any meaningful authority over her student. When my daughter explained how we had used the incentive of “get done early, get lunch early; take extra time, wait for lunch until after the lesson is done,” the friend stated rather emphatically that that process simply would not work with her — she would just get her own food. “No, you don’t get it,” my daughter replied. “You’re not allowed any food until the lesson gets done.” The surprised friend humbly stated, “Wow. That would work.”

My point is simple: Mom as a teacher has a power unavailable to our government school counterparts: discipline. We can restrict privileges or inflict discipline as needed to enforce our authority. That was removed long ago from the government school system, and we have all witnessed the sad results. Since we are the parents of our own students, we know exactly what “punishment” will give the most effective results, and there are occasionally times when punishment is the only recourse for us to inspire a student. Lest you think me to be an incredible tyrant and unfit mother, let me also say that, much more often than threatening to delay lunch, I told my voracious reader that she was not allowed to read any longer this night, and the light must go out now. Moms, you are free to use the discipline that will produce the best results.