I am very grateful to Dr Stephen Milne who has given me permission to promote his excellent writing here to a wider audience through this publication. He has some excellent resources at http://stephenmilne.wordpress.com/.
The benefits of homeschooling: Learning to love the Good
When my wife and I decided to home-school our young children, many friends questioned what we wanted to do, as if education were the exclusive province of the state. In Britain where we live, this is a very common attitude. As is the view that failing to send children to school is somehow bound to stunt their social development and disadvantage them in later life.
Well, although there are answers to these objections, there are many more good reasons to home-school your children, especially in the younger years. The socialisation of children is accomplished in many ways and yet has become in many people’s minds more important today than moral and spiritual development. It is a child’s moral and spiritual development, however, that is far more important for the simple reason that the person is fundamentally a moral and spiritual being.
With young children, homeschooling provides lots of opportunities to develop an authentic family culture, a culture from which the child and later the adult person takes his or her “existential horizon” in the world. This is nowhere more important than in the formation of conscience, a point noted by John Paul II in his Letter to Families:
“experience shows what an important role is played by the family in living in accordance with the moral norm, so that the individual born and raised in it will be able to set out without hesitation on the road of the good, which is always written in his heart.” (Letter to Families, 5)
The consequences for children in ignoring this or in attempting to normalize structures that contradict the truth and love that should guide the family are becoming increasingly apparent, as the recent Good ChildhoodReport demonstrates:
“The moral conscience becomes darkened; what is true, good and beautiful is deformed; and freedom is replaced by what is actually enslavement.” (LF, 5)
If you are thinking of homeschooling your children, John Paul’s words provide an excellent starting point for what might guide you in your efforts to remain the primary educators of your children.
In our own home, we had our first three children focus mainly on catechesis, literacy, mathematics, science, music and history. These subjects provided enough breadth but plenty of possibilities for the involvement of each of us in teaching. I think most teachers know this, but if they could exchange three hours a week of literacy work with a class of thirty children for half an hour of intensive one-to-one work with one child, they would chose the latter as a more effective way to teach.
Homeschooling gives you just that opportunity with your children, even if you are not a trained teacher. One-to-one tutoring is so effective that many parents now pay for it outside of normal school hours to ensure that their children pass important examinations, despite them receiving teaching at school. And home-schooled children do far better on average statistically in national tests than others as various comparative research studies have demonstrated (go here and here for examples).
What child would not want to get up late, do several hours of study with mum or dad, play or go out on a field trip collecting frogspawn and then come home to talk about it together? No bullying issues, no disruption to learning issues, no sex education issues, no poor or erroneous catechesis issues and no parents’ evenings or SAT tests. Of course, for some families, this is more difficult to arrange and children may need to go to school in year 4, 5 or 6 as some of our children eventually did.
But those early years from the ages of one to seven or eight are precious years – years of innocence that pass so quickly. For me, as a father, one of the most important things about homeschooling was getting a closer look at their minds and hearts and knowing that the time spent with them on trips to nature reserves, swimming and making pie charts and nature collections was time with a difference.
It was time in which our family took root and in which we as parents could give our children the time they needed to begin to know and love the good, the true and the beautiful. Our children are not perfect, and neither are we, but our society has many other messages to give its families and children – messages that go deeply against the grain of a life lived in love, conceived and born in love and discovered in love. As John Paul II put it so marvellously,
“Only Love creates the good, and in the end it alone can be perceived in all its dimensions and its contours in created things and, above all, in man.” (Theology of the Body, 16:1)
I think in the end, homeschooling in a Christian context comes down to this: the desire to communicate to your children the love of God made manifest in the whole of the created universe – whether it is through the great art of the past, stories from ancient Greece or how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.
It is also worth remembering that for children, love is spelled ‘t-i-m-e’ and the time you spend together deepens the love between you and allows the slow growth of your child’s interior life space in which to happen. Children are amazingly open to the transcendent; our culture and our education system, by and large, are not.
