Christian Home Education - Getting Started

Introduction

At a recent church weekend the teaching was based around three words: revelation, vision and application, looking particularly at the life of Saul (later Paul), and how he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision he had received from God. Few of us would claim to have had such a dramatic beginning to our convictions about Christian education, but it seems to me that the progression is the same. First God shows us some aspects of his truth about the upbringing and teaching of our children. These things gradually become part of us as we digest and consider them, and they start to shape our "vision" and the direction we see ourselves heading in. Finally we need to find ways of putting into practice the ideals we have glimpsed, and in many ways that is the most challenging of the three stages.

Clearly, most of those involved in home education will have young children in their care most or all of the time. This, coupled with the difficulties of getting together for long periods of quality time for sharing experiences and encouraging one another in person, made me feel it was worthwhile putting a few thoughts down on paper, as a starter at least. These are by no means the final word on the subject - just an attempt to open up communication on relevant areas, and importantly, to combat some of the greatest enemies to perseverance in home educating families - isolation and discouragement.

I have tried to categorise my thoughts in some sort of order - I hope others will be able to add their insights in due course.

Some of the problems which present themselves to a parent at the beginning of the road are mainly practical, to do with resources, method, etc. These are real and can be lessened by communication with other people, consulting catalogues, finding out what is available, and the age-old process of trial and error to find out what really works in your situation. I hope to be able to detail suggested solutions to such practical issues later on.
 
 

Renewing Our Own Thinking As Parents

First of all I would like to address a number of issues which I have battled with over the years. These could equally well be entitled "Taking the ground in the mind of the parent first" - because there is a battle going on and when we step out of the "normal" way of doing things, we find ourselves assailed more than we might expect.

Against the tide

"Going to school" is regarded by the average man-in-the-street as the normal thing for a child to do. It is only when you step outside the norms of society that you realise the strength of the tide which is carrying the majority along with it. Suddenly you are going against the tide, and it can be very wearying. (This has to do with the way strongholds control menís thinking and regulate society, because the Devil hates those who will not submit to such pressures).

For example, when you venture out you run the risk of being assailed by questions from perfect strangers/shop-keepers, etc. In my experience this tends to happen most when you and your family are more noticeable, e.g. just after the long school holidays, or when your 5 year old is getting too big for playgroup and people expect them to be at school by now, or when people meet your 12 year old, and think you would have given up your mad notions by this stage and sent them to secondary school at least! Forewarned is forearmed, to some extent. There is nothing we can do to stop such comments, but if we gird up our minds and prepare ourselves to answer positively, then we are less likely to fall into the trap of fearing men, or feeling cowed by the pressure to conform to the persuasion of the majority.

Most of the time we handle such encounters very well and take them in our stride, but our enemy the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, and just occasionally I have been stumbled in this way, usually at times when I have already been feeling some doubts about the rightness of my course of action, due to difficulties encountered. So we see that a major area of the battlefield is in the mind - not the mind of the child first of all, but the mind of the parent. How can we hope to shape our childrenís minds when our own are still so easily subjugated to the worldís thinking? Only by the mercy of God and in continued obedience to His leading. Oh God, renew my thinking, as Romans 12 so eloquently says.

Our own mixed thinking

A more subtle area of problem which I think is generally under-addressed is the need for us as parents to do a lot of un-learning and re-learning in areas such as our own concept of what is education. None of us are a blank sheet of paper - we all approach these matters with our own pre-conceptions, but usually we are blithely unaware of these. We often set out with a blend of what God has genuinely shown us, combined with our interpretation of this, and all coloured by our own experiences as children. This mixture is largely unavoidable, and can be coped with as long as we are aware of this. It is likely that the majority of us received a school education which was essentially "secular", even if we did have a school assembly, Scripture lessons, etc. One of the greatest challenges I have been faced with, for example, is to make the connection between my knowledge of God and the Scriptures and the body of information which I feel would be helpful to impart to my children. I have had to unlearn the mind-set of Scripture in a separate compartment from all other knowledge and relearn how to teach from a God-centred starting place.

