benedict option, Evangelization, Family Life, motherhood, Parenting, school

Getting schooled at home (whether or not you’re homeschooling)

August 8, 2017

Like other neurotic and vaguely millennial (by the skin of my teeth, I tell you. 1982.) mothers of modern times, I stress somewhat obsessively over the choices we’ve made slash continue to make for our children. Gluten? Screen time? Appropriate catechetical formation? Vaccines?

The list of things to research on the internet and form opinions about (well informed or not) is basically endless, #thanksgoogle. And so I know that I’m not the only Catholic mother who has engaged in a little internal hand wringing about how I should maybe be thinking about homeschooling my children,  sorely ill-equipped for such a venture though I may be.

A painfully necessary aside: I love homeschooling. I think it’s amazing and brilliant and that the majority of the kids who come out of it are overwhelmingly impressive, not to mention some of my favorite human beings on earth (most of my mother’s helpers have been wonderful homeschooled gals). And yet, I hope to God that our wonderful Catholic school never a. gets shut down by the government or b. becomes astronomically unaffordable…because I am in no way, shape, or form equipped to engage in it at this present moment in my motherhood. Also, I myself am a product of Colorado public schools, and right now, I can’t imagine sending my kids there in their present form. Your public school might be awesome. Many of our public schools here in Denver are … less than awesome. But yours might be! And it might be the best option for your family. This is not an essay written at you to shame your academic choices, so please click elsewhere if that’s what you were expecting to find.

So if you are publicly schooling your children, or homeschooling them, or letting them wander around your homestead keeping bees and marking up their nature journals and conducting astronomy experiments at night, or serving Mass at 8 am at the start of your local parish school day?

Then you are probably doing an awesome job.

As long as you’re engaged.

For the past couple years I’ve watched some of my homeschooling friends sit down to outline their yearly curriculum at the end of summer with something like a vague pang of envy, because while I have zero desire to engage in the behavior of homeschooling, I sure wouldn’t mind some of the outcome: brilliant kids with a love for learning and a companionable relationship to their mother/teacher. (A caricature, I know. But still.)

This year, however, it has occurred to me that I actually can have the best of both worlds. Our school encourages parental involvement and is earnestly forthcoming about curriculum and classroom goings-on, but I don’t just mean tracking what they’re learning and quizzing them on vocab words in the car, I mean engaging meaningfully over the ideas and content they’ll be soaking up and making the most of the time we have together, helping to connect the dots in their little brains between what happens in the classroom and what happens around the dinner table.

Public-schooled though my siblings and I were, the most valuable curricula on our schedules was transmitted not within the four walls of the school building, but around the family dinner table, when our parents would engage all of us in robust (sometimes alarmingly so, ask any of our childhood playmates) political and religious discourse, covering everything from current events to world history to politics to moral theology. It didn’t matter than the youngest in our sibling set was separated by 17 years from the eldest: we all got schooled in the fine art of loud family dinner table debate.

And thus it was there, in the domestic school of rhetoric and reason, that the most enduring lessons were driven home to my siblings and I: that logic is essential to comprehending reality, that reason and faith must be wedded to one another to make any sense out of life, and that if you didn’t have an opinion about something before one of our roundtable spaghetti-sessions, well, you might afterwards. Or else you’d have some good book recommendations assigned to you.

My parents engaged us in the art of daily living, and though we have our flaws and our domestic dysfunctions same as the next family, there is an enduring sense of unity and fraternity that knits the nine of us together, which I have no doubt is rooted in those hundreds of hours spent debating, discussing, and dissecting the universe.

So just because my little people will be out the door for 8 hours a day starting later this month does not absolve me from being up in their business and intimately engaged in the formation of their minds. Far from it! In fact, precisely because they’ll be out of my care for 40 hours a week, no matter the impeccable caliber of our teaching staff, it behooves me to be inversely more engaged during their time that we do have together.

For us, that might mean limited sports and social activities on school days. I figure if that becomes ingrained in our family culture from the earliest days, it will be that much easier to resist the surging tide of social pressure to sign up for All The Things.

I don’t mean that nobody will ever play soccer, just that family time and chill, unstructured sibling interaction will always take precedence. That dinners at home and breakfasts together, so much as is possible, will always trump completing homework assignments or attending tae kwon do classes.

