Originally given as a talk in 2017
It was a typical morning commute from my apartment in La Palma to my Culver City office. I was in my mid-twenties, single, and listening to my morning show, “Focus on the Family” with Dr. James Dobson, renowned psychologist, author, and speaker. I loved his wisdom, faithfulness, and commitment to supporting the family. I wanted to store up as much wisdom as I possibly could. My hope was to have a family of my own someday. This particular morning he was talking about the dilemma increasingly facing moms: that of staying at home with their children or working to help with the pressing financial issues. What Dr. Dobson said that morning astonished me! The good doctor said if you have to choose whether to stay home with them as toddlers or as teens, he would say, hands down, every time - stay at home when they are teens! To back up his advice, Dr. Dobson went on to explain how the last four years at home were the most critical ones; also, jokingly, he added that any tantrums, resistance, and colorful behavior you may have missed in the toddler years will be there waiting to resurface for you in the teen years. The precious transition from childhood to adulthood that we call adolescence provides plenty of opportunities to revisit any and, quite frankly, all of the fascinating depths of the child's personality and their desire for direction and mastery.
Dr. Dobson did not let me down. Fast forward 20 years, and there I was in the midst of it! He prepared me for the wonderful, colorful journeys to adulthood of the amazing variety of personalities in my family. A much quoted idiom comes to my mind when I think about the raising and the schooling of my teens:
“It was the best of times,
It was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom,
It was the age of foolishness…”
(Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities)
To say I was completely equipped for this daunting task would be ridiculous! How grateful I have been throughout the years to embrace my littleness, as St. Therese the Little Flower modeled so well. It was, and still is, a relief that all I need to be is willing to say yes and do the next right thing.
The trend with modern parents of teens seems to be twofold from where I sit: let them go and hold on tight. On the one hand, teens are treated as children, incapable of any self-control or mastery, not even considered able to make their own decisions, and not worthy of much trust in practice (I refer to this as helicopter parenting, where parents just hover over their kids). Their teens’ time is scheduled from early waking hours to late at night. They are busy with school, extracurricular activities, work, and mounds of homework with very little sleep. Parents use high tech tracking devices to always know their children’s whereabouts and are constantly online viewing grades. Parents are not only tracking their every move; they are planning them. Yet, it seems these clever teens are quite able, if motivated, to beat ‘the system’ so to speak. It is a ‘let them go and hold on tight’ at the same time…controlling all the activities with a ‘more is better’ attitude to make their children smarter and more successful, creating that fat resume for college.
But with all of that involvement and oversight, there is little to no time actually spent with their child. For some reason they want all the control, but no time with them. Why is that? Do adults dislike the teen years so much? Are they scared they don’t know how to deal with them? Control and scheduling does not equal guidance and training; instead, it demolishes interpersonal relationships between the teen and parent. Do these parents really know their children? And just as importantly, do their children really know them?
Let us take this a step further. Obviously this highly controlled situation is ripe for the teen to push back, break through, find some time to breathe and have some sort of ‘say’ in their lives. It seems that more often than not, this ‘say’ happens outside the realm of parental discussion. Frequently that ‘voice’ they find is choosing to be independent in a way that is not so healthy. It may start with a little white lie, or forgetting to mention where they went between point A and point B.
It can lead to heavier and more dangerous situations where they are exposed to drugs, drinking, unhealthy relationships, cheating. Don’t get me wrong, this can happen even in very wonderful homes, but it is less likely with Mom at home.
Many children do not go that route, but it does set them up for rebellion. They rightly want some control over their lives and this model of helicopter parenting sets them up for failure and immaturity.
This is my observation of the evolution of high school life since I was there…way back in the dark ages of the 70’s.
How do you want your teen to be when they leave the house? Do you still want to be scheduling their every move? How will they know how to do that on their own if the parent does it all? How will they learn to think for themselves, and more importantly, how will they learn to make the right decisions if all their decisions are made for them?
When Dr. Dobson spoke of the need for a parent at home, I reflected, of course, on my own teen years: my dad was starting a new business and traveled most weeks, and my mom stayed at home. I really loved her being there when I returned, most days by 2:30. I do remember her presence meant a lot to me; it was like a safety net. I enjoyed being able to talk to her about things that came up. I also wasn’t scheduled every day of the week into the dinner hour, nor did I have homework until late at night. There was time. So what does this have to do with homeschooling? That key treasure: time, and how it is used.
