10 Lessons I've Learned From Thirty Years of Homeschooling
10 Lessons I've Learned from Thirty Years of Homeschooling
By Michael P. Farris, JD, LLM
Yes, I know your immediate reaction to the title of this article—that’s only one lesson every three years. And, of course, that is true. But you must give me grace as a slow learner since I attended public school.
This fall will be our family’s 30th year of active homeschooling. To achieve 30 years, you must have either a very large family or very slow learners. We have the former.
Nine of our 10 children have graduated from high school. Peter, who is 14, is entering the 9th grade—using the homeschoolish meaning of grade. You know—he has already taken chemistry, which is usually a 10th-grade subject, and is at a different grade level in virtually every subject, depending on his aptitude and what books we already had on the shelf.
Okay, for those of you who are too literal and for the three truant officers in Oskaloosa, Walla Walla, and Poughkeepsie who subscribe to the Court Report to “monitor” the homeschooling movement so that you can pounce on the weak, let me say that, while Peter is at a variety of grade levels, he is not below grade level in any subject except advanced multiculturalism.
The 10 Lessons
So, let’s scamper right over to the list of 10 lessons that our family has learned in the past three decades. They are not listed in any order that might be fairly described as “the order of importance.”
1. Get an answering machine and use it.
Proper use of an answering machine in the homeschooling context begins with the greeting. I recommend a Bible verse. Job 5:1 is a good choice: “Call if you will, but who will answer you?” (New International Version). If you are worried about people coming over after you refuse to answer, then Proverbs 1:28 might be the better choice: "Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me" (NIV).
Okay. Here’s the serious point. You can’t homeschool when you are on the phone. And as unfair as this may sound, even if you are giving advice to a caller interested in homeschooling, it still doesn’t count as homeschooling.
Cell phones, email, and Facebook have only served to exacerbate the problem. The new version of this maxim is—and I know this may sound like heresy to some—you can’t be on Facebook and be homeschooling.
Homeschooling requires that you focus all available attention on your children. Do not let other people interrupt your schedule with phone calls, texts, or Facebook messages.
It is perfectly fine to take time to do all of those other things later, when your planned time with your children is over, but be the master of your schedule or I guarantee that the world will move in and steal every available minute.
2. Dad, if you are going to teach P.E., make it something more than three hours of an NFL preseason game followed by an hour of Sports Central.
Physical activity and sports are an important part of homeschooling. Having your child play on a recreational sports team can be a good thing—especially if Dad is the coach. But whether or not it’s through organized sports, dads should make sure that kids are getting enough exercise. My father gave me a bodybuilding course when I was 14. I had to dig a ditch that was about 200 feet long, a foot wide, and a foot deep one summer. By the end, I was in great condition and had a terrific tan (True story).
3. Be fair to your children when you are using “hands-on manipulatives” to teach math.
One day, when the kids were becoming just a smidge irritating—or as we say in the Farris home “acting like little pips”—I suggested that Vickie use a math game that I had heard of on the homeschool speaking circuit. You throw 99 pennies out into the front yard and tell the children that when they find all 100 they can come back inside. Vickie rolled her eyes and chose another activity.
4. Do not fall into the trap of perfectionism.
You have heard the stories—you know the family with 12 children, all under age 9, whose 6-year-old has learned to solve three-variable algebra problems by studying the number of Hebrew syllables in the Pentateuch. Their 9-year-old has fully funded his college education by selling organic muffins door-to-door, using the ingredients his 7-year-old sister grew in the 40-acre herb farm she operates. There was enough money left over for Mom to run down to the fabric store (being sure to take all the kids with her so that she could teach a math lesson while buying material). She then bought enough material to make all of the girls matching dresses, all of the boys matching vests, and matching curtains to hang over the kitchen sink.
This is like a stunt in a television car commercial. Do not try this at home!
When we began homeschooling, a curriculum fair could be held in a space the size of an airplane bathroom. There was only one vendor that was really willing to sell to homeschoolers. Now, the world has exploded with choices and while it is wonderful, it can be both bewildering and intimidating.
Do not believe for a second that you can teach every subject that you would desire. Nor can you engage in every activity that you would like to have your children pursue. You cannot attend every support group meeting you would like. You cannot keep your house in mint condition 24/7. Your children may occasionally whine despite the ads you read in the homeschooling magazine that promised contented children.
This is not to say that you cannot engage in a lot of good things. You can. This is not to say that you cannot find a wonderful variety of choices for your children’s activities. You can. This is not to say that your house shouldn’t be reasonably clean. It should be reasonably clean. But do not drive yourself crazy with the lie that you must do it all.
