I was talking to a new homeschooling mom a couple of weeks ago, helping her work through that “What have I done?!” feeling that so many of us homeschoolers have when we first take the leap. I reassured her that almost all homeschooling parents have experienced that “I just jumped off the cliff” kind of panic, especially at the beginning, and I also told her what I tell everyone who asks me about my choice to pull my kids out of school: It’s the best decision my husband and I ever made.
That’s not an overstatement. My boys are so much happier than they were before, and are truly thriving in a way that I’m certain they wouldn’t be if we’d kept them in traditional school. Other people notice and comment on it, too, even before they know that we’re homeschoolers. I regularly have new acquaintances, or neighbors I barely know, tell me about an interesting discussion they had with one of my boys, remarking on how well they hold a conversation, or how thoughtful and engaging they are. And it’s not just my kids — other homeschooling parents I know have similar stories. I honestly think this is one of the most underrated benefits of homeschooling – kids get to be who they are, and get to relate to other people as they are, without any of the power dynamics and judgments that so many kids experience with adults when they’re in school.
So, I’m a big fan of homeschooling, and will enthusiastically talk to anyone who’s interested about the benefits of this lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. In fact, some days it’s really, really hard. And truth be told, there have been several occasions when I seriously considered sending the boys back to school.
You see, along with the normal responsibilities and challenges that come along with being a homeschooling parent, a few years ago another issue was added to the list: I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. This condition makes me feel like I have a bad flu for days, sometimes weeks, at a time, and when my symptoms are at their worst I run a high fever, my joints ache so much I can barely move, I pass out when I take a shower or stand up for too long, and food… well, even the idea of food makes me nauseous. On these days, helping my older son work through algebra problems, or teaching my younger son how to diagram sentences, are tasks that are nowhere close to doable. In fact, simple conversation is barely possible because I’m totally exhausted and easily annoyed. It’s during these times when the normal challenges of interacting with and guiding two highly-sensitive and energetic boys entirely overwhelm me and make me want to throw in the towel.
I adore my boys, and most days I welcome their higher-than-average levels of emotion and desire for interaction. The difficult part of having highly sensitive kids, however, is that their emotional antennas are so attuned – they pick up on everything, and their highly-active imaginations envision every worst-case scenario. They just need so much reassurance, interaction, and physical touch, it can be exhausting even when my batteries are fully charged. So, on the days when I’m feeling terrible, there’s no missing the worry on their faces the tremble in their voices, and I do my best to put on a happy face (or the happiest one I can muster) and spend precious energy soothing them and trying to calm their fears, insisting again and again that I’m okay, when all I really want to do is yell, “Go away!”
But I can’t, because that would devastate them.
Adding to the difficulty is that I can’t take them to regular music lessons or sports practices — driving is not an option. This means that we’re sometimes stuck in the house together for days at a time, me laying on the couch or in bed feeling like a rusted out old clunker ready for the junk yard, them with minds like race cars revving, ready to go. It’s not a good dynamic.
As the boys have gotten older, though, and as I’ve become more adept at managing my condition, we’ve learned to surf through these difficult days a little more smoothly. We keep our schedule as flexible as possible, not getting too caught up in deadlines or plans we can’t adjust if necessary. They’ve become more independent in some of their work, and focus on the things they can do without my help when they need to. And it’s important to note that there have also been some “up sides” – they’ve learned how to do lots of household chores like cooking dinner, washing dishes, doing laundry, and taking care of the dogs (our version of home economics, I guess).
So, when I’m talking to people about our homeschooling experiences, I’m still honestly able to say that it’s the best decision we ever made. I make sure to let them know that there will be tough days, too, though, and there will definitely be times of doubt, significant doubt, even if they’re not dealing with a chronic illness. Everyone gets the flu or a bad cold sometimes, and there will undoubtedly be other family events that will disrupt things, so it’s okay to just “surf” during these times. You can trust that you’ll get back to a normal routine eventually and, if you’re lucky, maybe your teenager will even be able to bring you dinner!
