A Spoonful of Sugar: My Philosophy of Homeschooling

I am often asked about my philosophy of homeschooling. I have come to think Mary Poppins knew best, when she told the children that, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, in the most delightful way!”

I truly don’t think learning could ever be as nasty to take as medicine, but apparently some teachers seem to dish it out rather distastefully, unfortunately. Think of high school math, chemistry, ancient history . . . In homeschool, we have the privilege of dishing it up deliciously, with a “spoonful of sugar”, so to speak.

I have been homeschooling for 24 years–my goodness! And Ican truthfully say it has been quite fun! We were meant to have joy. Happiness is the design of our existence. Learning is fun! Being with your children can be happy times. Teaching them the truth in every subject–from the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ to science to math–brings joy! Watching your children grow and learn and enlarge their talents is wonderfully satisfying.

I can’t think of a richer, fuller, more fun and joyful lifestyle than to have your precious, impressionable children as your best friends who prefer your company. What better daily work could you choose to be involved in than learning about God’s world and his laws and how to grow into a righteous influence for good among mankind on this earth? I think this lifestyle can bring us to say that we live “after the manner of happiness”.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t often feel overwhelmed as mothers, or feel the burden of our enormous task before us. It is a challenge to homeschool your children, but it can be fun and most rewarding. All homeschooling families have that day that never seems to get started, and there are days when math frustrates my teenager to tears. But, as parents we have assurance that there is no job as meaningful, or as worthy, than to be committed to doing the best for your children so that they have what they need to develop into righteous men and women prepared to go forth and make a difference in this world!

There is tremendous joy in moving steadily forward to the realization of this goal. There can be joy and fun in every day of homeschool. The way I see it, my children and I get all the fun. I feel pretty bad for my husband as he doesn’t have a fraction of the fun we have. Together my children and I explore the nearby river bottoms, we sculpt things out of clay, we read an exciting new library book about how Mt. Rushmore was carved. We cook and invent new recipes together, and sing and laugh in the kitchen until we can hardly read the cookbook for the tears from laughing. We read stories about how it pays to be honest. We play math games, and learn to be polite and sensitive to each other. We laugh over the baby’s funny antics, we memorize scriptures, and collect wildflowers to press, we find different kinds of leaves, and all race outside to see a newly discovered rainbow together. We read book after delicious book, making friends with all the inspiring characters of great literature. We take care of our chickens and ducks and cow. We grow huge pumpkins. We discuss politics. We learn to identify God’s signature in all of his creations. We talk and talk and talk and talk together. We are together. Don’t you feel sorry for my husband, too–that he misses out on all of this fun?

Let’s talk about ways to maximize the joy and happy times. What can you do to increase your chance of enjoying the homeschooling lifestyle, which is just really another name for “close family life”.

1. Commit Yourself

First of all, I think it takes being committed to the noble calling of Mother/Teacher. That means taking your children’s education seriously enough that you say “no” to the things that would distract you. My friends are invited to come in the late afternoon. I don’t make dental appointments in the morning. I try not to talk on the phone during school time. I just try to keep that time sacred in the sense that the children know that school is important and won’t be bumped, unless there is an emergency. Interruptions and distractions lessen our chance of having a joyful time together.

2. Catch the Vision

It takes catching the vision of the delightful occupation and lifestyle of raising righteous, intelligent children; spending each day’s best effort training and teaching them. Remember that love is spelled “T-I-M-E” to a child. They want and need your time and attention. Learning how to live, development of character and virtues, their disposition and attitude–these are the things they learn from their teacher and companion. That companion is most ideally you. Spending your time with them is how they become like you. If you aren’t perfect, then you can point to the Savior, foremost, and then to all history’s great heroes as models. This is why studying history and classic literature is such a wonderful way to learn: we can be surrounded with greatness in spite of our own weakness.