God, of course, is perfectly well aware of the element of mixture in our thinking, and can cope with this in a similar manner to the way that he still uses us before He has perfected us. The trouble comes when we are not aware of it, and can find ourselves disillusioned if things donít turn out exactly as we hoped. At such times, the easiest reaction is to give up, throw in the towel and say itís all too hard, or impossible. Care is needed not to discard the baby with the bathwater at times like this - it may be that you had something wrong, or you attempted too much, or got an imbalance so everything got too intense. Never mind - God knew you wouldnít get it right all the time, but coming to terms with that yourself can be a bit difficult, I have found. The best thing to do is to hang on to the vision, give yourself a bit of time to recover and set off again, with prayer and maybe a bit more wisdom.

Is this for real?

Another area where our thinking will affect our children is in the area of, "Is this for real?" Particularly if children have already had some experience of a formal educational establishment, they are tempted to think learning at home is only playing at school, and it isnít the real thing. This can then lead to a lack of effort, an attitude which thinks itís only Mum and Dad, Iím only at home, it doesnít matter, etc. etc. The prevailing atmosphere can be to despise a high standard rather than trying to please God in all we do. In other words, familiarity breeds contempt. Such things tend to creep in after a while - at first everything is new and enthusiasm prevails over any problems. Gradually even such a radical departure as home learning can become humdrum, and it is at that point that we have to be there as standard-maintainers, people who insist on the task being finished with a good attitude. Easier said than done, particularly as we ourselves are prey to such thinking too.

Whoís boss?

A child may also try to assert their authority over their parents in matters related to their work, and although in the long term one would prefer to have a partnership and mutual agreement about what work needs to be done, one may need in the short term to assert the fact that the parents are in charge and do require obedience and a proper attitude towards their authority on the part of the child. Once this is established, it will prove a valuable foundation for home learning over the years. Without it, problems may well recur.

"If only they went to school..."

A connected temptation for both parents and children is to think that everything would all be all right if only they went to school. Children sometimes come up with this if they feel short of friends or are feeling generally miserable about the home environment for some reason. Itís a difficult one to handle with them as you canít give them a dose of school for a while to disprove their theory. You usually have this reaction yourself when about twenty things are calling for your attention at once and life feels slightly impossible. If you could take a step backwards and remind yourself of the very convincing reasons why a godless school environment would not suit you in reality, then you would give your feelings very little credence. However, it can seem very attractive when you are in the thick of problems at home.

Home learning takes some getting used to, particularly if a child is accustomed to thinking that the majority of learning takes place outside the home with people other than their parents being their teachers. Time and patience are needed to counter this problem, and to encourage them to take seriously us as their teachers and the work we set them to do. No, home is not the place where they are used to learning, but if we genuinely believe it is a preferable thing and stick with that, then gradually they will come to accept it themselves. However, if they see us looking over our shoulder, constantly comparing or sneakily feeling that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, then a nagging suspicion will lodge in their minds. Am I missing out somewhere? Is school the place to be?

As I said earlier, such snares to our thinking are particularly dangerous at times when home learning isnít going very well, or when you have been isolated for some time or are very busy or overtired. The short term antidote can be either to carry on with the work at home anyway, not allowing feelings to dominate (a sense of achievement at a task completed will then sometimes dispel the negative thoughts), or occasionally to go with the feelings and do something completely different, taking advantage of your freedom as a home learning family not to be bound to school routines and a fixed timetable. Such benefits sometimes restore the enthusiasm in a childís view of their situation. Of course, the adults involved should also be praying for the restoration of perspective and for calmer waters to reappear.

Condemning ourselves instead of valuing what we have got

I sometimes find myself stumbled by the sheer professionalism and jargon of all things school, particularly with National Curriculum phraseology. How can I be achieving anything, I ask myself, if I canít understand the teaching materials? Or sometimes I feel that our attempts are very homespun and we always lack resources, because we canít afford them or we canít get hold of the proper equipment. At times like this I need the Lord to remind me that what He wants is a faithful people, not a sophisticated one. As long as I teach the children to the best of my ability and am not lazy in my efforts to make the material as interesting and informative as possible, then God will undertake for the rest - either He will provide what we need by some unexpected means, or He will remind me that in the long term my children are not going to suffer just because they had something home-made, or lacked a particular item of equipment which every school child had access to.

