What is the number one question I am asked by homeschoolers? You may think that it has something to do with socialization because that’s what non-homeschoolers love to ask us about. You may think it has something to do with mental health because I’m a psychologist. But you would be wrong.
To tell you the #1 question, I want to tell you a story about one of my dear homeschooling friends. She had just begun homeschooling when I met her and she was very discouraged. She told me she had spent hours preparing a lesson plan for her kids. Her daughter was doing just fine. Her son, the eldest, however, was not. I’m paraphrasing, but she said,
“I have a plan. but my son isn’t going along with my plan.”
I laughed really hard, but not because I didn’t feel for her. In fact, I had been there myself. So many homeschool moms get discouraged when their child isn’t cooperative, enthusiastic, or diligent when it comes to homeschooling. In fact, many moms tell me they are considering putting their kids in school because one or more of their kids isn’t loving school.
What did I tell my friend? What do I tell homeschool moms who have a similar question about reluctant students? There are two issues I address: One is personality and the other is parenting.
The Strong-Willed Personality
Let’s start with personality. What many homeschoolers don’t consider is the strong will that is required to homeschool. Even in today’s mainstream homeschooling culture, the choice to homeschool often requires a strong will. Preferences of extended family members may have to be rejected in order to homeschool. You are probably making an education choice that differs from your friends. The choice to stand alone and take your own path requires a strong will. Thus, we should not be surprised when one or more strong-willed parents has a son or daughter who is also strong willed. But what do I mean by the term ‘strong will’? These are individuals who are confident, ambitious, and determined to go their own way. They are often passionate about what they believe in. A wonderful example of a strong-willed person from the Bible is the apostle Paul. Strong-willed individuals usually believe they are right. Paul confronted Peter, certain that he was right about a doctrinal issue and Peter was wrong. Your strong-willed students will be happy to tell you why they are right about a homeschool or family issue. If we are strong willed ourselves, we may have high hopes (like my friend) that all our children will gleefully follow our plan. After all, we know we are right too, don’t we? Working with strong-willed children can be challenging and exhausting. But the truth is, our strong-willed children are leaders of the future. Once they have grasped the gospel and made a commitment to Jesus Christ, very little will dissuade them.
If you are dealing with a strong-willed child, you may be irritated by seeing traits that you yourself possess or that your spouse possesses. Work on seeing your child’s strong will as a blessing from God that He can use for His purposes. The Bible says that our children will make us proud when they face their enemies. Then, recognize how to work with a strong-willed personality. The temptation is to try to out will the strong-willed child. This is a recipe for disaster. A strong-willed child often needs to be reasoned with. “Because I said so” may gain your child’s obedience, but it will not gain your child’s heart. Explain your reasons for choosing a particular curriculum, a particular activity, or having a particular rule. If, as you are explaining, you realize that your argument is weak, say so and your strong-willed child’s respect for you will grow greatly.
The second approach to use with a strong-willed child is to give him or her control. This does not mean that we allow our child to dictate and it certainly doesn’t mean that we allow our child to be disrespectful. But we must give a strong-willed child as much latitude in decision-making for their lives as possible. For example, you may prefer that your child does math at precisely 10 AM. A better approach with a strong-willed child is to give him or her a list of chores and subjects to complete for the day. This allows your child to determine the best time to complete the work. Some of your children would much prefer to get up early and finish math ahead of time. Others will choose to complete it at the very last minute. The common thread is that your strong-willed child is in control. The older the child, you might give them a weekly to-do list, a monthly to do list, or even a quarterly to-do list.
When it comes to family rules, a strong-willed child wants to know that you respect him. Part of that respect means that you do not assume the worst choices on their part. Give your child responsibility and independence until such time as this child disappoints you. Even when mistakes are made, be careful to give your strong-willed child another opportunity.
