When new homechoolers pop up online or in support groups, the first question they usually ask is about what curriculum they should use. It doesn’t seem to matter if they have a pre-schooler or high schooler, they want advice in picking a curriculum. A certain logic dictates that since they’re doing something new and are uncertain, that they want something formal, approved and proven, to guide them. In the void, a curriculum looks like a lifeboat that will keep you afloat. It will tell you what to do.
Yet, that’s not the most helpful question to guide your experience in homeschooling. As I look back over my 18 year career home educating my children, I can only think of 2-3 curriculums I wouldn’t have wanted to do without. Only a few that truly guided and shaped us, that I can say, “I’m so glad I picked that.” The rest of the time, I think dozens of choices would’ve served us as well.
If curriculum didn’t make or break us, what did make the difference? Real life choices. Engagement with people and nature and organizations around us. Priorities. Habits. Attitudes. Adventures. Philosophies. Discussion. In hindsight, I can identify plenty of choices and experiences that contributed in a meaningful way to our success. And it was a success. Above all else, I can say without doubt, “I’m glad we homeschooled.”
My children are now confident adults, excitedly chasing dreams, tackling challenges, and learning new skills. They aren’t perfect (they never were). They are real. Maybe their lists would look a bit different than mine, but I think they’d overlap considerably. After homechooling for 18 years, here are 18 things I’m glad we did.
- Played board games. My babies learned to match colors with Bert’s Bottlecaps, learned to count with Chutes and Ladders, learned to add and subtract with Monopoly, Jr, and learned to read tables with Battleship. Somehow, we never stopped playing board games. Rummy Roots to Settlers of Catan to Imagine If (and my youngest son recently aced a few high pressure scholarship interview questions which felt directly lifted from “Imagine If,” so I know that’s a plus!) We still have a closet full, and I credit them with so much mental development, from creativity to problem solving to critical analysis to teamwork to sportsmanship.
- Summer camps. I’m not talking about sending my kids off for 2 weeks (although I did some of that). I’m talking about creating summer camps with my kids. Some as short as 2 days, some as long as 2 weeks. Every one of them grew out of some activity or book or experience my kids loved doing and we wanted to do more of. Turns out you can just arrange a place, invite people to do fun stuff with you, and plan your own camps! Camp Halfblood (based on the Rick Riordan books) will forever reign as a cherished family memory. Lego Camp? Wow – yeah! I would do that again. I’ve helped run 7 camps, and pitched in (or my kids pitched in) with several more. Perfect way to create the magic you want and be deeply engaged in what your kids are doing. I don’t mind the perk of my kids thinking I’m awesome.
- Let me kids change my mind. My oldest son wrote his first persuasive paragraph on why I should let him change his daily routine to do writing first and math last – and I let him do it. It turned out to be more efficient for him. A few weeks ago, the same child (can we call 20-somethings children??) persuaded me to listen to a soundtrack that was almost all rap, which he knows I don’t care for. I listened, and I cried because it was so powerful. In between, I’ve let the kids talk me into all manner of crazy projects that would “never work” and things that I would “never do.” You know what? Kids have good ideas. They know what they want and need and enjoy. If I don’t listen to them, how will they ever learn to listen to themselves or expect others to listen to them? Where will they get the confidence to lead others if they never have the experience of making good decisions and influencing others?
- Take risks. This dovetails with #3. Sure, homeschooling itself was a big risk since I didn’t know anyone at the time who’d done it successfully. Once I jumped that hurdle, other risks seemed more do-able. Ms. Frizzle is my hero, and I hear her voice saying, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” It was a huge risk when I tried to start a robotics team with no robotics experience. While that project never grew to be all that I envisioned it to be, it was totally worthwhile. We learned a lot (both about robotics and about organizing group projects), we made memories, and we launched from there into other opportunities. From another homeschool mom, I picked up the habit of calling anything with an uncertain ending an adventure (including losing car keys on top of a mountain or taking a wrong turn on a road trip). Some risks worked out fabulously. Others, not so much. But every one was not only a learning experience, but it was real life modelling of the person that I wanted my kids to be as adults. Risk takers for whom life is an adventure to tackle wholeheartedly, not a danger to be survived by huddling in the corner.
