The speaker at church was encouraging us to look to God for mercy and healing, and then when God has healed you, to remember to thank Him. And suddenly I stopped, because I thought about all the things I’ve asked God for in the past, and I realized that I’m currently in a season where I’m living into some long-awaited dreams and receiving help for some long-asked-for requests.
Most of those prayers have to do with my parenting. I’m always praying to be a better mother — because I so often feel like a failure of a mother. Looking back that day, I started seeing that I am a different Mom than I used to be. And I’m a different wife. Not in every way and not in every moment, but I’m a person much more at peace in myself and in my circumstances. This is the fruition of long-awaited prayers.
The changes were slow and imperceptible, and I didn’t even know it was happening at the time. I didn’t even set out for it, I don’t think. But I think I know some of the ways it was birthed. Many of the changes I’m going to talk about relate to homeschooling, but much of what I’m learning could probably apply to all parenting if you change some of the verbiage.
1. I started listening to different voices, and slowly I started thinking differently. I used to keep up on a lot of post-fundamentalist news like the falls of Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips (of Vision Forum), and the oldest Duggar son. I was obsessed with needing to know, after having read a book on fundamentalist home school cults several years ago. I feared being part of the same “machine” that created these home school disasters. I got lost in cyberspace any time I had the chance. I would fall down an endless rabbit hole of meaningless blog posts and podcasts.
I don’t do that anymore. Not that I don’t occasionally get lost in cyberspace, but that I am much more selective with my influencers. I don’t need knowledge of the most recent evangelical disasters in order to mother my children well, to nourish my own spiritual life, to connect with my husband, or to serve in local community. Instead I need encouragement and inspiration for the day at hand.
Now I listen to Sarah Mackenzie (of the Read Aloud Revival podcast and the book Teaching From Rest, which continues to do its work on me), Brandy Vencel (of Afterthoughts blog and the Schole Sisters podcast), Cindy Rollins (of the Mason Jar podcast and the book Mere Motherhood), and their influencers: the speakers and writers at the CiRCE Institute (my favorites are Angelina Stanford, Christopher Perrin, and Andrew Pudewa).
They’ve changed my thinking on education, its purpose, and its practical implications. They’ve stirred in me a hunger for discovery that I used to have, that got lost along the box-checking, high-performing, competitive way. They’ve inspired me to start reading poetry again.
And I listen to the artists and makers at the Rabbit Room (my favorites are Rebecca Reynolds and Andrew Peterson). They have pressed me further into the reality that I’m an image-bearer of God, and they’ve fortified my understanding of creativity and art. I’ve followed their lead in embracing the physical world, and as I’ve done so, I’ve become more fully human — and a more complete human makes a better mother.
2. I’m wrestling my perfectionism even more heavily than before. It pops up in the unlikeliest of places, doesn’t it? You think you’ve conquered it, but then you realize you are still drowning in lies. I was trapped in lies about what it meant to be a successful mother. I was trapped in lies about what it meant to send well-educated young people off into the world. I thought it had to be perfect. I thought there had to be zero educational gaps. I thought I had to prove my intellectual worth through my children’s performance. That’s a lot of pressure to live under.
I’m understanding more fully that we are not looking for perfection – in ourselves or our children. We’re looking for progress. For growth. My husband likes to say, “All learning happens one step at a time.” It’s plastered on the wall of our home school, in fact. But though we had pounded that fact into our children’s heads (with varying degrees of success), it had not yet reached down into mine.
I’m trying to put school in its proper place by giving it neither too much mental weight nor too little time. A bad day doesn’t bother me as much anymore. (A bad week, yes. But a bad day or two, no.) So what if the math assignment bombed? So what if the writing assignment took half the day? We’re not looking for perfection here, just steady work and steady improvement over time – and that means accepting setbacks with calm and patience.
Even if a child “loses it,” I don’t think the day is a bust. I know every day is a learning opportunity, and the days stack up to years, and there’s always tomorrow to try again. I’m staying calmer and speaking more gently so I can look back at the end of a hard day with less dissatisfaction and fewer regrets. But I remember that even if I lose it, I can acknowledge it, seek forgiveness, and start again tomorrow.
[BONUS TIP: Their education will have holes. Yours does. Mine does. Everyone’s does, no matter where or how their education took place.]
3. I’ve stopped putting my educational trust in curriculum. I used to want to find a curriculum that was “perfect” (see the pattern here?). And I wanted that curriculum to basically be the teacher. I wanted to leave it alone and let my children become educated by it. I was saving my brain space for writing, you see. It was all about checking boxes so I could get away and get alone and fulfill my “real” calling.
But over and over again, I became frustrated by published resources. They’re never exactly what I want, so I go looking elsewhere for perfection. It has taken me the greater part of 8 years to figure out that not only can I adapt a resource, but I must. I must tailor my children’s education to them. They are individuals. I have to use my brain. I can’t “save” it for later. I can’t get lazy.
I have to engage with where my children are at that moment, both scholastically and emotionally. Where they are is the only place to begin, the only place to build from. And in truth, my children are my real calling. Not writing. They, and any human being placed in my path. [Note: this also explains why I publish much less frequently than I used to.]
How I teach now is much more akin to coaching or tutoring — which is always what I said I enjoyed more anyway. And it’s much more satisfying. I see the struggle; I see the progress. I see the child. I’ve learned I don’t even need curricula for some subjects – I can make them up myself (like writing), be a more hands-on teacher, and even get to experience the joy of better results. I’m leaning into these ways and gaining confidence that I can do these things. I don’t have to trust a boxed curriculum.