If you enjoyed this article, check out more on the same topic at this month’s
One of the great benefits of being a writer and a homeschooling mom is that I have a lot of control over our family’s schedule. This means the boys and I get to take a bunch of time off around the holidays every year to enjoy some time together while we recharge our batteries and prepare for the year to come. And, as we headed back to work and back to school a couple of weeks ago, we decided it would be a good idea to spend some time thinking and talking about our goals and plans for 2017.
It turns out that Hunter S. Thompson was able to provide some helpful ideas that guided us through our discussions. Early in January I re-read the widely-shared letter that he wrote to his friend, Hume Logan, in 1958, and found that Thompson’s wise advice about choosing goals that “conform to the individual” rather than making “the individual conform to the goal” was a useful guidepost, one I thought would be especially relevant for my high schooler. With college (probably) on the horizon for him within the next few years, I’ve noticed that it’s easy to get caught up in the same sort of high-stress planning and goal setting that traditional high school students face when thinking about college: Which classes? How many science labs? How many AP classes? SAT or ACT? What type of extra-curriculars? The hoops are many, and these questions swirl and swirl each time we consider and reconsider, each time getting lost in trying to “conform to the goal.”
Here’s the thing about my family, though: we don’t like to conform.
We have tried, many times, relearning each time that trying to meet others’ expectations makes us stressed and unhappy. And yet, as my boys’ primary teacher and (now) college advisor, I still unexpectedly fall into the trap of trying to follow a narrow set of standard timelines, courses, sequences, and testing schedules, all with the hope that people we don’t even know will someday approve of and validate my boys and their accomplishments, allowing them to pass through to the next set of hoops. But here’s the problem with this kind of thinking: it emphasizes the ideas that what others think is more important than being self-reliant and exercising your own judgment, that being “good” and following all the rules is more important than being independent and authentic. Most of all, it sends the message that personal goals should come from some external source rather than from your own understanding of your unique set of abilities, desires, and goals.
In our culture, it’s easy to grow up believing that there are certain standards we need to measure up to if we want to prove that we are “worthy” or “valuable”, whether these are grades, test scores, athletic accomplishments, acceptance to prestigious universities… the list goes on and on. These standards usually prioritize certain types of intelligence (logical, linguistic, and physical) and ignore other types (artistic, intrapersonal, and existential). As a result, our individual values tend to be based on these external standards, and we get caught in a narrow definition of what success looks like, often at the expense of ignoring what is inherently and authentically true and valuable within each of us, what Thomas Merton would call the “secret beauty of their hearts.” It’s heartbreaking, really. How many people today, right this moment, are suffering because they chose a path that was deemed “acceptable”? How many will never find their true purpose?
If I were to write a job description for myself, at the top of the list of responsibilities would be this: helping my boys recognize and express their “secret beauty” by identifying their particular abilities and desires, all while being guided by compassion, curiosity, and a search for meaning (instead of approval). Or maybe, more simply and as Hunter S. advised, encouraging them not to “dedicate their lives to reach a pre-defined goal”, but rather to “choose a way of life they know they will enjoy”. But this leads to an important question: Am I qualified to do this job?
As the product of twelve years of public education, plus six more years of higher education beyond that, maybe not. It certainly isn’t easy for me. Checklists and schedules, indeed all things measurable, make sense to me, and I find that going back to them when I’m feeling uncertain helps relieve the anxiety that comes with navigating ambiguity (which I’ve written about here). However, when I’m able to remind myself that I’m trying to give my boys a compass, not a map, my job becomes clearer. And, at the very least, I’m willing to be a student right along with them since these are lessons that I’m learning and trying to apply in my own life, too. So, my primary qualification might be that I’ve made the mistake of “conforming to the goal” (and have written about here), and trust that there’s a better way.
As for the specifics of our plans and goals for 2017, I’ll share more about those in an upcoming post, along with some other guideposts we’re using to help us navigate through this year. And a bonus — I’ve finished the final edits on my book about college admissions for homeschoolers, so look for more information on publication dates, plus some excerpts, coming soon!
“Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living within that way of life.
