No one asks for a difficult baby, toddler, or preschooler. Yet there are many children out there who don't fit the mold. Many are intellectually ready for school, but emotionally or socially are not.
My son Jon is a prime example. By the time his kindergarten registration rolled around, Jon was already reading anything and everything he could get his hands on. By five he was easily manipulating simple gears and pneumatics to motorize his Lego designs. Like many children, however, Jon was surprisingly immature, both physically and emotionally. For him, the early years were a time of intense energy and frequent emotional storms. The idea of postponing kindergarten seemed ridiculous given his academic abilities, yet to start him in school with his peers was also asking for trouble. Jon was bound to be labeled as hyperactive, or at best a behavioral problem.
So as a parent, what do you do with a child like Jon? First, you try everything you can think of to work within the system, but eventually you forsake tradition and follow your heart: you homeschool.
For some, turning to homeschooling is an easy choice. Guided by Scripture and supported by members of their family and church, home education seems an almost obvious solution. But for others the path is not so clear. My husband and I endured a tremendous amount of criticism for our decision. We had no homeschooling friends and a family who, at best, was unsupportive. But as our dilemma with Jon continued to unfold, we realized that homeschooling was our only hope of protecting our son from a childhood filled with behavioral problems and educational labels.
It is my hope that in sharing Jon's story, others may find the courage they need to provide the best possible environment for their own children.
Times of Change
Jon was born on a calm and beautiful April morning. In fact, it remains in my mind as one of the most beautiful spring days I have seen. Unfortunately, the day was in no way an indication of my son's personality. Jon was far from what you would call an easy baby. He came into this world kicking and screaming, and continued to do so for the next four months. While friends carted their sleeping infants all over town, my husband and I turned down countless invitations in fear of upsetting Jon's schedule. As he got older, little changed. Jon desperately needed adults to be rational, answers to be logical, and rules to be enforced exactly. We both knew that even a few hours with a baby-sitter could mean a week of upheaval and sleepless nights. Being a first-time mother only compounded the problem. We were constantly encouraged to give Jon junk food, to skip naps, or to bend the rules - just this once.
By the time Jon turned three, I had only vaguely heard of homeschooling. At best, it was an option I had not given much thought. Already busy with my second child, I was looking forward to enrolling Jon in preschool. The experience, however, was nothing like I'd expected. Though Jon seemed ready and eager to go the first day, he cried desperately when I attempted to leave. "He'll be fine," I was told, as his teachers ushered me out the door. For the next four weeks I waited nervously outside, wondering if what I was doing was really the right thing for my son. Friends told me I was over-protective, and my family just added this to their list of flaws in my parenting skills.
Eventually Jon did adapt to his new environment. He went to school happily and apparently was never a problem for any of his teachers. But the chaos we endured at home was simply amazing! Inconsistent answers led to weeks of emotional turmoil while Jon worked silently to sort out conflicting thoughts. A flippant response by a teacher, or any new information that did not fit logically with what he knew to be true, sent Jon on an emotional roller coaster.
As a parent, unaware of the exact details of each situation, I was unable to help Jon deal with his conflicting thoughts.
At one point, the children in his three year old pre-school class were making Indian headdresses in preparation for the coming holiday. Each child had been given an Indian name to inscribe on their costume. As expected the other children happily experimented with their new names. Jon, however, was miserable. At home, his emotions raged uncontrollably. After calling the school and several other mothers, I was finally able to decipher that Jon believed the school had actually changed his name. As more and more of his classmates playfully called him "Little Bull," he became totally convinced that the situation was real.
The excitement of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas lead to similar situations. Jon was simply unable to shift from the anticipation of an event to its completion. Even on a small scale, moving from a physically active state to a controlled environment posed a problem. As a result, a happy night of trick-or-treating lead to nearly three hours of crying, as Jon simply could not bear the thought that the ordeal was over. My husband and I fell in bed exhausted that night, knowing full well that Christmas was just around the corner.
It was certainly obvious that emotionally Jon was not ready for school. Intellectually, however, he continued to progress. Given his abilities, delaying kindergarten was bound to leave Jon bored and frustrated in the classroom. Fully aware of his energy level and emotional tendencies, however, we worried that if started in school, Jon would quickly become a behavioral problem.
