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
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

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