Growing up is rough stuff. Little bodies work so hard to learn to control muscles large and small, developing brains strain to understand new concepts, and powerful emotions desperately seek acceptable ways to be expressed.
When we teach our babies to walk, it’s a long process: from the first tenative steps with our hands around their middles, to steps made clinging to one finger, to those first triumphant solo movements, our kids learn to walk with our assistance. As parents, we suffer with joy the inconvenience of helping our blossoming babies . We cheer their new found independence (even as we hide the knick knacks!). After all, our baby’s accomplishment frees us in some small way; it becomes our accomplishment as well.
Yet, as our children grow, we often long for a little independence of our own. We struggle to understand why they seem to forget things that – yesterday – we were sure they had mastered. Particularly in homeschooling, I think we sometimes push our kids too far too fast. After all, we have a kitchen to clean, a toddler to chase, and an article to write (maybe that one’s just me). None-the-less, we have things to do. Our kids don’t really need us sitting next to them for every math problem, do they?
The goal of homeschooling (and parenting, for that matter) is to raise independent, thinking adults. We want to produce human beings that can work, love and function in daily life, right?
It’s a long way from Kindergarten to College. Teaching independence is like teaching your baby to walk (if teaching your baby to walk took 15 years). I read a lot of posts from homeschooling parents who want to know why their second grade student isn’t writing a journal entry, or completing a math assignment, or practicing spelling words by himself. The short answer? That second grade student is seven years old, maybe eight.
I think that we sometimes forget what it’s like to be seven. I remember being confused about the world at large, unable to process my emotions, tired because my feet were growing – again (don’t even ask my shoe size!), fascinated by grass stalks, and carpet strands, and my hair, and the way my pencil was made, and the color of my sister’s eyes, and the shape of the clouds outside the window. In short, everything was new. When I did learn to perform some new task in school, the teacher changed her expectations! Talk about a moving target… the whole thing was exhausting. Some days, I felt capable and ready. Other days, I felt small and ill-equipped.
Our kids need us to come alongside them until they demonstrate that they are comfortable. At that point, we can take a small step back – until they are comfortable again. Later, we may be able to take another small step back. We may need to take a step or two forward. Rather than becoming discouraged, we can think of this as a dance. Some days, we may be able to mop the floor, change the laundry over and do our hair while our children work independently on a composition or math assignment. Other days, we may need to sit next to them, offer suggestions, or listen attentively. That’s OK. Our kids have a lot going on. We need to remember that a little step toward them once in a while is loving, and important.
Eventually, our kids will be completely independent. We’ll have lots of time available for other things. For me, that day is coming too soon. I rejoice in my children’s growth. I’m so proud of them. But I’ve seen two of our four kids move on to adult life. It was a little like the mixed feelings I had watching a child walk for the first time – I was overjoyed with their achievement, and pained knowing nothing would ever be the way it was again. For now, in our homeschool, I’ll take the joy of time spent together and the excitement of new things learned. Because my kitchen floor will wait. I’ll get up early to write that article and do the dishes so that I can sit beside my kids while they work. Soon enough, they won’t need me there.
Every step forward toward independent study is exciting. However, we can’t rush our kids. We can only walk alongside them at the pace they set, encouraging and cheering them. We can set clear expectations, provide a list of daily activities, and lots of structure. In the end, our child will walk alone when he/she is ready.
What do you think? Is teaching independent learning a back and forth movement like a dance, or are there certain ages when a child should be able to do something alone? How do you help your child learn to study independently?
~ Danika Cooley
Danika Cooley is the author of When Lightning Struck! The Story of Martin Luther (Fortress Press, 2015), Wonderfully Made (CF4K, 2016), and Bible Road Trip. Her work has been featured in internationally-recognized children's magazines over 150 times.