It wasn’t until I started homeschooling that I realized how much better the conversations were with my children throughout the course of the day than I remembered having with my folks. How unique the topics would be, seemingly out of nowhere. I could be in the middle of a math word problem with a child and something would trigger them to ask a totally unrelated question that had been rolling around in their head. For example, “Why are dreams so weird?” or “What does ____ mean?” With homeschooling I’ve had time. Time to stop and listen and discuss. With my wonderful folks, they were present for us, yet there was limited time as I was in school, or doing some homework, or talking with my friends on the phone. Many of the thoughts that ran through my head during the day were shared with the student sitting next to me or the group at lunch, or I was too afraid to bring them up because it might be “weird”. How much more that time matters in the Final Four Years! The countdown, the last stretch, the big kahuna of parenting. Those precious, golden, fragile, exciting, exhausting years! Why would I miss them? Higher SAT scores? For a sports team? A prom? I am not saying those things are bad in themselves; it’s good for them to be in sports and go to prom too, but it is not the priority. I do believe in advocating for the teens in making sure they are well-rounded, of course.
I submit to you that our society is extending the immaturity quotient of our youth needlessly - and it keeps going. It is my opinion that a lot of that growing length of childhood is a result of such low expectations and controlling. You don’t have to go back too far in history to see younger children assuming roles of great responsibility in their home and for the greater good of the family. A young apprentice leaving home at 11 or 12, the family all working the farm, a little gal of 10 being the woman of the house preparing meals, mending, running things, etc. The families needed the children to contribute. They expected it, and they were capable.
We seem, as a society, to have memory loss - not only are teens treated as youngsters, but they are encouraged to remain that way, especially men, well into their twenties. Look at the films they are peddling to twenty-something men, such as “The Hangover”. Do you recall the roar of applause in 2013 at the Knox College commencement when then-President Obama announced the extension of health care on their folks’ plan until the age of 26?
Where are the adults? Is it lack of capability or expectation? Where is the integrity? I submit to you that investing in “The Final Four” of your high school teen’s years will have long lasting effects, effects not only on your child’s life and yours, but on the greater good of society.
St. Augustine once said, “I learned most not from those who taught me but from those who talked with me.” There it is: time!
Who will your teens be spending their time talking with, all day, every day, if they are enrolled in a brick and mortar school? Mostly, their peers. How much wisdom is available for them there?
So the main question I want to pose to you is this: how did we get to homeschooling in the first place and do the reasons still fit for high school? My journey to homeschooling started in 1993 on a Sunday morning. We attended Mass at our new parish, St. Kilian’s in Mission Viejo. We met a lovely family, the Christensens, with five children. We were so impressed with their family during Mass, and they were so reverent and engaged (the children’s ages ranged from 1-9). After Mass the conversation with all of them was so enjoyable, and they were bright eyed, courteous, and articulate children. We had to know the secret, as we were just starting our family (we just had Eileen at the time). The answer, to my utter shock and horror, was "We homeschool!” Nooooo!! No way! I am not that smart…I am not that earthy…I am not that brave!
We became family friends with the Christensens. I knew I didn’t have to consider schooling for three or four years, but I had to ask…why in the world would you do that to yourself? Lindsey, the brave and brilliant homeschool mom, said, “So we have time as family.” That was it, and it still is.
Every time I have been tempted to throw in the towel on homeschooling, that word is right there staring at me. Time. There is no getting it back. I remember Dr. Dobson’s wisdom from so long ago. So how on earth was I going to do this? God was merciful and led me to Mother of Divine Grace School right out of the gate!
I am a big fan of praying for Wisdom! I have always appreciated King Solomon’s request, and the response from Our Lord was not lost on me either. I am a seeker of the Wise and love to sit at their feet: the Bible, lives of the Saints, my parents, grandparents, Godparents, many spiritual directors, dear friends, and confessors. I have a favorite saying, “Why reinvent the wheel?” Look for the experts - like Laura Berquist.
