Homefires - The Journal of Homeschooling OnlineHomefires - The Journal of Homeschooling Online

A Recovery Program for Homeschool Split Personality Disorder

By Diane Flynn Keith

Do you vacillate between child-led, developmentally appropriate, interest-initiated unschooling on one hand, and traditional, structured, academic-based education on the other? These mood-altering swings in methodology creep up unexpectedly on homeschooling parents and are often exacerbated by events beyond their control. I know. I am recovering from homeschool split-personality disorder.

Global Fun

When I began homeschooling, I really liked the idea of unschooling. It made sense as John Holt (guru of the Growing Without Schooling movement) said in his book, Teach Your Own that true learning only takes place when it is desired by the learner.

I knew that most of the knowledge I had acquired and used in my life was in place because I pursued it. I remembered that when I was in school, and required to learn certain subjects, I studied the materials sufficiently to pass a test and then promptly forgot most of it. So, because I could see the truth in Holt's words manifested in my own life, accepting this unique approach to education was enticing.

When I embraced this ideology all was right with the world. My kids were happily absorbed in projects and experiments of their own creation. I was the happy facilitator of their dreams. I helped them find the resources they needed to satiate their interests in the subjects they wanted to explore.

Homeschool Panic Attack

Sometimes, though, a homeschool panic attack would disrupt this rapturous scene. Usually it was incited by the kid-next-door who came over and said he got an A+ on his long division test, or that he just finished writing a five-page report on the Industrial Revolution. One time it occurred because a grandparent (after taking the kids to a movie) questioned why the children were having trouble reading the credits that were in cursive type on the movie screen. It had even happened when another homeschooling friend proudly shared that her 13-year-old daughter successfully passed the high school proficiency exam.

During these episodes something deep inside me would well up and transform me into a ruler-swinging school marm ready to "drill and kill" my kids all the way to college. I'd announce that, "Things are going to change around here." I'd get on the phone and order catalog curriculum products.

I'd create a schedule of subjects, neatly align the materials we'd need, and begin a rigid program of structured learning. My kids looked at me like I was nuts but cooperatively went along with my antics for a while. Usually about three weeks into the packaged-curriculum-product-paces my kids revolted. They would object, complain, and beg for a reprieve.

When I was finally exhausted from the demands of lesson preparations and had been thoroughly worn down by the kids' pitiful whining and misery my alter-ego emerged. You know, the "let's take the day off and go to the beach" unschooler who squelched the tenured-teacher ego and encouraged the kids to play hooky.

After a day discovering sea creatures in tide pools, watching the tide line rise and fall, discussing tidal action and the moon's gravitational pull, examining different varieties of seaweed, constructing sand castles, and sorting sea shells into categories, I began to wonder why I ever questioned my children's desire to learn and their ability to learn from the environment around them. We would immediately begin unschooling again in earnest. I "channeled" John Holt, Pat Farenga, Grace Llewellyn, John Taylor Gatto, and both Colfaxes to my children's utter delight and amazement.

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde

What was going on? Well, I believe this Jekyll and Hyde flip-flopping was indicative of several things:

  1. I had lost sight of my personal educational philosophy and engaged in a tug-of-war with what society expects and what I believed in my heart was right for my children;
  2. I was experiencing fear of failure in homeschooling, that is, fear of traditional academic failure. I worried that if my kids wanted to go to college someday, they wouldn't have the tools and skills necessary to jump through the hoops to get there.
  3. I was impatient. Trusting a child to learn means waiting for them to be ready to learn. Sometimes it can be a long wait for parents filled with doubt and anxiety.
  4. I love my kids and wanted to help them become the best that they could be. And to be completely candid, I wanted to have some validation that I made the right choices and that my abilities and dedication as a homeschooling parent paid off. (I'm not particularly proud of this admission.)

The good news is that there is hope for those of us who experience this split-personality homeschooling disorder. I've given the matter a lot of thought and have come up with (Ta-Da!) a 4-step plan for recovery from homeschooling split personality disorder. (For those of you familiar with 12-step programs, it takes fewer steps when you homeschool.)

  1. Remain mindful of your personal educational philosophy. Without a map, how will you know where you are going? You must take the time to develop your own educational philosophy based on academic and developmental learning principles that are symbiotic with your own sense of what is important and appropriate in education. You must also take the time to get to know your children's unique abilities, learning styles, and personalities so that you can adapt your educational philosophy to accommodate their needs.

    If you are constantly debating in your mind other people's ideas of what your child should learn, and how they should learn, and in what time-frame they should learn it, then of course you are going to develop a homeschooling split personality. You'll constantly question and test your own ideology and methodology based on somebody else's expertise.

