Hey! Thank you so much to those of you who are still reading these posts and watching the clips while I work on re-launching my blog. We’re making some progress, with lots of ideas and little time to implement them. But we’re moving forward, which is always better than the opposite.
New YouTube Video! Random Questions.
Large Family Eating: Meal planning edition
I’m not back to my normal level of cooking and photographing yet so this week I thought I would bore you with my high tech meal planning tool and how I use it.
First, a few ground rules.
- I do not shop specials. We live in the country and the mileage involved in shopping specials makes it moot. My time is valuable.
- I buy all my meat from Costco. Costco’s regular prices usually match grocery store’s sale prices. Someday I will buy ethically produced, grass fed, local meat. I just don’t have the enough cycles to submit to the waiting-lists-suddenly-buy-a-whole-hog game. Someday.
- My husband does the Costco. He always buys the same things and I figured out how to use them. It’s a modern version of the hunter/gatherer gig: he brings home the mammoth and I cook it. We buy meat, dairy, eggs and bread at Costco, among other things.
- I do the produce and grocery runs two or three times a week.
- I’m not sharing how much we pay in groceries every month because (a) it’s obscene, and (b) it increases every week these days.
My meal planning tool is called a clipboard. By that, I mean an actual board with a clip on top where I can affix paper and tuck a writing implement. On the piece of paper, I write the days of the week and I leave room for notes. Notes are usually events or activities that have an incidence on meal preparation. For instance, if we are going to a party or if I need to have supper ready earlier than usual or if I am coming home from an afternoon activity later than 3pm, etc. (because if dinner hasn’t started by 3:00, it’s not happening.) On the right hand side is a grocery list column, to write…. The grocery list! I know: high tech doesn’t even begin to describe it.
(If you think that Excel would do all this for me, (a) you are probably right, (b) you have never seen me use Excel, it’s stand-up comedy; and (c) some teenager stole my mouse and I’m using the track pad on my lap top 100% of the time. Using Excel with a track pad is prohibited by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under “cruel and unusual punishment.” I don’t get paid enough for that shtuff.)
Once my little spreadsheet is written, I take the clipboard with me for a walk. We have a pantry and two freezers, both of which contain things I can’t remember. I make a menu based of the mammoth parts my husband has hunted down from Costco. Then I check the grocery items I will need to accompany said pieces of meat. I write everything down on the paper with a pen. At that point, I might also ask the family for input since, you know, there is never anything good to eat here. At that point, my entire family might answer: “I don’t know. Food?” And this is how I end-up with hundreds of dollars’ worth of nothing good.
(Normally it would be written in French but I made this one just for you).
And there you have it. Large family, high tech, meal planning. The clipboard lives in my purse afterwards.
Before I let you go, I just wanted to share our Sunday meal. My friend Sue’s amazing pulled pork (which I took from the freezer) and beer bread. I had never made beer bread, I didn’t even know what it was, but I got the idea from one of Simcha Fisher’s “What’s for supper?” blog posts. Since I want to be as awesome as Simcha, I decided to give it a try. It’s seriously amazingly good, especially with pulled pork. I used this recipe: http://www.food.com/recipe/beer-bread-73440 and yes, I sifted the flour and it turned out perfectly.
This will definitely make you as awesome as Simcha in the kitchen. As for the becoming a gifted writer and successful blogger, I’m still working on it.
Homeschooling Questions: To plan or not to plan?
To plan or not to plan, that is the question…
In a recent Facebook post, I asked friends to send me their homeschooling questions, as if I could answer any of them as I emerge from a very difficult first year and enter the second. I meant to write a Q&A type of post but the questions were too far ranging to fit on one page, each one deserving a full post to itself. The first question came from Jenna. She asked (edited for length):
“I always love hearing about how/when homeschoolers fit in planning….and getting a glimpse of what a typical day looks like. I am constantly battling with the idea that we need to have a structured routine, but fail to have one every single day. Sometimes I feel great about our go-with-the-flow approach, and sometimes I feel like my kids need more consistency and I should work harder at that.”
I think that personal style and what works for your family are key. For us, planning is a must. Like you, I tend to fall on the go-with-the-flow end of the spectrum but it is a complete fail with my children. In fact, nothing guarantees a bad day like not having a plan. As a result, I need to walk roughshod over my personal preference and manage to work with what works best for my children. And that’s a lesson plan, attached to a schedule. My children need to know what to expect or their brains short-circuit. On the positive side, when they have a lesson plan clearly laid-out, they work well and thoroughly.
Last year, I planned our work using Laura Berquist’s Designing you Own Classical Curriculum and Jesse Wise’s The Well-Trained Mind . While I really liked the classical approach, it required a lot of work and advanced planning on my part, especially since my children were something-less-than-enthusiastic. Their school experience had not prepared them for the type of work and inquiry that the classical curriculum demanded.
Mid-year I started using spiral bound notebooks to prepare the children’s workweek. If I had a chunk of time on Sunday I would plan the entire week day-by-day. That rarely happened so I was normally planning one day at a time, after the kids’ bedtime. When the children got up in the morning, they knew right away what they had to do and would often power through most of their school day in a few hours. Whenever we didn’t get to the end of the list, the work got reported to the next day. I never scheduled Fridays and used it as a bumper day to finish the week’s work.
