Mistakes to Avoid

Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery-- the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the "material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones." Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them.
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2223

Life is always going to be a mixture of successes and failures. Homeschooling is no different. In fact, an important part of a child's development, both intellectually and spiritually, is learning how to handle failures of various sorts. Like parenting in general, fortunately, by the grace of God, there is a certain amount of room for error. You shouldn't stress yourself out and expect to do everything perfectly. You need to give it your best shot and put a lot of trust in God.

There are, however, certain mistakes and attitudes which have the potential of causing more serious failures in homeschooling and even the compromising of some of our most basic goals for our children. Others, while not as serious, just have the potential to cause major headaches when you try to go back and fix the problem. It is important for us, as homeschooling parents, to recognize which problems we might have a tendency toward, and continually pray and work toward staying on the right path.
Homeschooling parents can easily fall into one of two extremes regarding their general attitudes about homeschooling and "how things are going."

The first (and I believe the more common) is a heavy sense of inadequacy, a constant worry about whether things are going well and even a poor view of their own abilities to work with their children (even in cases where, as an outside observer, things appear to be going quite well). This can be especially difficult when the children have been in a school setting for some period of time and it is hard to avoid comparisons (which are usually not objective) and worries about what they might be getting if they had stayed in school. A person with these tendencies should not take the following ideas as even more opportunity for worry and concern. While a healthy sense of the seriousness of the task you've undertaken is good, there's a certain point where you have to give homeschooling your "best shot" and put a certain amount of faith and trust in God's providential help.

The other extreme is taking the attitude that homeschool parents can do no wrong and that no matter what you do, your children will be better off than if they are in school. Homeschool parents, like everyone else, are subject to fallen nature and are prone to mistakes. With God's help homeschooling can be an immensely successful way of raising and educating your children. I believe it is necessary to undertake this task in a spirit of humility and a sense of serious commitment. Taking them out of a problematic school shouldn't give you an excuse to give them an inferior academic education.

I have seen many books and articles by homeschool "experts" which seem to take on this attitude of "homeschool parents can do no wrong." I believe these authors are reacting to those who fall in the first extreme (of over-worry) and that they are trying to instill a sense of confidence in homeschool parents. Unfortunately, some of these ideas can take homeschool parents on a roller-coaster ride of sorts - swinging from one extreme to the other. We should be constantly seeking a proper balance of seriousness and confidence.

Mistake #1: Being Presumptious about Your Child's Moral Formation

Evil and temptation do not exist solely in the outside world. Isolating your children from the outside world will not save their souls. We are all subject to temptation and fallen nature. Homeschooled children are no different. Almost every sort of problem experienced by children in conventional schools have also happened to some homeschool children. Homeschooled children have run away from home, become addicted to illegal drugs, become pregnant out of wedlock, gotten into trouble with the police, etc. Basically, you can't presume that just because they're home with you, that they're going to turn out great.

Aside from that, it is impossible to keep out every bad influence that comes from the "outside world." It is my belief that homeschooling allows for a kind of "controlled exposure" where parents can slow down the pace of the world's evils and difficulties that a child must face.This allows for a more peaceful, innocent childhood and an opportunity for parents to prepare their child to handle those challenges they will someday face on their own in the "outside world." For example, a homeschooled child may learn all about "the birds and the bees" at an earlier age than you would consider ideal because of their interaction with friends, relatives and neighbors who are not homeschooled. However, homeschooling tends to prevent a bombardment on your child of these issues and allows you to observe (or even anticipate) a child's questions and concerns in this regard and give them balanced and appropriate information with regards to chastity, reproduction, anatomy, etc.

Proper moral formation requires an active, rather than a passive, role by the parents. Even if your children are not being bombarded with sex education, foul language, anti-Christian attitudes, etc. in school, they require active formation and training in the virtues and in the Church's teaching with regard to current moral issues. It is my belief that by the time a child completes high school, they should be fairly well versed in the arguments (both by natural law/consequences and Church teaching) against birth control, abortion, population control, euthanasia, sex outside of marriage, etc. A basic knowledge of the workings of Natural Family Planning are useful, both to understand their own bodies and to be able to argue against those who (1) think NFP doesn't work and (2) like to argue for birth control by the "hard cases". (A good book addressing many of these topics is Love and Family by Mercedes Arzu Wilson.)

