Like most parents, my husband and I became homeschoolers in the middle of last March 2020. Unlike most parents, I had some firsthand experience with homeschooling: I didn’t attend school myself until I was 12 years old.
Given my background, my friends were surprised by just how much I hated homeschooling this year. When I expressed these feelings, they suggested it was probably because distance learning is uniquely challenging. “You have to stick to the school’s schedule,” they said. “You don’t get to come up with your own curriculum.”
Ummmm. The fact that some of our homeschooling was done over Zoom by actual teachers — and that actual teachers assigned the rest of the day’s work — definitely went in the “plus” column, not the “minus” one.
My mom thought maybe I was struggling so much to homeschool my kids because I also had a full-time job to juggle (she didn’t go back to work herself until my brother and I were older). Sure, running my business with the kids underfoot was super stressful, as all working parents know. But what if I didn’t have a job that provided an excuse to bail on the schooling and stick the kids in front of the TV? That sounds significantly worse to me.
When I was homeschooled in the ’80s and ’90s, my mom didn’t follow any formal curriculum. In fact, what we did was probably what you’d now call “unschooling,” rather than homeschooling.
I don’t recall ever having desks or workbooks of any kind. During the “school day” we’d bake bread, stack wood, weed our garden or turn over the compost heap, read, sing, and paint with watercolors. My brother and I made elaborate mazes for our hamsters to race through. We cut out enough paper dolls to fill a small suitcase that still lives in my parents’ basement. We would lug out the heavy video camera and produce stop-action movies with my brother’s GI Joes.
We also socialized with other homeschoolers for kickball games, singalongs, and Pictionary. We toured the post office once, but there weren’t tons of formal field trips. There were, though, lots of camping trips — one that spanned two weeks and took us from our home in Vermont all the way to see our grandparents in Napa, CA.
And somehow, despite this lack of formal education, I learned what I needed to enter school in junior high without a hiccup. I got good grades, did well on my SATs, and went on to a competitive college. Sure, I don’t really have the multiplication tables committed to memory, and I definitely don’t know more than six or seven state capitols. But I didn’t experience social or academic problems when I transitioned from unschooling to Vermont’s public school system.
I even fantasized about homeschooling him — until about five minutes into motherhood, when I realized I was hardly cut out to be a parent, let alone a homeschooling parent.
As I’m sure you can tell, I have only the warmest memories of my homeschooled childhood. When I was pregnant with my first son, I even fantasized about homeschooling him — until about five minutes into motherhood, when I realized I was hardly cut out to be a parent, let alone a homeschooling parent. The spring of 2020 definitely confirmed the latter suspicion.
So what made homeschooling so exquisitely miserable this time around?
All evidence points to the fact that my brother and I were simply much nicer humans than my own children are. I’m sure we had our moments of brattiness, but I really doubt that any of these moments involved throwing pencils at my mom when she asked us to write one single sentence — and this was a daily occurrence with my own 7-year-old. The amount of resistance that my kids put up when I told them to complete their daily schoolwork was staggering (and these are both kids who get good grades in actual school).
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Should you ever notice that I’m using this forum as a place to wonder aloud if I should have a third kid (because sometimes the sight of a delicious newborn makes me reaaally want one!), please remind me what family vacations look like when the youngest is 7: Actual relaxing for the adults 🍹 because the kids can swim solo 🏊🏼♂️ and read solo 📚 and take themselves to the bathroom 🚽 and bathe themselves 🚿 and sit in restaurants 🍲 and play tennis 🎾 and ride bikes 🚲 and be alone in the shallow waves 🌊 and enjoy in-room movies that grownups also like 🎥. Parenting still feels immensely challenging most of the time—often in new and terrifying ways as we hurtle towards the teenage years😰—but these ages seem to be a sweet spot for vacationing. 👦🏼🧒🏼❤️❤️
There was also the fact that, even when they didn’t argue about what they had to do or insist on performing at a bare-minimum level, the actual act of sitting through lessons with them or helping them complete assignments was just mind-numbingly boring. (I kept thinking of the Louis C.K. bit where he’s playing a board game with his daughter and thinks, “I’m bored more than I love you,” as she counts out the moves to the next space and he grows more and more impatient.)
I work from home even in normal times, so my kids existing in this space all day — and the mess they whip up within moments of being anywhere — felt like an invasion of my professional life. And we live in a small, yard-less apartment, so my boys had limited room to get out their endless energy. I spent many moments weeping in frustration or flying into a rage and ripping the PlayStation cords out of the wall.
This isn’t to say it was all downside. I learned what a closed consonant is from a first-grade Zoom lesson. I brushed up on my multiplication tables (and by “brushed up,” I mean “learned for the first time”). Most of all, spending 24/7 with my kids was actually kind of wonderful — now, I find myself missing them if we are apart for more than a few hours. I’m more attached than ever, which I didn’t think was possible. (As much as it probably sounds like I hate my children, I am actually insanely, probably outside-of-the-norm-obsessed with them.)
Suffice it to say, I am simply not cut out to be a homeschooling parent, and it’s probably good that I didn’t pursue teaching as a career. I already suspected that teachers were superhuman, and now I know for sure. If there is anything harder than trying to coordinate the school day for two kids when someone else has designed the whole curriculum, it must be standing in a classroom with 25 kids, teaching a curriculum you had to also design.
As we gear up to do another year of what will be at least partial, semi-homeschooling, I hope I can rise to the occasion to make it a less fraught experience than it was this spring. Or else, I may just send my kids to live with my mom for some unschooling.
Grab these super fun school supplies to make learning — however you’re pulling it off this year — a little more festive.