A Few Thoughts on Homeschooling


Considering the conversation online in the last week, today’s post can be described not so much as a gearshift, but more like getting out of the cab of a manually shifted 18-wheeler and into a 4-speed automatic minivan with a melange of interesting foodstuffs ground into the fabric of the back seats.

Yes, I’m going to talk about homeschooling again.

A couple months ago I featured a series on homeschooling (1, 2, 3, 4) that many folks found interesting, even if it made some throw a wobbly. (That’s for you British homeschoolers, all two of you!) HomeschoolIn this post, I’d like to get a little more personal and perhaps help some folks calm their fears about homeschooling.

I have a degree in Christian Education, having studied all the educational theorists and those who pontificate on all things educational. How much did that steel me for homeschooling? Not one wit. God only gives you a few kids and experimenting on them with the latest “too good to miss” educational theories is enough to give any normal person the willies. I mean, just how bad can you mess up a kid? Will they be old enough to drive and still be doing book reports on One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish?

Despite my educational pedigree, I was actually worried about being too lax. I like a lot of what John Holt wrote about children being natural learners and so I tend toward a less structured teaching time, hewing to the idea that all time is teaching time. That’s just one of the things I’ve put into practice that has worked with our son.

This last March he read his first book through without any mistakes (Where Is the Green Sheep? if anyone is interested in finding a good book for a beginning reader.) Now, just eight months later, he’s at a third grade reading level.

What did I do? Well, not much really. But what I have learned, I’d like to share for anyone who is interested.

    1. Set an expectation in your children at an early age that you will answer any question they ask—then answer them
    Seems simple, but kids have a need to know that they can ask questions without getting the brush off. I try to answer every question my son asks, even if it means dropping a conversation I’m having with someone else. The great part about this is that kids realize that they’ll get answers and won’t keep asking the same questions over and over. I’ve found that giving my son answers right away lowers the chance that he’ll butt into my conversations anyway. Everyone’s happy.I know that every parent feels inadequate to answering some of the things kids ask, but take a stab at it and you’ll find that they’ll usually be happy with simple explanations. And if stumped, what a marvelous thing it is to live in a day when the Internet is loaded full of answers to just about every question there is! If you don’t have Wikipedia bookmarked, here’s your chance. The best part of this is that a child who is encouraged to ask questions is more likely to be a self-starter in learning. That’s one of the best gifts a parent can give their kids. A love of learning will always serve them well.

    2. Be the role model in learning
    Kids are natural mimics and sponges. What they see you do, they will copy. If you spend all your time in front of the TV, your kid will grow up thinking that TV is all there is. Better that they see you reading books and discussing them with others. They’ll want to read, then, just like mommy and daddy do.

    Make your own learning and the use of what you’ve learned obvious to your children. If you are confronted with a real life math problem, let your child in on the math skills you are using. Talk over the problem in front of them. The grocery store is an excellent place to drive home the need for math skills. Between judging which products are better deals for the price, or determining how much of an item is needed for a meal, kids see that math is essential for everyday living.

    3. Ease up on the teaching schedule!
    One of the most interesting studies to have come out recently has proven that children actually learn better if they are given days off between lessons. This flies in the face of the theory that reinforcement needs to happen daily.

    I took this tactic with our son and was shocked at how well it worked. We did about a half hour to forty-five minutes of reading and phonics study Monday, Wednesday, and Friday instead of every day (although we still read to him every day), and his reading blossomed phenomenally. No, I have no control subject for this little experiment, but I have to think that a kid barely into five-years old reading at a third grade reading level speaks for itself.

    Now I concentrated on the reading skills from very early on because I think that reading early sets the stage for every other learning discipline that comes afterward, so we are just now starting to add in disciplined math concentration. The nice part here is that I can give him a math book and he can read it himself now. That makes my work a whole lot easier when it comes to reinforcement. We can still have a personalized lesson, but he can now do follow-up himself.

    4. Your child does not have to be a genius by first grade
    I’m glad my son can read well, but I’m not pushing him to be a genius. We only spent about two hours a week on formalized reading instruction. I see kids who are being groomed to be Doogie Howser that are suffering under the onslaught of learning their parents feel compelled to deliver in order to keep up with the wunderkind next door.

    My mom was a preschool and kindergarten teacher—a very good one. One of her favorite sayings was that you have to allow a child a childhood. Despite the fact that my own mother was a teacher, she never pushed us out of our childhood years before our time. When I hear of six-year old kids who are suffering stress-related diseases because their schedules are filled with everything from Suzuki violin and soccer tournaments to ballroom dancing and Latin classes, it breaks my heart. Whatever happened to a game of Kick the Can versus organized sports leagues? Must our kids be forced into the same mania we impose upon ourselves? At what point does all this frenzy dishonor the Lord?

    5. Play is learning
    I’m not entirely an advocate for the unschooling movement, but I do think that we underestimate the role of play in learning. I’ve always thought that games help kids think strategically, but I didn’t have much luck teaching my son simple card games—that is until I tried Uno. Though the game is recommended for kids eight and older, I thought the concepts were easy enough (and the game is just random enough) so that a child my son’s age could pick it up. Well, he beat me eight of ten hands the other day, so I think my theory holds up.

