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Starting Out

by Ginny Seuffert

Most of you have already begun your school year, and first-timers may be discovering that home education is not quite what was anticipated.

So many articles you read online spoke of a vibrant learning environment in the home, with parents and children working together, eagerly studying and acquiring knowledge, but they failed to mention dawdling uncooperative students. You filled your home with books and educational toys, and you were positive your children would just naturally gravitate towards them and away from the mindless idiocy on the television, but it seems they turn on the tube every time your back is turned. You planned on daily Mass and rosary, but the kids whine about getting up early for church, and don’t sit still for a decade much less an entire chaplet. Surely, you believed, once your children are away from the bullying and bad influence in brick and mortar schools, they will be transformed into cooperative learners with sunny dispositions, but instead they are arguing with one another, and resist finishing their school work and helping with household chores. You wonder if you are doing something wrong, or if you are just not cut out for home schooling.

I am beginning my twentieth year of home schooling, and moms like me chuckle when we listen to new parents grumble because we know home education is not so much an immediate transformation as it is a gradual process.

Change is hard—for everyone—and home education must not be looked at as some sort of magical solution for uncooperative kids and reluctant learners. Rather it is a way of life, and when parents put their faith in God, work hard, and apply common sense principles about discipline and order, they do see their children and their homes transformed—over time. Here are some ideas to help you stay the course.

First, plan a simple schedule and keep to it. For example, you may start your school day at 8A.M.; take a 15 minute break at 10; take an hour lunch between noon and 1; put baby and toddler down for a nap at 1, and continue schoolwork until 2:30; have a 30 minute tidy-up time; let the kids go about their own activities until dinner. Families that stick to a simple schedule have found an important key to home school success.

A lesson plan is a key ingredient in learning, but is intended to be your slave and not your master. If you find it easier to give oral tests in spelling and vocabulary, for example, by all means do so. If your son resists endless pages of arithmetic fact drills, feel free to substitute flash card review. If your daughter wants to read ahead and finish her Bible history the first week of every quarter, that’s what works for her. A common mistake that spells big trouble for newbies is the mom who feels she must follow lesson plans slavishly.

Do not feel that you need to remain locked in a home “classroom”. Making the home schooling part of a daily routine is one of the primary reasons for long term success. Have your 2nd grader read today’s story from the Faith and Freedom reader aloud to you as you wipe your kitchen counters. Discuss a chapter in history with a 7th grader while you unload the dishwasher. Let the children sit at the top of your bed to do math, while you fold your clean laundry at the bottom of the bed. Bring workbooks out to the picnic table so the older children can work while the toddlers play in the yard. Not only will your housework get done, but your children will come to view learning as something that goes on everywhere, all the time, not just during certain hours in a classroom.

Parents who have pulled children out of dysfunctional schools often must consider the first several months of home schooling as a sort of detoxification and re-education program. Frequently by the middle school years, children in institutional schools are programmed by their peers to consider their parents as the enemy, and disrespect and disobedience are the norm. Remind your children daily that respect and obedience are mandatory, not just options. Do not allow them to argue with you when you give instructions. Tell them, “The only answer I expect to hear is ‘Yes, Mom.’” You need not be punitive, but you must be unwavering about those rules you consider key. So, for example, if you discover unauthorized TV use, the first time, shut the thing off and warn that the TV must stay off during the school day. The second time you find them watching it during school hours, unplug it and put it in the cellar. Once the kids see you mean business, they will stop testing you. Over time, they may even come to recognize and appreciate your loving care.

Along the same lines, much of what passes for learning in institutional schools is more recreational than educational. Help your children come to understand and appreciate the beauty of true learning. Just as an adult who develops a taste for fine dining avoids fast food restaurants, so children who read the classics of children’s literature, listen to music by the great composers, and examine art by the finest masters, are more likely to develop distaste for much of so-called modern American culture. Use the media judiciously, and only when it serves an educational purpose.

For example, a family showing of the movie Gettysburg would certainly enhance study of the Civil War. Be warned though! Many movies of undeniable value—The Passion of the Christ (historically correct and spiritually provoking) and the HBO series about John Adams (careful attention to historical detail) are two that come to mind—contain material that could be too graphic or too intense for many young people. If in doubt, always preview a movie, or check it out on a media review Christian or Catholic website, before showing it to your children.

Many new home schoolers start out with tremendous plans for spiritual development, including daily Mass and rosary. It is not uncommon, however, to find mom overwhelmed and feeling guilty for not going to Mass everyday or for not getting the kids to sit still for the rosary. Again, remember that even many Catholic schools are short on daily devotions, and it may take time to enhance a family’s spiritual life. Still, there are a few simple devotions that are easy to integrate into your day. Tape the Morning Offering to the mirrors in everyone’s room so it is memorized, and start your school day with this powerful prayer. If your children are still young, the following version was taught to me as a child, is easy to remember, and says it all: Good morning dear Jesus, this day is for You. I ask You to bless all I think, say and do. Begin each subject with The Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, or a short aspiration like Jesus, Mary and Joseph, pray for us now and at the hour of our death, amen. Do not forget to say grace at meals. For years my family has begun car trips with a Memorare and the aspiration, Our Lady of the Way, protect us. Car trips are also a great time to say the rosary as the kids are captive anyway. When your children are little, lead them in evening prayers, but even as they age, remind them at bedtime to say their prayers, especially three Hail Mary’s for purity. Put a holy water font next to the front and back doors, and put crucifixes or holy pictures around the house. All of these reminders help our children, and us, to focus on the true purpose of education.

Finally, never hesitate to contact a Seton counselor. Your problems may seem unique to you, but generally Seton counselors have heard them many times before, and they have solutions that really work. Do not wait until the frustration builds to the point of putting the children back in school. Call anytime you feel you are falling behind, or are overwhelmed, or worrying that you are not doing something right. We want to help you.

Talk to experienced home schoolers. Virtually every one of them will tell you that the first year is the hardest. That only makes sense. Home schooling is a new way of life; every lesson you teach, you have never taught before; each discipline challenge is a first; each textbook is an unknown. As with everything else in life, over time, the strange becomes the familiar; the difficult becomes achievable. Teaching and training your child at home is a tremendous responsibility, but over time, you will come to value it as your greatest blessing.