- Compete. Do you see a theme developing? Every contest is a risk. We’ve been on the volleyball team that lost every game and got eliminated from the tournament first. We’ve placed last in the field. We also won a fair share, and pretty much placed everywhere in between. Contests add the pragmatic benefit of rounding out resumes (yes, I credit them greatly for helping my kids all land college scholarships), but more importantly, they offer intrinsic value. Every contest was a motivation to improve; a challenge with a deadline to kick us in the butt to tackle a project; an avenue to meeting new people and witnessing how differently other people attempt the reach the same goal; a chance to practice grace while learning to deal with unfairness; and a chance to practice grace while learning to deal with victory. My kids did not handle every contest maturely, and let’s face it, neither did I. But we grew through those moments.
- Take tons of pictures. The days go slow, but the years go fast. I am so happy to have digital mountains of photos – of momentous occasions and holidays, of ordinary moments and drudgery. Of taking trips and of days lying upside on the couch re-reading Harry Potter. Of hugging the dogs and of making silly faces at the restaurant. I wouldn’t sell those pictures for anything. Looking back at pictures spurs me to share stories with the kids of moments they might’ve forgotten, and sometimes it spurs them to tell me stories of the experience from their perspective, and I learn something new.
- Get outside. We aren’t a naturally rugged family – but being in the sunshine was usually a good idea. When the kids were younger, this meant anything from providing plenty of unstructured play time to run off energy to impromptu trips to feed the ducks at the park. Through the elementary and middle school years, nature walks (with or without nature journals) and circling the neighborhood on bikes or rollerblades helped break up the day. After splurging physical energy outdoors, it was easier to sit down with refreshed minds and tackle mental challenges.
- Trust my kids. I let my kids do hard and sometimes “dangerous” things. I trusted them physically to climb trees or rock walls. I trusted their characters enough to try challenges I thought had a valid chance of failing. Two of them tested my trust the most in high school by wanting to travel without parents. It took a load of parental courage to drop off my 16-year-old daughter at a shuttle to the Dallas Fort Worth airport on a trip to Washington, DC, and that trip was an absolute highlight of her schooling. When my youngest told me he wanted to plan a cross country trip with friends to ride a roller coaster, I told him yes. Planning and organizing are incredible learning experiences, and I knew the memories would be amazing. A few of the friends he asked were denied by moms who weren’t ready for that kind of independence, but I knew there was one friend whose parents would say yes. Remember the mom who taught me to use the word adventure? Yep. She not only said her son could go, she encouraged them to think bigger and make the trip longer, then helped them find friends to stay with along the route. She knows the value of trusting the “kids” to take on “adult” experiences.
- Partner up. I never could’ve arranged and coordinated all the experiences for my kids on my own. In most big ventures (summer camps, leadership training, speech classes, drama club, robot team), I found a collaborator. I’ve worked with many homeschool moms and learned something from each of them from their style of leadership. Some partnerships blossomed into friendships and a few ended on a sour note. I’m glad I took the chances, though, to make the big things happen.
- Keep 4-H recordbooks. I stink at record keeping. Honestly. Details need to be recorded? I’m usually not your girl. One of the few I was consistent with were 4-H recordbooks. Although the kids balked every year at the chore of collecting and articulating so many details, the end result was a priceless record of their accomplishments. We used them to preserve memories. We used them for self-accountability to make course adjustments. We used them as informational treasure chests when it was time to apply for college scholarships. Since I wasn’t great at motivating myself to keep records, the yearly deadline of the recordbooks spurred me on.
- Keep pets. They’re messy. They’re destructive. They shed, pee, and chew on valuables, and they demand attention at inconvenient times. I’m glad for every furry family member who has snuggled up or played fetch. Lots of experts will tell you how keeping pets teachers responsibility and compassion, and they do. But the overarching factor for me is love. If you can have more love in your life, why would you not?
