The material under the 3 headings below comes from a talk to home educating mothers given in September 2001 in Salford. The topics are quite different:
These notes also begin with a disclaimer, because in home education there are no clever answers, no instant solutions in my experience, so I can't give you any. It's more a question of perseverance, prayer, being loyal to your initial conviction, and continuing with it. I have not “made it” myself – I am still on the way, still grappling with problems myself.
Although we are not bound by the school mentality, I imagine many of us take a longish break over the summer and take advantage of the nicer weather. I usually feel exhausted by the time I have got ready for our family holiday, and August is a time of recovery and standing back for me, trying to regain a better perspective, before preparing for the next session. It’s the season of the 3R’s - recover, review, refocus.
I want to begin by looking first of all at the Mum, her task, her source of strength, then move on to my allocated topics - managing to teach several ages at once, and character building.
A few months ago I hit a low spot, and when I sought the Lord about it, these were the guiding principles I came away with. You’ll know them well, but I felt it was right to restate them - we usually forget the blindingly obvious.
Getting to this place is not easy, and staying in it is not easy, but I mention it because I think it underpins the more practical issues I have been asked to address. It’s a case of getting the logs out of our own eye first, so we can have a go at the children’s splinters. If we can keep ourselves as much as possible in a place of yieldedness to the will of God for our own life, then the natural spin-off from that will be a dependence on Him for the outworking of the plan in practical matters.
We will be more settled and cope much better with the day’s demands. We will be more content, and less likely to resent the “impossible” situations we find ourselves in. We will have more joy and be less crabby. We will be encouraged as we see answers when we call out to the Lord, which in turn will build our faith for the future.
Conversely, if we go through a spell of feeling our role is impossible, and resenting the demands it makes upon us, I am sure you are familiar with the outworking of that -
I have been challenged over the last year, to pray that the Lord would
be the Way for me in many specific matters, and where I have looked to
him and trusted him and followed the leading He has given me, He has proved
A combination of approaches
From the people I spoke to with children of mixed ages between babies and say twelve year olds, several said they favour individualised learning on basics such as Maths and English, but like to do a shared project or topic together, which they can adapt to different age levels. Generally people felt it is difficult to teach completely different material to each child, maybe involving keeping two or more projects going at one time.
I have no experience of ACE myself, so it might be helpful if anyone here who has several children using this material could tell us briefly about how they deal with this challenge.
These were not regarded as a problem area, in that each child can get something out of a trip at their own level of understanding. I personally tend to give some background info about the place we are going beforehand (well, usually in the car on the way there!), and then spend time piloting the youngest one around gleaning as much as I can in the process. I find the little ones tend to rush from one exhibit to another pressing buttons and lifting flaps without much concentration or awareness of what they’re doing, so it’s better to focus them, and give the older ones space to do their own thing, and meet up for a rendez-vous later. Once a child gets into the teenage years, I feel so much more of the motivation to learn and take an interest has to come from within themselves - forcing them to walk round a museum with you and digest it in an orderly fashion can all too easily turn into a begrudging chore for them. A more obtuse approach can work better, I have found.
This applies at several levels, from knowing where your resources are, to having sharp pencils, to having an overall plan. God is gracious, and if we are ill or life is in one of its impossible stages, He will get us through, but generally speaking, a bit of organisation can save you a lot of headaches. If we are disorganised, the chaos level will start to affect everyone. If you feel defeated before you start on this one, try using a weekend or a holiday period to tackle one particular aspect of your system, and gradually you will see an improvement.
Divide and rule?
Sometimes it can be nice to learn all together, literally in the same room, but for many aspects of learning, I think children achieve more if they are spread out and have their own space to concentrate on their work. Familiarity does breed contempt, and if you have three of them trying to work round the same table, it won’t be long before one is complaining about another, or they are chattering instead of getting on. Time to think and plan for longer pieces of work is also valuable for older ones. There are no hard and fast rules about this - each of our homes is a different shape and size, and our combinations of children and their needs vary enormously, but the physical work location of each child is worth considering from time to time.
If you know ahead of time that two children are going to require one-to-one attention, maybe you can schedule the time so that they receive your help one after the other, rather than both clamouring for it at once.
