Homeschooling an Only Child

Two questions are asked with surprisingly equal frequency: “How can I teach more than one child at a time?” and “How can I homeschool my only child?” It is true that the only-child presents his own unique situation to homeschooling. While it may be simpler to prepare and execute lessons for only one student, there are also many educational scenarios in which only one student presents a distinct disadvantage. (A similar set of circumstances arises from siblings who are five or more years apart in age — while they may share the same home setting, they are often too far apart academically to share lessons or educational activities, theoretically producing an only-child-with-siblings.)

The primary concern of most parents homeschooling an only-child is that he will not acquire the social skills gained from interacting with peers his own age. While that may be true during his time spent on lessons, it certainly does not have to be the case for the remainder of his time. Opportunities abound for recreational sports, scouting groups, and church events with age-mates, even if there is no homeschool support group available for cooperative classes or field trips.

I spoke recently with a homeschool mom who undertook the challenge to organize a specific homeschool group activity that she wanted her child to participate in. The event had not been held previously in her area, but she felt strongly enough about it to leave her comfort zone and coordinate the project herself. The event was progressing with great success when I met with her, and she was bubbling over with enthusiasm for the cooperative effort. Perhaps having only one child is your opportunity to step up in organizing an activity you feel strongly about with other families. This does not destine you to putting together all the events for your area or that you need to coordinate your entire life with other families, but planning an occasional event may be appreciated by the mothers who have less time to plan than you do. (Every homeschooling family has something to offer the others in their area, and we can all benefit from sharing our meager “talents.”)

The only-child has the advantage of being able to monopolize Mom’s attention without difficulty, since there are no other students with whom he has to share her time. This can lead to the single student failing to learn how to teach himself — Mom is always available, so there is no need to learn to study by himself. The other extreme is also quite possible: the highly motivated single student can become so independent that he feels no need for interaction with anyone. “All things in moderation” applies to homeschooling just as well as to many other areas of life: strive for a balance of one-on-one tutoring in your student’s difficult subjects and allowing him to work independently in the areas where he does not struggle.

After my daughter had graduated from homeschooling and entered college fulltime, I found myself in an only-child scenario with my son. Suddenly he had no one else for companionship or competition, and I was expected to fill the bill. Math became our area for working together, and he did most of his other subjects on his own with only occasional direction from me. He lacked speed and drive in completing his math assignments at that point in time, and using me for a “classmate” helped to spur him on. This was a higher level of math than I was familiar with, so I studied the lesson and copied the problems into my own notebook, then handed the textbook over for him to study the lesson and begin solving the problems as we worked together at the dining room table. He enjoyed stumping Mom whenever he could, so he would push himself to work faster and try to get beyond my progress. Some days he would get started on the lesson before I did, prompting me to play catch-up. Fortunately, math is my strong suit, and he could seldom complete a round of problems before I did. Devoting my time to learning pre-calculus at this stage of life was a sacrifice that I felt was more important than getting my housework out of the way. The laundry could sit for one more hour — my attention was required elsewhere.

Homeschooling the only-child offers nearly limitless discussion possibilities, spontaneous field trip opportunities, and situations for following fascinating educational bunny-trails. The only-child’s teacher must stand in many times as a classmate, lab partner, or peer companion, but those situations do provide practice in the interpersonal interaction required for group dynamics later. Whenever circumstances allow, take advantage of contact with others — whether playmates, teammates, or the casual contacts of fellow shoppers. Engage your child in safe conversations with your casual acquaintances while shopping to reduce his apprehension of speaking in public. Some families have found situations for involving their children in serving others, such as visiting elderly friends in a nursing home or doing simple yardwork chores for elderly neighbors. The only-child who will be uncomfortable in group situations is the one who has not interacted with anyone face-to-face, but has been allowed to disappear into his room interfacing only with video games.

When I was a little girl, my neighbor’s granddaughter would come to visit for a week in the summertime. This girl was the only child of older-than-the-norm, highly educated parents, and although she was several years younger than I, her knowledge and perspective were far beyond mine. Since I was the only available playmate in the neighborhood, I was asked to go “entertain” her. We played together many times, but I always felt like she was the one entertaining me. She lived in a world of intellectual adults and discussed topics from their points of view. I was brought into the picture to ensure that she got a few opportunities to be a child.

With your only-child, try to balance their interests between childhood and adulthood — include many age-appropriate activities along with the intellectual pursuits that may be advanced beyond the student’s chronological age. We unconsciously often expect a child to adapt to our adult way of thinking and acting, when we could more easily adapt ourselves to the child’s level. I cannot think of a single adult I know who would not benefit from a relaxed afternoon of kite-flying, taking a casual nature walk, reading aloud from Winnie the Pooh or Alice in Wonderland, or other equivalent pursuit in the company of a child. Stopping to smell the proverbial roses brings many more delights than appear on the surface level.

Teaching only one child may require more attention to hands-on, and sometimes hands-off, learning as you work at balancing tutoring with independent study. Teaching only one child allows you to drop the schedule on a whim to pursue a deeper interest. Teaching only one child requires you to offer suitable occasions for integrating your student with others, whether in play, in shopping, or in service opportunities. Although there are challenges to overcome with only one student, teaching only one child offers you an even closer relationship with your child, by being his classmate and confidante as well as being his parent and teacher.

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