I was pregnant with my first child in 1988, and I had never heard of homeschooling. One day when I was in my 9th month of pregnancy and in my usual spot lying on the couch, watching TV, and feeling like a beached whale, I was watching the precursor to Oprah, which was a popular talk show hosted by Phil Donahue. On that particular day, he had on the Colfax family from Northern California who had successfully homeschooled their four boys, two of whom were their own biological children, and the other two of whom were adopted and of different races. Clearly there was not a purely genetic edge with this family; they were doing something really interesting and, at that time, cutting edge. At the time of the show, their oldest three had gone on to Harvard on full-ride scholarships, with one becoming a doctor and the other two on their way to becoming lawyers. The fourth was interested in becoming a chef, so he was on a different path.
1. Interest-led learning
The Colfax family had thrown the rule book in the trash and built their children's education around real life experiences and classic books (you can read their story here). They were building a house in a rural area that didn't have water, sewer or electricity running to the lot, so they had to figure out how to do that. The parents didn't just hire that out to other people; they had their kids help figure out how to do everything and help as much as appropriate. They opted to not own a TV, and in a small town with few activities, amusements were of their own making. They learned an enormous amount of math and engineering as well as improving their reading skills while figuring out how to build their house. When that was done, they learned more through other projects like planting a garden and raising animals.
In my own homeschool, I decided to do some structured things (like math), but I left a lot of space for interest-led learning. When my children were little and we were first starting out, I seeded the atmosphere with lots of great books on my coffee table that we would read aloud from for a couple of hours every morning. As they got older, their interests led them to mastering things such as origami, guitar, vocal harmonies, photography, computer programming, rebuilding engines, designing clothing, drawing, painting, and more. The fact that we had free time available in the day made it possible to do a deep dive into each of these things in the pursuit of mastery.
One of my favorite parts of homeschooling; reading aloud. It's so much fun to share great books together!
The Colfaxes didn't do structured 9am-3pm schooling, and yet they earned full-ride scholarships to Harvard! I was so intrigued by this, as I had many memories of staring out the window bored out of my mind while in certain years of my schooling. If I could help my kids avoid that, I was all in!
The more children I had, the more I realized just how unique and different each one is. They each have their own combination of personality traits, their own learning styles, their own natural strengths and weaknesses, and their own unique mission in life. It became quite clear that it was my job to help them find and fulfill their potentials. The flexibility of homeschooling allows just that. There is time to go off on tangents to pursue new interests, or do a spontaneous field trip, or celebrate the first warm day by going to the park, or whatever strikes your fancy!
There is also the flexibility to schedule doctor and dentist appointments in the morning when it's less crowded.
Taking some time out to play on the beach when we lived in Malibu
3. Individual Pacing
The ability to set the pace to the child's needs is possibly the #1 benefit to homeschooling. In a classroom, it's really difficult to account for 20 or 30 different learning paces, and all too often, the gifted kids are bored while the kids who are learning at a slower pace fall through the cracks and get further and further behind. With homeschooling, you can set the pace to match your child's learning ability. If they are gifted, you can zoom ahead as fast as they can handle it. If they are avid readers, you can practically live at the library and explore every topic under the sun. Conversely, if your child is dyslexic or having trouble understanding math or just isn't quite ready to learn to read, you can adjust the pace to whatever they need and/or seek out help when necessary. No one needs to be left behind.
I had some early readers (3 and 4 years old), and I had some late readers (7 and 8 years old). I didn't push any of them along; I let them set the pace, and now they all read quite well. Some of my children grasped math and spelling with ease, while others couldn't spell to save their lives, and others really struggled with understanding math concepts. So with the strugglers, I have had to use more intense spelling instruction and for math, I found it helpful to use manipulatives (wooden blocks, rods, fraction tiles, etc). Even if you never used any of these items in your own learning, they all come with directions, and you may be surprised at how easy it is to explain a math concept using something you can touch and see concretely. I was very good at solving equations as a child, but I didn't really fully understand what some algebra concepts actually meant until I started teaching them to my own children using blocks. All of a sudden it all made sense!
4. Take Back Your Evenings and Lose the Stressful Mornings
This was a big one for me. My husband worked long hours every day, and I wanted my kids to have fun daddy time in the evenings instead of making every night about the pressure of having to help multiple kids with homework, get them to bed early, and then get everyone up early and make all those lunches and run them to multiple schools with different start and finish times, not to mention all the volunteer hours that I would be expected to do at each school. Whew! I was exhausted just thinking about it.
Instead, I structured it so that we could sleep in a little, get going on school by 8 or 9am (without having to leave the house), be done by noon with no homework for the evening, and then have the afternoon to pursue other interests, play outside, and participate in activities like theater and sports.