We choose to send our kids outside the home to educate them, entrusting them to the care of competent strangers for 40 hours a week. But we do not cede our parental responsibility – or authority – during those 40 hours, or the other 128 in a week.

And because we send them out, it is even more essential that we do maximize those hours when they are home, and that we actively and intentionally engage with the content and curriculum they’re being exposed to in school.

As a public school graduate, I can attest to the hours and hours my parents – but mainly my mom – spent interacting with the local school board, meeting with teachers, questioning content and curriculum choices, and more than once choosing to exempt us from certain unit studies or entire courses altogether. (I’m looking at you, 5th grade sex-ed and 7th grade health class.) They weren’t being prudish, but prudent. I got a sex education at home, and in an age appropriate and mostly satisfactory manner, and my parents exercised their God-given authority over my education and moral formation.

Was it embarrassing to be pulled out of classes? I honestly remember being the envy of my 5th grade class because while they were blushing furiously, learning to insert tampons into plastic scale models, I enjoyed 45 minutes a day of free time in the science lab during those 2 weeks, fiddling with equipment and reading for pleasure. If I felt any embarrassment at being singled out or “othered” while my classmates were rolling condoms onto bananas, it was more than compensated for by the strong identity my parents formed in each of us that we were, in fact, different from many of our peers, intentionally so, and that it was acceptable and even preferable to be so.

So where I’m going in this rambling, kind of all over the place essay on parental authority is that you are the parent, and your authority is vested not by any municipality or school board, but by Almighty God Himself. And whatever He is asking of you this year where your children’s education is concerned, know this: the role of primary educator is intractable.

So whether you’re unschooling, homeschooling, inner-city public schooling or attending St. Gregory’s Classical Rhetorical Academy of Wisdom and Theology, you are ultimately responsible for exposing that kid to as much truth, goodness, and beauty as you can cram into 18 years, however your family deems best to achieve it.

And that won’t be on the standardized test.

Happy back to school season, fellow parents. May God inform and inspire all our choices where our children’s minds (and hearts, and souls, and bodies) are concerned, and may we be endowed with the mental fortitude to implement them.

14 Comments

  • Reply Bley August 8, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Well said Jenny:) God bless you.

  • Reply Bonnie August 8, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    Yes! Thank you for writing this! Every blessed word!

  • Reply Beth August 8, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    So true! Thank you! I send my son to a Catholic school (5th grade), glad to have the opportunity to be the primary teacher of the interesting topics of my/his choosing–field trips to nature preserves, poetry reading, philosophy, discourse, (beekeeping? who knows!), etc. By letting school take the lead on stuff I’m not so well equipped, I find that I have more time to focus on the topics that I am good at and that matter most to our family. Like you also mentioned, this requires quite a bit of prioritization on the part of my husband and I , but it is so worth it. Thanks for the encouragement!

    • Reply Kallah August 11, 2017 at 12:22 pm

      I’m with you on this 100% Beth! 🙂

  • Reply MK August 8, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks Jenny! As always, a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. We are just starting the school years in 2 weeks, in a new town with our daughter in Pre-K 3’s! I couldn’t agree more, we parents really have the opportunity and duty to be involved and shape our kids’ values. My siblings and I also were the product of public schools, and I think in many ways it forced us as individuals, lead by our parents, to recognize the challenges of the world and require us to understand our faith even better. But, we are happily sending our kids to Catholic school now, where we hope that with our lead as parents, we can prepare them for the times ahead…which sadly I think will prove more difficult than what we as kids faced in the 80s and 90s!

  • Reply Kaitlin Alfermann August 8, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    This is sooooo good! So much yes.

  • Reply Caroline August 8, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    Very important – those family dinner discussions. My parents did the same thing, and I believe that it anchored us in our beliefs. We may have drifted now and again, but that anchor kept us safely in our Catholic harbor. Unfortunately, we have family members who though they grew up in a Catholic household, did not have those at-home discussi0ns and picked up other beliefs- both political and religious, from outside the home- and they are now very, very lost.