[BONUS TIP: I had to stop thinking of my children en masse. They are not a herd. My family is a collection of individuals with differing temperaments and abilities. It’s easy to think of children as a group when they’re young, but as they grow, it becomes more and more important to see each child as an individual.]
4. I’m broadening my understanding of education. I touched on this in #1, the voices I’m listening to. I used to put my children’s education – or at least my contribution to it – in a box. Education equaled core work only. Education wasn’t art or creativity or movement or theology or finances or health or real life. I didn’t “do” real life. I did academics. But I’m realizing that these things are part of organic family life, part of all life.
If I’m engaged and not locked in a corner, I will naturally teach these things (alongside my husband who is already a natural teacher). I will encourage their creativity in art and architecture and storytelling. I will not think of these things as adjunct or auxiliary. They are central to becoming a fully human being. I don’t need to be afraid that art or sports or relationship will steal from my children’s robust-enough education. I can welcome them into our home and into our life.
5. I’m beginning to embrace assessment, and we’ve sought outside help for certain difficulties. I used to despise standardized testing as I thought it unnecessarily stressed students out. And I still believe it does, for young students. But for older students, it can be a learning experience in which they learn how to take a test that can give some reassurance to both parent and child for work well done.
Separately, we reached a point with certain issues where we needed some outside perspective. Reaching out for help was the beginning of a journey to accept my children for who God created them to be, not who I imagined they would be. These assessments have given me the grace to accept my children as they are, while also gently stretching their capacities. And armed with new knowledge, I have better strategies for teaching my students.
The testing gave me the courage to take a long, hard look at myself and see my own difficulties reflected in my children. It allowed me to embrace differences between how I assumed my children would behave, and how they actually behave. It’s helped me to better accept children who are the same as me as well as those who are different from me. And we have a lot more joy and connection.
6. I’ve purified the schedule, and I continually work to keep it that way. As is my custom, I chose a word for the year. This year the word was “Purify.” After last year, in which I “flirted with burnout,” I wanted to purify my schedule. And I did. What I didn’t realize was that God would also work to purify my beliefs, challenging me to confront and remove those lies of perfectionism I was still clinging to (see point #2). Believe me, that purification did not happen without intense times of prayer and many, many tears.
But anyway, back to the schedule. I’ve simplified my own schedule and commitments, along with our school schedule. I’m combining subjects, chucking some altogether, and giving ourselves much more manageable weekly assignments. We have more time to rest, relax, renew, and reconnect. And to ensure that this happens, I’m learning better how to unplug from the internet.
7. I’m remembering the importance of pre-teaching and review. Why I neglected this before, I’ll never know. One of my professors in college used the entire first 15 minutes of a 75 minute class to review the last class. Why didn’t I catch on to his tactic? We humans, we forget so easily. Minds need to be prepared to remember, to function, and to learn. I don’t need to get so frustrated by forgetfulness. I should expect forgetfulness. Why else would God tell us so often in His word to Remember?
Forgetfulness is in me, and I seem to be able to live with myself just fine. It makes me think I can learn to live with my children’s forgetfulness, too. I can work to reinforce their memory through review. Not rushed, exasperated review, but easy-going, happy review. I forget. You forget. Our children forget. It’s part of our nature, so take a deep breath and remember it will be OK.
I now allow more time for new concepts to sink in before I get frustrated with a child. Of course they don’t know understand the concept yet. It’s a tricky concept. And of course they can’t perform those operations yet. They can’t do it with ease yet; they haven’t been doing it for decades like I have. They’re not robots. They can’t look at or hear a concept once and understand it. Most people can’t. Rather, we must be exposed to it in different ways and at different times, preferably with a calm and unworried teacher. It’s my job to be that kind of teacher.
I give more encouragement over progress than I used to. I used to desire perfection and quick mastery and treat anything less as unsatisfactory. Now I see the mental effort and praise it. Now I see the improvement and point it out. I’m also more attentive to their signs of distress, and I don’t always push through. Tears, anxiety, hunger, fatigue, it’s more at the front than at the back.
[BONUS TIP: I do more emotion coaching too. If someone had a poor night’s sleep, or the power is out, or it’s hot, or the work is just plain hard, I might say, “I know we feel like being cranky today. I feel like being cranky today. But let’s try not to.” I might repeat an old camp director’s saying: “Make it a good day.” I might tell them to switch subjects or get a snack or take a shower or do something creative or active for a while.]
8. And finally, I’ve started sharing and confessing in real life community. I see how other people deal with their issues, and they see how I deal with mine. I know what other people’s struggles are, and they know mine. And we don’t judge each other. In fact we are here to remind each other of all these things that I’ve talked about so far.
Looking back, I think partaking of closer-knit community probably predates these other changes. Being with other women who are on the same journey (cross-cultural living, ministry life, and homeschooling) has been the impetus I needed to make other changes in my life and in my outlook. I can’t speak highly enough about this. Parenting and homeschooling should be community efforts. We don’t need to fly solo.
I am by no means done learning how to be a better mother. And I will never, ever be perfect. I’ve called these 8 points “practices” precisely because I am not done learning how to walk in these ways. They are most certainly directional changes for me, paths I must choose to walk over and over again; I must keep practicing them. And I say they are “revolutionizing” my life because although the changes happened slowly over time, family life is markedly different for all of us now. It feels like a revolution, especially when I slip back into old habits and immediately know they are not how I want to live, because I’ve tasted the fruit of a different tree and felt the light of a different sun.