- Volunteer. Spending time helping others takes us out of our own lives, above our own troubles. We dabbled with single afternoons for a lot of different charities and causes, and settled slowly into a few that truly connected with us. A few that helped with something that meant a lot to us. For us, it felt good and helped us learn some extra skills (my oldest learned to use power tools building sets for the community theatre), but those are bonuses. The big benefit, of course, is that they helped others, and they developed a habit of which will (hopefully) lead them to continue to do so throughout adulthood.
- Write a novel. Not me, silly. My kid. I made a bargain with one son that if he would spend one year focused on academic writing, mastering essays without complaining, I’d allow him a full year to write a novel, with no other English class assignments. Win-win. He wrote a novel. Besides being a most amazing learning experience for understanding how literature is constructed and how to use language effectively, it is also a major confidence builder to complete a novel. Someday, I hope to be as accomplished as he was at 16.
- Made relationships and interaction with the real world a priority. Building strong relationships with family members and learning to navigate tricky relationships with friends and coworkers took priority over completing written assignments. When Granny broke her hip and couldn’t take care of herself, she moved in with us. For 5 years, we traded a cramped lifestyle and curtailed freedom for the joy of sharing the end of her life. Our kids know without a doubt how important people are in life. I watch them now as adults choosing to spend their free time together, and driving for hours to show up to support a sibling or friend for a big moment, and I know those priorities are well placed. I see how they handle outside relationships with respect and dignity, and I have no regrets there.
- Senior projects. Before each child’s senior year, we had “the big discussion.” The “you’ve got one more year…what do you want to accomplish?” discussion. That talk didn’t come from nowhere. It was built on a foundation of years of listening to their ideas and giving them permission to follow their interests. But this discussion was license to think big and a commission to use their time wisely. Every one of them challenged me. Produce a serious drama when I’d never been in charge of live theater? Travel the country when caring for an invalid family member meant the whole family couldn’t leave the house together for more than an hour? I treated their requests with not just respect but enthusiasm. I’d taken to heart advice from another homeschool mom that the world will tell the children “no” enough times. It was my job and my privilege to say “yes” as often as possible. We dedicated large amounts of time to those projects, trusting that the learning experiences coming from real life planning and organizing and fundraising would be educational. We built precious memories, and my children built personalities full of confidence that they capable human beings.
- Tea parties. Sadly, I let tea parties fade into the background when the kids were older, but when they were young, it was a pause in a busy day. A chance to breathe and enjoy each other’s company. A chance to trust them with fragile cups and treat them to yummy snacks so they felt valued. Sometimes we read poetry. Sometimes we told jokes. Sometimes we just drank koolaid (real tea seldom graced out teapots).
- Kept the “dress-up” box full. When I chased a house full of toddlers, we kept one plastic tub full of random wild pieces of clothing, some real and discarded, some fantastic, most free or from garage sales. A bridal dress. A Dalmatian puppy (or a cow…depending on your mood). A green dinosaur. A cowboy hat. A gray wig. I wasn’t training the kids for a life in the theater, just offering them space to see their own imaginations in color. As we read books, it was common to see the books reinvented later through the magic of the dress-up box, sometimes with supporting actors from the stuffed animal collection. Over time, the box morphed into a costume closet. The kids design the most amazing Halloween costumes. And sometimes they design costumes for “real” plays rather than the impromptu ones that used to fill the living room. One favorite memory: taking the family to Comic Con to celebrate two spring birthdays. Yes, the cosplays were amazing. I don’t imagine that it will ever stop.
- Went to homeschool conventions – and then stopped going to conventions. When my oldest was 4, an older homeschooling mama drove me to Arlington for my first homeschool convention. I was overwhelmed by the energy and inspired by the sheer number of other people on the same journey as me. Listening to speakers filled me with ideas, and actually putting my hands on books helped me understand them and make better purchases. I faithfully attended conventions every year, eagerly recommending them to other new-ish homeschoolers. Sometimes I travelled with friends. A few times, I helped work a booth and gave out advice. Then, somewhere along the way, I realized I wasn’t counting the days to convention season anymore. I just didn’t need them anymore. I had plenty of real life support in my own community. I knew curriculum well enough to (usually) judge by descriptions and recommendations if it would fit. And I found plenty of speakers online to listen to when I sought out specific advice. I’m glad for all the conventions I went to. And I’m glad I stopped when I did.