I have come to realise that by comparison with the surrounding nations, Israel was a very simple and unsophisticated group. (In fact they were expressly instructed to erect only basic altars, not elaborate temples which could easily become objects of idolatry in themselves). The difference between them and the other nations was that they were free to do what God wanted, to choose to obey Him and to walk by faith. Sometimes I want to have the cake and eat it - that is, I want to have the resources and the security of being within the system, along with the spiritual freedom of being outside it. He has to remind me which I really value - I might find it difficult to be different from other people, but if I really subscribed to the system which would make me fit in and be the same, then my children would come out of the educational sausage machine with the mindset of Egypt imprinted on them. Do I really want that?

Assuming the answer is "No", then all I can do is to pay the price for the intervening years until they emerge as free thinkers and can carve their own furrow spiritually, as independent young people. (No such thing as a totally "free" thinker, I agree, but "freer" thinkers at least, and hopefully people with the resources to measure what they encounter in the world at large against the Scriptures and what they know pleases God). Of course no system can guarantee to output the Christian child/the Christian young person/the Christian adult - free will would not feature if it could, but my feeling is that Christian education either at home or in a Christian school with a family atmosphere is more likely to produce the desired result. So if I want the product, then I have to pay for it.

How much does it cost?

"Whatís the price?" you may ask. Well itís likely to include some element of financial sacrifice, as local authorities are unable to help home learning families with resources, despite the fact that L.A. resources are being saved by children learning at home. Of course a home learning family is also more likely to be living on one income rather than two, to free up one of the parents for child care and teaching duties

There will also be the stigma of being non-mainstream, which I mentioned earlier (Hebrews 11:13-16, 24-27, 36-37 spring to mind here), and possibly unfavourable reactions from grandparents and other family members, although these can be short-lived and may often be resolved as objectors see good fruit being borne. In some cases, members of the extended family can actually make a real and very valuable contribution to the whole home-learning process.

There is also the element of the extra workload - you will get busier and have less free time to call your own. There will be people in the house most of the time, and you and your spouse might need to consciously allow more time for your own relationship, so it doesnít get swallowed up in the general activity in the home. (Home learning is for the benefit of the children, but a home can sometimes slip into being "child-centred" as a result, rather than God-centred; if this occurs, it tends to produce selfish children). You may also find the need to put a barrier round certain times or individual activities of your own, where possible, so as to maintain perspective. Because of the choices you have made, you may also be aware that contemporaries and friends of yours seem to have a very different lifestyle.

Your house will get fuller as you collect resources and things that might be useful one day. It will also show signs of wear and tear more quickly, as people are at home all day and lots of activity is taking place there. (However, you potentially have more people to keep it in a good state of repair)!

The children will not go out the door for several hours each day for someone else to be responsible for them. You will have the oversight of the whole of their lives - their learning, their leisure activities and free time, their friendships and so on. Great! - in one sense, and God is more than willing to provide the resources for you to cope with that responsibility, but I suspect many a parent has felt daunted and overwhelmed, particularly in an age when responsibility for more and more aspects of a childís life is delegated away from the parents.

The price cannot be known or categorised completely before embarking on the venture, but some measure of cost-counting is advisable as in all undertakings, to make sure before the Lord that we understand something of the outlay required and are willing to pay, at least in principle.

What will be the outcome?

Do I have to wait until the end of the road before I see any reward for my investment? Yes and no is the answer to that question. You will not know the final outcome for many years, but along the way you will see indications of the way your child is turning out, and how their thinking is developing. You can help them to deal with their weaknesses of character as they arise. You will be better equipped to help them make decisions about work and subject choices in later life, as you will know them much better and be far better acquainted with their abilities. You can evaluate things with them as life unfolds. You can expose them to the more unpleasant aspects of life at your own discretion, and discuss things with them when you feel they are ready. No-one will impose things upon you - you are the potter, they are the clay, in one sense. All these are aspects of the freedom you have opted for by not submitting to the worldís system. They are to be valued, but they will also cost you in an ongoing way. You will invest of yourself, you will cry and your heart will ache for your own failings as much as for theirs, but in the end you will be able to look Jesus in the eye and tell Him that you didnít leave the little ones in Egypt, even though Pharaoh pressed you to do so.
 
 

And So To More Practical Matters

Working alone or with others

Do I have to do everything on my own or what about working with other families? Will this be a help or a hindrance to me in my desire for Christian home-based learning?

People could no doubt write realms on their experiences in this area, and some would be very positive and some very negative. Here in summary are my thoughts on the matter.

It is a great benefit to work with others. It gives adult company and perspective for the teaching parents, as well as company for the children. It can be an opportunity to save money by sharing resources such as reading books which you will only want to use spasmodically. You can combine skills and areas of expertise from both families, which gives you a broader range in your bank. You can work together on things like project work which is better suited to a larger group, and devise activities together. If you have a wide age range of children, you can form them into two little groups to supervise and do activities at different levels.

Occasionally (very) you might be able to persuade a colleague to hold the fort for the whole lot while you get some free time - but usually this is only for vital appointments such as hospital check-ups or other such exciting things! If by any chance the number of participating families grew to three, then the permutations are more varied still, but so are the challenges. You have three teaching adults with time and skills to invest in the venture. On the other hand, you have a yet wider range of age, outlook and ability amongst your children. My conclusion is, if God brings it about, then go for it and ask for the grace to make it work well, but do not try to engineer a partnership situation on your own. It could be awful - all sorts of unmet expectations on both sides, and a lot of intensity if you just did it because you thought you ought not to go it alone.

There are also down-sides to working with others - you are no longer your own boss, for instance. You cannot just look out the window and think you would like to go to such and such a place while it is sunny - you will probably have a commitment to the group to fulfil. For even little partnerships involve arrangements and mini-timetables, although in our experience they have been very flexible. Nor can you be as flexible with the time you do things either - there is only a limited number of hours you would want to use for studying with children in a day, and if some of these are committed to working with another family, then you may find constraints on the rest of the day as well. For example, you might decide as families to work together on certain joint activities, but to take individual responsibility for your own childrensí maths/reading/English, etc. If you have joint activities late morning and early afternoon, then you might find yourself under more time pressure than if you worked entirely alone.

For such reasons some families choose to have one or two sessions together, but to maintain autonomy for plenty of sessions, so as to keep sane and free of too much pressure. Another thing about joint activities - if they become the norm in the childís mind, then you may well have the same sort of reaction as I detailed above (is this for real?) when you try and do things on your own as a family. Distance and travelling times and costs are also to be taken into consideration - at some stage your children are going to be old enough to take themselves from place to place, but that may not be the case right now. If not, then you will be taxi driver or escort to whatever activities you arrange. You have to allow for such things in your overall estimate of whether or not to "go into partnership".

Finally, just because the parents find it a blessing to work together, this is not a guarantee of instant, problem-free and lifelong friendships between all your offspring - prayer and perseverance will often be needed to sort out relationships as children grow and change. Conversely, just because children of home-learning families hit it off, this is not the guarantee of a good working spiritual partnership between the parents. Again, my counsel is, if God brings it about, then He will enable all participants to

benefit from it, but donít set up something in your own strength - you might regret it!

Legalistic or inspired?

As I already mentioned, you have the opportunity to oversee all aspects of your childís life. Ideally the child who learns at home will not draw firm boundaries between the formal work which is required regularly of them, and learning for interest which is sparked by their own enthusiasm. In a fallen world this is not always the case, and home learners can be as legalistic as the rest - e.g. "Is that all? Can I go now? Have we finished yet?" Such queries can be a source of discouragement to the parent, as they indicate that the child is still seeing things in terms of "do I have to?" rather than "can I go on on my own now and find out some more?" It would be nice to feel that with maturity and the right guidance the latter attitude would start to predominate, but maybe I am being a little unrealistic here.

The process of learning seems to have a lot to do with inspiration to me - can our child catch enthusiasm for a particular subject from me, or do I know anyone else who might be able to share their love of a particular branch of learning with us, so we leave the legalist approach behind us and go on to a self-motivated desire to continue, because we are actually enjoying it. Sometimes the answer is "no" and we just have to lay a rather uninspired foundation in a certain area, then leave it dormant until some future occasion when it might spark into life. Occasionally an opportunity to go ahead in one area might arise and be just timely for one particular child; home-based learning is the ideal setting for such a scheme, as it has the flexibility to cope with it.

The value of routines and knowing when to dispense with them

I expect there will always be a combination of routine and more inspired sessions in our educational efforts - once the novelty has worn off, and we realise that self-discipline needs effort, our natural laziness and lack of application will often hold us back. Because of factors such as these which stem from our fallen natures, I personally think it is wise to have a basic structure or timetable in place which you can follow and fall back on in times when you donít feel "inspired". If you wish to branch out and tackle new things, you are quite free to do so, but an underlying routine is there for the days when you and the children need kick-starting.

Good organisation also figures here. I have found it time well spent to sort out my resources, get a filing cabinet, tidy my cupboards, get rid of clutter, etc. Otherwise you can spend time getting frustrated because you know you have got a certain book or item, but have no idea where it is. Bookshelves, cardboard boxes, labels, shelves can all help you to feel more in control of your environment and save time and effort when you need something. Making sure that it stays tidy once you have achieved your goal is another question, of course.

I have been asked many a time, "How do you fit in all the housework?" People find their own way round this problem. Some have chores lists, or rotas for routine jobs. Others have a weekly blitz when the house comes first and everything else takes second place. I tend to have a daily minimum which gets done whatever. This is sufficient to keep meals on the table, clothes clean, and so on. Once a week the house gets a surface clean, and then I save up other jobs for holidays and tackle them then, co-opting as much help as I can from the children. I still feel it is harder to do a job with an unwilling helper than to do it on my own, so I am not the best one to ask about child labour!

Knowing yourself and knowing your child

Most of us would probably agree that one of our eventual aims is to encourage our children to be independent and resourceful young people. However, home-based learning can produce a dependency culture, with a certain disposition of child. Some children cannot wait to do everything for themselves, and have to be restrained and held accountable during the growing up process. Others, however, are quite content to let you do everything for them for as long as possible, and need to forced into situations where they have to think and do for themselves. Having Mum or Dad around all the time can encourage such a child to lean too much, and it is difficult to wean them away from this attitude. Recognising the problem exists is often the first step to resolving it, and one can sometimes find strategies for making the child accountable to the other parent or someone else if one suspects they are "trying it on" in a familiar situation.

It is also important for the teaching parent to take a step back and try to think of themselves as an "enabler" as the children get older. Clearly they will have to provide tasks to do and give guidance, but a certain disposition of parent will have to consciously restrain themselves from "doing it for them" so the children do not remain too dependent on them. It is really valuable for youngsters to pick up the skills of learning and self study.

Specific difficulties

Here are some of the specific difficulties I have encountered over the years, which others may or may not identify with. (Note - no instant solutions!)

I would like to teach in a different way to the way I learned myself, because I feel it would suit my child better. However, I find this very difficult to do and often seem to revert to familiar tracks.

It is hard to cope with several children of different ages all at once.

It is hard to cope with immaturity, indifference, laziness or inconsistency in your own children when you see them all the time. You can find yourself getting too intense about a small thing, or expecting overnight results which can be unrealistic. You can end up depressed about the lack of progress if you focus too much on the problem area, instead of the relationship and life as a whole. With the first child at least, you have no points of reference to reassure you that a certain difficulty will not last for ever - usually they will grow up and be able to master that particular thing, given time.