There are nagging voices that like to whisper in the ears of a homeschooling mom—especially in your first few years. Oh, they would be doing a lot of fun things in the public schools. Think of all the enrichment. Are you sure there are no gaps in your curriculum? And, yes, I know you have heard it before but, my dear, what about socialization? Are you doing enough?
Don’t listen to those voices, even if it is your mother-in-law who is whispering in your ear. Do not listen to the lie that your children would be doing more if they were in the public schools.
A friend of mine, a public school principal, taught his daughter at home for six weeks when she was ill. He went by her school every day and got her material and taught her at home at night. He kept track of the time. Six minutes a day. That was how long it took him to teach her the first grade material she missed.
Okay? Do well. Be great. Be excellent. But forget this perfectionism nonsense, especially when it is driven by guilt about what your children might be missing.
5. Strive for mastery in just two areas: language and math.
All knowledge uses one of two languages—either the language of words or the language of numbers. Science uses the language of numbers; just about everything else uses the language of words—although, to be fair, it is impossible to be self-contained in either of these two language worlds.
The goal of your academic program should be to achieve mastery in these two languages. For all other subjects, your goal should be a reasonably broad exposure.
Your children are not going to master chemistry. That requires a PhD—for them, not you. Your children will not master American history, or the Constitution, or the great artists of the Renaissance.
A good academic education will provide a well-rounded exposure in a broad variety of disciplines that we call the arts and sciences. But your emphasis at this stage should be mastery of the two languages.
I have taught several thousand homeschooled teenagers a course in constitutional law. I have graded thousands of examinations.
Some students not only understand the advanced concepts of constitutional law, but also write better prose and better content than most lawyers. A disturbing number of students, however, seem to get the concepts quite well but cannot express themselves appropriately. The spelling is awful. Who in the world conned people into believing that spelling doesn’t count?
One girl I taught (and I am relieved to say that she attended a private school), told me she wanted to go to Princeton University. She turned in a five-page exam with 52 spelling errors. I told her that until she learned to spell, Princeton or any good college was out of the question. Every time I grade papers, I find far too many with simply unacceptable spelling, grammar, and penmanship.
If you want to ensure that your child is taken seriously in either college or the adult world, his penmanship needs to look like he is older than 8.
I fear that the homeschooling movement has become so enamored with all of the bells and whistles of cool curriculum add-ons that we have forgotten some of the basics.
Teach your children to read and write to a level of mastery. Math skills should also reach a level of basic mastery. Emphasize these basics and all the rest will be added unto you.
6. Your marriage is more important than your curriculum.
Your personal relationship with Christ is even more important. Moms, if you are so exhausted from homeschooling at the end of the day that you have no time or energy to interact with your husband, you need to find an easier path (I will have something to say to dads about this in the next bullet).
America’s greatest deficit is not in reading, math, or science—although our national scores in these areas are woeful. Our greatest deficit is in our ability to create and maintain stable families. The greatest thing you can do for your children is to have a stable and joyful marriage. Modeling such a marriage is the best guarantee you can give them that they will have such a marriage also.
If you wanted to do that fancy new classical curriculum, but it would take you 12 hours a day to pull it off—don’t do it. Find a program that is easier on Mom. Marriages take time to be healthy. Leave yourself some time.
7. Dad, you need to be both protective and cooperative.
Dad, do not let other people invade your wife’s generosity and steal her time. Some women in your church might say, “We are having a Bible study and you have four children here already. Can you watch ours as we study the Word?” Dad, do not let people invade her time and energy in this fashion.
Dad, make sure that your wife gets a break. My wife has taken a long walk—usually four miles—nearly every day for the past 30 years. Well, actually, it’s been longer than 30 years. But she did not stop walking just because she was busy with homeschooling.
That has been incredibly important to Vickie. It was my job to help protect that time and to cooperate with her to make this possible.
Dad, you must also take as much of the load as you can manage in one of two areas: the academics of homeschooling or the care of the home. These areas form the bulk of your wife’s to-do list. Your goal is to ensure that your wife knows from your actions that you are as committed to homeschooling as she is. You accomplish this by taking items off of her to-do list and getting them onto yours.
8. Tell your kids why you are homeschooling them.
Your goal is not to raise good children. It is not to raise good adults. These are but necessary steps in the process. Your goal is to replicate yourself by raising good parents.