Perhaps no ‘system’ is perfect. But homeschooling is a way in which the family as a domestic church can flourish; even if only one other family you know has tried or is trying homeschooling (quite likely in the UK though not in America where millionshome-school), they will give you courage.
And virtue, as Aristotle once said, helps us attain and live the Good.
Read writer Rachel Starr Thomson’s account of being homeschooled at boundless.org here.
The benefits of homeschooling: A gift of grace
Homeschooling gives families opportunities to grow together, parents and children. One of the most satisfying and interesting aspects of this is the adventure of learning itself. The National Curriculum in schools in England and Wales is broad and prescriptive and although it provides a good basis for most children’s development in most areas, it suffers in many schools from being taught according to a set and pressured timetable.
For homeschoolers, learning can take paths that in the ordinary classroom might just not be possible because of time. This means that although homeschooling parents have to have some idea of what they want to teach and what children need to learn, they can afford to be more selective about importance and about the use of time. Literacy and numeracy are fundamental to many other subject areas and without literacy skills, for example, children who arrive at secondary schools are severely disadvantaged across the whole curriculum not just in English.
In fact early literacy learning and development in the home is consistently the key indicator of children’s future academic success according to International Reading Association (IRA) research. For homeschoolers, the time and more restricted focus available to their families potentially allows them to develop their children’s reading skills earlier and better to prepare them for other subject learning.
For boys this is especially important. Boys make up large numbers of the pupils who are behind in literacy in British schools and who are also behind with other subject areas. Boys’ performance in SAT tests have consistently demonstrated this in the last ten years (National Literacy Trust). But with homeschooling, boys have a better chance of making the crucial change between guided and independent reader – something that for many boys never happens as it should at around 7-9 years old.
Reading, numeracy and science can become a way to school your children through the trials of learning such independence before they find it is too late. If handled with patience, plenty of practice and with the use of interesting projects and materials, it can become an adventure for both children and parents. And literacy learning opens up a whole world of imagination and fact to children, without which their lives remain impoverished.
Some of the most troubled children I have taught often suffer from what the Pulitzer prize-winning psychiatrist Robert Coles called an undernourished moral imagination – a capacity to both wonder about the world we live in, its inhabitants and meaning but also to “reflect upon what is right and wrong with all the intellectual resources of the human mind” (The Moral Intelligence of Children). Most importantly, they have often not developed much capacity for empathy with the suffering and circumstance of others.
One of the reasons for this is that their imaginations have never been exposed to materials that encourage this kind of inner development – the great literature of the past, its art and music or biographies of men and women whose lives embody virtue. Homeschoolers have wonderful opportunities to encourage this kind of reflection in their children – reflection that will bear fruit in character and the ability to consistently choose well:
“…a compelling narrative, offering a storyteller’s moral imagination vigorously at work, can enable any of us to learn by example, to take to heart what is, really, a gift of grace.” (Robert Coles The Call of Stories)
In our own family, materials drawn from the life of the Romans, stories from the Americas and from the folktale collections of Grimm and Andrew Lang, music from Church liturgy, the Vineyard movement and the many folk collections of jigs, airs and reels have provided many hours of instruction and delight. William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, for example contains many stories from all over the world for family discussion and reflection around the dinner table or fireplace.
Scripture too of course, is the living water of our faith and always lies waiting for our children to discover in its freshness and purity and eternal truth. In some of these ways, families can discover what John Paul II said about education in his Letter to Families:
“Through Christ all education, within the family and outside of it, becomes part of God’s own saving pedagogy, which is addressed to individuals and families and culminates in the paschal mystery of our Lord’s death and resurrection.” (LF, 16)
With Easter approaching, homeschooling can move into territory many schools won’t even approach today – the walk to the Cross upon which our salvation hangs. At this time of year, homeschoolers can get busy – drawing pictures of the Passion, preparing the tomb of Christ in the garden for the resurrection, keeping lenten diaries of prayer and thanksgiving or re-enacting the passion in words and music together.
With such richness to bind us together, we have been blessed tenfold; as parents we have seen hard times of suffering and sickness pass by knowing that our children pray for us and we for them. In times such as these, children need the family as a school of prayer, they need to learn the words of our Saviour who taught us how to pray: Deliver us from evil.
