Like many other students around the country, my youngest son will start school in a few weeks – not homeschool, actual school, the kind with teachers and whiteboards, and a gym that smells like a clingy mix of sweaty bodies and floor polish. And his first day of school, just over three short weeks from now, will be the first time he’s stepped foot into a classroom as an enrolled student since the middle of his 1st grade year, almost seven years ago.
Needless to say, I have mixed feelings about this.
Mostly I’m excited for him because this is his choice, one of the first significant decisions he’s made for himself. My husband and I have always told the boys that homeschooling was a choice, and they could make a different choice at any time, but I don’t think either of us really believed they would. My oldest son plans to continue homeschooling through high school, so for my younger son to choose a different option is a big deal. We both support and understand his choice, though, because he’ll be going to a great school, one where the teachers and staff are incredibly warm and accepting, who will be able to challenge him academically while teaching him ways to manage through some of the difficulties he faces with dyslexia. It’s a good choice and a good plan.
But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops.
Amidst the happiness, I’m also feeling quite nostalgic. Homeschooling has allowed our family to spend lots of time together and develop incredibly close bonds with each other, and now an important chapter in our family’s story is coming to an end. And so, even as we prepare for this move forward and the next chapter, I keep finding myself looking back, reviewing the past seven years and examining each of the memorable moments as I would a treasured, precious object, one that I haven’t taken off the shelf to fully appreciate in a while.
A patchy assortment of happy memories spring to mind, of course. We’ve laughed a lot, at each other and ourselves, while exploring countless parks and hiking trails, or creating gooey clay sculptures and muddy paintings. We’ve read and critiqued a ton of amazing books together, and puzzled over numerous math problems. For years, these are the moments that have provided the context for our daily family life and formed the foundation of our relationships as the boys have grown and matured. But none of these first memories to surface are the happiest moments, I realize. Instead, the moments I’ll remember most years from now, that I’ll continue to treasure even when both of my sons are grown and have families of their own, are some of the quieter, unplanned ones that didn’t actually involve laughing or diving into a messy project together, or even being together at all.
For me, the moments when I’ve felt the happiest are the times when I’ve caught a glimpse of the men both of my boys are becoming.
These are the times that have had almost nothing to do with me and any “fantastic” homeschooling plans I’ve come up with, and instead have been entirely about my kids taking the reins on their own learning and making choices that excite them because they’re connected to their interests and bigger goals. The moments are hard to describe exactly, because they’re often fleeting, and almost always unexpected, like when my oldest son disappeared for hours, and later casually showed me a 3-D human figure he’d been modeling and “rigging” (so it can walk and move like a real human) in a software program I’d never heard of and didn’t know he knew how to use, aided by detailed diagrams of human anatomy that he found; or when it dawned on me, as he showed me a spreadsheet to ask a question about modifying formulas, that he had been teaching himself calculus (though he didn’t realize that’s what it was) so he could calculate the trajectory of a spaceship he was designing and wanted to launch in a space simulation program; or when I read a poem my younger son wrote spontaneously because he just read some Rumi poetry and was inspired. There are countless other examples, and I can’t come close to taking credit for any of them — none were part of any of my plans, and I’m certain that if they had been, they would have failed spectacularly. The only credit I can take is that I’ve learned a very important lesson quite well on this homeschooling journey: almost always, the best thing I can do is get out of the way.
I resisted this lesson in the early years — I thought that “real” learning could only happen in an environment characterized by academic discipline, supported by the structure of rules and routines, even though strong evidence to the contrary was right in front of me every single day. The intricate stories and artwork they created, and the earnest questions they asked about the world around them, didn’t count (in my mind) as “real” learning. I cringe now when I think back on those days. The boys were learning every moment of every day, I just didn’t see it, or appreciate it. I wish I could go back and burn each and every one of the daily plans and assignments I created, along with the stacks of textbooks and workbooks I spent countless hours researching and then purchasing. I wish I could go back and tell myself to just trust — trust that nature had already deeply embedded the love of learning in my children, and that all I really needed to do was water it, and maybe pull some weeds from time to time.
This is why it makes me sad when I hear other homeschooling parents ask questions like, “How do I make my lazy son do his school work?” or “How do I deal with my daughter’s defiance when she won’t do what I tell her?” These parents have missed a beautiful opportunity to create some wonderful and happy memories. They have forgotten that they are raising future adults who need to have the experiences (including making mistakes) and to develop the self-confidence that will help them make their own choices when they are out in the world and don’t have us there telling them what to do. As they grow, our children need our guidance and support, without a doubt, but they also need space to grow their own roots, to flower in their own time when the conditions are right for them — we can’t do it for them, and we’ll just delay their growth process (at best) or undermine the full potential of their development (at worst) if we try.
So, this is why I’m happy for my son as he prepares to head off to school. He’s making a choice that is right for him, and I know that he will take his curiosity, creativity, and self-confidence with him, to a place where the staff and teachers know how to support and encourage without interfering. Homeschooling over these past seven years has allowed him to discover his authentic mix of strengths, interests, and goals, so I am confident that even more happy moments are coming our way.
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