Many people ask me what our lives look like homeschooling three children, and how we balance educating our kids at home with managing our businesses, running a farm, teaching people homesteading and wilderness skills, and keeping sane.
The secret: We don't keep sane. And that's okay. We don't strive for perfection, but for a healthy-ish balance between our own needs, our kids' needs, and the needs of our different businesses.
My type A German nature wishes I could tell you that we manage all the above by adhering to a structured schedule and routine – but that couldn't be further from the truth. A disciplined and organized homeschooling life is not in the stars for our family because our lives are unpredictable, spontaneous and seasonal.
We live at the edge of the Pacific Northwest wilderness in the scenic Skagit Valley, where we homestead on five acres. We grow a huge organic vegetable garden, raise goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, bees, fruits, berries, herbs and a crop of three children, Kai (13), Lukas (11) and Eva (6).
I am a life coach and also teach people how to make artisan cheese, ferment foods, and other homesteading skills. Steve teaches people how to make traditional wooden bows and how to survive in the wilderness, and brings home the bacon by restoring salmon habitat, which involves long days away from home in the spring and fall.
Summer is slower for him, and in the winter he is with us all the time. Days with Steve at home look very different than days when I hold down the fort alone, and every season of the year has a different flavor for our lives and homeschooling.
Spring is our craziest season, because all of the sudden, Steve is absent after having spent winter with us, and on top of that, baby goats are being born, baby chicks grow in the brooder, the garden has to be prepared, seeds have to be started and planted, fruit trees need to be pruned, and homeschooling falls on my shoulders. All three kids are very involved with doing household chores and helping with the garden and animals.
Summer is filled with a mix of hard work and hard play. The garden always screams for attention, the animals need to be taken care of, and there is no conventional summer break in homeschooling since the kids' academic work suffered in the busy spring when I didn't have time to pay much attention to that, so they do some academic work throughout summer.
This time is also a blissful time for hiking, backpacking in the mountains, bicycling adventures, swimming at the pond and many local rivers, and parties at our backyard fire pit with friends.
Fall demands lots of harvesting and preserving food our land cranked out, including slaughtering pigs and meat chickens, which the kids are very involved with it. There's nothing that teaches science better than killing and gutting a chicken.
Another fall chore and homeschooling lesson: The goats need to be bred and be shuttled back and forth in the van for their dates with the buck. Yep, you don't get such an intimate science lesson about procreation in public school!
Winter in our corner of the world is dark and wet - a perfect recipe for cabin fever. Some years the whole family crams into our old RV for a few weeks and escapes to the Southwest, where sun and adventures beckon.
This is the best kind of homeschooling: learning about geography, history and social studies hands-on by visiting the places we would otherwise just read about.
If you are wondering if we get anything academic done, the answer is, yes – sometimes more, sometimes less. Despite our lack of formal structure, both boys are a grade level ahead in math.
My oldest son Kai is a voracious reader, burning through several thick books a week, while he is also teaching himself computer programming.
Lukas, the middle kid, does well in math, although he doesn't like it. He is a talented, creative artist who loves to draw and plays several instruments (mostly self-taught). Both boys are avid hunters, aiming to contribute to the family's freezer.
Little Eva is learning her letters and engages in imaginative free play all day long, and I'm not pushing her to read at all. All three kids are curious, outgoing, polite and well-liked.
So how do we “do” homeschooling?
I don't believe in cramming facts down children's throats – facts that they don't care about. I think that kids are naturally curious and will learn what they are interested in. However, although I truly wish I could be comfortable with a philosophy called unschooling (where the kids lead and are in charge of their own learning), I am more old-school.
I was raised in a very disciplined German educational system, learning several languages and high level math at a young age, and I am not comfortable with letting my kids do whatever they want. However, I absolutely object to the education I received in Germany: studying lots of irrelevant things that I wasn't interested in, cramming facts into my brain so I could get an A, and then promptly forgetting everything. What a waste of time!
I am trying to find a middle way: do some traditional, basic teaching, but also let my kids have lots of freedom and free time to pursue whatever they want.
The way this has looked like so far is that many days they do a math lesson (Saxon Math), and then some other curriculum in science, social studies and language arts. Usually, I like them to start at 9 am, so that they are completely done with “school” by noon.