For further reading also see my posts about Childhood reading and the moral imagination as well as the two posts about story called Seeds of virtue on Hans Andersen’s wonderful The Snow Queen here and here.
The benefits of homeschooling: The goodness of Creation
St Augustine writes in his Confessions that:
“Earth and the heavens are before our eyes. The very fact that they are there proclaims that they were created… It was you, then, O Lord, who made them, you who are beautiful, for they too are beautiful; you who are good, for they too are good; you who ARE, for they too are.” (Confessions, 6.4)
Scripture too constantly holds before us the goodness of all created things. As the Catechism puts it “Because creation comes forth from God’s goodness, it shares in that goodness…God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him” (299). Homeschooling provides wonderful opportunities for both parents and children to experience this goodness and to reflect on the goodness of God’s gifts.
Though not a naturalist, I was fortunate in having a father who loved the natural world. He would take my brother and I out on walks in the Kentish countryside of my childhood which were transformed by his knowledge of flora and fauna. Orchids, lichens, small mammals and pond life all played a significant part in my own early experience so perhaps it is not surprising that I have tried to pass this on to my own children.
Homeschoolers, who are not bound by the structures of a typical school day can take advantage of both weather and opportunity to get outside. England is rich in nature reserves where children can experience first hand some of the birds, plants and animals that make up our natural heritage. A favourite trip of mine was always the Royal Society for the Protection for Birds Elmsley Nature Reserve in north Kent where waders
like avocets and redshankflock throughout the year.
Here, children can wander along tidal shores collecting shells while finding their way to hides and viewing points across marshy flats where peregrine falcons hunt and flocks of teal fly in from the shore. Learning to
respect the value of natural habitats and places of untouched beauty is a lesson in God’s providence and bounty.
For homeschoolers it can also be put to good use in learning about species identification, how reserves are kept and managed and how different creatures and plants are fitted for their habitats. For the mathematically minded, counts of different species can provide the basis of graphical and number work related to shells or plants.
On one trip to a local woodland with another homeschooling family, we once went looking for rare white admiral butterflies. Although we only found the fragile wings of one no longer living, we found many other species like the speckled wood, fritillary and Adonis blue. Recording these, even if only in memory, along with the stillness of the trees and the warm humming of bees gives children contact with the essential goodness of being, anchoring them further in the reality of the Father’s love.
The stars at night too provide good opportunities for children to marvel at Creation. On one occasion, we sat outside late into the night watching the Perseid meteor shower “throw down their spears” (as William Blake put it), leaving bright glowing trails burning across the northern sky. Even in a pair of binoculars, the Moon, Jupiter and the Seven Sisters all provide teaching opportunities about the hand of our Maker.
Although schools provide – some better than others – field trips of this sort, by experiencing them together, children and parents come closer to respecting the value of life in common-union. They begin to appreciate the love that is God’s, so that they may say with the Wisdom of Solomon:
“…you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.” (Wis 11:24).
The benefits of homeschooling: Prayer and the Sacramental life
In his Theology of the Bod, John Paul II eloquently describes the indissoluble love between spouses as a sign of the mysterium magnum – the “great mystery” of Christ and the Church portrayed in Ephesians chapter 5. By living and completing Christ’s “sacrament of redemption”, the Church draws “her whole spiritual fruitfulness and motherhood” from this Mystery (TOB 97:4). Spouses too, in the same way, draw their spiritual nourishment from the Sacramental life of the Church and contribute to “making visible” the Mystery hidden from all eternity in God, the One who is Love.
For homeschooling families, one of the great joys of time spent together is to participate in the Sacramental life of the whole family. Catholic schools certainly have a contribution to make towards this aspect of children’s and family formation, though very often this is limited to parish links, to infrequent Masses and to catechesis in school that, in my experience, is not adequate. For most secular schools, the Sacramental life has no meaning at all. So for homeschooling families, the time available for this is very precious.