Once you have committed yourself to a period of time with one, then it is helpful if you can impress the don’t-interrupt-me-now policy upon the rest, if they are old enough for this to be realistic. Try to deploy the ones you are not teaching personally onto things they can do relatively independently, or at least help one another with.
I find time with the younger ones, listening to readers or one-to one
on basics is better done early in the day, from their point of view. In
fact, once morning chores are over, I like to get that done fairly soon,
then they can be left to finish off or play before lunch.
A clash of interests?
I know many people like to take little ones out at least once a day, and this can be difficult if you feel torn between taking junior to the park or the library in the early afternoon, but don’t feel it’s fair to leave older ones working on their own if they could do with your attention as well. What do you do? Bored youngsters who need exercise and fresh air tend to deteriorate in behaviour standards, and it can get fraught. Any solutions? Not easy, but one important principle, don’t favour the same child all the time - try to satisfy the needs of all, one at a time if necessary.
Time invested in explaining the next chapter to an older child so they can then work on their own is time well spent. However, you will do this better if you have already looked it over yourself before they get stuck, so as their work gets harder. I make it my aim to be a chapter ahead of them if possible, so I don’t grind to a halt myself and end up trying to unscramble something new with multiple shouts of “Mum!” ringing in my ears. Encouraging a teenager to organise themselves to work alone is very valuable, but remember, they still need encouragement and interest from you along the way.
Another aspect of this, not just in the academic sphere, is to encourage initiative and an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s good for youngsters to earn money, respond to a need, see that they can do work which is valuable and so on. Apart from easing the situation financially if they have a bit more money in their own pockets, it teaches them accountability to someone else, the importance of doing a job well, and the value of their hard-earned money. They will spend their own much more carefully than they spend yours!
Finding the balance
Talking of the need to get out of the house, I find it’s a challenge to balance each child’s individual interests and have some regular activity they do on their own. When they are all little, then the family can all do things together quite happily, but I have noticed that as they get older, there seems to be a need for different ones to do their own thing. Sometimes it might be a need to get away from the competitiveness of close sibling company, or a genuine interest in a sport or hobby which is not shared by the others. Or it might be a felt need for a friendship which is personal to them rather than just a friend of the whole family.
And on the matter of sanity, it could be possible for you yourself to pursue some leisure time activity on a regular basis. During the years when we have babies and little ones dependent on us this might seem like an impossible dream, but as they get older, a simple arrangement like going to the sports centre might become slightly more probable. Sometimes it helps to get things at home into a better perspective if you can get out and do something completely different.
Respond to God, don’t be driven by the world
We live in a society where three-quarters of the mums of school aged children have a job (as opposed to one quarter in 1983). Mothers tend to have more money, more independence, their own transport and less time than they did. Many also have an intuitive sense of guilt which they assuage by involving their children in more and more out of school activities. As Christian mums we have made some very different choices, and we do not need to follow that drum beat. In fact, in such a child-centred and entertainment-based age, we need to be careful not to let our children make unrealistic demands on us, but there is a case for looking to the Lord to open up wider horizons for each child as it becomes appropriate. Here is another example of practical needs finding an answer from the hand of God, by the spirit, and not by our striving in the flesh. If we suddenly take it upon ourselves to participate in loads of activities or new and extra commitments, doing taxi runs here there and everywhere, we could find ourselves over-committed, and our children will lose that basic contentment because they are being driven by the worldly need for continuous novelty and stimulation. We don’t have to match the world or be driven by guilt - we have to follow the leading of the Shepherd.
The Bible speaks wisdom when it says there is a time for everything - our task is to discern the right activity for each child at each stage and for ourselves, and look to the Lord for the time and finance to implement that.
Not just their academic needs
Because of time constraints, I can’t really go into the area of responsibility for the whole of the child’s life, not just their academic learning. I have touched on this in my “Getting Started” document (available from www.amen.org.uk/home-ed). Suffice it to say, we are trying to give a well rounded upbringing to our children, and I think we would have too narrow a view of it if we just addressed the area of how to juggle all the teaching of academic subjects to the various ages. For each child we are trying to consider the development of the whole person - academic needs; life skills; relating with other people; leisure time; spiritual needs - the whole lot. This is why we have take His yoke upon us, not what we think we ought to be doing. If we pray for each child faithfully as a whole person then the Lord will prompt us as to new opportunities for each stage of their lives, and will equip us to meet those needs. (The human way is to put the cart before the horse, and exhaust ourselves).