Why aren’t many moms homeschooling into high school? Is it because they’re scared they’re not smart enough? They can convince themselves that they can teach addition and subtraction, but they may not remember algebra and geometry. Maybe they didn’t write well as a student so they don’t believe they could teach that well enough to their kids. That is exactly how I felt, and often still feel. However there is help available by wonderful experts to assist me from classes to tutors, and all of my children did very well in spite of my weaknesses. I also learned a bit by default!
God has provided for every circumstance we have come upon throughout the years, and those of you who know me better can vouch for that!
I do not present to you a model of perfection in my personal life. I do not present to you a flawless family. Far from it. I do not claim perfect parenting, schooling or example, but what I do claim is that I had time with my children until they became adults. I do claim that they had to be family whether or not they liked it at the time. I do claim that my children have absolute clarity on what it is to own their life, take personal responsibility for their choices, and work through relationships. I do claim they know the Truth! They are equipped to know, love, and serve God in their lives. There is nothing I consider more important than my children’s salvation. It is on them now, but they can never say they weren’t taught the Truth, because I took the time (a lot of it, and much of it seemed to be at midnight!).
What about the academics? I read a very interesting excerpt from a new book titled The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children can Succeed, by Jessica Lahey. A student’s mother came to her with concerns about her daughter:
“Marianna’s grades are fine; I’m not worried about that, but she just doesn’t seem to love learning anymore.”
To which the author continues:
“She’s absolutely right. I’d noticed the same thing about her daughter over the previous two or three years. I’d been her middle school English, Latin, and writing teacher, and I have an answer, right there on the tip of my tongue, for what has gone wrong. Yet, I’m torn between my responsibility to help Marianna and the knowledge that what I have to say is a truth I’m not sure this mother is ready to hear.
The truth - for this parent and so many others - is this: Her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault. Marianna’s parents, her teachers, society at large - we are all implicated in this crime against learning. From her first day of school, we pointed her toward that altar and trained her to measure her progress by means of points, scores, and awards. We taught Marianna that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to come home proudly bearing A’s, championship trophies, and college acceptances, and we inadvertently taught her that we don’t really care how she obtains them. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfect record. Above all else, we taught her to fear failure. That fear is what has destroyed her love of learning.”
This is coming from an educator of a brick and mortar school. Ms. Lahey went on to discuss that Marianna is affirmed everyday on how smart she is and high-achieving. “Marianna does not get praised for the diligence, and effort she puts into sticking with a hard math problem or a convoluted scientific inquiry. If that answer at the end of the page is wrong, or if she arrives at a dead end in her research, she has failed - no matter what she has learned from her struggle. And contrary to what she may believe, in these more difficult situations she is learning. She learns to be creative in her problem solving. She learns diligence. She learns self-control and perseverance. But because she is scared to death of failing, she has started to take fewer intellectual risks.”
I hate to say this, but it reminds me of myself in school and is a personal battle every time; hence I am standing in front of you, fighting the fight. I am like Marianna in that I was not confident enough in my abilities to try my best, for fear of failure and confirming my deep fear that I am not actually smart enough. What a crippling way to perceive learning! But this is what even our best brick and mortar schools are perpetuating. Where is the time to try and fail, and try and fail again? To master something? Through no fault of their own, the public or Catholic school systems just don't have the time! Laura points out the value of affirming students’ efforts over affirming their smarts. But in school systems, there is not time to learn for the sake of learning. High schools have to be efficient and mainstream. “What’s the best way to teach enough basics to as many people as possible?” It’s a business; it’s not education in life or academics.
Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education.” I homeschool high school because as a Catholic mom, the heart is everything.I am trying to raise holy adults. My job is to provide the opportunity to point them in the right direction, to create an environment for them to learn the art of learning, and to listen! To give them time - my time.
In an article by Auren Hoffman (CEO of SafeGraph), he answers a question about the way in which many successful people spent their time growing up. Mr. Hoffman gives us some of the most common, and they all involve lots of alone time. (This piggybacks on what Laura says - to learn to think critically, one needs time alone to reflect.)
- Reading is really important! And reading from a wide variety. No surprise there - they need time to read.
- Play acting. Not organized time, but time to use the imagination.
- Experimenting. Time to try new things, create, build, be hands-on, test ideas.
- More time spent on creating than on consuming, particularly challenging nowadays with so much more to consume.
- Getting time away from the social pressures of school, exploring self instead of ‘social norms’.