Parenting the Strong-Willed Child
This leads me to the second part of my answer to parents who have a child who isn’t rubber-stamping their homeschool plans. That is parenting. More and more often I speak with parents who choose a passive parenting style or child-led home. I see kids telling their parents no, whining with good results, and even kicking them! You might think that my argument against passive parenting is at odds with what I just said about strong-willed children. But it does not. Imagine if you were a brand-new medical resident. You walked into the operating room for the first time and stood next to the surgeon who was supervising you. You asked the surgeon quite a number of times if you could participate in the surgery. You just wanted to hold the scalpel. You just wanted to make a cut or two. Imagine the surgeon growing weary of your requests and handing you the scalpel. Imagine he leaves the room, telling you that you would be doing the surgery alone. This is much like what happens in many homes today. Children ask for things that they simply aren’t prepared for or things that aren’t good for them. After much nagging, parents give in and abdicate their parental role. Like a new medical resident holding a scalpel, our children are terrified when this happens. These children will act out in more and more outrageous ways in an effort to get the parents to behave like parents. It’s as though they’re asking, “What do I have to do to get you to give me some boundaries?”
Children need boundaries and they require discipline in order to feel loved. The Bible says that he who loves his child is careful to discipline him. Children are very sensitive to the fact that if their parent does not discipline, they do not love him. I have talked with teens personally and professionally who have said this word-for-word. Does discipline have to be physical? Absolutely not. Does discipline have to be harsh? Absolutely not. But there must be consequences for misbehavior.
Let’s talk about what this means with respect to homeschool. Let’s say you have a strong-willed child who consistently says she doesn’t want to do school. Perhaps you have gotten worn down by this behavior. You imagined that your children would love homeschooling. You just knew that that fun curriculum you bought, the new class, or the computer program you bought would do the trick. Your children would stop complaining about school and they would bounce out of bed every morning, ready to take on learning. When that doesn’t happen you begin to get discouraged and also to question yourself. You wonder what is wrong with you and consider that you just aren’t cut out for homeschooling. The real issue is this. It is normal for children to push boundaries. This is what children do.
I have an adorable dog. She is a Coton de Tulare and she is so much fun to have around. She has a great life. However, given an open gate or front door, our sweet dog will escape every single time. This behavior does not mean that she does not love our family. It does not mean that we are doing something wrong in caring for her. It means she’s a dog and she is going to always seek more freedom. I can stretch this analogy even further by telling you that she is constantly challenging the rules that we have for her as well. If your children are challenging you, complaining, or otherwise resisting your homeschooling and parenting efforts, congratulations! You have normal kids. The question then becomes not what’s wrong with your children but what is your response?
There are two foolish choices to make when kids are challenging us. The first is to be passive. I could just surrender and allow my dog to run loose every time she gets out. The result will certainly be her death as she is not wise to the ways of cars. In a very real way, when we stop enforcing rules with our kids, the consequence will be death. I know examples of people who did not have any discipline and become either actively or passively suicidal. Passive parenting is dangerous. Your children can complain and they can question you, but they cannot be allowed to take over the surgery. Children must complete chores. Children must get an education. If your child doesn’t like a curriculum or a class, this does not mean that you cannot require them to complete it. You are well within your rights to do so. If you send your children to school, do you believe that your children can opt out of assignments or classes they don’t like? There will be consequences for those decisions in school. Good, healthy parenting simply means that we provide consequences for choices. Consequences are not only negative. Consequences are also positive. If your child finishes work early, she can have more free time. That’s a positive consequence. A negative consequence is not having free time if work is completed late.
A lie many passive parents believe is that there is simply nothing they can do to enforce their rules. Young children who are living in your home, eating your food, and requiring your transportation have no power to run your home unless you give it to them. I am absolutely not suggesting that passive parents switch gears and move to the opposite end of the parenting spectrum.