If you want your children to share any of your convictions—biblical convictions, political convictions, or homeschooling convictions—it is not sufficient to just model these things or to teach them the facts in these areas. You must explain why. When they are 6, they rarely need to know why. By the time they are 11 or 12, the process of explaining why you believe what you believe should be a regular part of your conversations.
Children will be convinced of what you believe by the way you act. Children will share your beliefs when they understand the reasons that underlie the beliefs.
9. Teenage boys need men.
When your son gets to be about 13, it is time to expand his instructors beyond Mom. Dad is ideal. Other men can also help. Co-op classes can be considered.
I am very grateful to Dr. Tom Larry, who has taught my three youngest sons courses in chemistry. He is a PhD scientist and did a great job with a small group of homeschooled kids.
When your son is learning to be a man, Mom can still play a role in the instruction, but your son and your wife will be a lot better off if there are some men involved in the active instruction of your son.
10. Don’t let anyone tell you that homeschooling is distracting you from more important spiritual duties in the church.
There is a problem in the homeschooling movement of being too insular. You are not raising your children to sit quietly under a tree reading great literature while sipping genuine southern iced tea.
You should be raising warriors who have the courage to take on the world for the cause of Christ. If you want your children to be witnesses, you should be modeling witnessing. You should also give your children instruction and opportunities in sharing their faith. In other words, you should be discipling your children in Christ so that they will engage the world for the cause of Christ.
There is little doubt that some homeschoolers have become spiritually insular to an inappropriate degree. But, the reaction to this is not to turn discipleship of our children over to the church. Nor is it to shame the parents of homeschooling children into performing so many functions in the church that they have little time left for discipling their own children.
Every command in Scripture about teaching children—specifically teaching them the things of God—is directed at parents. This is not to say that the church can never teach children. That would be like saying the church can never use loudspeakers because they are not directly mentioned in the Bible.
But it is clear error to argue that the church is the primary means for the discipleship of children. We can discern an emphasis for the family from Scripture even if it pushes too far to claim that the family is the exclusive means of teaching children.
And, just take a look at how church-based discipleship is working. Fifty-eight percent of young adults who attended church every week when they were teens do not attend church at all by the time they are 29.1 Among born-again teens, only 9% believe that absolute truth even exists. And only 12% of born-again teens say that they make their moral choices based on the Word of God.2
Think of what would happen to the management of a soft drink company that shared the following facts with the board of directors: “Well, we have a recognized market share of teens who drink ‘Dr. Delicious’ every week. But, by the time they are 29, we have lost 60% of those consumers to other products. And when surveyed, only 9% say that they like the taste of the product now. And 12% say that they would purchase Dr. Delicious for themselves at the store while the other 88% simply drink it because it is the drink their parents bring home.”
Any management group that was satisfied with this scenario would be fired forthwith. I personally think church leaders should be asking themselves hard questions about their effectiveness in light of the horrible statistics of young people who reject God after growing up in the church.
But what we can say for sure is this—church-based discipleship is not working for America’s young people.
The emphasis of Scripture is on parents teaching their children to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and Ephesians 6:4). It is a delicate balance, but the vision needs to be a nurturing family that launches young men and women into the world for service to the Lord.
The Great Commission does not merely call for evangelism. In fact, evangelism is only implied, not directly commanded. It calls for making disciples. Disciple your children. Send them into the world to engage in spiritual combat in service of the King of Kings.
1 The Barna Update, 24 September 2003.
2 The Barna Update, 12 February 2002.
Courtesy HSLDA. Used with permission.
Since founding HSLDA in 1983, Michael Farris has used his extensive experience in both politics and appellate litigation to defend parental rights and help grow the organization to over 80,000 member families. He is also the founding president and current Chancellor of Patrick Henry College, a Christian institution with the mission of training students through a classical liberal arts curriculum and apprenticeship methodology to impact the world “for Christ and for Liberty.”
Farris has written over a dozen books, including three novels, a constitutional law textbook, and works on marriage, parenting, homeschooling, political advocacy, and religious liberty. His daily radio program, Home School Heartbeat, airs on several hundred stations nationwide.
In recognition of his work in home education, Education Week has named Farris one of the “Top 100 Faces in Education of the 20th Century.” Heritage Foundation awarded him its Salvatori Award for American Citizenship in 2002.
Mike and Vickie Farris live in Purcellville, Virginia, and have 10 children and 10 grandchildren.
Home School Legal Defense Associationis a nonprofit advocacy organization established to defend and advance the constitutional right of parents to direct the education of their children and to protect family freedoms. Through annual memberships, HSLDA is tens of thousands of families united in service together, providing a strong voice when and where needed.