The question often asked by homeschoolers is “When do I start fostering independent work?” For our family, the answer has been “from the very beginning.”
Having a can-do attitude, fostering independence and critical thought, and having a good work ethic have been important to our family since our children were born. We’ve always raised our children with the idea that we are raising future adults, not perpetual children. This has obviously spilled over into our homeschooling philosophy and has served us well as the girls have neared the end of their homeschooling journey.
I have recently gone back to college full time, and I have two high school juniors at home. Instead of automatically thinking about putting them in school, we already knew that they could continue homeschooling without a hitch. This was because they had been working almost entirely independent of me since 9th grade and probably 70% independently since the 6th grade.
Here are the things I’ve done over the years to encourage this.
1. Teach them that they are intelligent and capable humans.
From the very beginning, I never assumed they were unable to do something. I just assumed they needed to be shown how or given the tools to learn how. My toddlers helped clean their rooms. My preschoolers folded laundry and washed dishes. By school age, they could sweep, take out the garbage, cook simple things, do laundry and other minor chores. By the time they were eleven or twelve, there wasn’t a household chore they didn’t know how to do. This gave them pride in knowing how to work and take care of themselves and others.
Another thing we did was to never talk to our kids like they were babies. We had conversations about everything under the sun, avoiding baby-talk, and took the time to explain things they didn’t understand. We tried to instill the idea that one wasn’t “dumb” or “stupid” if they didn’t know something, only uninformed.
2. Foster a desire to learn.
Our family is a bit nerdy. We delight in showing one another up with our random, pointless trivia knowledge. We engage in debates at the dinner table about every topic under the sun. The desire to prove Dad wrong has honed a strong desire in the girls to become knowledgeable in a variety of topics. In a quest to outsmart their parents, they quickly developed mad research skills.
We also do things like watch documentaries for fun, and our vacations have always been culture and history focused rather than entertainment focused. These things make learning part of their lifestyle.
3. We value education.
From the time they were born, the girls have seen the results of self-education. Neither my husband nor I have a college degree, but we have never stopped learning. Our home has always been filled with books, and my husband and I have never been afraid to tackle new tasks or hobbies. They’ve seen first hand the pleasures that educating oneself can bring, and they’ve seen how far their father has gone with his career by self-educating.
4. Responsibility shirking is not allowed.
We’ve always taught them that when it is your job to do something, you follow through. Whether it is a job you agreed to do, school work you are assigned, or a chore you are responsible for, you do the work. Thankfully, we’ve had generally willing kids and haven’t had many issues from this.
5. We demonstrated our trust in them.
Our kids know we trust them. They are able to do things and go places without us because of that trust. They also know that our trust is a thing that can be broken and that they can lose privileges over that broken trust.
As soon as they were responsible enough to be left home alone, they were. We don’t hover and try not to helicopter parent. Our family relationships have been built on the importance of trust, and that spills over into everything they do, including schoolwork.
As you can see, many of the preparations for independence had little to do with school work.
Here are a few directly school-related things that pushed them towards independence:
1. I deliberately chose curriculum that encouraged self-teaching.
Texts that spoke to the student and did not assume that a teacher was giving a lesson on the topic were a priority. We did ditch some texts that spoke down to the student (there are several out there in the homeschooling world)
2. English, history and science were largely research and writing based.
From the beginning these subjects were treated more like ongoing research projects rather than lessons. In elementary school this meant choosing easy-to-understand books from the library and writing short papers on them (often only a paragraph or two) or making books about the subject (paper stapled together with pictures drawn or pasted in, and a few sentences about the topic).
In middle and high school the research projects got longer and required more thought. Science shifted a bit as they began to do lab science, but even then research played a large part in the process of learning.
My involvement in these areas was usually limited to a brief discussion of what was expected from them for the assignment and then suggestions for corrections or re-writes at the end.
As an aside, one of my children did end up needing a lot more guidance in writing, but even then I tried to encourage as much independent work as possible. Shifting to all non-fiction writing was the key for her being able to accomplish this on her own. Eventually, she has been able to work on literature analysis, but we do avoid assignments like “Write a short story about xyz…” and focus more on things like “How was the setting of this story integral to the plot?”
3. Math is self-taught with help sought as a last resort.
Starting in middle school, I began moving away from teacher-led math. Part of this was self-serving: teaching math was my least favorite thing to do. Their learning styles and mine were vastly different, and we often clashed during lessons. We’ve shifted to video lessons and relying on the internet when something stumps us. I also won’t hesitate to outsource this if the need arises.
4. They are responsible for keeping their own schedules.
After age twelve or so, I gave them a lot of flexibility on when they did their work. I set due dates, they could choose how often or at what time to work on them. Yes, they were late on things sometimes. Yes, they missed out on doing fun things occasionally because they missed a deadline.
5. They had input on what they were learning.
Each year while curriculum planning, I got their input on what subjects they would like to study and how they would like to study them. Sometimes I had to veto their ideas, but I tried to take their thoughts into consideration.
All of these things have culminated in a homeschool that is almost entirely self-taught. This year, as juniors, my only real involvement in their school work will be reading one daughter’s English essays and occasionally helping with a tough math problem. I will check in every few days to make sure they are on track to finish their year in a reasonable time.
While this has enabled me to go back to school full time, I also feel like it gives them a huge leg up for college. They will begin college with the ability to self-regulate, study hard, and take responsibility for their own education. After being in class with college students myself, I realize that they will be far ahead of the game.