Daniel, my oldest son, comments (or complains) from time to time that I have raised clones of my daughters. He’s wrong: in many ways, my daughters are better than me. But, he is right in the sense that we are our children’s mentors, their tutors. Whether for good or bad, they watch and follow us. The greatest and loudest sermon that can be preached on the face of the earth is practice. No other is equal to it. R. Evans has said:

Abstract qualities of character don’t mean much in the abstract. It is how we live, how we serve, how we teach our children, what we do from day to day that both indicate what we are and determine what we are; and all the theory and all the speculation, all the quoting of scripture . . . don’t in the final and saving sense amount to very much.

One of my favorite homeschooling scriptures is found in Deuteronomy 11: 18-19:

“Lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul and ye shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up”.

We listened together to the original book of Pinocchio in the car as we did our errands one summer. This is nothing remotely like the Disney version. This is the real story of a very naughty and naive puppet, who without the influence of a mother and unwilling to listen to those who would advise him, gets into horrible and constant trouble. As soon as he gets out of one ordeal and feels repentant, Pinocchio meets up with evil companions, a fox and a cat. Pinocchio is on his way to repent to his puppet-maker father for his naughtiness, and has 5 gold coins to give him. Unfortunately, the conniving fox and the cat convince the trusting and naive puppet to bury the gold coins in the ground, so that he can grow a money tree laden with thousands of gold coins. Over and over again, I heard my children exclaim while we were driving and listening, “How can he be so dumb?!” Whether a puppet or a real boy, all children need guidance! They need teaching and virtues and values to live by. No one loves and has such interest in your child’s outcome as you do.

Here I would put out a plea to fathers. I am not asking you to tutor your children, in the sense of teaching them classes. Life seems to be way too busy for fathers trying to earn a living. But, you can work side by side with your children while you are cleaning up the yard, or fixing the car, and in the process teach them so much about how to live and how a man should act.

3. Use the Best Tools

Get the best tools you can for the job. You can’t run a carpenter shop with a dull saw, a broken hammer, and bent nails. Neither you nor I want to go to a dentist with an outdated, old-fashioned hand power drill. Yet many mothers try to wrench an education out of garage sale books that are outdated and dull.

I love to go to yard sales and sometimes I find great stuff. But when it comes to teaching my children, I want the best I can get. These children grow up so very fast. The number of teaching hours and books they can work through is a finite amount. Your career is short. If you do a good job with homeschooling, you are going to work yourself out of a job, because children grow up. I want the healthiest, most life-giving food for my children’s growing bodies. Even so, I want the best quality food for their minds.

I’d like you to imagine that you are a 9 year old boy in my homeschool. Today we are studying China. You can take your pick of resources, or learning tools. I have a comprehensive, black and white textbook that I picked up at a thrift shop. I know you could learn a lot about China from it if you tried hard. Or, you could choose to learn from many interesting things: a CD of Chinese singing, a costume from China, a video, a doll in Chinese dress, color photos of the Great Wall of China. “Let’s try these chopsticks and Chinese food for lunch.” Excellent resources makes learning so much more effective and joyful. (See my recommended resources in the “What?” section of this website!)

4. Take Advantage of the Power of Patterns

Patterns, good habits, and routines make life go smoothly. If you get children into a good pattern, they can operate on “cruise control” and they will go about their day and their work without much urging from you.

All of us have probably known someone who holds their pencil wrong and struggles to write. It is just like the tree without a stake that bends in the wind until it has grown into an inflexible trunk. Good patterns taught early to children can make a difference in the amount of joy you have in your homeschool.

My children know the pattern of the school day from the time they are toddlers. They know that the day starts with scripture study. They know that they do chores while breakfast is prepared. They know that after breakfast, they bathe and dress and come to school. They have wall charts in the school room that show the younger children exactly what to do each day. They come into the schoolroom, get their daily work out, and do it.

Summer and vacations always prove to me just how important the routine and pattern is to children. It seems my children can follow the pattern faithfully day after day all winter long, and yet a week of goofing-off seems to take another week of so much stress and reminding the children, just to get back on track. If you want peace in your homeschool, teach your children some good patterns. Be very consistent in training them what you expect every day in homeschool, and you will find that they enjoy the pattern and managing their own time, and you will get far more accomplished in learning together.

