September the 1st, the date so many parents are longingly looking forward to, is upon us. And though homeschooling obviously isn’t the way for every family (though I believe it can be the way for many more families than those practicing it today), I do find it a little sad that not more parents can enjoy the summer vacation with their kids.
Undoubtedly, there is a very practical reason for the collective sigh of relief that is going to sound once the school buses come to take the children away. In most households in Israel, not only do both parents work, but both parents work an increasingly high number of hours (how family friendly this practice is, and whether there are alternatives, is probably a topic for a whole different post). There is a real, big discrepancy between the days children are out of school and the days parents can take off work. Thus begins a merry-go-round of summer camps, summer schools, babysitters, driving the children off to grandparents, and in many cases, leaving them home alone way too long and too early. Every year, parents campaign for the shortening of summer vacation, stating that the education system is out of tune with real life. I’m mainly saddened by the tone of these discussions, which make children appear to have become a liability.
I’m convinced it’s more than that, however. Many parents, even if they can take time off work, just aren’t comfortable with the idea of spending time with their children at home for any length of time. Thus the typical summer crowding of malls, amusement parks and waterparks, zoos, and any place that usually serves to amuse children. Without a home-based routine, summer becomes a time of chaos, and parents understandably feel they want order restored.
We used to have a simple year-round routine when the girls were little(r), but last year we found a small family-based study group in the area, and when it broke up for the summer, while we didn’t experience the school withdrawal symptoms common in most families, I did have to deal with some attitude problems. For example, whenever I tried to teach something, I would hear whining and remarks such as, “this isn’t what summer is for!” To which I would respond, “Oh, right, I forgot – your brains have gone on vacation and stopped working.” A few days were mostly enough to fix this.
I often hear, “don’t your kids drive you up the wall?” and the answer is, of course they do. Kids whine, fight, test their boundaries, and sometimes I do feel like I need out, or I will explode. It’s important to remember, however, that taking a break, while it can be refreshing, does not solve problems. I have had instances when children fought over something silly (“over dead air space”, as a friend of mine aptly puts it), were taken by their dad to the library or the park for distraction, and resumed the same argument the moment they got home!! Now, clearly the solution isn’t to always keep children away from home, or siblings away from each other (preferably on leashes and in cages). Problems need to be addressed and attitudes worked on. And believe me, I have had my moments of utter despondency. I have clutched my hair and yelled myself hoarse, and I know this can be so very hard. I’m just saying that you’ll have to deal with the same problems whether you home educate or not, although admittedly every little issue is magnified when it has been raining for days on end and you’re all cooped up at home day and night.
In Israel, summer vacation is shortly followed by the string of Jewish holidays that leave many parents at a loss again. What I suggest for every family, homeschooling or not, is the cultivation of quiet contentment among children (and parents) that will enable you to stay home together as a family, and entertain yourselves inexpensively by things like reading, crafts, walks, and picnics in parks. I know some families that flat out refuse to put themselves in the heavy traffic flow on the middle days of Sukkot, for example, and they save a whole lot of time, money and frustration. If you do take trips, you needn’t go far – exploring your own area can be more interesting than you think.
A few days ago, a member of a Facebook group I participate in asked if anyone else allows their children to watch/play on phones or tablets during meals. I confess I was a little appalled at the idea, for though I know we live in a screen-addicted society, I was blissfully unaware of the existence of children who can’t get through a whole meal without some kind of stimulation by an electronic device.
I want you to know that I’m not feeling smug or superior, and I get it. I really do. When you are tired and frazzled, and it has been raining for three days straight, with your children bickering nonstop all that time, and you are ready to throttle someone, and every time you talk to your kids it somehow turns into yelling at the top of your voice… well, I’ve been there. And flicking on a movie or a computer game to get some blissful peace can be so, so easy. And I’m not saying you should never do this – just be aware that it comes with a price. Screens of any kind – phones, computers, tablets – are extremely alluring and addictive, and once kids (and adults, too) get used to this being their primary source of amusement, it’s hard to switch them off to other things.
Admittedly, we are aided by our lifestyle as Orthodox Jews. Since our Shabbats are tech-free, we know we can get through a day without screens, and make other days tech-free or low-tech too. And we live in an area with frequent power outages, which means that on many winter nights, the power just shuts down whether we want to or not, and though naturally our kids will whine and grumble if it happens in the middle of a movie, they eventually settle down to do other things, like drawing by candlelight (or better yet, early bedtime!). Also, we are blessed with lots of outdoor space for the kids to play, and plenty of animals to keep us all entertained.
Now, I’m not saying screen time is all bad. We take advantage of some wonderful educational videos and games I wouldn’t want to give up on. But I really, really try to make it only a tiny portion of our day, because I don’t want my kids to get used to passive entertainment.
Getting weaned off excessive screen time can be hard, and if you’re trying to do this, you should be prepared for quite a bit of mutiny and lots of complaints of being bored. But then, as everyone settles in to a new routine, good things start to happen – more reading, more arts and crafts, more outdoor play, more family time… better, healthier, more wholesome entertainment.
The idea of pulling the plug can be daunting, but I would encourage anyone to give it a try. I can almost guarantee that, after a little while, you and your kids will be happier and healthier, and will not want to look back.
There are some days when, if it weren’t for the necessity to go out and feed the chickens, I’d probably remain in my fuzzy pajamas all day long. As the critters do need to be fed, and as someone might pass by and wonder at seeing me in pink pajamas and fluffy socks at midday, I get dressed, put on my muck boots, and trudge out with a box of feed in hand. Moral: if you want to have more motivation for self-discipline, keep animals. If nothing else, it will make you get dressed properly in the morning.
For most families, structure is something integral to every day. They get up, fly through the routine of dressing and breakfast, and everyone goes off their own separate ways for the days. For those who both work and learn from home, the situation is very different. We are pretty much in each other’s hair every day and all day long, and that is by necessity a mess-generator (both physically and mentally). Structure is important; it doesn’t have to stick to conventional routines or hours, but it must be there.
One of my favorite homeschooling resources, The Homeschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith, has a chapter on schedules called Structure, or Can We Wear Our Pajamas to School? Here’s a quote:
“Often families who start out with a fairly rigid structure find themselves becoming more relaxed and flexible as they grow more comfortable with homeschooling, whereas those who began with an informal and casual style may discover the need for more structure.”
We’ve been in both these places. Some years ago, a homeschooling friend told me that in her family, and in all homeschooling families she knows, later hours and more flexible meal times for kids are the norm. I bristled. Not with us! Dinner at 6, bath at 6:30, story time at 7:00, bedtime and blissful silence by 7:30. And you know what, for a long while I adhered to these principles religiously. But I paid dearly for it. Stress, tension, and constant chafing with my kids became the norm. On the other hand, I wouldn’t adopt my husband’s suggestion of just letting them run about until they drop off from sheer exhaustion. These days I’m more flexible, but I do know, and so do my kids, that once we’re on the track of dinner-baths-reading time, it leads to bedtime and that’s that.
Another great quote from The Homeschooling Handbook:
“Figuring out which part of which ideas will work for you is not easy. Often the ideas you find most attractive and expect will best fit your family don’t work for you at all. Or they work for a year or two and then suddenly seem ridiculous. Just remember that your kids are growing and changing and the relationships among you all are changing as well. It’s unrealistic to expect homeschooling to remain the same in the midst of those changes.”