Baptism, First Holy Communion and Confirmation all present opportunities for the whole family to be involved and especially for spouses to deepen their own faith and to participate in the sacramental economy of the Church. Attendance at Mass, opportunities to take part in the liturgy and to deepen family prayer all require a certain amount of habit, without which they can easily become secondary to the ‘next thing’, rather than being and continuing to be ‘first things’ in family life.
If our homes are to remain as John Paul II put it a “sanctuary” and the centre of a “community in dialogue with God”, prayer is essential, prayer that is focused on the sacrifice of the cross “as the fount of the sacramental economy of the Church” (Compendium of the Catechism). To develop what John Paul also called “an authentic and profound conjugal and family spirituality” (Familiaris Consortio, 56) the family can draw on the deep riches of the Church Tradition, riches from which our education system is largely divided.
Inspired by the themes of “creation, covenant, cross, resurrection, and sign”, family prayer will develop its own rhythm and qualities, sometimes ebbing, sometimes flowing with the deeper rhythms of family members’ lives. As prayer offered in common between mother, father, children and wider family, the Sacrament of Reconciliation can help anchor the family in forgiveness and in the Father’s love – a love that is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4) and that is “more powerful than sin” (FC, 58). Devotion to Mary through the rosary – a prayer with the power to heal and transform – can further strengthen the family’s spiritual resolve to live in generous imitation of Our Lord.
In today’s world, the authentic love of the family is badly needed. An attitude of reconciliation – not one of perpetual conflict resolved by violence around which so much of the media focus – is deeply wanted. As I have commented before on the Children’s Society Good Childhood Report, children need to experience models of forgiving love to build successful relationships later in life. For homeschooling families, this is the heart of their mission: to live the Sacrament of Love ensuring that the Eucharist remains, at least for the spouses and
hopefully the children in later years, the “fountain of charity” (FC 57).
It is therefore, above all, to live in Eucharistia – in thanksgiving for the blessing of God’s love.
The benefits of homeschooling: Memory and identity
Outside the window where I work at home a gentle Easter rain is falling on our Lenten garden where three crosses and a tomb wait for the stone to be rolled back. Tonight we will go to the vigil Mass and remember and participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Cross. Most of all we will give thanks for what followed: The Resurrection of Our Lord.
Memory is such an important faculty that St Augustine devoted a whole book of his Confessions to it and John Paul II wrote a series of personal reflections on it called Memory and Identity. For all families, whether
they homeschool or not, memory is central to their identity and to their sense of belonging. For children, this is so important for many reasons.
If you are like me a reader or fan of Dostoevsky’s novels, you may recall how near the end of his astonishing novel The Brothers Karamazov, his ‘hero’ Alyosha is speaking to a group of boys he has befriended about the death of one of them:
“My beloved children…Remember that nothing is nobler, stronger, more vital, or more useful in future life than some happy memory, especially one from your very childhood, from your family home. A lot is said about upbringing, but the very best upbringing, perhaps, is some lovely, holy memory preserved from one’s childhood. If a man carries many such memories with him, they will keep him safe throughout his life.”
(Fyodor Dostoevsky The Brothers Karamazov, 972)
Part of the purpose for us as a family in homeschooling our children was to create lasting memories. Clearly, this isn’t restricted to homeschooling families but if you homeschool your children, at least in the early years, time is on your side in being able to create lasting memories that shape your children’s sense of identity and belonging.
This is particularly so in relation to their spiritual and sacramental formation. Although our schools inevitably have this as part of their ‘mission’ – especially Catholic schools – many parents will want to do more to encourage this in their children. To do so grounds children’s lives in the transcendent, helping them realisetheir vocation to love as what John Paul II calls “partners of the Absolute” (Theology of the Body, 6:2).
At this time of year, our family is busy with traditions we started as a homeschooling family -making a garden tomb for example, and constructing three crosses in memory of Golgotha. Our younger children always enjoy this right from the finding of suitable sticks for the crosses to building the miniature tomb and decorating it with flowers. We also make an Easter Tree, place it in our window and decorate it with hanging eggs. Outside near the tomb, we place more hanging eggs in a tree – this year a flowering pear tree whose blossom will just coincide with Easter.
