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Getting Off the Homeschool Hamster Wheel

  • Cindy Puhek Homeschool Enrichment
  • 2013 16 Jan
Getting Off the Homeschool Hamster Wheel

Our culture is experiencing an epidemic of busyness. Families are on the go constantly. It’s so bad that even the government has launched public service announcement campaigns encouraging parents to make sure their children have unscheduled playtime.

Unfortunately, this plague strongly effects the homeschool community, and I think sometimes the temptation to overfill our schedules with worthwhile activities is even stronger with homeschoolers than it is within the culture at large. Often homeschoolers feel the need to make up for the opportunities our children are missing by not being in a public school setting. Sports, art, music, drama: all must be coordinated and facilitated by Mom and Dad, or so we tend to think.

All of this on top of homeschooling can lead to frazzled, burnt-out families that decide they’re not cut out for homeschooling. But is being on this crazy schedule what’s best for our children? My hope in this article is to give you motivation and strategies to step off—and stay off—the homeschool hamster wheel.

I know a family of four with one early-elementary-aged child and one preschooler. This family is so busy with activities that in some seasons, they have only had one meal a week together. Dad had his activities, Mom had hers, and both children had their own—including ballet, tennis, soccer, time to work out at the gym, and church. The mother was torn, because although she was exhausted and knew in her heart that all this running from place to place was not good for her family, she could not see how she could give up any of their worthy activities. After all, how are children going to develop their potential if they’re not given opportunities?

As homeschoolers, we’re supposed to be creating superchildren, aren’t we? Those home-educated children who are held up as examples of the success of homeschooling tend to be the prodigies who excel at academics, sports, music, or business at incredibly early ages. So there is very real pressure placed on homeschoolers to make sure our children have ample opportunities in these areas, even if it means running five children to five different events five different nights a week. Busy schedules and children’s achievements are usually the topic of conversation when a group of homeschool moms get together, and this adds to the peer pressure to pack our schedules to the brim. But is creating elite athletes, musicians, scholars, and artists the goal of homeschooling?

I’m not trying to downplay the need to instill in our children the value of pursuing something with excellence, nor am I saying we shouldn’t prepare our children for whatever calling God may have for them. What I am saying is that we need to carefully evaluate our view of success.

R.C. Sproul Jr., in his book When You Rise Up, states the following:

So I am sometimes troubled by how we homeschoolers measure our success. It seems every few months the headlines tell us of another triumph, that this homeschooler got a perfect score on the SAT or the other won the national spelling bee, or a third the Young Inventors contest. And we present this as evidence that we are doing a good thing in home schooling. Of course, there is nothing wrong with homeschoolers’ achieving, nor is there anything particularly surprising about it. But these are not our successes.

So how do we measure success if not by academic prowess, blue ribbons, or athletic achievement? We need to look at success with eternity in view. God’s Word tells me my children will be successful human beings during this life and the next if they learn to glorify God in everything they do and become channels of His love to other people.

We have all heard 1 Corinthians 13 rewritten to apply to specific situations. Please indulge me as I do so once again:

“If my child wins every speech debate and becomes a brilliant orator but has not love, she has become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.

And although my child makes a perfect score on the SAT and receives a full scholarship to the college of his choice but he does not have love, he has accomplished nothing.

And although I have children who can make music like angels or become professional athletes, but they do not have love, it profits them nothing.”

Our children need to learn to love. The best place to learn this is not by running from lesson to lesson and opportunity to opportunity. Actually, if we’re not careful, a lot of these activities can build pride and a false sense of superiority that works against the goal of teaching children to love. The best place to learn to love and to serve is within a family.

Dr. Kevin Leman, in his book It’s Your Kid, Not A Gerbil, states the following:

Keeping your child off the activity wheel and focused on your home and values builds in your child a strong character, a foundation of belonging, and a very high chance that he or she will grow into a healthy, caring, and mature adult. Now that’s a distinct advantage that lasts a lifetime.

Families need lots of time together to allow love to develop and to flow. Children learn to be patient and kind as they deal with younger siblings who are often in the way. They learn not to envy as they cheer on their siblings as those siblings use their gifts. They learn not to parade themselves and boast as they learn to do all things for the glory of God rather than draw attention and approval to themselves.

None of this comes naturally to our fallen human natures; learning to use our gifts to glorify God rather than glorify ourselves is really foreign and must be carefully cultivated. The ability to do this will not happen on the homeschool hamster wheel, where success is often measured in prizes won rather than in whether God is glorified and neighbors loved through a child’s efforts.

The goal of teaching our children to glorify God and love others led my family to adopt a family-centered lifestyle. Family-centered lifestyles are very rare these days. Doug Philips says most homes are merely places where groups of individuals with individual lives and individual goals come together to sleep and occasionally eat. This was certainly true of my family growing up and of most of the families of my classmates. My husband and I wanted something different for our children. We wanted our family to work toward common goals. We wanted our children to have their siblings as their best friends, since these relationships are a special gift from God and tend to last a lifetime. As much as possible we want to work together, worship together, and serve Jesus together.