Join forces to tackle the problem?
Another way of answering some of the problems raised by multi-age groups is to divide into age bands with another family or families, and agree to tackle some areas of work together. Again, I have developed this more fully in “Getting Started”. Some people prefer to work on their own and have contact with other home ed. families for leisure activities and friendships; other people have arranged swaps, trading teaching skills, etc. It all depends on age of children, compatibility of vision, distance you live from one another, transport factors, and ultimately whether it is of the Lord or not in that particularly situation, or just a “good idea”.
Flexibility and dealing with interruptions
Another factor to bear in mind is how to deal with interruptions. We have all experienced the effects of an untimely visitor or the long phone call right in the middle of a work session. Those in a similar position to ourselves will hopefully be sensitive; others may need re-educating to the fact that we are working at home, and need to have our primary commitments respected. Once they get used to this idea, an alternative arrangement can usually be found which is fine by everyone.
When children are younger, or when there is a real and immediate need, then we are free to set aside our timetable and pull the sheep out of a hole on the Sabbath, as it were. It’s just that we don’t want to be driven by interruptions because we are too scared of offending people by saying no, it’s not convenient right now.
Fitting it all in
“There is always tomorrow” is a phrase which gives me great comfort. Usually my list of things to do today is not just unrealistic, it’s downright impossible, so there are often things outstanding. How do I handle this? Normally they go at the top of the list for the next day, and this applies to my children’s workload too. If a task takes longer than expected, we do it tomorrow. I also find it’s helpful to leave easier or more practical things to the end of the week, when everyone is tired. We often use the last day to finish off work, do practical maths , tidy up and generally bring things to a close, rather than trying to break new ground. We try and involve everyone in the household tasks which need doing regularly, and cultivate the benefits of being a family - working as a team and so on, so a lot of those things get done towards the end of the working week as well.
A clean manger?
Regarding household tidiness and organisation, it is cloud cuckoo talk to imagine that your home will be orderly, clean and nothing out of place all the time. If that is your ideal, then you will be continually frustrated. Proverbs 14;4 says “Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, but much increase comes by the strength of the ox”. (If you want a clean stable, then you might find it easier to send your children to boarding school!) I am only saying this to remind you that your choice to learn at home is a decision with consequences. You have preferred to have an ox to work for you and put up with its mess, rather than have a show stable and no working animal. You have opted to teach and learn at home - there will be mess and more equipment to house - but you can use these practical challenges in the formation of your child’s character.
Remember, do not underestimate the power of your own example and words, even in your absence. Long after they leave home, your response to a decision they are about to make will ring in their ears, even though you are not physically there saying it to them any longer.
I have only got time now for a few general principles and illustrations.
1. In theory, character building is a matter of sorting
out in your own thinking what are your general aims for any young person
growing up in your family, and then identifying individual issues for a
particular child at their own stage of development.
The hard bit is making that a reality!
My children seem to be able to detect anything intended to “do them good” at a mile range, and have a built-in resistance to such schemes. Maybe they are particularly perverse human beings. Our experience is that we seem to do better in real-life situations, as they hate anything “contrived”, but I am by no means decrying any of the excellent material which is on offer on the bookstalls and in catalogues. One funny little idea I devised after a particularly trying week was getting them all to write an acronym of the word “ATTITUDE”! It must be some years ago, as our 21 yr old daughter was still living at home and of an age to participate. We laugh at our efforts now, but they still remember the exercise, so it must have done some good!
2. Basically, I advocate a twofold strategy. One, to identify
what is good in their character, and seek opportunities to strengthen and
Two, to identify what is unhelpful, and seek opportunities to refine it, redirect those energies, extend the vision, etc.
