Dear Mother of Young Ones,
I’ve heard you and your husband have been blessed with several children: one who is now school-age, a toddler, and a newborn baby. Your fears concerning how to teach the oldest at home while juggling the baby’s needs and keeping the toddler entertained and safe are legitimate. I’ve walked that path, and I understand. I will try my best to address your concerns.
First of all, you are not alone! Many, many of us moms who currently homeschool are in, or have been in, very similar situations. I remember my days of homeschooling my daughter (then age nine) and my son (then seven). We had three younger children, ages four and a half, two and a half, and newborn. I had a lot on my plate, to say the least.
It comforted me to realize that in all previous generations, mothers dealt with many children while homeschooling. (After all, the majority of families homeschooled for millenia.) These early moms figured out a way to teach all their children, raise their babies and toddlers, and feed and clothe their families—all without modern appliances like refrigerators, air-conditioning, or my favorite, the washing machine! I remembered reading about Susanna Wesley, mother of nineteen children. She had an amazing way of leading her children, teaching them in the context of their everyday lives. Susanna was all about prayer for her children, and God rewarded her faith. She also built her household upon basic parenting principles. I drew encouragement from the “great cloud of witnesses,” like Susanna, who mothered and homeschooled several children centuries before me. I trusted that if they could do it, so could I.
When my five children were all under ten years of age, I also sought out contemporary moms I knew who had already been through years of homeschooling with young ones in tow. Those moms now had graduates, teens, and older elementary students, but they had walked in my shoes. With them steps ahead of me in their homeschooling journeys, I tried to get their advice. I asked questions and listened to their answers. Most of all, I studied their families and how their children interacted. I noticed their families’ routines, values, and basic rules for living and household management. These “family studies” encouraged me a bunch, because I learned that homeschooling school-age children and having little ones weren’t mutually exclusive.
I also realized that the families I admired didn’t all have the same formula for homeschool success with younger children. Like Susanna Wesley, most of them had good organization of their homes and a strong faith to live out. They knew God had blessed them with their children and that He would sustain their efforts to raise and educate them.
I will be honest. Some days were tough. Often, all five children needed a piece of me at the same time. A fussy baby, a sniffling toddler, and older kids’ math and reading difficulties all hit in the same moment. Add to that a necessary trip to the grocery store or the library, and I was drained. Those sorts of days stretched me to the hilt physically and emotionally. Sometimes I handled all those tugs on my time and energy well. Other days I simply had to admit that there was only so much of me to give; even if the older ones didn’t get much schoolwork done, at least all my children were well fed, safe, clean (usually), and dearly loved.
So how did I manage, you ask? Well, like Susanna, I prayed a lot. I prayed for God’s grace and patience and wisdom to fill me. I prayed for stamina for me and good health for all of us. I prayed that my children would obey us, their parents, and love their siblings. As we homeschooled, I prayed that all of my children would learn what they needed to learn when they needed to learn it, in order to become the adults God created them to one day become. And every day at the breakfast table, I prayed aloud, “God, You know our plans for today, but we give You permission to interrupt.” It wasn’t so much that God needed my permission to do His will, but that my heart needed to say I was willing to be led by His Spirit, come what may. Any given day could present challenges like brothers fighting over a toy, meltdowns over schoolwork, scraped knees, and sudden illnesses which could derail our homeschool efforts. I wanted my heart to be spiritually ready for the “interruptions,” because my husband and I had predetermined to give priority to discipleship over bookwork.
Apart from prayer, here are household suggestions that have made my homeschool smoother, even with younger children in the family:
Vary location but not routine
Learning with little ones meant I read aloud a lot. While I sat on the couch feeding the baby, the others gathered nearby to listen to literature or a Bible story. Then we’d rotate to a different room for math so the toddler could have different toys. Then we’d head to the kitchen for another change of scenery. The variety seemed to help everybody’s attention spans.
Teach babies and toddlers to have independent playtime
Once my baby could sit up, I’d put him in the playpen with toys for a few minutes. Over the months, that playtime grew to thirty minutes, then to the length of a sing-along CD. Once a toddler, he would graduate to “room time,” with a greater assortment of toys. Teaching him to clean up his toys always concluded his daily time of independence. These playtimes gave me a window of time for focused schoolwork with my older children.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
Don’t make teaching too difficult on yourself. Look for publishers that make it easy on you by providing teacher guides, inexpensive and accessible supplies, and flexibility for days that aren’t so smooth. Some of my favorites were Five in a Row, Drawn into the Heart of Reading, TruthQuest for history and reading, Math-U-See, and Charlotte Mason art and nature study approaches.
Group your children for history, science, and the arts
My children were stairstepped in age, so learning together made practical sense. Rather than adopting a grade-level approach where each child needed a different curriculum, I grouped them for studies in history, science, Bible, art, and music. If my oldest child needed a bit more information on a subject, I could always assign her an additional library book to read on the topic. (Obviously, reading, writing, and ’rithmetic needed to be individualized.)
Take advantage of mealtimes
At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the kids are gathered, seated, and (often) quiet. Voila—a perfect time to do some schoolwork! During meals, we’ve studied birds and their calls via audiotape, read the Bible, studied artists via postcard reproductions, and listened to G.A. Henty and Jonathan Park stories on CD.
Avoid running a restaurant
My wise pediatrician once asked, “Are you running a family or a restaurant?” As our family grew, she knew that if I was constantly in the kitchen customizing meals or handing out between-meal snacks, I wouldn’t have much time left for other pursuits. Like Susanna Wesley, I determined early on to prepare great meals three times each day. If a child didn’t like what was being served, another meal more to his or her liking would come along in a short time. But I couldn’t become a short-order cook to cater to endless culinary preferences and still homeschool effectively.
Teach children of all ages to do chores
Whether it was pairing up clean socks, restocking the bathrooms with rolls of toilet paper, caring for pets, or making PB&J sandwiches, even the youngest of my toddlers could help around the home. Any task they could complete meant a few more minutes I could devote to homeschooling. Plus, they were learning skills and growing a heart of service.
Think like a family, not a school
This is a tough one for the bulk of us mothers because we were schooled in an institutional setting of bells a-ringing, workbook pages to be completed, and “subjects” clearly defined. Families, on the other hand, don’t have the same constraints. You are only teaching your few children; I only had five at a time. That’s fewer than a classroom teacher, so each of my homeschooled children gets much more quality time with the teacher—me. We can garden for science, price items and make change during a garage sale for math, and write letters to a faraway cousin for penmanship. Life happens in the midst of school—and that’s okay!
If I could sum it all up, I’d suggest you put your fears to rest. You can educate your children at home, even with little ones to care for. Establish an organized household, implement helpful hints from other moms, and ask God to bless your faith-filled efforts.
Melanie Hexter and her husband homeschool six children: one graduate, two in high school, and three coming up through the grades. They consider the discipleship that can occur while homeschooling high school one of the greatest blessings of all their years of parenting. Contact Melanie at info@LEMILOEpublishing.com.
Melanie Hexter and her husband, Matthew, started their homeschool journey in 1998. With two graduates and four children still at home, they ask the Lord to teach them how to uniquely educate each child. The Hexters love to travel the US, using their Colorado Springs home as a western base. Melanie is working on two books and offers several homeschool curricula, including the U.S. National Parks Unit Study, for download at www.LEMILOEpublishing.com. LEMILOE is their family motto: Live Every Moment In Light Of Eternity.