Pray when it's time to pray. Study when it's time to study.
Play when it's time to play. Show kindness to everyone you meet.
But do it all for the love of Jesus.
-Saint John Bosco-

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Homeschooling the Strong-Willed Child

Enjoying schoolwork on the deck
The title of this post, "Homeschooling the Strong-Willed Child," is a phrase that I have typed into Google, searching for answers about how to approach this conundrum.

In fact, I'm sure it would be pretty hysterical to read a diary of the things I have searched for on Google. It would be a pretty accurate account of what I am going through on any given day.

An imaginary, but very realistic example might be . . .

Homeschooling the Strong-Willed Child
Revolutionary War Unit Studies
Homeschooling and Hormones
Amaranth Recipes
Fourth Grade Curriculum
Unschooling
Father's Day Crafts
Foods that Give You Energy

LOL. Funny, but true.

Anyway, I digress.

Homeschooling a strong-willed child has been a very humbling learning experience.

Here's the problem: What do you do with a child who in not motivated (for longer than a day or two, anyway) by any reward system or negative consequence I have tried (which is MANY), but rather, seems only to be motivated by being in control?

The truth is, there isn't a whole lot you can MAKE your child do. You can't make them eat, sleep, be kind, read a book, complete a math problem, set the table, clean their room or really anything else.

All you can really do is motivate them to complete whatever the task is. Maybe they're motivated by just wanting to do what their parent has asked. Maybe it's getting to watch TV. Maybe it's getting to go outside and play. Maybe it's simply that they don't want to get in trouble.

But what if when your child doesn't want to do something, like their math work or putting the laundry away, they are not motivated by any of these things? What if every time this happens, they just dig their heals in and refuse? What if you then ask them to go spend some time in their room and they won't go? What if they yell and stomp and wake the baby? What if you physically take them to their room and they run away? What are you supposed to do then?

This has been an ongoing issue since Little J was a one-year-old. He was a very calm and happy baby, sleeping through the night at 10 weeks old. (Talk about false advertising. None of our other babies have done that.) As a baby, the only time he was very difficult was in the morning as he was so hungry. He was our largest baby, being born at 9 lbs 14 oz. Jason says he would have been 10 lbs if they had weighed him before he peed. What he was an older baby and eating solid food at each meal, every morning he would wake up crying. I knew that once he got some food in his tummy, he would feel better and be in a great mood. But he would be so hysterical that at first he wouldn't eat. I would have to do everything I could to force him to eat, but once again, you can't force a child to chew and swallow. But sure enough, once he finally ate a few bites, he would calm down and gobble up his food and ask for more. Once a little food was in his tummy, he would be smiling and giggling.

I will never forget the day when I realized I might have quite the pistol on my hands. Little J was playing with an electrical cord. I told him 'no,' relocated him to a different area and showed him some toys to play with. He immediately went back to the cord. I said 'no' once again and went to remove him again. He toddled right over to me and hit me right in the face. It didn't hurt. In fact, I even thought it was funny, which of course it is. But I also wondered if this was a foreshadowing of a defiant temperament to come.

It was.

The year Little J was two, he threw a full-on tantrum EVERY SINGLE MORNING because he had to get dressed. Every morning. For an entire year. That would be 365 tantrums over something we did each day.

You may ask, "Why didn't you just let him stay in pajamas?"

A legitimate question.

Well, I definitely went into motherhood with ideas about how it would work. I believed that "Because I said so" should be sufficient reasoning. If I'm honest, I still do. But Little J doesn't and he never will.

When Little J hit me after I told him no or threw a tantrum over having to get dressed, I believed that with enough training, he would learn not to behave that way.

I believed that I could train him not to BE that way.

It has taken me nine years of motherhood, a lot of prayer, a lot of reading and a lot of on-the-job training to realize that I was wrong.

Little J is who he is. He was born with a given temperament and personality. It isn't his fault. It isn't my fault. I can and should help him learn how to manage his natural tendencies. But those natural tendencies will always be there.

Furthermore, this part of him isn't something that needs to be "fixed." Managed, yes. "Fixed," as if something is broken? No. This is the way God made him and intended for him to be. And while it's often very difficult and has brought me to tears on many occasions, there are wonderful things about it too.

No one is going to make Little J do something he doesn't want to do. Naturally, this is both a flaw and a strength at the same time. It has taken me a long time to understand that and to begin to focus on the positive side of this. With the right moral training, it means that Joshua will not be as swayed to do that he knows is wrong.

Little J is so smart and can be sweet and thoughtful when he wants to be. If he sees me crying, he just comes and stands next to me and rubs my back. He was reading at age 4. The other night, Jason and I were playing Set. We were about to put more cards down as neither of us could find a set in the cards on the table. Joshua came up and said he had found one. We both rolled our eyes, doubting him. He insisted. So we let him point it out. Sure enough, he had immediately found a set neither of us had seen after searching for several minutes.