Let’s talk about that opposite end of the spectrum now. That is the authoritarian parenting approach. Many strong-willed parents use an authoritarian approach with strong-willed children. This approach is unlikely to go well. The authoritarian parent will often point to a passive child who complies with all of her demands as evidence that the strong-willed child ought to be doing likewise. The real danger is the parent can begin to think of the strong-willed child as evil or unlovable. They wonder if there is something characterologically wrong with the child. The child knows that this is the parent’s perspective and it’s devastating.
Authoritarian parenting is rules first, relationship last. Authoritarian parenting is like passive parenting in that both approaches are focused on the parent. The passive parent is focused on her own time, energy, and self-esteem and just gives up so as not to have to feel tired and discouraged anymore. The authoritarian parent is also focused on self. Compliance of the child makes the authoritarian parent feel good about herself and more powerful, something which is very important to her. But self-focused parenting, parenting that is not focused on love for the child first, is likely to breed anger, depression, and more conflict. The authoritarian parent is often overly concerned about what other parents think of their child. Fear that their child will not make them look good drives authoritarian parents to use ever greater punishments for what is perceived lack of compliance. Oftentimes what would have been dealt with using a reasonable consequence becomes a child acting out even more because of anger over the unjust consequence that was given.
How Would I Answer Your Question?
Do you wonder if I really say all this when parents ask me about their child’s behavior in homeschooling? No, I don’t. Instead, I ask questions about what is happening. I say things like, “I wonder if you…” and then suggest an alternate approach. I do believe there is hope for parents whose children refuse to rubberstamp their homeschooling plan. I believe that it begins with prayer. Even with people I know personally, I’m not in their home every day observing their behavior. I don’t know exactly what’s happening. That’s certainly true with you. I don’t know what the root of your problem is. Your child may have a physical, emotional, or educational challenge that complicates matters. Because I don’t know all of the details and the day to day, I have to send you to the best counselor I know. His name is Jesus. He doesn’t charge any fees but He does insist on complete honesty. He wants to lay bare your heart and show you where there has been fear and anger. But he doesn’t want to know this to shame you or to discourage you. Instead, he wants to show you a new way of relating to your child. Jesus modeled for us how to teach. And if you think your student is bad, read about His students! Ask God to show you how to relate to your child differently. Ask Him to show you if you have a strong will or if you’re relating to your child’s strong will as though it is a parent’s or spouse’s.
Ask Him to show you if you’re a passive parent. If you handed your child the scalpel and walked out of the operating room, confess it. Commit to being an authoritative parent–one who is firm but loving and flexible. Never allow your child to tell you that they will not do something. Never allow your child to disrespect you. You may wonder how your child can express themselves without being disrespectful. One of the best techniques I read about early on in my parenting is something called the wise appeal. If I tell my child that I want them to clean the bathroom and they are playing a game at the time, my child can say, “Mom, I know you want me to clean the bathroom, but would it be okay if I finished my game first?” The wise appeal acknowledges and respects the request that the parent has made but allows the child to make a respectful argument about when to comply with that request. If your children are not used to the wise appeal, you will have to remind them many times. This is child training. If your child says, “I don’t want to do math” or otherwise whines and complains, remind them to use the wise appeal. You may have to give them an example of what to say.
In the same way, ask the Lord if you have been an authoritarian parent. Consider how you have viewed God. So often authoritarian parents believe that we have an authoritarian God. In this view, God is much more concerned about performance than He is about our relationship with Him. This just isn’t the case. You may need time to heal your own hurts from childhood or your experience with your church in order to feel that you can be more grace-based as a parent. If you have been an authoritarian parent you may want to ask for your children’s forgiveness. Admit that you have been too concerned about appearances. That you wanted to look like the amazing homeschooler whose children jumped at their every command. This will be especially powerful for your strong-willed child to hear. Take time to listen to your child without interrupting if you have been guilty of authoritarian parenting. You may want to detox your home by doing some child-led learning for a time. You will get to know the heart of your child and isn’t that the greatest blessing of homeschooling?