Using the spiral notebooks really made things easier for everyone but I was still struggling to keep on top of the highschoolers: making sure that their work was completed properly and corrected, that areas of concern were addressed, etc. As former school students, they both had a tendency to stop working whenever they encountered a problem they couldn’t solve.
As a result, this year I registered the highschoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School. They are taking online classes in math and religion, have tutors for the other subjects (science, English, history, latin) and I teach French using these resources. The Mother of Divine Grace syllabi are very clearly (and expertly) broken down in assignments by days and by weeks. The curriculum is demanding, clocking-in at 5 to 6 hours per day for the highschoolers. In other words, it will suck back a lot of our homeschooling flexibility. But the reality is that my teens don’t know how to use their time wisely. I was hoping that homeschooling flexibility would allow them to delve into new interests and develop their talents but it hasn’t. Unless Tumblr, Netflix and Starbucks count as talents.
Another dimension of planning are your needs as a parent. As usual, a little bit of critical self-examination can go a long way. I find that there is a very predictable arc to my day depending on where my butt sits around 7:30 am. If I am on the couch with my phone, in my pajamas, having my coffee, chances are I’m still there at 10am (or more likely I got up in a panic as the twins dumped a bucket of outside gravel into the couch and I am now cleaning it up as they flush dominoes down the septic tank and Damien is drinking toilet water from the dog’s water dish. I wish I was making this up.) If I have gotten-up before the kids, stretched a bit, said my morning prayers, eaten and dressed, I’m less likely to get caught-up in the wave of chaos that represents my family. Because my brain is impervious to routines – no matter how long I stick to a routine it never becomes second nature – a plan help me remember where I’m supposed to be at a certain time and what I’m supposed to do.
Finally, one last dimension of planning is that it really clears hours off my day. I know because I’ve been operating plan-less for most of the last 9 months and the insanity of doing all the cooking, all the cleaning and all the homeschooling for a family of 11 is really catching-up with me now. A plan allows me to assign tasks to the children and keep them accountable. It’s easier to keep them doing their chores if there is a predictable list of work I can pin to their foreheads. Left to my own devise, I tend to rely heavily on the most naturally helpful children, which of course breeds resentment on one end and unrealistic expectations of being left alone at the other end. I purchased Managers of their homes in a fit of despair last year but it’s still shrink-wrapped and glaring at me. I’m scared witless of this thing but I’m afraid we’re at that point of disorganization.Many friends have also recommended Holly Pierlot A Mother’s Rule of Life but I can’t buy another book until I have read all those I ordered last year so it may have to wait until I’m in a nursing home.
My thoughts on planning, in a nutshell: If you think you need it, give it a try. If you are happy and healthy, why fix what is not broken? I would much prefer following my children’s learning cues and enquiries, if the cues weren’t always about Paw Patrol.
Discipline sans menaces
Lorsque j’ai commencé à éduquer mes enfants à la maison, la première chose que j’ai remarquée fut l’omniprésence de mes enfants. Soudainement, nous étions ensemble toute la journée. Et la soirée. Et la fin de semaine aussi. Il nous fallait apprendre à vivre ensemble et à respecter l’espace vital de chacun. Pas une tâche facile dans une famille grand format.
Le respect de l’espace vital de chacun ne se fait pas qu’au plan physique, il faut aussi apprendre à se traiter avec respect minute après minute, heure après heure. Je dis souvent à la cantonade qu’il est impossible d’élever des enfants sans pots-de-vin — et je ne parle pas d’un verre de rouge après l’heure du coucher — mais pour plusieurs d’entre nous, les menaces plutôt que les promesses sont la pierre angulaire de notre approche disciplinaire. Sur les forums Internet que je fréquente, les approches basées sur les menaces ou le retrait de privilèges foisonnent. Pendant longtemps, j’ai souscrit à ces approches, préférant faire référence aux “conséquences” d’une action plutôt qu’à une punition.
J’ai rapidement appris que nos jeunes enfants (et même nos adolescents!) n’avaient pas assez de contrôle sur leur environnent pour que notre approche disciplinaire puisse reposer sur les conséquences naturelles d’une action. Pensez-y. Un enfant joue près du four, un enfant désobéi et va jouer dans la rue, un enfant mord un autre enfant. Les conséquences naturelles de ces actions sont physiquement ou emotivement inatteignables. Qui va laisser son enfant se brûler sévèrement ou se faire frapper par une voiture par acquis de discipline? Et pour la morsure, les remords et la perte d’un ami sont à plusieurs années de faire une différence. Il arrive souvent aussi que les conséquences naturelles soient trop onéreuses pour la famille ou se résument à punir toute la famille pour les actions d’une petite personne. C’est le cas lorsque nous promettons à bout de nerf d’annuler Noël, un voyage à Disney ou de quitter le resto sur le champ. Nous devons tous nous rabattre sur des conséquences inventées pour faire une impression: retrait de privilèges, isolation, confiscation de jouets, privation de dessert.
Cette approche a plus ou moins de succès selon le tempérament de nos enfants et le notre évidemment. Certain enfants choisiront toujours la “conséquence” histoire de garder le contrôle sur une situation qui leur échappe. Certains parents passeront rarement aux actes histoire d’éviter un face-à-face explosif. L’appel aux conséquences est d’une utilité limitée, surtout lorsque celles-ci sont inventées et doivent être mises-en-œuvre par les parents. L’utilité des conséquences naturelles est leur renforcement naturel, sans avoir recours aux discours, à la répétition et à la punition. La conséquence inventée (par exemple, range ta vaisselle sale ou perd ton tour de PS3) doit être imposée par le parent tout comme les mesures punitives. C’est donc une punition déguisée en conséquence.
Un autre problème avec le recours aux menaces et à la perte de privilèges, particulièrement dans le contexte de l’instruction en famille, c’est que la plupart de nos enfants mènent une vie dans laquelle le privilège est partie intégrante, c’est-à-dire qu’il est difficile d’isoler le privilège pour pouvoir l’enlever. Au jour le jour, une fois que nous avons retiré le privilège d’écran ou le dessert, peut-être une sortie chez un ami ou une fête d’anniversaire, on arrive à bout de munitions. Mes enfants perdent souvent leur privilège de télévision ou leur iPod avant 9:00 du matin. Lorsqu’on manque de “conséquences”, on doit se rabattre sur notre autorité toute simple. Et c’est ainsi que je me suis rendu compte que mon autorité, sans menaces, était plutôt mince.
C’est ainsi que je me suis embraquée dans un défi de discipline sans menaces.
J’imagine que vous attendez que je vous admette que tout marche à merveille ou que tout a foiré? Ni l’un ni l’autre. C’est une aventure à long terme. Mais je peux vous dire que nous avons beaucoup de chemin à faire avant d’arriver à un résultat tangible. La discipline interne est le travail d’une vie, si j’en crois mon expérience.
Le rodage ne s’est pas fait sans frictions. Libérés du contrôle artificiel qu’imposaient les “conséquences”, la fratrie est graduellement tombée dans le chaos le plus total. Le travail d’école est tombé en friche et le niveau de criage, d’insultes et de chamaillage ont atteints un nouveau record (ce qui n’est pas peu dire). Mon autorité ne tenant qu’à un fil, je suis devenue irascible, impatiente et généralement irrationnelle. La conclusion de mon expérience de discipline sans menaces était déprimante d’une manière ou d’une autre: soit je devais remettre les menaces au menu, soit je devais me déclarer vaincue et à la merci de mes enfants.
Avec un peu de recul et de réflexion, j’ai réalisé que le recours aux menaces me permettais de ne pas imposer de limites strictes, d’encadrement ferme. Une fois au bout du rouleau, je n’avais qu’à brandir le retrait de privilèges pour que les choses se placent. J’ai appris que sans menaces, je devais être beaucoup plus claire et prévisible quand il en venait aux attentes et aux limites. Éliminer les menaces me forçait à être à la fois plus tendre et plus ferme. J’ai du établir des règles de conduite dans la maison — autant au niveau du comportement que de l’espace physique — que je dois faire respecter sans exception sous peine de me perdre dans l’anarchie. D’une certaine manière, c’est un style de vie plus restrictif qu’avant mais j’ai espoir qu’avec un peu de temps et beaucoup de pratique nous allons arriver à un point d’équilibre. En somme, j’essaie d’être moins “réactive”, c’est-à-dire que je n’attends pas d’être en face d’une situation critique avant de réagir. J’essaie de ne pas me rendre au bout du rouleau. J’y arrive en ayant recours aux routines et aux séquences, en baissant le volume pour garder le calme et en n’ayant pas les yeux plus gros que la panse au niveau de la discipline. Je prends un bouchée à la fois, un changement à la fois, et je mâche et remâche jusqu’à ce que le morceau soit passé.
Heureusement, j’ai l’occasion de pratiquer souvent!
It started innocently enough with an online sale. The kind of online sale that let’s you meet likeminded parents: cloth diapers, children’s bikes. This one was for a ring sling. While teaching the buyer to use my ring sling, we had stricken a conversation about twins. This young mama had 6 month-old twins, her first children. I looked at her with the confidence of the mother who has it all figured out and said: “I know how tough it is right now but don’t worry: they’ll sleep someday, it gets better.” She said: “Oh sleep is no problem! Since they were born we made sure to have a really consistent bedtime routine and when we tuck them in their beds they know it’s sleep time and they just go to sleep!”
Well, I try hard not to swear but F-my-luck. I haven’t slept a good night since 2009 and having twins nearly killed me. From the day they were born until Lucas was 16 months I did not sleep longer than 45 minutes in a row. When he was 10 months-old I realized that I had seen every single hour on my alarm clock, every single night, for the last 10 months so I got rid of the alarm clock. It was easier than getting rid of the baby. That young mom’s innocent comment made me feel like maybe I had missed something. Maybe I could have been sleeping all this time and my restless nights were due to a lack of skills or determination. And those negative feelings reopened a door I had long thought closed: the door of envy.
St. Thomas Aquinas defined envy as sorrow at the good fortune of others. Its flip side is rejoicing at the downfall of others. Envy is that silent “YES!!” moment when we learn of the downfall of someone we had been envying. As if something in us died when our neighbor succeeded.