Little J is difficult to argue with. He is like a little lawyer. In a very objective and logical way, he is often "right." He often brings up things that I have said in the past to use against me in an argument. He loves to debate.

So what about homeschooling? What about those math problems? Of course, he will have to learn to do things he doesn't want to do.

I have spent this entire school year reading and learning about different approaches to homeschooling. A few years ago, I read The Well-Trained Mind and loved it. It is very organized, well-researched and logical; and it provides a very rigorous and thorough education. It's sort of like a huge to-do list that you get to check off each year. I LOVE that. It fits my personality style perfectly.

What I didn't foresee, and what the authors don't talk about, is what are you supposed to do if your child hates it? And what if that child is extremely strong-willed? Do you spend every day for the next twelve years in battle after battle with that child?

What Little J needs in order to thrive is choice and freedom. He needs to feel in control of something. He has an innate desire and need to lead the way. If I tell him that he needs to do these tasks that he doesn't want to do, because I said so, I will be setting him up for failure.

Because of this, I have completely begun to rethink the way in which we homeschool. I am now giving the boys much more freedom during our day, allowing them to choose a lot more of what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.

This is very difficult for me. It is not my natural inclination. It makes it difficult to plan our learning, as we are spending a lot more time following their curiosity.

But I have finally come to a place where I understand that my relationship with Little J is more important than homeschooling the way I want to. It's more important than giving Little J a rigorous education.

By following his interests, I can worry that there will be holes in his education. What if we miss something? That idea makes me very uncomfortable. I much prefer the long checklist. But I now understand that everyone had holes in their education. No one learns it all perfectly. And if there's a missing part that somehow we didn't cover, if Little J needs to know about that particular area, he'll learn it.

What's more, by following his interests, he is of course much more interested in what we are learning. I realize that I'm stating the obvious. But it means that he will be learning more in depth and that the lessons will be more meaningful, helping Little J to retain the information better.

For instance, Little J does not enjoy writing. Writing has caused many tears and conflicts in our home. Ironically, I love to write. As I have given him more freedom, I was worried that Little J would never do any writing. However, he is now writing his own comic strip. He is also writing a screenplay adaptation of Sam the Minuteman. These are projects that he is excited about, ridding us of the battle that we have had surrounding writing.

So of course, by following his interests, we avoid a lot of conflict. I now don't do any lesson planning without him. We discuss what we are going to do in the upcoming week. I ask for his input and I change my plans because of it. Lesson planning has become a collaborative effort.

By helping with the lesson planning and following his interests, Little J has his needs met as he gets to lead the way.

If you are homeschooling or parenting a strong-willed child, I highly recommend the following books:

Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child
Project-Based Homeschooling





Wednesday, May 7, 2014

My Biggest Challenge This Year . . .

Nope. It wasn't bringing a fourth child into our family. Having a baby is always difficult. Sleep deprivation definitely has a strong effect on my days. During my pregnancy with Little T, what I was most nervous about was homeschooling with an infant as I had never really done it before. Two years prior when Little V was born, Little J was in first grade and Little N hadn't even begun homeschooling. Homeschooling was just not as time consuming as it is now. With this last pregnancy, I was very aware that when the baby was born, I would have a lot more on my plate.

But actually, the effect of having a baby on homeschooling was much less than I had anticipated. I guess I had expected the worst case scenario, which in retrospect seems like a good way to approach the change. It meant that I was pleasantly surprised that homeschooling with a baby wasn't as hard as I had thought it would be.

So what was my biggest challenge?

Ironically, my biggest challenge had to do with our oldest child, not our youngest.

My biggest challenge was realizing that our oldest child, nine-year-old Little J, is a very strong-willed child.

My biggest challenge was . . .

Realizing that this is who he is and that it's not something I'm going to "fix."

Realizing that it isn't even something that needs to be fixed or that should be fixed. Whoa. That was a challenging ah-ha moment. I'm still wrapping my head around that one.

Realizing that it's possible that I have been mothering him in a pretty ineffective way. For the past nine years. Boy, was that humbling.

It took nine years of motherhood for me to stop trying to fix the "problem," and to realize that Little J's personality isn't a problem. It's just who he is. It's not my fault. It's not his fault. It's just who he is.

It's exactly how God made him and how God intended him to be.

Maybe I should stop battling who my son is. Because you know what? I'm going to lose that battle. He is who he is. I'm not going to change that.

What's more, by battling this part of his personality, I am not appreciating the gift that it is. Yes, having a strong will can be a tremendous gift! I am just beginning to understand that. It's my job to encourage him, to love him, to never give up on him and to help him learn how to manage his strong will in a Christian way.

I need to learn to parent and teach him in a way that complements who he is, rather than battles it.