  • Reply SS August 8, 2017 at 8:58 pm

    We have 5 children age 16 to 3 and have been sending them to catholic school for 10 years. We pulled them all out last year (even our freshman who was attending a prestigious private school). We decided to take a break from the craziness and give homeschooling a try. Best decision of our lives. We all grew in our faith in ways I never could have imagined. The catholic curriculums out there are easy to use and AMAZING. It was a very scary risk leaving the school we had always known..but we will never look back. Seriously…I cry thinking about how much our family has changed because of this, and I can’t wait to start another year.

    • Reply Abbey August 9, 2017 at 8:41 pm

      Yesss! This is exactly how I feel. My kids have been in private Catholic school for ten years and I desperately want to homeschool. Would you be able give me some more details/feedback on your experience?

      • Reply SS August 10, 2017 at 8:01 am

        Sure! We used Seton Home Study which is a fully accredited program. My sophomore and 7th grader mostly worked independently, but I worked more closely with my 5th grader. They turned papers and tests in online and were graded by Seton, but I did grade most of their daily work. It was a very easy program to follow, but the curriculum was challenging. Love love love the books and reading materials which were all classics and virtue based. I have learned so much about our faith in one year. I can’t wait to keep learning with them. We plugged into a local catholic homeschool group and discovered there are tons of groups and activities out there. Can’t say enough good things about homeschooling!! We were also able to travel all year..the $20,000 we saved in private school tuition allowed us to spend time in warm weather over the winter!

  • Reply jeanette August 8, 2017 at 10:08 pm

    I can totally picture the family around the table debating as a formative experience. But I will say, coming from a large family myself, that another side of the development experience is making sure to have one-on-one time with your children as well.

    I was the middle child of seven kids and there are a few very memorable times I had one-on-one opportunities with my parents. One summer my siblings opted to go to Ohio for 2 weeks, and I opted to stay home with mom and dad. I got to do special things and got some attention that was very valuable. Another time my siblings opted to go see the snow and visit the cousins in Ohio after Christmas, and I opted to go to Hawaii with my parents (what a choice…I realize that my parents could have just gone alone together and yet they included me; how unselfish they were). But one of the funniest things I chose to do was when I was in elementary school, I would frequently skip the lunchbox with the warm sandwich routine and give up playground time that I loved and instead walked a couple of blocks home to have a real lunch alone with my Mom. Those were special times. Because it is not just what goes into the intellectual development of your child that matters. There are a whole lot of things to give to your children, and sometimes it comes in the form of simply individual attention.

    I think those experiences of mine also made me aware of the need to give my own kids the same kind of opportunities to have individual attention. It comes in many forms…you don’t have to send off all of the other children either!

  • Reply Jen @ Into Your Will August 9, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    Well this is just what I needed to hear right now as I am sending my oldest off to public school for the first time soon (*sob*) and only one friend of mine is doing the same (well, she’s been sending her kids). It’s hard not to question why we’re doing it when it seems like EVERYBODY ELSE is homeschooling. But I do know this is what God is calling us too right now, and this was the perfect reminder. So thank you!!

  • Reply Laura August 10, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    I loved this.

  • Reply Kallah Oakes August 10, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    I had the same realization, Jenny! That because I was not given the grace or organization or whatever it is to homeschool, I could have the luxury of really throwing myself into what I *wanted* to teach the kids when they are home. They are getting all the Three Rs from their awesome teachers, so I can enjoy Religion and Classical Literature with them on our downtime to the fullest!

    This summer, I decided to buy two books from Seton to prep Will for first grade. I got Religion 1 and MCP Math, and because we had three months to do that and nothing else, we have finished about 3 quarters of a whole school year of first grade religion, with the bonus of a few lessons of math a day to keep his brain fresh. It was simple, easy to fit in, made me feel so great about investing time and tutelage in my son, and kept Will happier all summer with a little work.

    I intend to do it with all my kids every summer! I have a lot of respect for homeschoolers, of course. I am happy to have been one K-12! But I personally do better when I can outsource the stuff I suck at (like organization and paperwork and files, and developmental milestones, etc). Leaning on an excellent Catholic school means I feel like I can sit back and take the time to really teach my children the faith, when I’m not also yelling at them to stop goofing off and do their grammar lesson all morning. 😉

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