I struggled for many years with envy after my older children were born. I was convinced that my decision to put my career on hold while my children were young (ha! Famous last words as I still have young children almost 20 years later) was the right decision for our family. Yet, I looked with envy at the material things my friends who worked outside the home could afford. Vacations, cute clothes, and my holy grail, matching furniture. I mentally wished that their children would grow-up troubled as if I needed to see the proof that having a parent at home was better for children. As if nothing I was doing would have been worth it unless my children were happy and their children were screwed-up.
Now that I am a bit older and a bit wiser — and that I have a house full of matching IKEA furniture — envy doesn’t rear its ugly head the same way it did when I was younger. I no longer envy material things as much as accomplishments. I envy confidence, safety, and a sense of control. Which is ironic isn’t it, since I decided to have a large family? But this is how fear works in the darkest confines of our souls, keeping us from becoming a better, bigger, version of ourselves.
I caught myself wishing that this young mom’s twins would suddenly stop sleeping so well. To show her that she wasn’t really in control. I wished that she would discover that her parenting skills at imposing a bedtime routine that sent her kids straight into Morpheus’ arms had everything to do with her children’s natural disposition to sleep on cue. I assumed that they must have been bottle-fed in hospital and molded to an institutional schedule. What are we breastfeeding mothers to do when our healthy children protest our best attempts to conform them to our schedule? We are not going home at the end of our shift!
A few months later, I learned that a friend with children had sold her house and purchased a similar-sized house in a less desirable suburban neighbourhood. The difference in prices allowed her and her husband to pay-off their mortgage and live comfortably debt-free. I could just taste the freedom. Completely debt-free, home owning, new vehicle driving, holidaying, while in their prime earning years, with school-aged children…. Life: does it get better than that?
Well, of course the husband, you know…. And the wife well… That’s not mentioning the way their kids…. And the issues at school… Here comes envy again with its messy greasy hands leaving fingerprints all over my best wishes. Envy is the opposite of rose-coloured glasses. It stains what should be beautiful and inspiring and filters it through a dirty lens. Turned on itself, it makes us look like a diminished version of ourselves. Envy is self-limitation. It’s locking ourselves in a cage, with the key, wishing every one would join us in when we could simply fly away.
I realized that my envy was not only holding me down, it was preventing me from growing from my experiences and choices, whether good or bad. It also made small-fry of the fruits of those experiences and forks in the road. My life as a mother of 9 is fodder for this blog and countless helpful interventions with friends and strangers alike. I made poor financial and academic decisions that set me back in my career ambitions and my financial independence but these decisions have lead me down a path where I met dear friends, learned valuable lessons and grew more than I ever did playing it safe. Envy renders us myopic, deliberately blurring out distance and perspective, only allowing us to see what is directly in front of us.
How many “mommy wars” and “mama drama” are rooted in envy? How many poor choices are motivated by envy? How farther along would we be if we simply chose to learn from those who have done things better, or even just differently, than we have?
C.S. Lewis described hell as a door locked on the inside. When we let envy pollute our relationships with others, we are not only locking ourselves in but expecting everyone to join us.
Ontario’s new Health and Phys Ed curriculum: this is not a cafeteria
The roll out of Ontario’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum (better known as “sex ed”) has caused a flurry of activity on my Facebook feed. I feel blessed to have friends and acquaintances on every side of this issue but it makes Facebook commenting a bit of a mine field. Try as I may to post nuanced positions, the reality is that social media is a not a friend of nuance. That’s why I have my blog: so I can annoy everybody — from left to right — at the same time… But only if they choose to read me.
First, let’s get the elephant out of the way. I am a practicing Roman Catholic. As a matter of religious doctrine, I believe myself — and that handsome guy I make kids with — to be my children’s primary educators. This means that the responsibility to choose what my children learn falls squarely and unequivocally on my shoulders. The decision to send my children to school or to keep them at home is a religious right, or should be. Many Catholic parents oppose the new sex ed curriculum because they see it as an usurpation of parental authority and their role as primary educators. Not, take note, because they are afraid of the real names of their genitals or what they are used for. In fact, many of us wish teens would learn more about how their reproductive systems work. More on that later.
I am a Catholic parent but I am also a citizen. I live in a democracy which is — as Sir Winston Churchill reminds us — the worst form of government except for all the others we have tried so far. When Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the new and improved curriculum a few years ago, the outcry on the eve of provincial elections caused the hasty retreat of the controversial new elements. The new Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to reintroduce the curriculum and is showing no sign of backing down. The people who have elected her are reacting with a collective shrug or, as a Facebook friend of a friend wrote: “I’m so glad they’ll be teaching consent.” Because really, how else are young men and women supposed to learn what a consensual sexual relationship is unless they learn it in school? My point is that the people who elected the Ontario Liberal Party are generally happy with the curriculum changes, either because it reflects their own values on health and sexuality or because they don’t care. The parents currently storming the barricades are not those who elected Premier Wynne. Is it a surprise to learn that she is not sensitive to their plight?
