My take on homeschooling

… because at the end of the day, that’s all it is – one perspective. When it comes to education, homeschooling or traditional, there are literally hundreds of thousands of opinions and ways and methods… and not one of them is wrong. So let me just say right here and now, that if you have a strong opinion about education by all means share it. But make sure you listen to and observe well those ways which are in direct opposition to what you think is best. And be prepared to be challenged. Blown away, even.

Those of you who know us, will know that Eugene and i tend to lean towards being a bit anti-establishment… not by choice, but just because that’s who we are… heads pretty much always in the clouds,  always looking at things from a different point of view… forever digging deeper. So the fact that we pushed the homeschooling button even before our kids were born, shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. When asking friends what they thought about it at the time, we got a fair amount of pushback… and fairly so. At the time, it was something that was easily stereotyped as something that either conservative Christians do to protect their young from the wilds of society, or something that hippies do because they don’t agree with the system.

When our children were young, we were living in a town where schools are the epicentre of the universe, and so we pretty much forgot about our earlier queries into homeschooling. So when Gabe (our oldest child) was little he went to a play school, onto grade R and then on to grade 1. He had the loveliest teachers, and we didn’t have a complaint to make about the experience we had. But. There were a few things that bothered us… the CRAZY rush to get out the door every morning, the inevitable testing testing testing, the comparing of results, the after school activities making time at home very little, the ‘pressure’ of homework and the exhaustion after it all… all of these things among others just didn’t sit right in the inside of our hearts. We wanted more time with our boy, as a seven year old we didn’t want him to feel like he wasn’t doing well because he didn’t get the best results in class, we didn’t want to ‘fight’ with him about homework… we just felt that there must be a different way.

So it was at this time, when Gabe was in grade 1 and we were struggling with these ideas that i started to delve deeper into homeschooling. Then towards the end of his first school year, we informed his teacher that we would be taking Gabe out of school to teach him at home. She was adamant that we were making the biggest mistake, and told me directly that homeschooled kids tend to be weird and ill-adjusted. I took a big deep breath, told her I was very thankful for all her hard work, took Gabriel’s hand and we skipped (figuratively speaking of course) out of the school grounds feeling the most liberated (and petrified if I’m honest) that I have ever felt.

Little did i know, that i had unloosed myself from one system, only to create a completely different one that was more oppressive than anything i thought i could experience. You see the trouble is, is that as I’ve already said, homeschooling is a MASSIVE topic. If you type ‘homeschooling’ into Google, it leads you down an absolute rabbit warren of information pathways and a myriad of curriculum choices. And when you’re in it, trying to get at what the root of what it actually is, it is incredibly hard to see the wood for the trees.

What happened is that we ordered a very smart curriculum, and for the first few months we did school at home. Both Gabe and i were completely overwhelmed and it felt like we had made the biggest mistake. I remember that for weeks on end i was up late at night researching and researching… just trying to get at what the root of this homeschooling business was. 

I came to realise that the word homeschooling is a word that churns out curriculum. I realised that what i really needed to understand deeply was what good education means. And so with this epiphany, things started to slow down, the boxes of [expensive] curriculum got shelved and suddenly i had time to look my boy in the eye and enjoy who he was. In short, i started to understand the difference between education for the sheer sake of it, and education that matters. 

Education that matters

Just to make it clear, i don’t have the definitive answer, and of course there actually isn’t an answer because ‘what matters’ is different to everyone. My aim here is to recount some things i have learnt along the way, in order to encourage others who feel challenged on the topic of homeschooling, but simultaneously overwhelmed.

Firstly, I learnt that the huge machine that is the system of education as we know it today across the globe, was developed as a response to the industrial 

revolution in the 1800’s. I came to understand that the way the system does things is not the only way to do it, and that education is not synonymous with curriculum. In one word we as a family had to unschool, or de-systemise ourselves. We had to let go of all that we had been taught was the only way to do it, and shake off the dust of the ancient machine. This is when we put the books to

one side. This afforded us (especially me) time to take some big deep breaths and feel the panic slipping away. And most importantly, I could look at my children in the eyes, and ask them, ‘Who are you? What makes you tick? What do you love doing?’ For some people who homeschool, unschooling is a permanent and intentional way of life. For me though, it was an incredibly important way of shaking off the tension of the system. In this season, I came to understand better the needs of our kids, and of our family, and I started to formulate a vision.

I remember developing a homeschool vision for our family, and it was probably the most vitally important thing I could have done at the time. I don’t remember what it was now – it had nothing to with academics, and more about the heartbeat and values of our family… more of a manifesto actually – but it is scribbled down on a piece of paper somewhere in one of my old journals. It wasn’t something I have ever shouted from the rooftops, but it gave me an anchor to run back to when I felt overwhelmed or that I was losing perspective. 