Beware of the danger of idleness! Homeschooled students (like anyone else) who are left to themselves too much and not given enough responsibility and stimulation can find themselves with too much free time on their hands. If they lack the inclination to use this time well, it can lead to real trouble. Service projects, healthy social opportunities, good hobbies, a reasonable study load and a fair share of family responsibilities are all helpful in avoiding the problems of idleness.

It's probably not any better to fall into the opposite extreme. Being overprotective and distrustful of your children and even agonizing with worry about how they will turn out can have a very negative impact on their faith. You must build a strong relationship with your children, know them well, love them and train them well. Knowing them well will help to identify their strengths and weaknesses which you can help them to develop or channel in appropriate ways. Don't forget the importance of your own example - how you treat others, the integrity with which you face tasks and difficulties and your own relationship with God, will all have a profound influence on your children's formation. You can't just teach your children the Faith - you must live it!

Mistake #2: Being Presumptious about Your Child's Intellectual Formation
Don't underestimate the importance of a good education. Deciding to homeschool your children is a big commitment. While there's a lot of room for various methods and it is certainly not necessary to create a miniature school in your own home, a certain amount of rigor, structure, planning and organization (especially over the long term) are important for providing your children with the tools they will need to fulfill their God-given potential. The phrase "My children don't need to be rocket scientists" worries me. I think it would be better to think in terms of doing the best you can with what you've got. (cf. The Parable of the Talents Matthew:25:14-30)

Mistake #3: Focusing on the Study of Religion to the Exclusion of Other Subjects
While it's true that religion directly addresses our most important goal for our children - that of getting into heaven - the study of Religion as an academic subject really doesn't stand well on it's own. Obviously reading and writing skills are required for the study of Religion. Also, many of the other subjects directly affect a child's ability to understand their faith and live it more fully. All subjects give the opportunity to practice the virtues of integrity, diligence, neatness, patience and perseverance. Here are a few more particular examples...
"Language Arts" (reading, spelling, writing, grammar, etc.) This is probably the most obvious subject required for studying religion. Good reading and writing skills are required for all other subjects. They are also essential real-life skills. While not every child is destined to become a great writer, they will need to be able to write a decent letter, job application, essay, etc. just to get by in this world.
Mathematics Most often appreciated as being an essential skill for real-life, Mathematics is also very important intellectual training. Logic and order are both observed and practiced in a good Math course.
Science Nature is God's masterpiece. Appreciating His work through the study of science is highly beneficial to one' s faith.

Many of the Church's greatest Saints (such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Dominic de Guzman, and St. Thomas Aquinas) fully appreciated the importance of all the major subjects for knowing, loving and serving God in this world in order to be happy with Him in heaven.

Mistake #4: Losing Credibility with Your Children
Guard well your child's faith in you. A lot depends on it. The virtues of humility, patience, integrity and fairness are very important for homeschooling parents. Don't be afraid of saying "I'm sorry" and "I don't know." Your children will respect you for it. Be careful of abusing your power of being both parent and teacher. Academic punishments for non-academic offenses can be a real credibility problem. (especially extreme punishments such as making your child start a textbook over as punishment for something).

Mistake #5: Providing too little/too much Supervision
As children get older they need to be given a certain amount of responsibility and independence in their studies (as well as other areas). However, it can be too great a burden to give them complete responsibility for keeping up with their schoolwork over a long period of time. Most children need to have their work checked daily (i.e. parents must see that the work is completed that often - it is not unreasonable to have the children check their own work in subjects such as Math, Latin and English). SOME highschoolers can manage this responsibility in week-long segments.

Mistake #6: Jumping from Program to Program Unnecessarily
You can drive yourself nuts always looking for something better in the area of homeschooling materials. There are a couple of important points to remember. First of all, no program will be perfect. Consider adjustments and/or supplements to what you're using (if necessary) before moving on to something else. Secondly, many programs and schedules take some time to get used to. Like many great stories which start out boring, sometimes you have to give things a little time before they get interesting.

Mistake #7: Not Changing Programs When You Should
On the other hand, like many parents' decisions to pull their children out of conventional schools, there is a time for trying something new. While it is necessary to teach our children the virtues of integrity and perseverance, a parent must also be able to recognize when something isn't working for their child or when their child simply isn't ready to handle something. Don't be too caught up in the notion of age and grade level - homeschooling allows us to give children what they need. Forcing them to work through really easy material or expecting them to do work they aren't ready for can both be problematic. You want to challenge them, but not overwhelm them.

Mistake #8: Expecting Too Much/Too Little of Your Children
I think problems in this area tend to run in one of two areas: expecting too much of young children (especially the subject of reading for boys in early grade school) or expecting too little of older children and teenagers. Try to know your children well enough to have a good idea of what they are capable of.

