One of the most frequent questions I am asked about the nuts and bolts of homeschooling is “What do I do with my baby and toddler while I’m trying to teach the older children?” Let’s face it, homeschooling mamas are the ultimate multi-taskers. Did you know that I can teach Latin, correct a spelling test, supervise a sewing project, cook dinner, write an article, chase a new crawler and help a toddler go to the bathroom all at the same time? Actually, I can’t do anything of the sort. And that, my friends, seems to be the problem; we are under the illusion that such management brilliance is actually possible.
I thought about detailing here some of the many and varied methods for scheduling infants and distracting toddlers so that the home educating mother can proceed with focused, quiet and well-planned teaching perfection. I thought about it… for about two minutes. I know all the suggestions and I’ve even used some of them. The reality, however, is that I have been only periodically successful because life is messy and unpredictable.
My solution? It’s a good one but can be hard to swallow, particularly for the “type A” personalities among us (you know who you are); but perhaps it can bring someone out there a little bit of peace.
Mothering our children or managing them
As homeschooling mothers, we are charged with the challenging task of managing our homes. This requires a good measure of discipline and planning as well as a tremendous amount of flexibility. Our vocation is a complicated thing and along with being a spiritual reality is also, practically speaking, our job. Those of us with multiple children find that the day-to-day operations require all of our time and talents. We have an image in our minds of the perfect day and apply ourselves to making it a reality.
Enter the small, developing human beings in our lives. Messy. Testing. Unpredictable. Noisy. Needy. So needy.
This is where we each need to take a step back and examine the way we approach these little needy people. If we are finding ourselves frequently referring to our youngest children as “problems” in our homeschool, then perhaps we are spending too much time trying to manage our children instead of mothering them. There is a certain amount of management necessary within a family but caution is in order when we begin to manage relationships instead of engaging in them.
*Do you find yourself frequently brushing aside your little ones in order to tend to more “important” things or projects?
*Do you often become irritated when a little one approaches you with a need?
*Do you use television, videos or video games to babysit the littles more than you would like to but feel that you have to in order to “get stuff done”?
*Have you allowed a spirit of resentment toward your children to creep into your heart because their needs are interfering with your plans?
These are questions that we must frequently address and honestly answer for the sake of our children. I find that these attitudes and actions sneak up on me over time when I am not paying attention. Almost anyone can set up a schedule and check off tasks. As homeschooling mothers, we are charged with a much, much greater responsibility.
How can I teach in all this chaos?
If there is actual chaos in your home, then you do need a basic plan and a hearty helping of discipline. But is it really chaos that you are experiencing or just the colorful, messy, noisy beauty of healthy family life? Are you upset because there is actual damage to the learning going on in your home or are you unhappy with the loss of the image of your “dream” school?
If you are homeschooling, then you do have an obligation to educate your children. It is my experience that this learning will happen whether or not there are babies crying, dishes in the sink or toddlers throwing tantrums. Life is not neat and tidy and it is certainly never easy. They will learn in spite of that… and they may learn more of the important things in life because of it.
If you send your children to a local institutional school, your children will be faced with many distractions such as disruptive classmates, fire drills, bells, difficult teachers, hot weather, bullies, assemblies, announcements, etc. Your homeschooled student would not necessarily be less distracted from learning in a school environment… it is really our preferences as home educating moms that are the issue here.
Our preferences are often irrelevant
When my firstborn was ready to read I was ready to teach him. In fact, I had been planning for this moment for a year and it was going to go perfectly. I would put his baby sister down for a nap, sit with him on the big tan chair, and we would dive into delightful and focused learning together! The reality was that baby sister took five-minute naps and cried fifty percent of the day. Our lessons were almost always interrupted and instead of the peaceful scene I had envisioned, he sat and I stood and bounced with a squirming, crying little girl in my arms. Every lesson was stressful for me and felt like a huge failure. On the other hand, my son learned to read so well that he was able to read and comprehend high school level literature before he hit double digits. I wish I could take the credit for planning that success but truth be told, my plans usually don’t amount to much.
Sometimes the baby cries and crawls and falls and fills diapers. Sometimes toddlers pee on the carpet. Sometimes a fire truck goes by and my students race from their work to see it and lose all focus. Sometimes my 12-year old doesn’t get his math done because he’s watching the baby for me while I wash ketchup off the ceiling or read to a sibling. I do not prefer these situations. But the fact remains that nothing is really lost during such times… and I can recognize it when I step out of manager mode.
It’s about relationships
When your children are grown would you rather hear them say My mother was very tidy and organized or My mother really loved us and gave her best for us? Ideally, we’d love to hear both! Can we maintain a tidy homeschool and love our children well? Of course. But life does tend to get a little messy and sometimes we do have to choose.
When my youngest child was four months old, my teenager noticed that I had been holding and cuddling the baby for a very long time. He suggested that I should put him down for a while. This time goes quickly, Son, and I want to be present to this child just like I was present to you when you were an infant. These are the times when the dishes must wait and siblings learn to make sacrifices for each other.
The baby is now eight months old and I often allow the other children to interrupt their studies or duties in order to spend time with him. This is no loss. Babies grow quickly and I don’t want the kids to miss it just because they have spelling pages to do. In the grand scheme of things, a few pages of spelling are of little consequence.
When I’m feeling anxious about academic goals, I just call these moments “Early Childhood Development class”… and try to thank God for the beauty of family.
Homeschooling is difficult
We know what we want at the end of the homeschooling journey. We want to raise good, intelligent children who will become saints. We know that it takes a long period of hard work and constant struggles and prayer… and yet we still fall for the promises of easy solutions and magical programs. Can someone please give me the solution to the challenge of little ones during the school day? Do they have a pill for that? Ultimately, it all comes down to the blood, sweat, tears and prayers that are necessary for anything worth doing.
You can schedule your baby’s naps but he will still wake up when you don’t want him to. At those times, you’ll pick him up and do what you need to do. You can view this as a problem or as an act of love. Toddlers can be occupied with educational activities and playdough… but ultimately, what toddlers need most is you. You’ll spend your days trying to divide your time and multiply love. Don’t panic when it seems more than you can handle. Just say a prayer for help and make sure you look your children in the eyes and give them hugs more often than you want to.
The bottom line
If you need ideas for occupying the little ones during the school day, they are as close as a Google search away. Other than that, the truth is that you don’t have enough time, energy or smarts to meet every need at every moment. That’s a hard fact for us moms to swallow. The good news is that the success of homeschooling is all wrapped up in the family; and the family is all wrapped up in grace. Thanks be to God!
I set aside this evening to write this article. The older kids and my husband are at a ball game so it’s just like old times… just me, myself and the neediest littles in my family. No one to babysit for me. In between these typed lines I have accomplished the following: did the Hokey Pokey twice with my 4-year old while keeping my crawling baby from chewing on cords, baked cookies and ate too many of them, nursed the baby, held the baby while he napped, changed the baby (twice), made a pitcher of lemonade, answered the phone, answered a hundred questions from tiny voices, saved little bodies from big tumbles, read books, dried tears and wiped noses. And still they need more than the limited time I am giving them.
Dear beautiful homeschooling mamas…This is your homeschool. You can adjust deadlines as you see fit. Change goals. Schedule breaks. Play hooky to bake brownies and hug babies and pick flowers. You’re a great mom. Let’s all send up a prayer for each other, eh? Heaven knows we need it. Not because we are failing… but because we forget so often what it means to succeed.
Resentment has no place here. Love gives all. Be at peace.
This article was first published on this blog on 9-7-2011