As my friend John Robson explains very well in this short video, the provincial government is in the business of teaching civics and morals. You may argue that the government should limit itself to value-neutral academics such a reading, writing and arithmetic but this would be a theoretical exercise at best: the Education Act spells the role of the school system in shaping values and morals very clearly. You’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound: once your children are under the auspices of our state-run education system, the system makes the rules. And that includes the rules about dating, mating and reproducing (or, preferably, not reproducing). As Justice Deschamp wrote for the majority in the 2012 case pitting Quebec parents against the Quebec government over the contested Ethics, Culture and Religion (ECR) curriculum (emphasis is mine):
Parents are free to pass their personal beliefs on to their children if they so wish. However, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.
Yup. That’s right. While this decision refers to a different curriculum in a different province, it does a good job of highlighting the highest court’s sentiment with regard to parental rights in education. I have heard many people, several teachers themselves, argue that the school had to teach sex ed because the parents weren’t. That’s not true. The Ontario education system has to teach sex ed because matters of civics and morals are part and parcel of its mandate. You might argue that this does not correspond to your idea of civics and morals but you ascribed to that vision when you registered your children in school. Remember that dotted line? Your name’s on it.
In an address at the Maryvale Academy Gala last January, Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast tore into Kathleen Wynne’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum calling it a “seizure of parental authority”. He said (emphasis mine):
“We know that the proposed program threatens the fundamental right of parents to educate their children in the moral dimension of sexual behaviour (…). Parents are best qualified and have the greatest interest in working with their own children to handle this serious topic at an age and developmentally sensitive time,” he continued. “More notably, parents have the fundamental right to do so―a right the Province appears willing to usurp without due consideration.”
(You can read the entire address here.)
Willing to usurp? The Province is not merely “willing to usurp” the role of parents as primary educators, it’s obligated by law to do so. As for the fundamental right to educate children in matters of morals, this is a right that is not recognized by law. As the Supreme Court clearly stated, that right stops at your front door. Some of my Facebook friends who support the curriculum updates shrugged: “It’s a great curriculum. Those who don’t agree just have to opt out.” Believe me, as a parent who had to pull an anxious child out of Health & PE:
I had to collude with my daughter to find out exactly when to pick her up. Had my daughter not been a willing participant, I would have had no way of knowing when the Health component of the PE class was being taught. Then she would be marked as “absent” — which adds up on her report card — and still expected to write the Health & PE test, failure to do so would also show on her report card. I was glad to give my daughter an occasional break from “Health” but on the whole, she still had to learn the stuff and write the test. Opting out? Not exactly. And here’s the difficult lesson of my post so far: you can’t really opt out of Health & PE even though you have a theoretical right to, as per the Education Act. You have to opt out of the system. We took our children out of Health. And French, math, science and history too. We homeschool. You’re not happy with the extent of government encroachment on your role as primary educator? Your options are: (1) change the Education Act; (2) force the rolling back of the curriculum by electing a government that supports your vision; (3) take your children out of public school. I’m sad to inform you that the happy middle where you get to send your kids to school to learn things you want them to learn at the exclusion of those you don’t like is not an option. Sorry. This is not a cafeteria.
Education is always political. Remember what they say about the hand that rocks the cradle? Well, if you don’t, the Provincial government does, as does Canada’s highest court. There is no such thing as a value-neutral sexual education class. The term “safe sex” is not value neutral. Neither is “risky behaviour”. When I helped my grade 8 daughter study for her Health exam, I learned that Natural Family Planning was also known as “the calendar method” and had a success rate of 30%. This kind of misinformation is not value-neutral.
What your children learn in school is always political. It may look neutral if you share the values promoted in the curriculum but your comfort is only as safe as our democratic system: someday, the tables may turn. After all, the social conservatives — be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish — are having all the babies. Do you think Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar are raising feminists and allies? Doesn’t this make you a little squirmy about the world your 1.3 children will grow into?
Believe it or not, I am not losing sleep over the so-called graphic content of the new curriculum. My extended family has a few same-sex married couples and a transgendered woman. I have dear friends of all colours of the rainbow. Gender fluidity is a fact of life in my family. The mention of masturbation in grade 6 and sexually transmitted diseases and co-related risky behaviours in grade 7 are not phasing me in the least: by then, my children had long been exposed to them in the school yard and especially the school bus. Our bus drivers always listened to mainstream pop radio, where hip hop songs are way more explicit than anything their gym teachers could dream-up. Honestly, your children’s innocence is only as safe as that of their peers.
If anything, I wish the curriculum taught more about how babies are made! I had a conversation with my daughter a few years back while she was texting a friend. Both girls had received the best sex ed the school system could provide. A friend had had unprotected sex during her periods and wanted to know if she could get pregnant. Both thought that ovulation happened during menstruation. So here we are, giving our teens all the information they need to have safe sex. All the information except how babies are made. 16 year-old girls are having unprotected sex without the foggiest clue of when they are fertile. Great. Have we thought of letting kids figure out how to masturbate on their own and teach them how babies are actually made instead? Just a thought.
Nobody should be complaisant about the government’s mandate to teach sexual education. You may be fine with the current state of sexual education but if you — like me — live in a democracy and enjoy the perks of political freedom, you may very well find yourself on my side of the barricades one day. And I promise that I will still be there with you.