The goal is absolutely secondary; it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.”
-Hunter S. Thompson
Tuesday night I had such a vivid and disturbing dream, one that brought up emotions so intense, I was forced to ride the waves of them all day the next day. In the dream I was in a small boat, at night, with an overwhelming sense that I needed to escape. The particulars of the situation are fuzzy, as they so often are in dreams, but there were unidentified people that I urgently needed to get away from. First, though, I needed to find my two boys and get them on the boat with me – I couldn’t leave them behind. Finally, as the three of us were about to take off into the watery darkness, not knowing where we were or where we were going, only aware that we needed to get away, I woke up, heart pounding and mind racing.
Having gone to bed before the official results of the presidential election were announced, but guessing the outcome already, my subconscious had clearly chosen “flight” from its menu of threat responses. As I woke to the sound of rain, the feeling of adrenaline still coursing through my body, my conscious thoughts picked up where my dream left off. We are no longer safe, but where can we go? What can we do? Is it time to make a new life somewhere else? And then sadness set in, thinking of everything we would be leaving behind, all our friends, the boys’ activities, our home. I decided to get up and take the dog for an early walk even though it was raining – I needed to move, to think.
Walking through the streets, passing neighbors out walking their dogs or driving by as they headed to work, I started wondering how others were handling this shocking outcome. I knew there would be some calling out for us to “come together” now that this awful election was over, but that’s not an option I could choose – as much as our divisiveness is hurting so many in our country, I wasn’t sure how to “come together” in an authentic way yet. Likewise, I suspected that others would be encouraging us to “dust ourselves off” and regroup for the next election. As much as I wished I could be, I wasn’t there yet, either.
As I arrived back home, mind still whirling, one of my mentors called me. I expressed my distress to him, my fear of where our country and world are headed, my faltering faith in humanity, and my uncertainty about what to do next.
His advice: “Wind your watch.”
This person is an airline pilot, and he explained to me that when something goes wrong in the cockpit, the first thing he and other pilots are trained to do is pause, to take in everything that’s going on before making any decisions on how to respond. This is his own plan for responding to the current political situation, too – to wait, to watch, and then decide how to respond. So, while I may still decide that “flight” is the best option (or may eventually choose “fight” instead), with time it will likely become more clear which response will be most healthy and constructive. The point is, I don’t have to decide right now, and in fact shouldn’t decide right now.
Wise advice, right? And a perspective I couldn’t have arrived at on my own, especially given the emotional state I was in. My other take-away from the conversation was this: we all need mentors. When we talk about mentors it’s usually in the context of gaining some sort of professional experience, guidance, or connections, and rarely (at least in my experience) about the value of personal or emotional mentors, people who can act as sounding boards, help steady us when we’re lost and confused, and serve as role models. For our children, especially those of us with particularly sensitive and attuned children, mentors are perhaps even more important as our kids work to shape their identity and find their place in the world. As parents struggling to figure out the best way to raise children in our current cultural climate of anger and divisiveness, finding mentors who teach, explicitly and implicitly, the qualities we want our children to develop as they grow into adulthood, and ultimately into leadership roles, is of critical importance. For me, these qualities include tolerance and compassion, first and foremost, and also critical thinking, the differences between facts and feelings, how to listen well, and the importance of reading and educating oneself.
As it turns out, there may be some cause for hope about this younger generation we’re raising. Those who are just a few years older than my kids overwhelmingly voted for a diverse, inclusive vision of our future. So, they’re on the right path, and we can help our future leaders continue to blaze the way. I know that one of my first priorities is going to be connecting my children with constructive personal mentors, people who want to have a positive impact on the world and can help show my boys how to ride their own emotional waves when they inevitably arise and, as Michelle Obama said, to “go high” even when others don’t. And after that? No idea – probably just more walking, winding and watching for now.
If you would like to read more about this topic, click on this graphic to check out related posts at GHF:
“Being homeschooled isn’t enough to make you interesting anymore.”