I’m not condemning any activity. Most of the activities that keep families exhausted and on the go are good and worthwhile. The problem is not the activities so much as a faulty value system through which we filter our decisions about how to invest our time. Our culture values achievement over character, and it’s easy to find that ideal slipping into our own value systems. My family works to evaluate the enormous sea of possible activities through the screen of our goals: a family-centered lifestyle with siblings as best friends, because this is most conducive to teaching children to glorify God and love others.

Before we commit to an activity, we put it through the screen of our priorities and ask questions. How will this activity impact our time together as a family? Is it a good investment of our time and monetary resources? What will be gained and what will be lost?

Our choices have looked different from most, but as time has passed, I’ve found that our opportunities are just as enriching without putting us on the hamster wheel. As I list things we’ve done and things we’ve chosen not to do, please understand I’m not saying any of the choices we’ve said no to were necessarily bad. We’ve worked to choose between good and better and between better and best.

One of the areas we’ve worked hard to make family-centered is our hobbies. In the summer, we garden. It is very satisfying for everyone to work together to put high-quality food on the dinner table and to preserve the excess for winter. Even the youngest child can help dig potatoes; it’s like a treasure hunt! Gardening has been very educational too. All of my children can identify common garden plants before they begin bearing by the shape of their leaves.

In the winter, our spare time is spent sewing and doing other domestic skills such as yarn work and embroidery. We enter our work in a homeschool art competition and the county fair each year, which gives added incentive to work hard and do our best.

We also try to keep our music family-based. This started by default, because when the kids were young, we could not afford to pay for music lessons. So I found an easy curriculum and worked to teach them as much music as possible as I learned along with them. This led us to forming a family music group called the Maranatha Minstrels. We perform regularly at church and for the patients at a rehab hospital. I could have sent my children away and allowed them to play with a youth band or orchestra, and I’m not saying this is a bad thing. But choosing to keep our music within the family allows us to work toward a common goal. Relationships are built as a difficult piece of music is tackled. We don’t have to commute any further than our living room for practice. And I’m able to teach my girls the importance of playing music for the glory of God and the benefit of those who hear us every time we perform.

There are also strategies for keeping outside activities from tearing the family apart. One family Dr. Leman talks about in his book joined a community band so all the family members could play together and attend the same rehearsals and the same performances. Other families make it a rule that at least two family members must be involved in an activity in order to put it on the family schedule. We followed this guideline last summer when my oldest two children and myself were docents at a local living history museum. Although we had to split the family since my three younger children were not old enough to work at the museum, we arranged our museum shifts so Dad was always home with the younger children and the baby was down for his afternoon nap the majority of the time I was gone. This allowed Dad to have some valuable one-on-one time with the little children while the older children and I made some great memories together.

Just because we say no to many outside activities does not mean we’re sitting around at home wondering how to fill our copious free time. While we probably have more uncommitted time than most families, we dedicate that time to God and find that it is often filled with ministry opportunities. Serving God is also a family affair. One way we’ve done this is to go as a family and work on home improvements for others. Once we cleaned goat pens, created water troughs, and hung wallpaper for a mom who was single-parenting and running a small farm while her husband was deployed to Afghanistan. Although my younger children could not do much and often required someone who was capable of working to watch them, we feel it’s valuable to have them learn to serve alongside us whenever possible. We even created work for the young children to do by having them take trash bags and pick up trash.

Another way we serve others as a family is by opening our home for others to garden and sew with us. This allows us to pass these skills on to others. On more than one occasion, we’ve organized people to sew for Dress a Girl Around the World. This is a great organization that takes pillowcase dresses to children in areas where clothing is scarce. These events are fun because even a young girl with basic sewing-machine skills can participate and make a dress. And the younger or nonseamstress attendees are made useful by making dolls and jewelry to accompany the dresses or by doing the cutting for the ladies doing the sewing.

There are really two main strategies needed to stay off the homeschool hamster wheel. First, families need to make sure they define homeschooling success the same way God defines success. I will be a successful homeschool mom if I raise children who glorify God and extend God’s love to others. Realizing that the best way to accomplish these goals is within a family, we must then make our lives and activities as family-centered as possible.

I am often asked how I manage to do all I do. The answer is I don’t do anything alone. I have a whole team, composed of my servant-hearted husband and my five children, and we work together to accomplish common goals. Since we work at having a unified vision and common goals rather than seven separate visions and goals, we manage to have a full and productive schedule while staying off the homeschool hamster wheel.  

This article was originally published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Learn more at www.HomeSchoolEnrichment.com

Cindy Puhek resides in Colorado Springs where she spends her time working as a help meet to her beloved husband and training her 5 children to be warriors for Jesus. Cindy earned a masters degree in chemistry and had a career teaching science classes before realizing God’s highest call on her life is to invest her gifts and talents to make her home a place of ministry and industry and refuge. You can visit Cindy’s blog at www.hseblogs.com/cindy

Publication date: January 16, 2013

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