One thing I remember wanting to steer away from completely, or actually forget for at least a few years, was the grade system. The thought that a child’s self esteem is by and large caught up in the grades they get or don’t get from such a young age is something close to insanity, I think. I wrote down something, a small revelation of sorts, that has stayed with me all the years of homeschooling and truly transformed the way we approached the children’s education; true achievement is marked by progress, not perfection. From that day onward, my whole mindset shifted to praising the kids for any progress they made… no matter how small it was, or where they were in relation to the grand scheme of things.

A great example of this is with Malachi… he didn’t have any interest whatsoever in reading or writing. I learnt to let it go. I continued to read amazing stories out loud to the kids, and that was about all the language input he got from me. I think he must have been somewhere between 10 and 11 when he eventually began to pick up a book and read, and all by himself he started to write a journal. He’s still not a bookworm, but he can 

spell well and doesn’t bulk at doing book work. Because we let it happen in his own time, he didn’t ever have to experience that thing of having to be put in a extra class for reading for all the ‘behind’ kids. When he got it, he got it… mission accomplished! In fact, there’s a book that’s popular in homeschooling circles called ‘Better Late, than Early’… I’ve never read it, but I fully agree with the title!!

Talking about reading out loud to the kids… this has probably been the backbone of our homeschooling life. Ask the kids, and they’ll tell you that it was the highlight on any given day. It was a very relaxed affair, and was/ is always accompanied by tea and biscuits, and a fireplace and blankets in the winter or a shady spot in the garden in the summer. They were always allowed to be busy with their hands while they listened, and I’m still amazed at everything they took in. I am sure it has shaped how they write today… I believe it impacts the language we use when we compose our own thoughts. And of course, it captivates the imagination like nothing else!

Something else I believe has a huge impact on the way our children compose their own thoughts as young adults, is the conversations we have with them on a daily basis… that debriefing after the finishing of a good book, the chats around the dinner table about anything and everything … art, friends, food, the weather, God and religion and faith, movies… the list goes on! 

Taking time to hear where they’re at, what they know already, what they think or feel about something… it’s simply priceless.

And whilst on the subject of talk and chatter and banter, I think it’s really important to mention a book I read right in the beginning years of our homeschooling journey, ‘Hold On to your Kids: Why Parents should Matter more than Peers’, by psychologists Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate. They state in no uncertain terms that children these days tend to look to other children for direction in life as opposed to their parents, which has many negative consequences. They explore why there has been such a breakdown in parental influence, and why it is crucial for parents to take back this role within society. This book was probably one of the most important and relevant texts I have ever read for parenting, and the knock on effect was that it provided such a reassurance every time someone hinted that by homeschooling we were damaging the childrens’ ability to socialise, or that we were essentially ruining their lives. It confirmed our thoughts that time with our children is vitally important when they are young, and that having the time to be able to talk to them about things they might otherwise hear from their school friends first (things like sex, drugs and rock n’ roll) was of the utmost importance. 

Being afforded more time with your kids is one thing, but having at your fingertips the luxury of being able to set the tone or atmosphere in your home is something which is irreplaceable (of course, this is just as important for those parents whose kids are in school). I believe atmosphere is experienced in 2 ways; what we experience physically, and what we experience emotionally/ spiritually. As a parent we are responsible for both… let me explain;

Most important, is the tone we set at home. My strong belief is that making the decision to homeschool your kids (or let’s face it, having kids in the first place), changes you as a parent and as a person more than anything else. The most common response I get from other mums specifically when I tell them that we homeschool is, ‘Oooooo, you’re so brave – I haven’t got the patience… I would end up killing my children.’ This communicates by inference that they think I’m perfect. Which I promise, is quite the opposite of the truth. What IS true, is that being with your babies (big or small) 24/ 7 does tend to expose your weaknesses, uncover your wounds or trip you up where you thought you had it all sorted. 😂🤨 Sometimes this journey of being with your children all the time can be like having an emotional or spiritual mirror placed in front of you when you didn’t choose to look. And at that moment of unavoidable confrontation with yourself, you have little other choice than to deal with it. In this way, kids are a gift. They love you anyway, and they’ll love you until the bitter end through all the mess. And the gift you give them is showing them that vulnerability is ok, that messiness is part of life, and that to heal is to grow. Being able to model saying sorry, and offering and receiving forgiveness is something that will pave the way to your childrens’ emotional maturity. 

And let’s not forget that when life happens at home… renovations, caring for grandparents, new babies, cooking for a large group of people etc etc etc is an amazing opportunity for kids to see how we respond to stressful or overwhelming situations. We won’t always get it right, but they get to see us grow as we make mistakes and get second chances.

