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Practical Homeschooling® :

How Free Should They Be?

By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #44, 2002.

When is freedom too free? Some tips for adding structure without squelching your child's spirit.
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Kathy von Duyke

I thought I had finally conquered my "homeschooling with a baby" struggles when I bought a play yard for 14-month-old Justin. It fenced him out of our stuff, and had room for him to play. But Justin longed for more freedom. He solved his problem by moving the play yard, amoeba-like, around the room (even through doorways!), effectively increasing the circumference of his destruction by 14 feet. Even though he spoiled my plan, his triumph made me laugh. His spirited quest for freedom drew my admiration.

What is this intangible desire for freedom that connected my heart to my small child's?

When someone asks me about my children's socialization, I ask them, "What level of freedom is your child enjoying in school?" A part of me thrills at my children's discoveries and passions. Freedom is an intangible but essential aspect of life. We are raising our children to have their own free wills - wills eager to do the will of God.

The life our children eventually discipline themselves to must be lit from within his loving spirit. God doesn't overpower our wills. He doesn't want just voluntary obedience. Obedience without love leads to all manner of addictions. Why? Because a heart contained by rules, with no fire within, must find something that tastes alive, and cheap substitutes for life are all around us. He wants our hearts open to his spirit, and from there He promises to move life into our beings.

Jesus said, "I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly." He hasn't called us to passive niceness nor bullying selfishness - but to passionate goodness.

Christian homeschoolers can focus a lot of attention on obedience and authority. I used to joke that I was not raising my children to leave me - no way! I was working way too hard for that. No, I was raising them to serve me. After all my hard work, my daughters should stay home and take care of the small children, and they should marry good homeschool boys who will work in my husband's home business for free . . . but we'll throw in some spotted lambs.

If this is starting to sound like a familiar Old Testament story (remember the story of Jacob and Laban in Genesis 30:27-43), it just shows how relevant that old book is to the human heart.

This view of parenting is condemned in Ezekiel 34. In fact, it's equated with cannibalizing our children, using their life's energy for ourselves, rather than shooting them at the enemy and supporting them as they join in the battle between good and evil.

That's why the authority we are given as parents is equated with shepherds and not military generals. It isn't the authority to command and overtake their wills, but the authority to nurture them in their choices. The framework we offer our children is much like Justin's play yard. It is a safe place, large enough for them to be nurtured, but bounded for their safety. The external environment grows with the child's ability to feed from it, and it nurtures the internal choices and growth. Every year they move to a bigger and more complex environment eager to discover a bigger world.

We like to say, "When you can be more responsible, then you can have more freedom." In the real world, they become more responsible through the process of choosing. It is when we make choices, and live with the consequences of those choices, that we grow. Sometimes we end up with egg on our faces as parents, and have to bring in the fences a little, sometimes our children clearly tell us the fencing has become too small and they need more room to grow. We need to listen for this.

Tim and I are ever guarding our children's safety and their freedom. Shepherding takes a lot of energy, but it also invites the side benefit of another extremely important intangible, as necessary to life as freedom, and that's relationship. Ultimately, it is through our relationship with our children, that the relationship we have in Christ is passed on. One of the greatest benefits of homeschooling is this mind/heart/spirit we have with them, so that we know what they are learning and what they love, and on the way, the light of Christ's loving work in us sparks a yearning to follow Christ in them.

But sometimes a committee shows up in my head - they say stuff like:

"You should give your children more freedom in their education. It isn't right to coerce them into learning; after all, what do you really know about their interests and abilities? You could be assigning a project way over their head and far removed from their interests. Let them seek learning for its own sake."

Then the other side says, "Are you crazy? They need more discipline and rules and worksheets. If you let them seek learning for its own sake they'll spend all day running around the house, hitting each other, in between playing mindless computer games. They'll be rude, ignorant, and ashamed of themselves." More framework!

The tug between discipline and freedom would disable me from making decisions about schooling. Both sides have valid arguments. But if I see discipline not so much as an action but as a plan, then freedom for my child lies within it.

Maria Montessori said, "Discipline must come through liberty. . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute. . . He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined."

My homeschooling needs a fence to keep us in good places. The first side of my fence is my prepared room and overall skills list for each child. The list lets me know where my children should be heading, and what to set up in my schoolroom so they might have opportunity to pursue it. Keeping myself accountable this way helps me stay alert to what areas need more work and what areas have become old for each child.

The second side of the fence is the syllabus I write for each subject my child will work on for the year. I have an overall plan for the year written out, but I fill in the syllabi monthly. This allows me to stay close to my child's interests and abilities. I feel Peter, our fifth grader, will get lots more learning out of all the terrific books we have filled our school room with over the years, and he loves to read. So I emphasize reading, but he may research a topic. I want to build his research and writing skills but I like to key these to what I see he is excited about. For Timmy, our third grader, the books he can read are fairly simple, but he can gain a lot through projects that encourage his attention to the subject. His research must be very simple: a short list of questions I make for him, which he answers then rewrites into a paragraph format. Often, I will create a shelf of job choices and leave out a stack of library books, further increasing their chance to choose what interests them. Sometimes I simply write "your choice" under a heading and they fill in what is completed.

My simple syllabus for each course is the same. It shows a block:

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Etc

Of course, the blocks are bigger than this example!

"Read" is followed by a book title or free choice. We always start here because the human brain was not designed to absorb facts, but to respond to story. I keep this in mind when I scour for books. "Activities" usually consists of jobs I've created, creative projects, or nature hunts. This is the adventurous part of schooling that woos them into the subject. "Research" may consist of a worksheet or a list of questions to look up. I keep the list short for children under fourth grade because young children are emotional creatures and don't think inductively. "Computer" may be a software choice, or a web site to explore, or nothing in the blank.

The rest of our school is fenced on two sides by two routines.

Morning line time. The children check their checklist, which simply lists the subjects they are to cover that day, and write out their plan of work for their day in their log book. This may seem redundant with young children, but I'm building a lifelong habit in them of checking their day and deciding what to do with it. They have the choice of which subject to do first, and except for those subjects which I teach in small groups, may clump courses anyway they like as long as the list is finished by the weekend. For core courses, the checklist will state "history" but the children check the history syllabus I have on file under their name, and pick which activities for the week they would like to do that day. This respects my children's thinking because if they are really enjoying a subject, they need not put it down just as it becomes interesting. On the other hand, it makes sure that other subjects don't trail too far behind.

Afternoon checkpoint. I gather the children on the line again before breaking for chores and lunch. They bring their journals and write a short entry about what they have learned that day. I feel this both creates a sense of ownership about the work they are doing and a chance to "think about their learning," a mind habit important for retaining and connecting their subjects in their minds. This is also the time to engage them in conversation about what they have learned and to teach respectful listening skills.

This should be a relaxed time, a time to share a few thoughts and jokes together. It is an extremely important time because I have cues to their understanding, can often extend a thought for them, and remind myself of ways I can enhance what has now become a part of their field of interest. My creative juices get going as I am inspired by what is inspiring them!

Our ground rules do not change, and that's the key here. Once these habits are built in, we can count on them for sure signposts of mastery and growth.

We need an opening to our day and a closure. I need check points to oversee their work, and hear their thoughts on what they are learning. I need a plan for them, but a connection with their thinking so I can best work that plan or be willing to change that plan.

More than that, I need to hear them as people and be flexible enough to respond to them. (Don't you hate it when a friend of yours always has an agenda for you?)

Enjoying and knowing my children is why after 17 years of homeschooling, I'm still going.

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