By Susan Wight
Towards the end of the year, I often catch up with old friends. Getting together always emphasises just how different our lives now are. They talk of meetings, workloads, changing policies, best-practice and so on. Their end-of-year display of cards and gifts from appreciative clients or students always takes me by surprise.
Jealous? No, I’m happy with my life and don’t miss much about the working lifestyle that I left behind eighteen years ago. Okay, I do miss the efﬁcient feeling — you know, having an empty in-tray, straightening everything up and walking out at 5pm, headed for the train station, clipping down the street in my high heels and business clothes. As a home-educating mum, everything is a work-in-progress or a magically reﬁlling laundry basket.
I think women have the right to a career if they want one but I also think children have the right to a good strong relationship with their parents. I believe that meeting that need involves having one parent at home with the kids and it doesn’t matter whether that parent is mum or dad or a combination of both. It could even be a grandparent, but kids need someone available on a daily basis who is genuinely interested in them. Many women need to work. The need can be ﬁnancial or in order to have a good self-concept. Some say they need to work to preserve their sanity. However, I’ve always maintained that intelligent women can choose to parent their children and still have a healthy self-concept while they do it.
For me, parenting is my career — my life’s work. Let’s be honest: there are boring parts to parenting. However, I have always believed that any job — no mater how high-powered or well respected — has its boring parts. Even CEOs have meetings they’d rather not attend and battle to control their inbox.
The same with parenting. Sure, changing nappies was not that much fun at the business end of things, but it was a lot of fun talking, listening, singing, smiling and laughing with the baby while I went about that routine task. The sheer wonder and joy of parenting was often encapsulated in just such experiences — in the close daily contact and the observation of each new little expression, sounds or skill mastered.
Times have changed for me. Nappies are now a distant memory but that daily contact with my children hasn’t changed. I’ve been there as they’ve acquired every little skill from the pincer grip to taking wickets; from making their ﬁrst sounds to public speaking; from the ﬁrst tottering steps to running with the wind in their hair. I’ve watched it all, I’ve taken part it in it all, I’ve helped when required, and I’m enjoying the journey.
Home education is a huge part of that. I’ve watched all my children learn to read, to count, to add, subtract and so on; I’ve watched them become more socially aware, develop tact and discretion, I’ve watched a thousand new skills and abilities develop — what a fabulous insight into the workings of the human mind. I’ve had the chance to watch it all closely with three children, note the similarities and the differences and wonder at the variety of human experience. Piaget eat your heart out!
What I do with my life — raising and educating children — is important and it doesn’t bother me that many people don’t recognise that nor does it bother me that I’m not going to make it to Forbes’ list of 100 Most Powerful Women. I’ve never felt the need to do a high-powered job so that my perceived worth will be raised. My mainstream friends are teachers, nurses, speech therapists, integration aides and disability support workers. I have often reﬂected that their jobs involve a lot or parenting — just not with their own children. Of course they get paid and I do not. However, I consider my job important enough to do without getting paid. It makes me smile when my friends talk about ‘their’ kids — not their kids you understand but a boy in their class who they ﬁnd challenging, a patient who is just not responding, a client they really need to put in extra work with.
When we get around to talking about their own kids, the frustration is palpable as they explain what their teenage kids get up to these days and they despair of ever being able to hold a decent conversation with their teenagers. I can’t help wondering why they put so much effort into someone else’s children while their own are dispatched to school. Wouldn’t they be better off working on the relationship and allowing their kids to learn at home?
At that point I recognise the warning signs that I’m being the home-educating-solves-everything-mum again and I have to consciously switch back to sympathetic friend mode instead.
So, back to those end-of-year gifts. You know the kind of thing I mean, a basket of soaps or biscuits with a card saying, “To Beth, words are not enough. How can we ever thank you for everything you’ve done for Billy this year?”
Somehow these messages make me feel that there are precious few milestones in home education. Life goes on in one continuous stream. The end of the year doesn’t really mean anything to us. There is no ﬁnishing up for the year, no promotion to the next class, no report card, no moving on to a new teacher, no ﬁnishing primary school, no starting high school, no ﬁnishing school at all, and no recognition of achievement. Life just goes on with little sense of ending one thing or beginning the next stage.
Of course, birthdays mark the passage of time and provide their own milestones but we’d be celebrating those anyway even if we didn’t home educate. So, are there no home education milestones or am I just not noticing them?
Many of the things kids learn are impossible to pin down to an exact day. Learning to read, for example, is a huge milestone but it doesn’t happen in one day. There are a thousand moments of inching towards the ﬁrst halting read-out-loud words and then a thousand more to the ﬁrst independently-read sentence, then page, then book. The process is not necessarily that linear either. A child who is capable of reading a few sentences in a novel is capable of reading a complete Mr Men book and for a while we are not sure whether to say they are reading independently or not. Gradually they read more material independently until they never call out for help with a difﬁcult word anymore. Somewhere along that long and winding road to independent reading, a teacher would step in and say that the child had graduated to ‘reading in the independent phase.’ That becomes a milestone. But, in reality, the child just took one more small step that day, not a giant leap.
Maybe that’s it — maybe that’s what I’m not allowing for. I’m not seeing the milestones because they are an artiﬁcial construct of the very real progress that I’ve celebrated along the way. In the literal sense a milestone marks a place on the road and gives an indication of the distance covered on the journey. Kids don’t leap from one milestone to another like stepping stones in a creek and then stand around on each one for a year before taking the next leap. School kids are trudging along the road while home-ed families scamper along, exploring the countryside as we go, sometimes travelling along the road and sometimes going cross-country as the mood takes us. We pass the milestones regardless of whether we are on the road or in the ﬁelds but barely notice them. We are enjoying the journey out in the fresh air rather than counting down the miles until the time the trip is over.
School parents need the milestones because they aren’t with their children as often as we are. They repeat things from their children’s report cards rather than saying what their children are actually doing — because they don’t really know. I hear over and over again, “She got a very good report…her teacher is very pleased with her.” I can’t help thinking that it doesn’t mean much about who the child actually is. What does she like doing? What is she interested in? What is she passionate about? Who is she?
We home educators don’t need to celebrate little Johnny being promoted to Grade Four because it really has no meaning. We do celebrate real skills in the context they are acquired but they aren’t necessarily one event. We notice the ﬁrst time Johnny manages percentages by calculating how much the Lego set will cost during the 20% off sale. We know how much help was necessary, we notice that the next time he needs less. Sometimes the incremental changes are so small that they don’t even break the consciousness of the most attentive parent. However we are generally aware of what our children are capable of. We know how much assistance to give and we know when they are ready to handle the easy ones and need help with the harder stuff. This is true time and time again from how much help they need at the playground as toddlers to how much help they need ﬁlling in the forms when registering to vote.
As home educating parents we’ve been there every step of the way as our children’s assistant, their guide, their mentor. We’ve been working away quietly at making ourselves as unnecessary as possible by increasing the length and frequency of times they travel solo. So much so that they don’t notice the process and often don’t give us much credit for what we’ve done. A lot of the time, nor do we.
So there will be no appreciative gifts on my buffet at the end of this year from kids I might never see again. But I’ll know what I did this year and that it is all part of the continuum of parenting — not a year in isolation.
(From the Otherways issue 122, 2010)