    You are the ultimate expert on what is appropriate for your children -- so act like an expert. If you have a solid belief of how education should best unfold for you and your family based on personal research, insight, and life experience you are much better suited for staying the course you've chosen in pursuing your family's educational objectives. Developing a course of study and choosing educational curricula and resource materials will also be easier if you have basic criteria for judging study plans and utilizing educational products regardless of the method you use from traditional to unschooling. Additionally, making a choice to be well informed about the educational style you have selected will provide you with the confidence you need to defend your choice to whoever may challenge it, including your alter ego.
  2. Confront your fear of homeschooling failure. Many home educators are haunted by questions like, "What if my son wants to go to college and can't write a grammatically correct essay to save his life?" or "What if my daughter wants a job in retailing but can't count change back to a customer?" Facing your fears means admitting that there are certain skills we need to get along in life.

    Giving your child the tools they need to hone these skills will alleviate some of your fears. Determine what it is you think they should know. Is it reading, writing, and arithmetic? It's okay to exercise your parental authority and responsibility and decide that there are some things your child must learn, but there is a way to gently lead your child in the process without making a bunch of authoritarian dictums. You can make it clear that you require your child to do some work on a subject, but allow him or her room to negotiate how much, when, and what materials will be used.

    Respectful consideration of your child's learning style and temperament coupled with consistent, cooperative effort will elicit the best results. Remember that the most significant learning tends to take place when the desire comes from inside the learner; when the student feels he has some control over what he or she is learning. Helping your child manage their weaknesses while encouraging and emphasizing their strengths will provide them with the tools they need to develop the skills necessary to accomplish all of their goals in life.
  3. Develop patience. We want to trust that our children will learn to read, learn the multiplication tables, understand the rules for grammar, and spell well. We want to believe that they will develop an interest in history, be able to name a few U.S. presidents, know where countries, states and cities are located in the world, and use a beaker and a Bunsen burner. It'd be nice if they would learn to speak a foreign language and play a musical instrument too. But couldn't they please hurry up and do it all by the age of 10, demonstrate their acquired knowledge to everyone we know, and relieve us of the pressure of worrying that somehow they won't measure up to public school (society's) curriculum standards?

    While we may believe that they will accomplish these things (if they want to), it's not likely that they will accommodate the time frame that would make it less stressful on us. So we have to learn to be patient. Patience is a virtue especially in homeschooling. As one homeschooling mom put it, "It really doesn't matter if my daughter can solve differential equations at 12 or 21. She is taking responsibility for her own education. And homeschooling has provided us with the opportunity to be together in meaningful measures of time."
  4. Define your view of success in homeschooling. Everyone has their own definition. Since we haven't chosen the lock-step path of traditional schooling most of us have no basis for comparison -- no barometer for success. Without all of the traditional forms of measurement (test, grades, teacher's comments, etc.) a gauge for our success is elusive. The quest for success can sometimes make us forget what's really important and why we started homeschooling in the first place. Most parents love their kids and want to help them exercise their full potential.

    In our society we view achievements in academics, careers, finances, sports, and the arts as visibly measurable ways of determining that someone has lived up to their potential. It's tangible "proof" that our children are successful, productive, contributing members of society. Admit it or not, our children are extensions of our own egos and therefore their "successes" are acknowledgments that our parenting (and homeschooling) have also been successful.

    We have been conditioned to believe that these material successes are indicative of happiness. That said, it would seem that what we really want is for our children to be happy. We can love, guide and support our children but true happiness, like learning, comes from within. Letting go of our expectations and fantasies for our children's success, and allowing them to become whom they want to be is one prescription for their happiness and ultimately our own contentment.

A lack of confidence will bring on a case of homeschooling split personality disorder in a heartbeat. While the four steps recommended above will strengthen your confidence and make you less susceptible to the onset of a teacher-facilitator personality transference, there is no absolute cure. I continued to suffer from the pangs of homeschool split-personality disorder after homeschooling for five years! I can only tell you that it helps to encourage your children to become autodidacts -- those who are in control of their own learning. Take joy in their acceptance of personal responsibility and let them know that you will always be there to provide comfort and support. Quit worrying about what everybody else is doing and remind yourself of the really splendid and unique learning opportunities your children have had, and trust that your pattern of learning together is just right for you and your family.

About Diane Flynn Keith ...

Diane Flynn Keith is a veteran homeschool parent and an internationally recognized voice in education outside the traditional classroom walls.

Diane coaches and encourages thousands of homeschool families through her website, Homefires.com and through her popular speaking engagements. She has contributed to 5 books on homeschooling and is the author of the best-selling book, "Carschooling: Over 350 Entertaining Games & Activities To Turn Travel Time Into Learning Time."

Additional Resources: