I’m at a dinner party. A woman sitting next to me says, “I’m Irene,” and then she asks, “What do you do?”
“I homeschool my children,” I answer.
Irene’s eyebrows rise as she says, “Oh! Sounds interesting but how do you make your children do their work?”
Over the years, I have been asked this question so many times. So what is the answer?
I chain my kids to the table until they’ve completed everything I want them to do.
They don’t get fed until they’ve finished their work.
I threaten them with some dire punishment.
I bribe them.
I tell them I’ll send them to school unless…
I don’t actually expect them to do anything.
They only have to do things they want to do.
While we were eating lunch the only day, I discussed this question with my daughters. “If I said, ‘How do I make you do your work?’ what would you say?”
“Make us do our work?” Charlotte was indignant. “We want to learn. You don’t have to make us do anything.”
I think about that: wanting to learn. That was one of our original reasons for homeschooling our children. I wanted to raise children who love learning, who view learning as an essential and enjoyable part of life.
I have to admit I didn’t get off to a great start. Well, maybe we began okay, but I kept getting side-tracked. I looked at what other families were doing, or what the experts recommended, or I caught a glimpse of a fantastic looking curriculum or philosophy of education, and my confidence would start to subside. I felt a great sense of responsibility and sometimes I felt inadequate. Was I homeschooling my children in the right way? We did a lot of chopping and changing as I tried things out, and along the way somewhere, I stopped listening to my children. They no longer enjoyed their work, and started rebelling and I began saying such things as…
You have to do this!
This is important.
You can do what you want to do after you have done what I want you to do.
If you won’t do this work for me, you’ll have to go to school. (I didn’t mean it.)
I think about what is different these days. Why are my children happy to learn? Why don’t I have to prod them along?
I think I gave my first couple of children the impression that education was something that children do. I’d completed my education. Now it was their turn to work (and their turn to suffer). It was me against them. A real battle at times.
Now we view education as a family affair. It’s just something everyone does. It’s as natural as eating and sleeping, an essential part of life. I really believe in leading by example. Children see us doing something and they want to copy us. If they see us learning, they want to learn. They know what is important to us and that becomes important to them.
When I was fighting with my children over education, I can see they might have been thinking, “Why do we have to do this? You don’t!”
Because I told you to.
Because you are the child and I am the mother.
Because I know more than you.
We can use our authority as parents to force our children to work. But is there a better way? A gentle way?
Yes, I think I found one that works for us. These days, I trust my children will learn what they need to know without me forcing them; I try and provide them with new experiences; I help and encourage them; I show them I love learning too; I spend lots of time sharing and learning with them. Instead of saying, “You have to do this!” I am saying…
That looks interesting. Would you like me to help you find out more?
I’ve bought a new book, would you like to share it?
I’ve just read your blog post. I enjoyed it! Would you like to read mine?
Where shall we go for our Wednesday adventure?
Yes, I’ll listen if you want to read to me.
Did you enjoy that story? Would you like to tell me about? What are you going to read next?
Does anyone want to watch a Shakespeare play?
Look what I drew!
Can I tell you what I learnt?
Of course you can have a go.
What would you like to do today?
What a great day! I love spending time with you.
Our days are full and enjoyable. My children are certainly learning.
But are my children only doing things they like? Maybe I should force them to do things they’d rather not. Wouldn’t that be good for their self-discipline? Perhaps they need to learn how to stay with an unpleasant task until the job is done.
I have come to the conclusion there are plenty of opportunities for my children to put aside their selfish tendencies and practice self-discipline: getting out of bed each morning at 6 am to go running; fulfilling their share of the household tasks; taking time to pray and learn about their faith and go to Mass, giving up their time to help each other, committing themselves to outside lessons and music practices… all of which they do willingly.
“How do I make my children do their school work?” I repeat to Irene. “I don’t use threats or bribes or punishments or force. I use love.”
Irene looks puzzled, but it would take far too long for me to explain. I can see she is already losing interest. And anyway, would she understand? I doubt it. Some things need to be lived.