You can't expect "instant results" when teaching young children. Sometimes they need an awful lot of input before they're ready to give something back. Sometimes I think we (parents in general) have a tendency to want children to understand something that we haven't really given them the opportunity to absorb and understand first. (cf. Montessori and Ignatian methods which both introduce a child to a subject and really allow them to work with it for awhile - digest it so to speak - before expecting them to explain the concept back to you.)

Beware of self-fulfilling prophecies. If you think your child isn't smart enough to handle a particular subject and it shows in what you say and do, you may very well be causing (or at least contributing to) the problem by your own attitudes.

Mistake #9: Allowing Your Children to become Homeschool "Snobs"
Not only is this bad P.R. for homeschooling, but it's simply not Christian. Read the Gospels. Use care in how you talk about neighbors, relatives and friends who don't homeschool their children. Talk to your children about homeschooling in a positive way and in terms of your own family. I like to talk in terms of doing what we think is best for OUR family. We must be careful that we don't become like the Pharisees who thought they were doing everything right, but of whom Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you." (Matt. 21:31)

Mistake #10: Ignoring the Young Children because You're working so Hard with the Older Ones
It can be easy to leave preschoolers to fend for themselves while you're busily working with the older ones. If taken too far, this can actually be detrimental to their normal development. The early years of a child's life are very important years. Playing with toys and with their siblings are essential parts of this development, but they need some time with you too (even in a group setting). Try to involve your preschoolers with some of the school activities - particularly art and music. Find some stories to read-aloud that will be enjoyable for all ages. Have them help with little chores around the house - baking, setting the table and washing things are very good for them and satisfying too. Also consider scheduling time for your older children to work with or read to the little ones.

Mistake #11: Being too much of a Perfectionist
Homeschooling has the advantage of allowing you to be sure your children understand a lesson or concept before moving on. It's great to be able to understand everything so thoroughly, but I think that children do need some experience of giving a task their best shot in a limited time period and living with the results even if they're not perfect. If they don't have this experience, they may have trouble adjusting to college and "the real world" where such thoroughness (as they were allowed in homeschooling) may not be possible. As I mentioned above, learning to handle little failures is a learning experience and a "real life" skill. You don't want your children to become so "perfectionist" in mentality that they can't handle getting things wrong sometimes. You can't isolate your children from failure - they need to learn how to handle failures and learn from their mistakes.

Mistake #12: Overwhelming Yourself with Materials
You don't need every new educational product that all your friends are raving about. You don't need to own every interesting educational book, video or CD Rom on the market. Getting carried away with purchasing too many materials can be hard on your budget, hard on your home organization, and lead to homeschool burn-out. Don't be afraid to get rid of materials that don't seem right for your family. Try to limit your purchases to the really necessary materials and some very nice materials that will be both enjoyable and useful for your family. I especially like materials which cover a wide age range and are of a long- lasting quality. (Such as non-fiction books with beautiful pictures, sturdy wooden map puzzles, and science materials such as magnets and magnifying glasses.)

In some areas it helps to stick with a particular series or author that you really like. For example, some of my favorite series are: the Vision series of Saint Stories (reprinted by Ignatius Press), Let's Read and Find Out Science (secular science series for children - Harper Trophy), the Eyewitness Series and the Eyewitness Handbooks from Dorling Kindersley, and the Landmark History series. I don't necessarily like every title in these series (particularly the secular ones), but I like them enough to generally avoid buying similar books from other series. It just makes my life a little easier. Deciding on textbooks is similar. It's nice to find a series you can stick with and supplement rather than jumping from textbook to textbook.

Mistake #13: Missing the Important Things You Can't Learn in Textbooks
Textbooks can certainly be useful tools in education, but you can't be a slave to them. If you ONLY sit your child in front of their textbook (or workbook) in each subject each day and expect that they'll receive a good education, you're mistaken.

If your child is dutifully working through a Math program without doing oral drilling and certain hands-on activities, they will likely be missing some things. E.G. If your child doesn't learn to memorize multiplication tables and conversions from fraction to percent (which usually requires oral drilling) you may find them getting very bogged down with their Math assignments or even unable to complete them.

This is true of other subjects as well. Field trips, hands on projects, supplemental reading and discussions with you will probably cover most of these. I think it can be easy to consider these a lower priority than the textbooks. As with everything, you need to look for a balance.

written by Alicia Van Hecke, 1999