It may be that some of the vocabulary we use when discussing qualities of character is strange to them, so we can define any new words and then make a choice to put the slip of paper in an envelope marked “Yes please” or into one marked “No thank you”. I used this activity quite helpfully with children aged 9 or 10, and it helped to focus their minds on what they were like and whether these were helpful characteristics.
3. I try to tackle the bad aspects of their characters in this way; by making it more unpleasant for the characteristic to continue than to disappear.
4. I often have to wait until I feel more detached about
a situation before I handle the wider issues with the child concerned.
If they have behaved badly or otherwise wound me up, I am not usually at
my most objective. I either say nothing but continue to feel cross at them
for the grief they have caused me, or say far too much, over-running the
bounds of the authority God has given me for correction in their lives.
At one stage I used to have a “grief list” for each child who needed it, and would make an opportunity at the end of a week to look over it (with Dad as the impartial adjudicator) and review the situations with them. They had no idea who was going to feature on this list, or for what misdemeanours, so it kept them on their toes, and it helped me to be slightly more tolerant, knowing that I would have their attention on the matter when we were all in a better frame of mind.
5. Here’s something I realised recently on the matter of child discipline - it dawned on me that although I am responsible to do and say whatever the Spirit gives me peace about, I am not responsible for my child’s reaction to that word. I may have to live with their bad reaction, but I am not responsible for it - they are. If you have a child who gets very angry or resentful when you cross his will, it is helpful to remember that. (Each of us stands or falls by our own obedience to the Lord). If I have done or said what I felt was right, and my child does not like it, then I have no need to get guilty about that.
6. It seems to me that there are two basic sorts of issue that
you will deal with;
a) short term ones, and b) deeper character traits of character which will surface again and again, in response to various circumstances and demands of life.
a) by short term, I mean when a situation arises which needs a quick, one-off answer or policy, and you have to think on your feet, and respond straight away. (Examples: can I go to .... ?/You do not like the freebie which comes unrequested at the bottom of your cereal packet and decide to bin it rather than let Junior keep it./There is a craze for .... which you happen to feel somewhat uneasy about, and therefore prohibit your children from getting involved in it./You feel you should spend some time one day visiting or helping someone, but this would mean taking your child along too. Witnessing this act of service would be of long-term benefit to them, but not their natural choice in the short term.) Basically you consider a situation, make a decision and communicate that to your child. They may rebel initially, but will come to accept it if you carry on as normal. I do not think it is wise to try and sugar the pill, or compensate them - they should be able to accept that your decision is made with their ultimate best in mind, and as they get older can be told that you are accountable to the Lord yourself for what you do and do not let them do. Children naturally care more for the gratification of their own desires than they do about compromising their parents’ principles.
b) the second category need more than just the quick arrow
prayer seeking God’s wisdom on one-off matters. Gradually as your baby
grows up you will start to realise what the clay contains - have you a
lazy child, a headstrong one, a generous one, a volatile one, and so on.
Your observation of their reactions to life will equip you to help them
identify for themselves the issues which need attention, and how to learn
to deal with these.
I would be very surprised if this took place in one session only - in fact, the path to the quiet room where such discussions take place will probably be pretty threadbare by the time your child leaves home. By the time the years at home are nearly completed, I hope you will be saying less and less and they will be telling you what you have told them in the past, once they are brought up short about an issue. Great - this means it is sinking in, and they will call to mind the principles when they need them and you are not there.
Remember your aim is not to have a quiet life yourself or to produce a child who is a conformist in your presence, but to interact with your child in such a way that your principles and manner of life become theirs when they strike out on their own.
7. Finally, I want to remind us of a hidden weapon in this
daily challenge - prayer is weakness in the world’s eyes, but it attacks
our enemies at the root, not just the symptom.
When our children just get a stroppy head on them, and start to behave perversely beyond the norm, remember not to confront the flesh with the flesh. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, .... Call to the Lord right then, ask him to defeat the devil in the situation.
When squabbles arise, or when personality clashes exist between members of your family, don’t get caught in the middle and try to pacify in the flesh - ask the Lord to pour oil on the waters, and to strengthen the relationships.
I apologise for not giving you instant answers on how to make your child
keep their room tidy or motivate themselves to work better, but I hope
I have given you principles to take home and pray through as you continue
on your own home ed. journey.