Over the summer, I read numerous books on homeschooling, including many of John Holt's works and much of the Moore research on postponing formal schooling until a child is eight. Armed with this information, I pulled Jon out of his four-year-old preschool in October, just before Halloween. His teachers were shocked and wasted no time in informing me that I was the problem, not Jon. I even received a visit from one of his teachers, who handed me a list of recommended psychologists and psychiatrists in our area with a letter suggesting we seek family counseling. This is how we began our adventures in homeschooling.
For the next few years things progressed smoothly. Though our families remained unsupportive, my husband and I were gaining confidence. Jon learned rapidly and made tremendous progress both socially and emotionally.
Yet, as his siblings grew older, it became increasingly apparent to us that Jon's behavior was unique. Our two younger children possessed many of his gifts, but none of the hyperactivity or emotional baggage.
Half out of simple curiosity and half desperately searching for an answer, we decided to have Jon's IQ tested. Like most parents, we hoped for the best. If somehow his emotions were linked to genius like Beethoven or Picasso, Jon's behavior would be easier to accept. In retrospect, I think we had also hoped to prove to our parents and friends that our decision to homeschool was a rational, not an emotional one.
Jon endured the two-hour test in a small, hot room with a woman who, at best, wasn't fond of children. But, like preschool, the testing process was nothing like I'd expected. Jon's performance IQ score was, in fact, exceptional. His verbal score, however, was hampered by excessive chair spinning and fidgeting. Jon was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. We were advised to put him on Ritalin and put him in school!
My husband and I were shocked. Emotionally we struggled with the worry that perhaps this was true. Jon did have an incredible energy level, but his attention span was never something we questioned. When engaged in a project of his choosing, Jon could spend hours on a task. He had also completed every puzzle during the performance section of the IQ test, something I later found out would be impossible for an ADHD child.
So after weeks of worrying and researching ADHD we dismissed this woman as yet another person who didn't understand Jon. We were thankful that we had chosen a private psychologist and had paid for the test ourselves. No one would ever learn of this label or have access to Jon's test results. It became painfully obvious to both of us, however, that Jon certainly was not likely to flourish in the public schools. We decided again to keep Jon home and continue with the path we had chosen.
Time to Mature
Looking back I shudder to think of what would have happened to Jon as yet another child lost in the system. Labeled as ADHD at such an early age, Jon's entire education, his self-esteem and possibly his adult life, could have been affected. How sad that a child who simply needed more time to gain control of himself and his environment could suffer so greatly in the hands of the system.
Yet, Jon's case is not unique, nor is the pain and uncertainty the parents of these children face. While support groups and public sympathy abound for the parents of a physically handicapped child, there is little family understanding, let alone community support, for the parents of children who simply don't fit the mold. Jon never looked different to the outside world. In public he was calm and well behaved. He was always polite, athletic, and socially eager to participate in any activity. It was only in the safety and privacy of his home that Jon's emotional storms unfolded. It was at home that conflicting outside information or experiences were sorted out.
Many times it seemed that we were perhaps the only people who saw Jon as a "special needs" child. As a result, my husband and I were subjected to an incredible amount of criticism both for our decision to homeschool and for our parenting style in general.
With time we have learned to appreciate and cherish Jon both for his gifts and their baggage. With time, Jon is learning to better verbalize his questions, concerns, and feelings. Gradually he is gaining mastery of his emotions.
The road has been a long and sometimes lonely one. Homeschooling a challenging child can wear greatly on a family, especially a mother. But I honestly feel the time and freedom we were able to give Jon during these early years was priceless. Through home education, we successfully eliminated the need to hold Jon back simply by providing him with the time he needed to mature before entering a traditional school setting.
Homeschooling can be a wonderful experience for any family, but for children like Jon, it can also be their protection from life-long labels and behavioral problems. Even if a parent does not intend to continue with home education beyond first or second grade, homeschooling can provide a wonderful stepping stone.
Today, Jon is no longer a little boy who needs our protection from the inconsistencies of the world. He is a bright and eager learner; he is confident with both children and adults. Given the time to mature at his own pace, Jon has not only caught up to his peers but in many areas he has passed them.
I have every confidence that Jon could easily excel in a traditional school setting. Yet, for now, we will remain a homeschooling family, this time because, as we have discovered, it is simply a nice way to raise a child.