    Chess and Go are heavily studied by childhood educators and both are predictors of how well kids will do in other areas of study. Even if a child is not a chess genius, simply playing the game routinely brings up test scores.

    It’s not all mental games, either. Physical play helps, too. You can even mix the two. At one of the camps I worked for, I was responsible for boys’ curriculum and programming. I put a spin on the classic Steal the Bacon game by having the kids solve math problems that I called out in order to know who was being called to run. One sixth grader later came up to me and told me that he always hated math, but enjoyed it tremendously in the game. In fact, the boys wanted to play the game constantly after that.

    6. Computers help, but only so much
    Another study has shown that kids learn best with a mix of personal instruction time and time on the computer. If I remember correctly, the best mix was about two-thirds personal and a third computer. Close behind is 100% personal, followed distantly by 100% computer time. So despite all the flim-flam from the computer industry. Personal time, even as the kids get older, is still essential.

    7. Always be asking your kids to think
    Use your senses to teach. If you see something that catches your eye, use it as an opportunity to teach your kids. If you see the sun in the sky, ask them why it is hot and gives off light. When a cashier at a store says “Thank you,” ask your child why they say that. The possibilities in any day are endless.

    The only caveat to this is that you better know the answers before you ask them or else show an attitude of learning by telling your child that you’d like to find out the answers, too—then look them up together.

    8. Always take learning back to God
    As much as possible, don’t allow learning to fester in a godless vacuum. As much as possible, I try to tie every bit of learning my son does in a day back to God. I just mentioned asking about why the sun is hot and gives off light. Examine that with your child in light of the Scriptures and let him or her know that the sun has no power unless God gives it power and that without God to hold it together the sun would dissipate like mist. If we truly believe that the Lord undergirds everything that is, we need to ensure our children know that there is no divide between life and God—everything goes back to God.

    9. Of the making of books, there is no end
    Or so it says in Ecclesiastes. And so it is with educational theories. You can drive yourself insane looking for the best curricula to use with your kids. I say, Be yourself and let your kids be themselves. If you’re calm about learning, so will your kids be. The best theory is the one that involves you in your children’s educations.

    10. Grace
    Even as God is graceful to us, we need to permit ourselves as our children’s teachers to experience grace. And most of all, dole out plenty of grace to them. Using education to crush a child’s spirit will only lead them to hate learning, making our jobs harder. If your child doesn’t get some tidbit of educational wisdom, the sun will still come up tomorrow. Try something different and don’t sweat it. Most of all, if you can’t get a concept across to your child, don’t be afraid to call on others for help. We all have our gifts and our weaknesses. Acknowledge them and move on. That goes for homeschooling as much as for anything else.

Have a great weekend.

13 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Homeschooling

  1. Gaddabout

    Great stuff, Dan. I hope to have children someday to try it out.

    I was a decade older than my youngest brother, so I was forced into becoming a pseudo-parent on many occasions. I developed a sense of the importance of patience with curiosity in children. The more you honor their curiosity — and make a big deal when they arrive at the right conclusion — the more they’re going to feed off the positive reinforcement you give them. The only caveat I’ll add to that is once you begin, it’s not something you can put down when they come to you while you’re watching the big game or in the middle of a movie. The first sign of impatience could lose their trust.

  2. This post was of great interest to me. The previous series on Homeschooling was a bit too scientific and confrontational. We are homeschooling and our five year old is reading at a level above 2nd grade. Using the every parent guide to teaching reading, he has excelled. I think a lot of that has to do with reading to him and in front of him on a daily basis. He reads on his own daily..for at least an hour..outside the structured school time.

    Your tips today are right on.


  3. Don

    I’m glad you’re emphasizing the reading aspect; I agree that everything else flows from their having an interest in reading.

    Our kids have benefited greatly from having us read to them — both reading aloud to the whole family so they can hear the rhythm and intonation that the writers intended, and reading aloud side-by-side, with my finger underlining each line, so they could see the words as I read them.

    We started when they were about 12-18 months with the simplest children’s Bibles and other simple kids’ books. We kept getting more serious Bibles as they got older, reading and talking about Bible stories nearly every night at bedtime and trying to work biblical truth into our daily conversations.

    We had a great experience when our oldest kids were young. On a short vacation, we played an audio book in the car of a historical novel aimed at kids — about Paul Revere, written from the horse’s viewpoint! The author knew his history and knew how to bring characters (human and animal) alive. We were all captivated by this story, and when we returned home, the kids wanted more historical fiction. Our library had a lot of quality kids’ novels from the 1940s-70s on early-America topics (a lot of Newbery/Caldecott winners), plus the old Landmark history series, so our kids were soon reading all about US history and eating it up.

    A couple of years later, we introduced the Narnia books, both reading aloud and letting them read the books. Then The Hobbit. It just grew from there, till they were reading all kinds of stuff, even the original editions of Robinson Crusoe (where the Bible is quite significant), Pilgrims Progress, and others. My son tore through many G.A. Henty novels, many of which are available in text format online.