This symbolism is not just for show. Symbols give us ways in which to articulate and grasp the meaning of reality and for children, the earlier they are exposed to this kind of visual teaching, the better. Our faith is very tactile and the Incarnation means that the whole of created reality can speak to us of God. Stones, blossom, trees and eggs all carry within them words from the Book of Nature that remind us our God is a God who is Love.
Creating memories that are rich with the significance of our Faith can give children an assurance of hope and love. The Eucharist of course, is central to this process and as children grow up in faith, this will become part of their “existential horizon”. By instituting the Eucharist with the words ‘Do this in memory of me’ (Lk 22:19), Christ showed that he was acquainted with the “law of memory”:
“Memory evokes recollections. The Church is, in a certain sense, the ‘living memory’ of Christ: of the mystery of Christ, of his Passion, death and resurrection, of his Body and Blood. This ‘memory’ is accomplished through the Eucharist.” (John Paul II Memory and Identity, 162)
This afternoon, my younger children will dye eggs, paint them and decorate them. A symbol of new life, when they do so, they hold in their hands a future memory. Like all parents, we live in the the hope that such memories will remain part of their lives and identities no matter what courses their lives take and no matter what choices they later make.
A good, holy memory has the capacity to bring us back from temptation and back from the desire for sin. A memory cannot prevent much that is evil and sorrowful in our world, but it can become the occasion of healing in a world so often torn apart by violence and suffering.
This Easter, give thanks for your own good memories from childhood and pass them on to your children with thanksgiving and praise.
The benefits of homeschooling: Sex education and the family
As the last in a series of postsabout homeschooling, I’d like to focus further on children’s formation in an authentic understanding of human sexuality. I have commented before on how ‘sex education’ as given in our schools is not the same as an education for love which prepares children “to live the gift of sexuality according to the plan of God who is Love, i.e., in the context of marriage or of consecrated virginity and also celibacy” (Truthand Meaning of Human Sexuality, Pontifical Council for the Family, 62).
I have also commented before on how our present misguided government wishes to impose even earlier exposure to what it terms ‘sex education’ on children in Primary schools in a desperate bid to lower continually rising teenage pregnancy rates in Britain. If there is one area in which the rights of parents are consistently ignored in this country, it is this. Those wishing to promote the ‘sexual autonomy’ project in this country continue to insist on the machinery of the Contraceptive and Abortion Industry to prop up their unwillingness to be guided by common sense.
It doesn’t work.
For parents who are rightly concerned about how to guide their children into an authentic understanding of sexuality, homeschooling achieves two things without even trying. First, it frees you as a parent to set the terms upon which your children grow to understand the meaning of sexuality. Secondly, it creates time for this profoundly important area of your child’s development to become the focus of what Kimberley Hahn and Mary Hasson in their very helpful book on homeschooling Homeward Bound call “an ongoing conversation”:
“True sex education should be an ongoing conversation – a continual process of giving the right information at the right time…It is imperative that as parents we give our children appropriate sex education that focuses on their need to commit themselves to chastity…Unlike the classroom situation…the home is the natural environment to share the freedom, security and life-giving power of love in the context of marriage.” (Homeward Bound, 214-215)
Chastity, says the Catechism, means “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man [and woman] in his [or her] bodily and spiritual being” (2237). This integration of sexuality into the inner life of men and women is essentially a process of training in self-mastery. However, it is not simply being able to say ‘no’ as some abstinence-based courses in sexuality emphasise.
Chastity is based on the recognition that man is a conscious being with free will who must choose between acts that harm himself and others and acts that don’t. Moreover, that some acts towards oneself and others are consistent with love and others not. Helping children to recognise the difference is part of the wider moral and spiritual development and guidance most parents want to give their children.
In this sense, parents must teach their children about the right use of human freedom about which John Paul II wrote so often and so clearly, especially in his encyclical The Splendor of Truth and in his A Theology of the Body. What is missing from government-sponsored ‘sex education’ is not just a different or complementary approach but an authentic understanding of human freedom and of the body.