Why are we doing this?
We moved last week, the realization of 3 years of planning and strategic decision-making. In 2010, when I announced that I was expecting twins to a friend (and fellow twin mama) she exclaimed: “This is wonderful! This will really focus you on your family!” I remember being a little taken-aback. We had 6 children, why did she think we were not family-focused already? I should have known better than to question the wisdom of a mother of 10. Of course she was right. After welcoming the twins in 2011, the futility of our lifestyle really hit us like a ton of brick. My husband was working himself to an early grave for the sake of keeping us ensconced in our busy and abundant lifestyle. We decided to sell our house, pay-off our debts, offload a lot of our stuff and live a life that was more coherent with our beliefs and principles. We bought a piece of land in the country where we eventually built a house. A house designed with the needs and requirements of a large homeschooling family in mind, where square-footage is not a thing in and of itself.
Our little piece of Canadian shield sits about an hour’s drive away from the east end of Ottawa where our children were born and raised. It is a radical move from a suburban lifestyle to a rural lifestyle, from school to homeschool, and it leaves no one indifferent.
Decisions based on convictions rarely leave people indifferent. Returning to school full time to get a Master’s degree didn’t leave people indifferent. Selling our house to pay off our debts and move into a rental house didn’t leave people indifferent. Having another child didn’t leave people indifferent. Building a house in the country didn’t leave people indifferent. Homeschooling didn’t leave people indifferent. We always elicit a reaction. We are either living the dream or delusional.
Last week, we moved 9 children away from the community they have known since birth. Four of those 9 children are teenagers. Rightfully, people are asking: “What are the children thinking about this move?” Uprooting teenagers is a bold move, especially in the absence of a non-negotiable driver such as a job posting. But if anyone thinks that we’re delusional to move teenagers on purpose, let me assure you that this move, at this time, is intentional. We are under no illusion that the move will be seamless or even easy for our teenagers but we are doing it because we believe it’s the right thing to do for our family.
We are committed to make it work for our teenagers and we are often asking for their input on ways to facilitate the transition. Don’t get me wrong, the teenagers never held the power to stop the move. But there is a difference between asking for input and veto power. Our teenagers know that we have an ear for well thought-through plans. They do not like to plan much — neither do their friends – preferring to pick-up as they go. We believe — and this is how this decision was intentional — that the cream of friendships will rise to the top. This happens to most of us through the post-secondary years. Our move has only provoked a natural progression of high school dalliances and connections. We see this as a positive aspect of the move, not a negative one. Our society sees the teenage years as an end in itself, a last grab at the freedom of childhood. We see the teenage years as a transition into adulthood. Our vision for our family is to raise adults, not big children. It’s very difficult to cast this approach as essentially affirmative when the children grow-up in a cultural environment where this formation is seen as essentially restrictive. I love the analogy of arrows in the hand of the warrior: to launch arrows, you need tension. If you make everything easy for your teenagers to avoid tension, the arrow will fall flatly to the ground. Too much tension and the bow breaks, not enough tension and the arrow doesn’t launch. Moving teenagers is causing some tension, I will not lie. However, we see tension as an essential component of growth, maturation and individualization.
Our decision to move to the country was also a decision to slow right down. We wanted to move away from the tyranny of activities and the pressure of wanting to keep-up with everyone else. We were tired of fighting our environment to instill the values we wanted to instill in our children. Here, in the country the rhythms are different, the expectations are different. For instance, our new church’s children’s choir rehearsal takes place right after Mass while the families are still around. No need to book another evening off for choir practice. All the children are welcome, regardless of age, because everybody needs to make the most out of their country mileage. This is just an example of the many ways in which country folks are more practical. This is how we want our family to start thinking and living.
You may read this in complete agreement or recoil in horror, your reaction is rooted in your own values and priorities. I believe that the proof will be in the fruit. I will tend my garden and let the fruit ripen.
Whenever you are out and about with a gaggle of homeschooled kids, someone is bound to ask if they are sick or on holiday. And whenever the children answer “No we are homeschooled!” someone is bound to reply one of two things:
Oh, I could never do that, I don’t have the patience!
Oh, I could never do that, my kids wouldn’t listen to me!
Ask my kids, they’ll tell you I don’t have the patience either. Really, who in their right mind would choose to lock themselves-up in a house all day with a bunch of school-aged kids? Honestly, I don’t know. But if you think that homeschooling moms have a special gift (or illness) that gives them supernatural powers of patience and understanding, you are sorely mistaken. I have yet to meet a homeschooling mom who never had a day (week, month) where she thought of calling the school’s registration desk right ‘freakin’ now. Or just put her kids at the bus stop and hope that the driver wouldn’t notice and take them away.
Three people have asked me (separately) how to stay sane while homeschooling. According to some of my closest family members, my sanity is (A) questionable, and (B) in danger. But if you come closer, I will tell you that the question of staying sane while spending my every waking hour with my own children kept me from homeschooling for the last 8 years. Yes, you read that right. My husband and I started talking about homeschooling 12 years ago and we kept our now-18-year-old daughter at home for grade 1. Within 6 months, I was struggling so badly we decided to stop homeschooling. That’s not quite the whole story but it is all you need to understand that I GET IT. I know what you mean. This failure has been weighing heavily on me ever since, not the least because I believe so fervently that homeschooling can bring the best out of children. Before we re-launched this year, I had to spend some time in deep thoughts (and prayer) on why we had failed the first time and what we would do differently this time.