    Of course, we monitored their selections pretty rigorously for years. We’ve never allowed a Harry Potter book in the house, though, and a number of novels went back to the library when we saw that they were too violent or too secular in their worldviews. My wife and I set the example in our own reading, so there’s no R-rated “forbidden fruit” lying around the house.

    I could go on, but you get the drift….

  4. Bonnie

    Dan, I just finished reading your entire previous series plus this post (again)…wow, you’ve covered some ground. Thanks for sharing your perspective; I appreciate that you’ve examined the issues in earnest.

    I guess my whole take on all the controversy is that, well, honestly, I don’t pay much attention to it. My family has made and will continue to make choices regarding our kids’ upbringing and education according to what seems best suited to us and our particular circumstances, goals, and values. We “do our thing” and that’s about it :-).

    To address something from one of the other posts: I identify myself as a “homeschooling mom of 3” on my blog because it’s short, to the point, and descriptive of the main thing I am at this point in my life. I didn’t say “married,” because more moms are married than aren’t; I didn’t say “stay-at-home” because that’s probably assumed from the fact that I homeschool; I didn’t say “trumpet-playing” because that sounds kind of dumb and I spend a lot less time playing my trumpet than I do homeschooling. (I list that I’m a musician in my profile.)

    I never bring up our homeschooling in social situations unless it comes up. For example, if people ask me what I do, I tell them.

    I like the things you’ve said in this post; they pretty much describe what we do. No, I wouldn’t say that our homeschooling life is a breeze, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a lifestyle and I love it. Will we homeschool all the way through? Dunno. We’ll see what the future holds.

    Blessings, Dan; cherish the time spent with your son in living and learning!

    P.S. My husband is a public-school teacher and does some of the homeschooling too :-).

  5. Elizabeth

    If we are not so hung up on “keeping up with the Jones” then why refer to “my five year old at a third grade reading level” or second grade level or WHATEVER level. It seems contradictory to me. Letting a kid be a kid means you don’t brag about their reading level, period.

  6. Elizabeth,

    The difference here is that I had little to do with him reading so well. He was never pushed or strapped to a chair. He did much of it on his own. I’m proud of the boy and I hope he keeps up with that kind of self-directed learning.

    That contrasts with so many folks who are shuttling their kids from one esoteric learning experience to another so that the kid may be smart, but is a burnout at seven. That kind of pressure that parents feel to have their kids in karate class, Montessori, private Latin lessons, and on and on—that’s the keeping up with the Joneses issue.

    There’s nothing wrong with being proud of our kids, but we shouldn’t be trying to turn them into Doogie Howsers just because everyone around us is.

  7. ada

    These are good strategies… don’t agree about the god bit though. Was homeschooled by christian creationists and am an atheist now, despite their genuinely good intentions. C’est la vie. However everything else sounds very useful, especially the “always get your kids to think” bit. How would you recommend that homeschool-parents socialize their kids? I know that’s the big controversy for homeschool and people might get some good tips if you tackle it.

  8. DD Piotter

    I am being drawn to consider homeschooling… but not for the religious protection nor for the effort to provide a better education. My just 10 year old son has a heart-breakingly low self-concept, and the system and/or environment in his school (Loudoun County VA) not only does not seem to be equipped to help him but does seem to be making matters worse.

    I will spend many hours in prayer and investigation hoping to discern God’s will for our family (four boys; 10, 7 1/2, 5, 18 mos.).

    I was drawn to your blog through a randoms sort of path through the internet. Regarding, my “investigation” I’d love to know the curriculum you used to teach your 5 year old son to read. Maybe I can attempt something like that with my 5 year old son this summer… as a way for me to judge my qualification for the job of teacher.

    You have mention (throughout your “Myths of Homeschooling” series) that you have studied homeschooling curriculum. Of the ones you viewed, were there any you would recommend?

    Sincerest thanks for your time and energy. God had clearly not only given you an amazing talent, but you have experienced God in a way that you are aware of how to use that talent for his glory.

    • DD,

      I didn’t use any canned curriculum with my son in teaching him to read. All I did was read to him daily from an early age, point out the words as I was reading, and then asked him about the words after I was done. He did the rest. It was that simple. Of course, your mileage may vary.

      His homeschoooling curriculum was through K12.com and was what K12 provided. I found it to be uniformly well-rounded.

      As to my studies of homeschooling curricula, most of the intense research I did was for material published before 1992, so very little of that would be available today. As for my own research for my son, my biggest advice would be not to simply fall into what everyone else is doing. Too much of the material out there is rote memorization, but the key to good education is engagement and asking tougher conceptualization and praxis questions. And few curricula go there. That’s YOUR responsibility, especially since you, better than anyone, know what draws out each of your children’s God-given talents.

  9. Christina

    Great article. I was a public school teacher. I am considering homeschooling mainly for socialization reasons…I don’t like the spin of current education on moral issues. I’m going to have to hire outside tutors in specialized areas where I lack the education. I’ve been looking at Classical Conversations, so far…

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