“Today, alone time is frowned upon,” Mr. Hoffman points out. “Something happened in the last 30 years to encourage parents to be more involved but that time has frequently been evidenced as over scheduling, over involvement, one event to another…but in all that over involved parenting is there conversation, or is there scheduling?”
My son Grady last year was interning in Beverly Hills for an ‘editing house’. He got the job the old school way. He showed up face to face and presented himself and his goals and he was hired on the spot. The owner told him she received countless emails and resumes that she didn’t have time to sift through. He did the footwork and made his case.
One afternoon the staff was tasked with a particularly challenging interview that they needed to shave down from five minutes to two, without losing content. Grady had the least experience in the office, so he was not asked to help. Finally, with the interview only down to three minutes and the deadline approaching, he asked to give it a shot. You see, they were all taught a certain way to scale down an interview. He used his knowledge from his training in writing high school papers (homeschool papers). He outlined the interview the way he would a paper, and from there edited it down to two minutes successfully and to a very pleased boss and client. Grady knew how to think outside of the box. He wasn’t spoon-fed a how-to, so he knew to look at the problem from a different angle. He is an independent thinker.
“I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays and have things arranged for them that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas,” author Agatha Christie once said.
We want them to produce their own ideas, and not just believe and restate everything they see on Twitter and Instagram! We have four years to train and guide these children into adults, and then, like it or not, they are legal adults and should know to behave as such.
Homeschooling high school can be daunting! There are several common objections I hear.
"But I'm not qualified!" If you have an unremarkable academic background (like yours truly), it can be terrifying. But there is a lot of help! First things first - is God calling you? Have you asked, or did you just say no? If it is His will, He will show you the way.
As mentioned before, there are so many fantastic resources, schools, and programs out there. There are so many ways to achieve your academic goals in addition to the long distance schools. I have used our school’s tutors and classes, of course. I have also used my folks, my friends, retired teachers (daily Mass has a nice selection of retired professionals), older students, college kids, on and on.
My daughter, Eileen - wife of four years, mother of Seamus (20 months), and Events Coordinator for Benedictine College - said, “It was easy for me to realize I wanted to be homeschooled in high school once I shadowed my cousin at her Catholic high school. The teachers had to keep the curriculum at such a mainstream level - the really smart kids were bored and couldn’t reach their potential, and the kids that were struggling in a subject weren’t able to succeed because the teachers didn’t have time. Homeschooling gave me the best opportunity.”
My daughter Maura said, “I would’ve been wild and irascible if I had to deal with peers all day. I needed alone time and I needed to talk to my mom.”
As I was writing this, I found it profoundly humbling and my mistakes were glaring. It was a spiritual battle - I am so ordinary and unworthy to be here. But this is good, because if I can, you can!
I shared this with Maura and she said, “I just graduated from college summa cum laude because I learned that I love learning. Why do you think your kids are so close? We spent time growing up together, playing together, and learning together. Homeschooling is important and vital to families in the Catholic faith.”
"But my child won't be able to play sports!" Answer: Club ball! There are lots of homeschooled athletes (Tim Tebow, most Olympians, Jason Taylor of Miami Dolphins to name a few). There are many different athletic courses available. For example, my daughter Maggie played volleyball for the local high school team. My son Brennan is currently on swim team with another high school; he even earned his varsity letter.
"But the high school experience!" What exactly…the prom? There are countless opportunities to participate in many of the high school so-called milestones. My children have attended, while homeschooling, high school proms, homecomings, and dances. They have participated in football, swim, volleyball, and dance. There is so much more now than ever before.
My daughter Siobhan is a current student at Benedictine College, and she was a very resistant homeschooled high schooler. She participated in the local high school dance team, took Spanish there, and went to many of the functions. She said, “When you are homeschooled, it keeps your focus on what is important. In school you are surrounded with drama and your attention to schooling is much less. I would never want my younger siblings to be in a traditional high school.”
"But homeschooling is expensive!" I assure you, the pricing for homeschooling isn’t even close to a semester of one child at a private school…and what could you be doing with that money? Travel, for one thing! You could travel to the historic sites, take weekend trips to explore astronomy, marine biology, etc. You have the ability to explore your children’s specific interests in a deeper way. My son studied for two years in high school to learn 3D animation, and he even sold some online. My daughter Maura became a licensed aesthetician in high school; my daughter Siobhan learned the art of interior design in a two year program. The opportunities are endless and the schedule is flexible to pursue internships, hobbies, and/or jobs.
