My kids are hopefully young enough to not remember having attended 3 separate schools and one failed and decidedly halfhearted attempt at home education in the past 3 years. And for like, 3 month stints at a time. I was one part ashamed, one part defiant and one part sort of impressed by my own itchy trigger finger when I found myself telling my inlaws that yes, Joey had started school again and yes, it was at an entirely new place and oh, did I forget to mention that he dropped out last fall after Luke was born and we’ve just kind of been on a Netflix/library sabbatical since October?
I don’t know what to say except that when it comes to making schooling decisions, I never thought it would be such a … fluid process. But last night when Dave was graciously setting up some kind of online password for something on my behalf, he asked me to give an answer for a potential security question: what was the name of my elementary school? At that point I realized that although we’d only moved once during those years of my childhood, I’d attended 3. Or was it 4?
So maybe it’s a firstborn phenomenon of motherly not-having-your-s-together.
At any rate, having tried our own parish school and, finding it to be a less than ideal fit in terms of distance and class size and personality (but mostly distance – the driving was killing me because of the time of day and the school zones that separate us from the church campus), we then threw our hat into the public school ring for 5 whole weeks last fall. And it was mostly fine. Except that it was a little bit more expensive than private preschool (an irony which my tax dollars are still seething over) and that I had to walk two little boys in and out of their two separate classrooms, two times a day, and while pushing a double stroller and very newly postpartum. The rest of the parents/nannies/grandparents on pickup duty mostly just blinked at me in awestruck…wonder (that’s what I decided it must have been), flattening themselves against the wall as I navigated the land barge to the ladybug room and then the ant room in turn.
Needless to say, that arrangement was ill fated. So, true to impulsive form, and after our not-ready-for-school-it-turns-out 3 year old had yet another night of tantrums and nightmares, I calmly dialed up the very, very kind director of the school and quit, cold turkey, on a Tuesday.
So for the rest of fall and well into Christmas, we settled into a not terrible rotation of trips to the library, one day per week of crafts and reading lessons with my mother’s helper (I have her 4 hours on Mondays this semester, which is probably not quite enough, but it’s better than nothing!), and an increasingly disturbing amount of Netflix in the afternoons.
After the dust and glitter around the holidays settled, we looked around and reevaluated how our non-system was serving us. It was sufficient for the survival season that is months 1-4 postpartum, but now that I’m back on my feet and Luke is mostly predictable, we decided we were up for adding a little more structure. So, over the past 3 weeks we’ve made a few key changes.
The biggest one was that our oldest started attending pre-K at a Catholic Montessori school from 8 am – 3 pm, 2 days per week, which is definitely the longest he’s been away from home.
It’s been a little up and down for him emotionally, but overall the change has been incredibly lifegiving, for all of us. It’s a good ramp up for him as he faces down the specter of full-day kindergarten next fall, and he seems to be blossoming in the Montessori environment.
It’s a beautiful thing to see his mind awakening, and it gives me so much peace in my mother’s heart to see that I don’t have to be everything to him, that I don’t have to shoulder the burden of every last detail of his development and formation. But without ceding my primary responsibility. It’s such a relief.
The other change we’ve made has been pretty radical, but the payout has been pretty incredible. About 2 weeks ago we prayerfully and, honestly, regretfully, made the decision to go screen free at home during the week, dangling the big fat promise of family movie night every Friday as the digital carrot that would placate our little media junkies.
And guess what? The first 4 days were about as terrible as you might imagine, and tracked oddly parallel with the narrative in that perennial childhood classic: The Berenstain Bear’s “No TV Week” (<— I’ve been spelling that wrong my whole life long).
There was wailing. Gnashing of teeth. Withdrawal tremors. Tears and plaintive negotiations and deep sighs. But, about 5 days into our little experiment, something shifted. The kids started turning away from me and toward each other, negotiating for wrestling matches, lego design sessions, and fort building. They started “reading” to each other and to themselves in the little corner of the living room that Joey had begged me to turn into a “home atrium,” and even though nobody can actually read yet (and I don’t care, because science!) they would all of a sudden be capable of 30 minutes of sustained, self-directed silence.
And as for me? Well, I’ve had some of my own digital delirium tremors over the past fortnight as I’ve been forced to engage flabby, atrophied motherhood muscles and build blanket forts, read chapters of books aloud, and generally engage more during the daylight hours than I thought myself capable of.
But surprisingly? It’s been really, really good. And the endless spare time I thought I’d lose by not having a show to throw at them has been recouped by me ditching Instagram and my personal FB account. Because mama can’t enforce what mama’s not willing to practice herself.
I’m not advocating for a screen blackout across the board. We still spin our CCC movies in the minivan during longer drives, and we’re still watching Broncos games on Sunday and a family movie on Fridays, (which mostly I ignore and read during, but physically attend with my body on the couch. It turns out there really are only so many times you can watch Star Wars.) and they still get whatever cartoons are playing in the kid’s club at the gym a couple times a week, but I’d estimate their total consumption has been reduced by 80%.
And the results have been pretty astonishing.
(ESSENTIAL ALL CAPS CAVEAT: if you are in survival mode, for whatever reason, don’t let this convince you that you are ruining your children and their childhood. You aren’t. We live in a tremendously individualistic and isolated society for the most part, and when there is illness, a new baby, or other high stress times in the life of a family, sometimes Netflix is the only available babysitter. I get that. I’ve been there.)
Less fighting, less whining (relatively speaking, given our demographic), less sibling violence, less parental snapping, and just a general increase in peace in the home. And honest to goodness gratitude when they do get to watch a precious few minutes of something as an unexpected treat.
I don’t think technology is evil, but I don’t think we should passively let it flow over us at the rate it has developed. I had plenty of cartoons and shows in my childhood, but I couldn’t summon them on demand, and I didn’t melt down and shriek at my parents if something less-than-amazing was offered to me, crying out that a more acceptable option be produced.
Not that, you know, any of my kids have, uh, (cough, cough) ever done anything like that.
So there you have it, the state of our union, at least for now, with a crew of inmates numbered 5 months, 2 years, 3.5 years, and 5.25 years. I might be back here to eat my words in a month or 7, but for now, it’s working.