This is what one college admissions officer shared with me during a recent phone interview, an interview I’d requested as part of my research for my first book about college admissions for homeschoolers. It certainly wasn’t a perspective I had expected to hear, but as a homeschooling mom of two boys (one of whom will likely be applying to college in a couple of years), it’s an insight into the college admissions process that I’m happy to know about… Read More
(From my recent article published by The Gifted Homeschoolers Forum)
Of all the challenges we face in life, finding our community, our “tribe” is one of the most universal and complicated. This has been a particular problem for me through the years, especially when I was younger and my family moved a lot. It’s been an issue for both of my boys, too, in spite of the fact that we’ve lived in the same town since they were quite young. And even when they were still in public school, finding friends that they really clicked with was always hard. As a mom who wants all good things for her kids, I’ve been somewhat distressed about my sons’ lack of friendships for quite some time, but I finally figured out a solution.
I decided it isn’t a problem.
I know – this goes against the common wisdom that kids need to spend much of their time with other kids and to have lots of friends their own age. We’re used to being uncommon, though. As secular homeschoolers we’re already a minority within a minority, and if you factor in that my boys are not like most other boys, especially my younger son with his emotional and intellectual intensity, not to mention his tendencies toward introversion, the pool of kids who are wired like him is pretty small. In other words, the likelihood that he’s going to find other kids his age who want to sip some tea (ginger peach, please) and discuss Hannibal’s strategic errors during the Punic Wars, or the imagery of Hamlet, is so unlikely, we’ve stopped “searching for Shakespeare”.
To be clear, he does spend time with other kids – he sings and plays guitar in a band, and is heavily involved in the local children’s theater community. It’s just that the other boys he meets are more into heavy metal than opera, and prefer to talk Minecraft over Rumi. So, his connections with them are pleasant and friendly, based on a shared interest, but they’re not what you’d call real friendships. Last year he decided he wanted to try to be better friends with some of the other boys in his theater group, and he started spending more time playing Minecraft so he would have something to talk to them about. It didn’t work. For him it was like wearing a coat that just didn’t fit, and he came home exhausted and discouraged. That’s about the time my husband and I began telling him, “You do you.”
I’m not sure where “You do you” came from, but it certainly sounds like something Shakespeare might have said, doesn’t it? It’s become a kind of mantra in our house now, too – my husband and I say it regularly to both of our boys as we remind them not to spend time trying be like everyone else; we want them to focus on figuring out who they authentically are and what they genuinely love, even if this means they might not fit in. In our opinion, as long as our boys are doing this, there really is no problem.
This isn’t to say that community isn’t important, though. We all need a place to belong, a place where we can be heard, understood, and engage in conversations about Hannibal or Rumi, or whatever our interests are. So, if any of this sounds familiar, if your kids are struggling to find their intellectual peers, too, let me share a few strategies that seem to be working for us: reframing the goal, letting go of the rules, and casting a wider net.
In an era where more “likes” and more Facebook friends are at the top of most people’s list of goals, it’s important to remember that quality trumps quantity. One genuine connection still counts as community, so finding someone who shares our particular intellectual passion is the primary goal for members of our family. And these connections don’t have to be with people of the same age, either. That’s a rule we’ve decided to let go of. My sons’ intellectual peers are often adults, usually family members like aunts, uncles, and grandparents, but sometimes tutors or family friends as well. As they develop and their interests change, my job is to cast a wider net to find others who share their passions and can help continue to engage and challenge them intellectually. We’ve already reached this point with my fifteen-year-old son, who loves building things. We talked the local maker space into letting him become a member even though he’s well below their minimum age, and found a community of wooden boat builders who have embraced him thoroughly. I would guess the average age of the people he’s spending time with at the workshop is at least mid-60s, but that has hardly mattered at all to him, or to them.
I’ll confess that there are often times when one or both of my boys are alone with their interests, and these are the times my husband and I try to fill the gap as much as possible with lots of listening, thoughtful questioning, and encouragement. The good news is that these times often involve lots of tea drinking, interesting field trips, and watching of TED talks. I now know more than I ever could have imagined about war elephants crossing the Alps, and have renewed my acquaintance with Rumi. So, not only isn’t it a problem, it has turned out to be a joy.