Ultimately, what the state can never offer the children of families is an authentic spiritual life in which Christ, who is Love, shows us how to attain “purity of heart” and calls us to master our “innermost impulses, like a
watchman who watches over a hidden spring” (Theology of the Body, 48:3). This “hidden spring” is an image of the interior life, a life which in children is so open to thetranscendent and that can be nurtured by parents through prayer, daily love and the Sacraments.
Without this basis for understanding the exercise of human sexuality, our children will find it much harder to distinguish between desires that, although ‘natural’ or ‘instinctual’, unless well directed can lead us astray and those that are well-directed and can be life-giving. Both John Paul II and Kimberley Hahn uses the image of a fire to explain the beauty and power of human sexuality – an image we might well remember for ourselves. Fire, the flame of passion that ignites, can also be the light and warmth needed in darkness when all else fails.
Parents will find many ways to communicate about sexuality to their children but two final points might be worth making. Time spent doing ‘not much’ in the home or outside of it can become the occasion for questions and gentle answers. Children are inquisitive and yet time and a context of love are often needed to allow them to ask the questions they need to. Homeschooling can create this time.
Finally, I would like to suggest that love between spouses, renewed daily and expressed in ways children can understand can do more for a child’s ‘sex education’ than anything else. It can reassure them that the human person, in all his or her richness, finds his or her proper home in the security of Love. It can also reassure them that the human body is above all, as John Paul II put it, not just an object but a visible sign of an invisible reality. Such loving expression can teach children that only by mastering our instincts can the person reach,
“that deeper and more mature spontaneity with which his “heart”, by mastering the instincts, rediscovers the spiritual beauty of the sign constituted by the human body in its masculinity and femininity.” (Theology of the Body, 48:5)
The sign of the One who is Love, Jesus Christ.
Catholic Education: Homeward Bound by Kimberley Hanh and Mary Hasson is available on Witness to Love’s aStore here.
Image: Spring pool, First light, Tenaya Lake, by Charles Cramer(2007).
The benefits of homeschooling: Resources
This is a brief list of useful resources for homeschooling families including books we have found useful and online sites and articles.
There are many books on this topic. Three of my favourites are:
Catholic Education: Homeward Bound by Kimberley Hahn and Mary Hasson Designing your own Classical Curriculum by Laura M. Berquist.
The Book of Virtues by William Bennett.
The first two provide practical advice as well as ideas on curriculum resources that are suitable for all ages. Bennett’s book is a wonderful collection of stories from around the world, some short some long that are grouped according to themes like Responsibility, Work, Courage, Honesty and Faith. They make excellent material for family discussion.
Others of interest that we have referred to at times I have listed on Witness to Love’s aStore here.
This is a selection of many articles which might be of interest:
Homeschooling by James Hitchcock.
Beginning in the 1960’s, there has come to be a growing number of parents who deeply mistrust the established educational systems, public and private, and are thrown back on their own resources. If those who educate their children at home do not have all the answers, they are at least asking the necessary questions.
Ten Things That Really Make a Difference by Laura M. Berquist
Homeschooling is about raising children, forming them in the right way, academically and spiritually, and achieving these goals with the children’s cooperation. Without the children’s cooperation, these goals can’t be achieved, because the goals are primarily realized in their hearts. So acquiring the cooperation of your children, in the right way, becomes a matter of grave importance.
Schooling at Home by Sally Thomas
Sally Thomas is a poet and homeschooling mother in Tennessee, USA. Here she reflects on life as a homeschooling family.
Family Life Centre International have these three short articles about homeschooling that are worth a look,especially from the point of view of fathers:
Homeschooling: The Best Form of Education by Heidi Stuart Preparing to be a Homeschool Father by Steve Wood
The Seven Steps to Being a Homeschool Father by Steve Wood
Love2learn.net – Resources for Catholic homeschoolers. thehomeschoolmom – free lessons, lots of online help. Home Education Magazine – Resources, blog, news pages. keepingitcatholic – Catholic homeschooling resource site.
I would be glad to add any useful resources you know about if you let me know.