The other type of atmosphere is the physical one. I can only give a personal example here, and I fully believe that each home will look and feel different because we all express ourselves differently. For me, it was and still is important that our home feels peaceful… it comes naturally for me to put on music that feels peaceful, to put flowers on the table, for spaces to feel well lit (naturally or with candles) and clean, to spend time with the kids just setting the scene for the day (mostly hearing from them where they’re at with various things for giving feedback or direction), to pray with them or just to read to them to provide some focus. For other people it might be more important to set an academic atmosphere, or a very structured one, or one that is very lively and happy. But for me, it was just so important that the kids felt peaceful, safe and secure. From that place, the rest of the day could ensue. I found that when I got this right (which wasn’t always or even mostly… I mean, some days were a hot mess), the day was without urgency and time to see and find beauty in it all was available.

The one other thing I decided was important is that home should be like a facilitated feast for our children. I will give the following example to illustrate what I mean; music always has been and always will be a very important part of life for Eugene and I… not only can it speak beauty, but it holds the power to provide comfort and reverence.

As part of our homeschool, it was without thinking about it that I ‘presented’ music of all types to the children. We would spend focussed and leisure time listening to different composers of classical music, and in the evenings jazz and various types of world music would be played and danced to or listened and chatted about around the dinner table. As a result, all of our kids love music of all genres and are musical. This came at no great cost to anyone, and was in fact a pleasure. The feast of music was always there, and the fact that I sometimes facilitated it in a more focussed or structured way just emphasised the importance I placed by it.

Another important atmosphere I wanted to create was the freedom to play… I was potentially overly liberal with this aspect when the children were smaller (let’s say 12 and under).

But I have a sneaky suspicion it might be why they are so creative and all have such strong leanings towards the things they love to do. This playtime later transferred into placing importance on downtime in between the more rigorous studies they put their minds to as older learners. We learnt that scientifically, our brains cement the things we learn when we take time just to relax for a bit in between academic activities.

The infamous and very lovely Sir Ken Robinson once gave a TED Talk (the most viewed TED Talk ever given), presenting radical views on how schools dampen creativity, and how intrinsic creativity is to society. Here’s the link to the talk… if you want to be inspired, give it a listen!

Listening to this brilliant presentation of ideas gave us the freedom we needed to push into creativity as much as we have needed to and still do… we are not afraid of it. But let me tell you now that we are 

university applying level with Gabe, that the system is terrified of it… they lack any ability to assist with not ordinary applications in a creative way. We are having to do all sorts of extra things because he did not go down the normal SA matric or GCSE routes. But would we do it again? Absolutely.

In wrapping up (which is ridiculous, because actually there’s so much more to say!), there are two things I want to say more than anything. The first is that the relationship you have with your children should be central to homeschooling… if you have your childrens’ hearts, learning will be a joy, or as my lovely friend Toni Weber put it, ‘Connection over curriculum; relationship over rigour.’ She goes on to say this,

I will always encourage you to become your child’s best friend. They will be adults so much longer than they will be children. Everything you are doing today, and tomorrow is adding another brick to that relationship. Hold on. Build on.’

(The reason she is qualified to say this is that she has homeschooled her five now fully-grown beautiful adult children, who have children of their own.)

And it is for this very reason that learning should be a lifestyle. A lifestyle that celebrates the moments in days, cultivates a wonder at beauty and relishes a learning that is not moulded by pressure or performance. 

And how wonderful it has been writing these few paragraphs… with each point I make, ones that I believe to be important, I can go to a picture on my Instagram profile (in a situation where I don’t have the luxury of having allllll the photos I’ve ever taken at my fingertips) where there are little glimpses of the lifestyle we have led over the years and find pictures that reflect those ideals that we have attained to on our homeschool journey. And that’s exactly the point… homeschooling should be a reflection of who you are as a family; capturing the ideals, the values and culture of your very unique family unit. 

I will finish with two quotes that I hope will leave an impact. The first is by one of my very favourite authors, Matt Haig. He is just a sweetheart of a guy, who honestly and transparently struggles with his mental health, and who is also a deep thinker. He dropped these lines a few months ago and it resonated so much with how we feel about education… it’s just brilliant!

To see the act of learning as something not for it’s own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity. We are thinking, feeling, art-making, knowledge-hungry, marvellous animals, who understand ourselves and our world through the act of learning. It is an end in itself. It has far more to offer than the things we write on application forms. It is a way to love living right now.

If I could choose the perfect title to write a whimsical article about homeschooling, I would call it, ‘Curation and Cultivation’. Because for me, that is what educating our children is all about; we have the absolute privilege of being able to choose what lays before our children on every level… educationally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. On top of which we are awarded the time to help them grow in the best environment possible.
For us, being able to have time to talk about and focus on the beauty of words, of music and art, nature, scientific discoveries, the human form, the importance of making peace with siblings, of prolonged hugs and deep chats about identity and the greatness of God.

To have time to encourage the children to breathe in deeply first thing every morning, to cast worry away, to let them know that they are covered and held. To encourage them into creativity and absolute uniqueness has been and still is the greatest treasure of all. More important than what our children end up becoming, our desire for them is to be dreamers, pioneers, thinkers and feelers, those who seek out wonder in the world around them and exude joy at the sheer magnificence of it all.