When they were younger, I used to sit with them, actively helping and reading every single book for the curriculum with them. I have to admit I burnt out on this method of teaching and am glad that the boys are now old enough to be self directed. I used “Moving Beyond the Page” curriculum when they were younger, which is very reading-intensive. Right now, they use “Oak Meadow”, which is more self-directed, and they don't need me to “teach” them and read with them.
I don't spend much time preparing lessons. Actually, I don't spend much time pre-planning anything. I know there are people who spend their Sunday evenings organizing everything for the week ahead (and I admire them and am ever so slightly jealous of their enthusiasm) but, frankly, I would rather spend my evenings sitting quietly on the sofa, reading, knitting, or watching a movie.
I'm embarrassed to admit this, but by 7 pm, I am tired of my darling children. I crave quiet, solitude, some time with just me and a chocolate truffle or two. My self care wasn't always a priority, especially when the kids were young, but I have learned that if I don't put the oxygen mask on myself, I can't take care of anyone else. Two years ago, I suffered from adrenal fatigue, which made me tired, irritable, very stressed and unable to sleep, and I learned the hard way that my body needs guilt-free rest and some peace and quiet regularly.
We mothers tend to over give and neglect our own needs, especially when we homeschool and spend so much time with our kids. So now I make it a point to chill out and not put so many expectations on myself (or on my kids and poor husband), and wouldn't you know it, my adrenals are working fine again, thank you very much.
Sometimes, I fantasize about putting my kids on the school bus in the morning, so I could have all day to concentrate on the farm, teaching my online cheesemaking and fermentation classes, developing more homesteading courses, all without interruption or guilt that I am not educating my kids well enough.
Then I stop, slap my forehead and remember that the bus ride would take two hours one-way, to a public school that rates very low in the state. I remember that I bristle at the thought of public education, a modern concept invented quite recently in human history. I also remember that I really like being around my kids (except maybe when I am tired in the evenings), and that I love watching them learn – not because I or the system force them to, but because their innate drive makes them want to learn things they are interested in.
I keep reminding myself, and my husband helps me when I forget, by saying “The proof is in the pudding”: Our kids are pretty darn great. As much as I beat myself up about not having it all together, of not doing a good enough job, as much as Steve and I muddle our way between the two extremes of either radically unschooling or public school, we try to find a level of acceptance. There is no one fixed, right path. There will always be uncertainty if we are doing what's “right” for our kids. We want the security and comfort of knowing that we are doing the “right” thing, but wanting this kind of control is an insane desire and illusion. As Brian Kessler says, “The closest to being in control we'll ever be is that moment when we realize we're not.”
Besides scheduling time alone every day, what has helped me find sanity when I lose it is cultivating this acceptance in our middle way of homeschooling, and cultivating trust in the process – trusting my children, trusting that they will learn no matter what or how. Letting go of my expectations of how things should be helps. Chocolate helps. Spending time with other homeschoolers and parents who share my struggle, even if it's just to validate how we are feeling.
I recently signed up for an online workshop put on by two of my favorite bloggers, Heather and Ben. In the workshop, they recorded their conversations about some of the most common topics related to home education. I loved listening to their extensive experience of homeschooling, and the humanity they add to it. One of the biggest values I received when Heather responded to one of my posts on their community website, where I talked about feeling overwhelmed at the moment, like I'm not doing this well enough. She reminded me of something important.
Here is what she wrote: “The two things that helped me, and that I said over and over to my daughter, as she was more rigid than I, was to remind us that we were building a life and a family story more than we were "doing school." Home education, however it looks, is family history in the making. Sure, you can be organized and pull out curriculum and do all that, but you also have to LIVE with these people and if they, or you, are maxed out, shifts must be made. In short, for our family, our personal vitality and quality of relationships with each other trumped the number of hours I logged reading aloud.”
I love that. It's such a good perspective.
And if things really feel crazy in my mental sanity department, I do something that never fails: head out to the goat barn and play with goat babies.
PS: Talking of homeschooling and letting kids follow their own passion... Lukas is starting to make his own movies and filmed this one, plus put it together totally by himself (no help from me at all). You HAVE to watch it. It made me cry.