That's the journey I'm on right now. Helping me along the way has been this wonderful book:

Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child
I've read it once and I'm going to reread it. This book helped me understand Little J and enlightened me as his mother. It gives practical advice about how to manage him, how to avoid conflict and how to deal with conflict. I honestly believe that it would be beneficial to all parents, not just parents of "strong-willed children."

This book helped me come to the realization that I needed to approach mothering Little J differently and that I needed to homeschool him differently.

That has been a humbling realization this year. So no, my biggest challenge has not been the lack of sleep, nursing while homeschooling or even a baby learning to crawl. It's been the realization that in some ways, I may need to relearn how to mother my nine-year-old. 

*****I am currently working on another post with more detail about homeschooling the strong-willed child. 

Why Do We Homeschool?

We are now about to finish our fourth official year of homeschooling, and our second year homeschooling two children. For many reasons, this school year has been a roller coaster. I think by mid-June, we will all have made it without too many tears and with the desire to get back on the ride in September. In fact, we have all agreed that a little homeschooling over the summer might be fun. I call that a success.

Homeschooling is hard for me to talk about with anyone who is not also a fellow homeschooler. I worry too much about hurting other people's feelings or making others feeling defensive.

At the same time, it's difficult to get to know me very well if I can't share about homeschooling with you. It is something that I am extremely passionate about.

It is my life's work.

When we first enrolled in Edmonds Heights two years ago, they asked me to write a letter about why we homeschool. (Edmonds Heights is the homeschooling resource center through the Edmonds School District. We are no longer enrolled there, but instead at the Home Education Exchange which is through the Shoreline School District.)

I was so happy to write that letter. And today I reread it. Of course, it is filled with a lot of lofty ideals, but I knew that as I wrote it. It was so refreshing to reread it today.

So, if you are interested in why we homeschool, I have shared the letter below. Rereading it now, I still believe everything I wrote. Homeschooling challenges me EVERY SINGLE DAY, but then again, so would anything worth doing. Despite the challenges and the occasional tears, I am so glad that this is what our family is called to do.

May 14, 2012

Dear Edmonds School District and Homeschooling Resource Center,

It is with pleasure that I write this letter. Homeschooling is a decision that we made right at about the same time our eldest child, Little J, was born. The idea came to me seemingly coincidentally while reading a parenting book about raising sons. The author, whom I admire, shared at the end of the book that if he could go back and do anything differently as a parent, he would homeschool. “Homeschool?” I questioned. I had never given it a thought. Intrigued, I began reading about homeschooling and the more I read, the more I was convinced that this is a fabulous fit for our family.

Why do we homeschool? What a joy to be asked this question, without needing to censor my opinion for the listener.

Simply put, we homeschool out of love for our children.

It is difficult to now elaborate on that without writing a fifty page letter. There are five main reasons that I can think of: censorship of culture, including our Christian values in our children’s education, being present for most of my children’s childhood before it is gone, instilling a genuine curiosity and love of learning in our children and creating family unity.

By censorship of culture, I mean that we want to expose our children to mainstream culture as they are ready for it. When you send your children to a public school where they are attending class with thirty other children who all have parents with different styles and approaches, this is impossible. Our children are sponges and we want to be more in control of what they do and do not soak up.

We are Catholic and our faith is a large part of our daily life. We want to be able to teach prayers, moral lessons and our Christian values as they are naturally brought up. We believe that one of our most important jobs as parents is to bring our children up in the ways of God. We can more easily and effectively do this through homeschooling.

Our eldest, Little J, is now seven years old. Those seven years have gone by so fast, as any parent would tell you. And I am going to be present for as much of our children’s childhood as possible.

Also, we are idealists. We want to raise our children to love learning! Children put through traditional school learn at a very young age that learning is boring and that anyone who enjoys it is a nerd. Reading soon becomes a chore rather than a joy. Children’s natural curiosity is stifled by the desire to be cool and popular. They are forced to learn at the same rate as all the other children, so often causing frustrated students. So much time is spent every school year repeating the same lessons in order to make sure that everyone is at the same level, causing bored students. Children in traditional school have no ability to learn about what they are actually interested in, so they often move on to college with no idea of what they would like to study and often graduate still not knowing what they would like to do. We realize that our children may not always love learning, but we do feel that they can come closer to this potential through homeschooling.

Lastly, we want to build a close family dynamic, a shelter for our children in which they feel safe and loved. We believe that we are our children’s natural teachers, chosen by God as the parents for our specific children. We have been given the specific gifts and skills needed to fulfill the needs of our children. Although I have some training as a teacher, we do not believe that this is necessary. No teacher can fulfill our children’s needs the way that we can, because no teacher knows our children the way that we do and no teacher could ever love our children the way that we do. It is that love that makes us the perfect teachers for our children.

I want to thank you for the support you are giving us. This is a journey that we are so very excited about and we appreciate all that you do to assist us with it.

Sincerely and Appreciatively,

Rebecca B
Mother of new kindergartner in 2012, Little N as well as 2nd grader, Little J