This post is part of a GHF blog hop. If you liked this topic, you can find related posts here:
Fall is in the air here in Oregon, reminding me that it’s time to come back online and resume a more normal schedule. School buses are once again motoring around the neighborhoods, the first leaves are starting to fall, and the night air is crisp and filled with the smell of wood smoke. It’s been a busy, interesting, unusual summer, one that I’m sad to see end in spite of my excitement about what the next few months hold. I’ve had a kind of hibernation period for the past few months, allowing me time to withdraw from the world temporarily and work on a new and somewhat scary project… my first book!
For those who have followed me for a while, you already know that over the past couple of years one of my main focuses has been researching and writing about college admissions for homeschoolers. As a former university program director and admissions committee member, and now a homeschooling mom of two boys, this focus is a natural marriage of my two great passions: kids and education. After writing a series of articles on this topic last year, a publisher approached me and asked if I would be interested in writing a book about college admissions for homeschoolers, and there was no way I could say no! So, with a November deadline for submitting my first draft, I’ve spent much of the summer in front of my computer in a continuous cycle of researching, writing, and editing.
The good news is, I’m almost done! The even-better news is, I’ve had a fabulous time and have learned so much that I just can’t wait to share with you. So, I’m going to begin sharing bits and pieces of advice, insights, and just generally cool information over the next few weeks — stay tuned! The first article I’ll be sharing is about the top questions admissions officers ask themselves when reviewing a homeschooler’s application, and I think you might be surprised about at least one or two of them.
But first, a question…
As part of my book research, I’ve been asking college admissions officers about their schools’ policies and procedures for homeschooled applicants. At the end of the interviews, I ask, “What would YOU like to know about? What would help you do your job better/more easily?” Again and again admissions officers are asking:
“Where can I find more homeschoolers? How can I connect with them?”
So, I thought I’d send this question out to you home educators, college counselors, and admissions officers alike:
What is the best way for colleges who are very interested in homeschooled students to connect with us? Some online location? A homeschooling conference? Other?
Please share your thoughts, ideas, suggestions, insights — anything that can help us strengthen this bridge between our students and the colleges and universities who welcome them. This will likely be the topic for a future article, so anything you share will help benefit others!
My older son began taking an environmental science class a couple of months ago, his first real “class” in a long time, complete with regular assignments and a teacher who provides feedback and grades. As I’ve been watching him do research for his various reports and presentations, I’ve been flashing back to how different it was in the days when I was in school and working on similar projects. Of course there was no internet, nor were there even computers – it was all about library books, magazines, and micro fiche.
Micro fiche! Remember those strips of film we had to feed through those clunky machines, ducking under the shaded screen to read old newspaper articles? It was always kind of exciting, like a treasure hunt, with each advance of the image potentially delivering the golden nugget of information.
Those were definitely different times. For us the struggle was finding any information related to what we were researching, while now the challenge is finding too much information – pages and pages of every conceivable type of article, graphic, or video for any search they type in to their browser. However, as seemingly opposite as our experiences were then from our children’s experiences today, there is one thing they have in common: ambiguity.
Decades ago, the ambiguity we were navigating was the lack of information – if it wasn’t available at the library, we just didn’t have access. Today, navigating ambiguity means wading through an excess of information, much of which is irrelevant, inaccurate, biased, or contradictory. We were trying to find any lighthouse in the fog; they are trying to figure out which light is actually the lighthouse.
Same problem, different conditions.
Developing navigational skills is even more essential these days, too, and not just because of the overabundance of information for tasks like school reports or eventual work-related projects. It’s also important because there are so many more educational choices and career options, and because the pace of change is so much more rapid. Our kids need to determine what information they need, figure out how to find it, assess what’s true and what isn’t, and then select which input is most valuable for them, all while keeping in mind that any of this may change at any moment. So, in this constantly-changing environment saturated with data, ideas, and opinions, how can we help our kids learn to navigate the right course for them? There are three vital navigational tools they’ll need on their journey to adulthood:
- Self-Knowledge: “Where do I want to go, and how do I want to get there?”
