My kitchen table is under-used (and I think I’m OK with that)

This is our third year homeschooling and perhaps I’m a little slow on the uptake, but half the time I feel like I’m just starting to figure out what we’re doing. I do think I’m ready to make a confession, however: my kitchen table is sorely under-used. (Actually, I think it gets way too much use from greedy munchkins who expect to be fed 3 times a day, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) The fact of the matter is that we just don’t sit down to do “school work” all that often. And no matter how often I run through my mental list of re-assurances that my children are being educated, the idea that they should be sitting down at the table every day to do “work” is a hard one to shake. I suppose I could have made life much easier on myself by buying a curriculum and setting aside time every day for the kids to learn. However, when I started I wanted more – I wanted to be creative, respond to where my child was and what they were interested in and all those other things we romantically think education can be. So rather than buy a curriculum, I set about making my own. Because a curriculum I designed was just going to be so much better than one someone else designed, you know. I’m so funny sometimes.
There was a little snag in my plan, however; an 8 year old named Noah who was not going to be a willing participant in my little curriculum designing adventures. Now, I want you to know my husband and I are in charge in our home and we have no problem asserting our authority as parents. Noah, however, has an amazing capacity to accept the consequences of his behavior as a necessary price to pay when it comes to certain things. He will willingly forgo his allowance and give up all his privileges if he thinks it might buy his way out of clearing the kitchen table after dinner. So, I would give him a sheet of math problems I knew he was perfectly capable of completing in about 20 minutes and he would sit at the table for the next 8 hours without doing it. He knew he was missing out on playing outside or watching TV. He knew he would lose television, computer and gameboy privileges for weeks on end. He knew that piece of paper wasn’t going to go away. He knew I wasn’t going to give in. If I offered an incentive for completing his work in a timely manner, well that’s OK, he could do without. If I gave him something unpleasant to do until he was ready to get back to work, well, really he could just do that all day. Or he could say he was ready to work and then sit down, do one problem and then stop working again. Repeat this pattern for all the other subjects we were supposed to be covering and it was often bedtime before he was allowed to leave the table (with very little work completed), usually just because we wanted him to go away. After a month or so of this, I finally decided that if I wanted him to spend his days being forced to do things he didn’t want to do, learning to hate learning and being screamed at, I could just pack him off to school and use my time to do other less frustrating things, like negotiating peace between the Isreali’s and Palastinians perhaps.
So, I laid down a few things with him. I told him that he was responsible for his own learning. I would provide him with all the opportunity and materials he needed to become well educated. I could make it unpleasant for him to refuse to learn, but ultimately, learning was his responsibility. If he wanted to grow up to be an uneducated dolt, that was his problem. I wasn’t going to give myself a stroke over it. I told him that I was going to make sure he knew how to write and do math, but as long as I could see that he was moving forward in these areas, I was going to make sure that these activities didn’t take up more time than needed. As far as everything else went, I would make myself and the materials he needed available, but again, this is his education and I wasn’t about to destroy a child’s God-given curiosity about life by allowing his education to become part of a power struggle between us. Now, perhaps this seems like a ridiculous set of ideas to present an 8 year old with. Lord knows I have fudged and meddled and doubted what I was doing many times over the last couple of years. It took a long time for me to stop trying to turn all of his questions into lessons, complete with activities and preferably, lots of writing. Needless to say, he didn’t ask me many questions for a long time.
Believe it or not, he didn’t stop learning. I think he was afraid that if he did his work, he would be rewarded with increasing amounts of work and pretty soon I would consume him whole with my desire to teach him. Once he felt comfortable knowing that this wouldn’t happen, he became more co-operative about those things he had to do like math and writing. And faced with a lot of time to fill and very limited access to TV, movies, computer games and such, he filled it by reading the piles of books I carefully selected and left laying about or making up goofy experiments with his brother. Add in the 4-6 novels he reads a week and despite my nagging guilt, he kept moving forward.
I also discovered the magic that happens in letting a struggling child walk away from a subject for a while. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten to a point where he either couldn’t or wouldn’t do any more work. Inevitably if I just let it go for a month or so, when we came back to it, it was like a something had just shifted into place and it wasn’t such a struggle any more. Of course, try telling a parent whose kids are in school or who do “school at home” homeschool that your kid hasn’t done a formal math problem for a month!
Just recently, however, we had an experience which confirmed for the me the wisdom of allowing these breaks. I have been particularly concerned about Noah’s writing abilities this year. Fifth grade is one of those transitional years where kids start working on creating output rather than just absorbing information and writing is central to this. I knew that Noah had been forced to do a lot of handwork in his first 3 years of school despite not having the fine motor skills needed to do the work well. However, I was uncertain to what extant this slow fine motor skill development and the resistance to writing he picked up from being forced to do something he wasn’t ready to do were contributing to his poor writing skills. He almost never used cursive unless forced, would write as little as he could possibly get away with at the expense of being able to express himself coherently, misspelled almost every word and just absolutely despised doing anything which involved writing. So, after forcing him to write at least a little bit pretty well every day for a couple of months and seeing no real improvement, I let him go. He hardly wrote a word other than the occasional thank you note for about 3 months. A few weeks ago, I decided to give it a try and got him a new guided writing workbook. I told him to pick one page and do it. 20 minutes later he was done. He had answered each question thoroughly, had very few spelling errors, wrote in cursive without being prompted and even wrote sentences which made sense! I can’t say he enjoyed it, but it was no big deal. So, he’s been doing that 2 or 3 times a week. What was especially intriguing to me about it was that a couple days after he started working on this workbook, he came to me and said “look what I can do, Mom” and drummed his fingers on the table. He explained that he couldn’t really do it with his left hand yet, but thought it was pretty cool that he could do it with his right. Obviously, if doing something as simple as drumming his fingers on the table was a novel new skill to him, his fine motor skills really were lagging behind up to this point and continuing to force him to do something he just wasn’t developmentally ready for wasn’t going to help.
I think part of what makes our family different in our approach to education than many others is that we’re using what in the business world would be called an “outcome based approach”. As long as they’re learning and progressing forward, how that happens isn’t really the issue. I think that in a lot of families, education doesn’t only serve as a way to make sure the kids have the scholarly knowledge and skills they need, it’s also used as a conduit to learn other, non-academic skills. Keeping a schedule, perseverance, self-discipline, self-denial and even authority issues are often goals of the educational program a family chooses. We actually devote a lot of time to developing these essential elements of character in our kids, we just don’t use their scholarly education as a means to do it. In a way, I think that there are some advantages to separating the two, at least at the elementary and middle school level. Growing perseverance and self-discipline as well as learning to submit to authority are difficult, sometimes unpleasant lessons. I think that by treating scholarship and character development as separate arenas, one can avoid contaminating the task of learning with the pain and struggle of character development. And character development isn’t confused with real learning or developmental struggles. Too often children are labeled lazy (a character judgment) when really they are just struggling with some specific academic skill. In time, I expect and am beginning to see, as a child’s character becomes more well formed, it should be a pretty natural thing to apply self-discipline, perseverance, time management and such to the pursuit of knowledge. One can benefit the other without being knotted together so tightly that one or the other runs the risk of being strangled.
Sorry this is so long already – on another day, I’ll have to explain in a bit more detail how my children’s learning works, but for now, consider this my family’s declaration of freedom from the kitchen table!