The work itself gets harder at secondary level. You may have specialist knowledge in certain areas, but it is unlikely you feel confident to teach in all subject areas as children get into their teens. (There is an increasing amount of support for this type of problem, notably via the Internet).

Another matter related to the later years is that there seem to be less families around who are still home learning when their children reach 13, 14, 15 etc. Either that or there has been a great increase in home education amongst families with younger children recently. Potentially this might cause you to feel more isolated, or mean that your children have less friends from a similar background, but I suspect this problem will lessen as the years go by.

If you have any tendency towards perfectionism, it is all too easy never to be content. You can find yourself thinking that everything will be all right once ....Fred learns to read/Junior and brother learn to get on better together/baby sleeps through the night/Cheryl gets through adolescence, etc, etc. It takes time and discipline to accept the fact that you are on a long term building project, and building sites are messy places. Just because there are problems doesnít mean you are doing the wrong thing - life throws up problems at all stages. Contentment will make a better master than fretting.

Learning for life

Learning in the home context can take place across a far wider spectrum than it can in a classroom. Your child is learning from the moment they get up - the routines of personal hygiene and organisation which mean they are dressed, fed and ready to start some work. They can be remarkably resistant to establishing such routines, and particularly boys always seem to prefer playing at this time of day! They are also in a position to see that any undertaking needs to be prepared for, carried out and tidied away afterwards. Life is not just presented to them on a plate - if for instance you wish to practise hospitality and invite someone into your home for a meal, they can see first-hand how things like this have to be arranged.

They will see you handle the things which just crop up in the course of daily living (sometimes you wish they werenít watching!) and hopefully pick up the skills of how to organise their time and learning activities. They will come across people of different ages and not just spend time with a narrow age band. You may not feel they are absorbing very much, but when they come to tackle life for themselves, they will be more likely to have the initiative within them to be able to cope well. If they see you turning every situation over to the Lord in a natural way, then that will probably become their practice.

In fact, they will form habits, as we all do - the challenge is, what sort of habits will we encourage them in? First-time obedience? A self-sacrificing response or a selfish one? The list could be endless, but the principle is the same - if they live with you, they will be influenced a great deal by the way you are, and the way you live. Interestingly, Jesus seemed confident that once He was no longer around, the disciples would know what He would do in a given situation, and by and large that was the case - itís amazing how accurately people know a loved one who is no longer there - they are able to predict their reaction almost instinctively and are often spot on. What a challenge - we are there for our children for a number of years, but then we will not be there, in the same close-at-hand way at least . Then they will make their own decisions, come to their own conclusions, and a lot of that will be based on what they have imbibed from us. "Oh Lord, let me have a right attitude to you and towards life now - that my children might learn from me to fear You."

The value of fellowship

Getting together for fellowship is of great benefit for both parents and children. Sometimes one can get into oneís own routine and feel reluctant to break with this for the purpose of meeting other home-learning families. Itís important to remember that such encounters are usually two-way events. We give and we receive - new information about resources, new perspectives, new ideas and friendships. Itís good to serve others who may have recently moved into the area or who are just beginning, and itís good to receive from others when we are at a low ebb ourselves. It helps us to re-establish our vision, if we have become bogged down in detail and day-to-day problems. You donít have to be perfect in order to have something to share, after all. Most areas of England now seem to have some form of regional network between Christian home-schooling families, and in the N.W. it has been particularly encouraging to note that recently more and more individual families have been taking the initiative to organise a get-together or outing for the rest of us. This means that the load is shared, plus the variety of opportunities is widened.

Conclusion

All of which brings me back to the original purpose of this paper - to encourage families who are just starting to learn at home with their children. I have tried to "say it like it is", but also express something of the vision which lies behind the day-to-day realities. Keeping the ideal and the actual in balance is one of the on-going tensions of life for a Christian, so please forgive me if I have over-emphasised either one. In any case I hope there is some stimulus to further thought and discussion as a result of what I have written.

Mary Hardy - August 1999

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