First, this blog post will not be a grocery list of concrete things to do. I think that emotional balance is mostly in your head, meaning that if your head and heart are not healthy, no amount of shopping sprees, traveling and weekends away will restore it. I also think that concrete things – like hiring a cleaning lady or going to the gym – are very circumstantial. In other words, it might not work for everyone in their current circumstances. Whenever someone suggests that I do x,y,z “while the babies nap” it reminds me that my babies no longer nap and it makes me feel even more discouraged and overwhelmed. I want to encourage you! As a result, I will stay away from suggestions that hinge on having more time or more money (usually both) because if my life is any indication, they are both in short supply.
Before we dig-in, I would like to specify that the sentiments and dispositions of the mind expressed in that blog post are my own. I am not saying that you should feel the same way. I strongly believe that happiness has to come from within and that’s why my approach to homeschooling sanity is to work on my own heart and soul as opposed to trying to control my circumstances. In today’s world, we are more likely to blame others and the limitations they impose on our choices than turn our gaze inward. If you are looking for a “Top 10 tips that will save your sanity for sure,” you may have knocked on the wrong door.
1. Accept the pace. Homeschooling is hard. The first step in remaining sane is to accept that what you are doing is hard work. It’s physically and emotionally demanding. It’s a counter-cultural decision for which you will face opposition and criticism. Sometimes from your own children. You will feel pressure to perform and turn out prodigies. Your children’s character flaws and temperaments will be in your face, hour after hour, day after day. Homeschooling is hard but it is worth it. Find examples in your life of situations that were difficult but ultimately worth it… Having children, getting married, maybe conceiving or adopting your children was an uphill battle filled with heartache. Accept that homeschooling is the path less traveled and there is a reason for that. As my husband often says about having 9 children – but it applies to homeschooling: “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”
2. Mind your head. If you are struggling with mental illness, even if it is a mild case of depression or anxiety, you will need to deal with it first. When we tried to homeschool for the first time 12 years ago, I was struggling with undiagnosed post-partum depression. Homeschooling chewed me up and spat me out. It takes solid footings to lock yourself up in a house with a bunch of young children day after day.
3. Remember why you are doing this. There are as many reasons to homeschool as there are homeschooling families. Homeschooling is a deliberate decision but it’s easy to forget when the children are swinging from the chandeliers and the school bus drives by your house. Whether you knew you would homeschool since your child’s birth or fell into homeschooling accidentally when the system failed your child, you are homeschooling for a reason. Write it down, stick it to your fridge or set regular reminders on your smartphone, but remember why you are doing this or your child will be back in school within 6 weeks.
4. Mind your marriage. Unless you are parenting solo, you will need the support of your spouse to homeschool. It goes beyond the decision to homeschool. You will need support and encouragement and your spouse is equally invested in the success of the endeavour. A dysfunctional or unloving marriage will completely crumble under the pressures of homeschooling. As your house becomes your base of operation, you will need love and harmony in the home like never before. Your marriage relationship sets the tone for all the other relationships in your home. If you face a lot of opposition outside the home from your friends and family, you will need the support and encouragement of your spouse all the more. My husband is my unquestioning cheerleader. Good day, bad day, I’m always doing great. Poor curriculum purchase? It’s ok, we’ll sell it on Kijiji. When I think I’m failing the children, he reminds me that a slow day is not a fail. He keeps me grounded and centered and I could not homeschool without him. If your marriage is strained or failing, deal with that first. Your children will benefit more from an intact and happy marriage than from homeschooling. This is the truth.
5. Put your oxygen mask on first. Don’t wait until you are struggling. When my daughter underwent surgery at 4 months and again at 4 years, her medical caregivers explained to me that if I dealt with the pain before it became unbearable, I was likely able to control it with Tylenol. This meant giving her pain medicine before she was in pain. If I waited too long to medicate her and the pain became acute, she would need much stronger medicine to be comfortable. In the context of homeschooling and being stuck at home with a bunch of young children, it means that small self-care practices can go a long way if you start them before you need to. Prayer, meditation, physical exercise and a coffee date with yourself will help if done regularly. Don’t wait until you need therapy and a month away at a resort.
6. Find your support system. Finding supportive friends in the homeschooling community is key to maintaining your perspective. You will need people who can listen to your good days but especially your bad days without judgement. Your circle of support will help you remember why you are homeschooling and help you get back up when you stumble. You may not live in a vibrant homeschooling community as I do and you may have to turn to social media and the Internet for support. That’s ok as long as your circle of support builds you up. The Internet can be a nasty space. Don’t waste time in online communities that leave you discouraged and defeated.
7. Work on character before curriculum. If you can’t get any compliance from your children, if you must yell to get your kids moving 10 times out of 10, if your relationship with your teenagers is strained on a good day and downright hostile the rest of the time, you need to deal with that first. It doesn’t mean that homeschooling is not for you. In fact, homeschooling might be the best decision you made in years. But you won’t make any headway in math and grammar until you have a better relationship with your children. Trying to teach curriculum to children who do not respect you will sap your will to live, I can promise you that. Deal with character issues first, even if it means that you don’t get to curriculum for a few months. You will make-up for lost time once you have a solid working and loving relationship with your children.