Every journey starts with a destination in mind, whether it’s a physical place, an experience, or an accomplishment. And each person has to choose and steer toward their own destination, using their own internal compass fashioned out of their own unique combination of interests, values, and goals. While the destination will likely change from time to time, it’s still important to have one – otherwise they’ll just be lost at sea. As parents, we can help our kids cultivate self-knowledge by instigating conversations about the things they’re interested in and value, and discussing what they would like to contribute to the world, as well as encouraging introspection during moments of both success and failure. In my family we talk a lot about personality types, too, and have fun taking Myers-Briggs and Enneagram profiles every now and then, which always sparks interesting conversations about our individual personality traits.
- The Ability to Work with Others: “Will this person be a valuable member of my crew?”
We all have blind spots and weaknesses. Working with other people toward a common goal can help our kids broaden their perspectives, identify their own biases, challenge their assumptions, and find support when they encounter troubled waters. Teamwork also challenges them to develop stronger communication skills – a key factor in reducing ambiguity. While our children are still young, we can expose them to different types of people across multiple age groups (not just kids their own age), and talk about seeing things from other people’s perspectives, which will help encourage flexible thinking and the ability to see choices and problems through a different lense.
3. Critical Thinking Skills: “Is this worth including on my map?”
As they travel along, our kids will need to analyze and evaluate the wide range of information they have at their fingertips so they can make clear and well-reasoned decisions. Whether they’re considering someone’s research methods and results, the possible motivation behind another person’s behavior, or identifying what information they need to solve a problem, rational thinking and critiquing skills can be the difference between effective choices that keep them on course toward their goals, and detrimental choices that run them aground. There are actually classes available to help develop critical thinking skills, but daily life also provides many opportunities to sharpen this ability — choosing a problem, whether it’s real or hypothetical, and working through it together is actually an enjoyable activity to do together. Asking “Why”, “What else?”, and “What if…” are great ways to jump start critical thinking.
In addition to these tools, there are some valuable traveling instructions we need to make sure they have as well:
- There is no such thing as perfect information. This is hard for our kids to understand sometimes given that it seems all things can be “googled” these days. The truth is that we, and they, still cannot know all things. So, they need to get comfortable making choices with the best information available.
- When in doubt, don’t move too fast or too confidently, even if others are pressuring them to. It’s okay to take some time, to reflect and consider things more deeply, to let others know “I’m not sure, yet.”
- There is rarely one right choice. Usually, there are several good, or at least reasonable, choices they’ll need to choose from. Pick one, and move forward.
- Ambiguity is a good thing. Without it, we would all make the same decisions, do the same things, and end up in the same place. Ambiguous situations keep life interesting, and allow us to get creative.
As parents, it’s important for us to remember that developing these abilities will take time and practice, and our role is to find the right balance between supporting and challenging our kids. Experience is essential, so the best thing we can do is give our tweens and teens lots of opportunities to make their own decisions (as we advise or encourage from the sidelines), especially if they spend a lot of time in structured situations where teachers, coaches, or other adults are telling them what to do. Over time they’ll become much more comfortable dealing with uncertainty and risk, and will hone their abilities to listen to their own authentic voice. They’ll also be less likely to get “stuck” in their lives and, most importantly, will have the skills they need to navigate their way to what truly matters through an ever-expanding sea of distraction.
If you enjoyed this article, check out more on the same topic over at GHF…
Parents of college-bound students, check out my recent book review written for the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum…
The hallmark of a well-written advice book is that it leaves you inspired to move forward with a clear plan of action. Earning Admission: Real Strategies for Getting into Highly Selective Colleges, a new book by Greg Kaplan, investment banker turned college advisor, definitely fits the bill.
While not written specifically for homeschoolers or other non-traditional students who plan to apply to college, the author offers strategies and ideas that are relevant for any parent wondering how best to help their child gain admission to a selective college or university. As Mr. Kaplan stated during a recent conversation, “This book is for parents who want options for their children.” Read More