5. Set the Focus Your Way
It's helpful to pick a focus or mission and build your homeschooling around that. Many schools spend their time teaching to the standardized tests. Their funding is tied to the results, so that's a natural thing to do, but not the approach I wanted. I came to the conclusion after much reading about different ways to homeschool that "building character" was going to be my number one focus. Excellence and mastery are wonderful things, but there are a lot of "experts" who somehow missed the boat in the character department and wound up in prison for using their talents unethically and illegally (I'm thinking in particular of hackers, scam artists like Bernie Madoff, etc). Homeschooling allows you to choose your focus and teach accordingly. If you're not a fan of schools that teach a sort of moral relativism, where, "as long as it doesn't hurt anyone, it's ok", then you can set your own course and pass on your values in the best way you see fit to do so.
One of our favorite books for character-building.
6. Free Time to do Apprenticeships
What if you have a child who is exceptionally mechanically inclined and has no desire to go to college? Homeschooling provides you with the time and flexibility to do an apprenticeship and really learn a skill that can turn into a profitable profession. Or it could be that it has the opposite effect and the child decides to keep that interest as a hobby and pursue something else instead. Either way, it's a win as your child gets closer to finding his vocation in life by taking advantage of the flexibility of the home school schedule.
My son Alex started working for our commercial construction company when he was 15 yrs old. He was too young to be working out in the field legally, but he was very computer savvy and good with numbers, so Mike hired him to help with accounting on the program Quick Books. Alex was born exceptionally shy; he used to hide behind my skirt whenever anyone came to the door, and I used to worry about how he would make it in the world being so afraid of everyone. Working for Mike was a godsend. Mike taught him how to do the accounting, how to fill in the details of a contract, how to call subcontractors for bids, how to schedule inspections, and even how to deal with collecting money! I had a desk in the same room as Alex, and I used to sit there snickering when he would take a call, thinking that if the person on the other end of the phone had any idea they were talking to a 15 year old, well, that would just be hilarious.
Alex stockpiled the money he earned working for his dad for the next three years, and just before he turned 18, he announced that he was going to Europe. I was pretty stunned that Mr. Shy would go to Europe by himself, but if he was 18, who was I to stop him? So right after his 18th birthday, he bought a one-way ticket to Stockholm and left. He started there because it was the cheapest airfare, and his favorite band was playing a concert in Stockholm. From there, he went to various places all over Europe for the next 2 and 1/2 months, had the time of his life, and then flew home.
7. Closer Family Ties
Homeschooling is one of the reasons my kids are so close. Not only have they never been separated from each other by the artificial constructs of the classroom, they have often helped each other through different subjects, often in unexpected ways. For instance, when Christina was 16, she started taking classes at the local community college. She really wanted a study buddy, and her 6 year old sister Dani was up for the challenge. Dani was one of my early readers, and she loved sitting on Christina's bed holding the psychology textbook and quizzing Christina on the material. I was a little blown away by the whole thing, but it was working well for Christina, and Dani was able to handle the reading in a college text book, so I wasn't about to get in the middle of that!
While my children all have friends outside our family, they are truly good friends with each other. My older girls in their 20's like to come over and hang out with their 12 and 13 year old brothers, and my older boys like to hang out with their younger siblings, too. My six daughters have a band together that tours around the world. It's amazing how well they get along in tight quarters, like when we toured Europe for a month on a tour bus. The German bus driver commented that he had never seen a band get along together so well. I attribute a lot of this to the way we homeschooled. Closeness as a family was always a top priority for me, and we worked hard to minimize sibling rivalry and to help them learn to understand and appreciate each other's unique personalities.
A family pic from 2008, when we were featured on the cover of a magazine in a feature on families.
8. More Time for Extracurricular Activities
Many people worry about homeschoolers not developing socialization skills. It's certainly possible to be a hermit if that's your thing, but one of the beauties of homeschooling is that you can do it in such a way that you have loads of free time in the afternoons and evenings to try all kinds of things. Over the years we've done karate, gymnastics, dance, boxing, archery, fencing, art classes, swim team, musical theater, water polo, basketball, flag football, and even triathlons and Spartan races. Not every child did every one of those things, but they all did their fair share, and they met a lot of interesting people along the way.
Christian shooting the ball in water polo, his favorite sport.
When I was young, I had a few good friends in my class and a few good friends on the swim team. That was all I really had time for, between school and homework. My kids, on the other hand, have gotten to know way more people as homeschoolers than I ever did as a public school student. In some schools, it feels like the kids are being raised by the laws of the jungle. With homeschooling, you control the jungle, and you can do as much or as little socializing as you feel is appropriate for your children. If you have super extroverts, you can plan in more play dates and more activities to fill their need for socialization. If you have super introverts, you might want to find quieter and less activities for them so they don't get too overwhelmed. With my eleven kids, I have a mix of introverts, extroverts, and that mixed category that I recently learned about, ambiverts.
Lisa (center) with two of her good friends from musical theater in their production of "Barnum"
My oldest child is now 28 years old; it's been a long time since I lay there on the couch watching that TV show that introduced me to the idea that changed the entire direction of my life and my children. All of my older kids have thanked me for homeschooling them, and as far as I know, they all plan to homeschool their children. To me, that's the largest measure of success right there!
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