8. Don’t fight the change. Homeschooling is a lifestyle as well as an education decision. Whereas the choice between public and private school is an education decision, the decision to homeschool will affect your entire life. It will completely turn your daily routines and expectations on their heads. If you try to live as if you had simply made an education decision, you will burn out in no time flat. Your children are now with you all day. Your house will get messier, your spare times will get fewer and your school-based pressure valves – like art, outdoor play and physical activity – will disappear. You will learn to be happy where you are and with what you have but you will need to give yourself the chance to learn. I used to be the mom waltzing down the Staples aisle in September singing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”. Homeschooling is a journey of learning for the parents too! Approach the growing pains with acceptance and let the challenges grow on you. Fighting change will not work.
You can follow our journey in pictures on Instagram where I post as @happy_chaos_
Whine and cheese
This post started as a description of a bad day. We all have them, don’t we? No matter how heavy or light our burden, some days (weeks, months) just won’t end. Or so it seems. The whine was spurred by a somewhat critical “You make everything look easy” from a friend. This shook me a little because if anything looks easy I can assure you that it’s all fluff and no substance. Anybody who sees me in real life – as opposed to social media – knows that whatever it is I’m doing, I’m (a) fumbling all the way; and (b) not doing it all that well. Every. Single. Day. I recently posted late birthday wishes to my father on Facebook, hoping that a public self-shaming would make-up for my poor daughterly behaviour, adding:
“Next time any of you wonders how Véro does it, remember that I don’t.”
That’s it in a nutshell. For every finite “thing” I do, there’s an equal amount of something else that doesn’t happen. My days, like yours, have 24h. If you look at what I don’t do, you will notice that the list of what I get done pales in comparison. That’s why I find it very irritating when people bow before me, which happens about 10 times a day when I am out and about with my family. Yes, you read that well, people bow before me. They actually, physically, bow before me. You can’t imagine how uncomfortable being worshiped can make you feel when you are not — you know — God.
Not only am I not God, I’m a wretched sinner. I order my life in concentric circles, building priorities from the centre and adding larger circles as I master the smaller ones. The smaller circles are my husband and children, my home life, around that core is my family, parents, siblings, in-laws; around the family circle are friends and close ones, this circle extends into my community. The largest circle would be those in need of my time and talent but who are not directly linked to me by the bonds of family, friendship or community. My faith radiates through from the core, informing how I (try to) relate to myself and others.
On a good day, I might make it to circle number 2. Everything else – friends, community, service – falls by the wayside. My every hour is consumed by caring for my basic needs and raising my children in a cheerful, peaceful and stable home where they can grow happy and healthy. Putting good food on the table, having clean clothes, a happy face and a listening ear takes-up my entire day. I am horrible at keeping in touch with my parents and siblings. I never remember anyone’s birthday, and when I do I don’t do anything about it. I’m a write-off when it comes to social graces like thank you notes. I have very few real friends left, and those who stick by me have precious little needs. I am not involved in my community; our family gives money to a few good causes because we can’t find the time to help out in a more meaningful way. If you are impressed because I manage to keep 9 children fed, dressed and somewhat educated assuming that I am also doing what normally productive members of the society do on the side, be informed that there is no side here: it’s all inner circle with a smattering of social media. In a nutshell it takes me 24h a day to be a decent wife and mother. That’s nothing to bow to.
Unlike some of my friends with larger-than-average families, I don’t have children with special needs. I don’t even have children with learning difficulties. In fact, all my children are above average students. They are physically, mentally and emotionally sound. My parents, my in-laws and my siblings are all in good health and economically wealthy enough to cover their needs as they age. There is no strife on either side of our extended family. There are no obvious mental health or substance abuse problems in our immediate family. We have been undeservedly spared by grief and loss. I should be able to do more with my 24h but for the limitations of my own person, my intelligence, my heart and my body. I am raising children whom I hope will be positive contributors to society, competent men and women committed to live by principles of integrity. I hope to look happy and peaceful doing it because the least I can do for the world from the confines of my kitchen – where I spend most of my life cooking, cleaning and homeschooling – is to give my children an example of self-giving that makes them want to choose others before themselves as they grow-up. Some days I fail miserably and that’s why I am still stuck in the innermost circles, trying to be a good mother, daughter, wife and sister before I move outward and onward.
Next time you are tempted to feel inadequate or bow before me or anyone else, remember that people like me need people with less stringent family obligations to make the world go round. Because I sure ain’t doin’ it. I need people like you to volunteer on school trips with my children, participate in bake sales, sit on board of directors, work as doctors, nurses and midwives, teachers, managers and creators. If you are dealing with loss, grief, illness, special needs or below average intelligence, you are already doing more than I am with my 9 healthy and bright children. So don’t bow. Don’t feel inadequate. Just go out and do your thing. From talking with you, I know that the more you already do, the more likely you are to feel like you’re not doing enough. Fill your 24h with purpose and hold you head up high.