One of those good habits needs to be obedience to parents. Without this, it is impossible to be your child’s teacher. This job is best begun at birth, and finished by 8 years old.

5. Build Meaning into their Schoolwork

Accumulation of information is not our goal in teaching homeschool. We want to help our children grasp God’s great plan for mankind, and how we fit into it and what their special part will be. Busy work isn’t the way to do that.

I want to tell you how I teach my children to write. I have tried a lot of methods over the years. We have done worksheets, and games and penmanship practice and creative writing workbooks. But teaching the children to write with a God-given purpose has proven far more successful than anything else.

I begin teaching my children to write when they are about 4 years old, starting with their name. By 5 years old, we are ready to start a school journal. I start by having my child tell me a sentence that he wants to write in his journal and I write it down for him. Then he draws a picture of what he said. I progress to writing the words in yellow felt pen so that he can trace over the letters in pencil. As my child matures and learns to write his letters, I help him spell and write his own sentence. Incrementally, year by year, tidbit by tidbit, he learns the mechanics of writing: letter formation, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, good sentence structure, writing a paragraph, and other English skills.

This writing is meaningful. At the end of each year, we take these journals to the printer to be bound. I remind my children as they write, that their children and grandchildren will read it someday, and learn to know them through their journals. I often remind them of how delighted their children will be to read all about their life and adventures. It helps them feel motivated to do neat work. We also share their finished journals with grandparents and friends.

I find my children making lists of important things they want to remember so they can write them in their journal. This journal is becoming an important family history for generations to come, and my child is learning to read and write as well. If you can get your child to catch the vision of where he is headed in homeschool–that we aren’t just doing English, but that we are writing a book for our posterity, for example–then there is a greater chance for joy in learning.  (See my Journal and Language Arts program.)

6. View Opposition as Good Practice

Training children is rigorous work. I don’t think any of us thought it was going to be so hard as it is. Yes, parenthood also has its moments of great joy. But each child is born with an independent will and trying to help them bridle and use it for good can be an exhausting job. If we could just see opposition or difficulty with our children as good practice, practice in learning or teaching to obey, practice in refining our communication skills, practice in being better Christians. . . perhaps we wouldn’t feel so bad about the hard times. We are in a family to learn. We have to experience the “whole enchilada.” Trying to duck out of it doesn’t seem a practical way to become more Christ-like.

Whenever people find out that I homeschool, it seems that their pat answer is, “Oh, I don’t have the patience for that”. I have found myself wanting to answer back to them (although I don’t!), “Just when did you plan on developing the patience with your family? Better now than later. Do it until you get it right.”

7. Look to Truth

If we are looking for joy, we must look to the Lord. I have never experienced greater joy than when I feel that warm, clean and full-of-light feeling that comes from the Lord. Whenever truth is taught, the Spirit promises to witness to it. “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth . . . ” (John 16:13). As we inculcate Biblical principles into every subject, we will be blessed with the joy that comes from having the Spirit testify of truth. No subject is boring when the Spirit is present!

I am a structured homeschooler. I assign my children their daily work that must be done. But, every subject can be enriched and a joy to learn if you are there learning right along with them. I also teach them the “law of appeal”. I want them to obey, but as long as they move to obey, and are respectful, they can “appeal”. So if a subject is not interesting to them as it is presented in the book or program I have assigned, they are welcome to ask respectfully for something of more enjoyment to them. And I try to accommodate. We want to enjoy this learning time together!

I do hope that you can add a “spoonful of sugar” in your homeschool, and that homeschooling will be a great joy for your family. Joy comes from the companionship of the Lord, the company of your precious family, and being useful in raising intelligent children that love the Lord. There are few comforts so sweet as to know that we have been an instrument in the hands of God in leading someone else to safety. It has been an incredible blessing to me to homeschool my children, and I thank my Father in Heaven for the privilege often!