6 thoughts on “My kitchen table is under-used (and I think I’m OK with that)

  1. Thought I was leaving a comment but was sending email instead. Oh well, my daughter will enjoy reading your comments on the kitchen table. I read your comment on the Crunchy Con blog on NRO and thought I would check out your blog. Enjoyed this post and look forward to reading the rest of your blog later.
    This is the first blog I have sent a comment to and I have been doing this for over a year.
    Bless you and yours in Jesus’ Name

  2. Wow, do you leave next door? My son has similar fine motor skill problems and his handwriting just got worse and worse. By 4th grade ps, the monkey work had him just screaming his refusal to pick up a pencil. So, we’re backing off. I try to get him to do a journal, but perhaps, like you, we’ll just drop it until he’s ready.

    Thanks for your story!

  3. To Homeschool Mom,
    actually, I also have a 6 year old son and I’ve decided that I’m not going to do any formal work with him that requires writing (other than things like thank you notes) for probably another 2 years. He sometimes writes things on his own, but I can see that his fine motor skills aren’t very well developed yet either. I have heard that it can take 2-4 years for a boy’s fine motor skills to catch up to where a girl’s are in kindergarten. I’ve just decided that fighting that reality does more damage than good.

  4. An excellent post. I have a son who resembles your 8 yo. I appreciate the food for thought!

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