"But we are burned out!" Is the burn-out from a lack of self-care? There are a lot of great solutions if that is the case. I needed more fun with my girlfriends, so once a week I started a group to meet and just have fun. It became known that on Fridays starting at 2:00, Mom was gone. Is the burn-out from the grading, the follow up? That will happen either way, as you are the parent. I get help with some of that too. I work with a friend’s daughter once a week and she works with mine to mix it up.
"My child won’t listen to me, and can’t learn from me!” I have definitely had teens that did not want to work with me. That's fine - I can get a tutor once a week and be there to assist and to support them. Putting them in school is not a recipe for improved relationships; it is putting them in an environment that encourages them to pull away from your relationship. That's an ‘us versus them’ mentality. We want to hear them, and to treat them with dignity and their ideas with interest. This time with them is golden.
I believe part of the struggle we have with our teens is painful for both parent and teen. You see, their eyes are opened and they begin to really ‘see’ us, warts and all. We want the best for them and teach them what is true, but our sin is glaring in their face. They have to come to terms with our imperfections, our failures, as do we. It is painful for our children to see how weak we are, but what a blessed opportunity! This is the time to show them how critical it is for them to see our imperfections and their great need (our great need and continual seeking) for Our Lord and for Our Lady. They see that because we all are flawed, we can't love as He loves, all the while building the case of the truth in more mature ways. This lets them wrestle with the truth and come to ownership, and not just be fed what to think. That necessary struggle is, in my view, part of the beautiful mess of parenting. It is the privilege of parenting…but we need time!
I love how Laura points out that the brick and mortar school relationships are seldom lifelong. This gives bonding a different outcome than in homeschooling relationships which are primarily the family. They have to learn how to work out those relationships healthfully. This, in turn, prepares them for long lasting relationships in their vocations.
When one of my daughters was dating a young man in college that seemed to have trouble communicating, she asked him if he had ever been in a long term relationship, to which he replied, “No, but neither have you.” Her response was a surprise to him, as she stated that she, indeed, had and continued to be in many long term relationships with her family members. Through schooling at home, she had time to work through the ups and downs of those relationships and continue to grow in them.
In The Journal of Marriage and Family September 2015 issue, Anna Tyzack reported on a study of the quantity of time of parents with their offspring done with 16,000 youngsters in Toronto, Canada. It showed that it was most important to the offspring to have time with their parents during their adolescence.
Adulthood is a process, not an event. We all have to move at our own pace. Older children need opportunities for right thinking, and for making assessments of situations (this is so much easier with well-thought-out curriculum that sets up the opportunities for these discussions). They need time to delve deeper. Teens need to be heard and listened to with interest and respect. Trying to not interrupt and not to react is a huge challenge for me, still!
St. John Bosco said, “Without confidence and love, there can be no true education.” Confidence grows from being heard by interested listeners who are invested.
I will never forget my first consultant training with MODG. I was a nervous Nellie, as usual, and very green as a mother and homeschooler. I couldn’t actually understand why they asked me to be a consultant. So here I am at the training and Laura sat next to me. She asked me my opinion on things and listened with great interest and joy - she modeled active listening. She also taught me to be at the ready to learn from those around you…including, importantly, from your children. I am sure you have learned quite a few lessons from them already. Even as adults we all feel the need to be heard. When we’re hurting, sometimes the best help is to have someone willing to listen. The raw stages of teenagers crave this the most.
My youngest son, Brennan, was a very reluctant homeschooler for high school. He just finished ninth grade this past May. In the course of this year, he has observed striking changes in many of his friends, the ones who were not homeschooled. Most of them, even the ones he was very close to, put him off as they became much more self-involved, critical, insecure, and anxious. They were consumed with their social standing in their respective high schools. As the year continued, more of them turned to him; they needed his friendship and his stability, and it was a relief for them to talk to someone not in the battle at school.
Brennan found that some were not ready to let go of that passive aggressive sarcasm as their shield. He had to weigh Christian charity with boundaries. Navigating relationships is an art, a skill necessary as a Catholic, with our call to love. The balance of healthy charity and boundaries, being there with them to hear them, speaking the truth in love - all of this is part of our faith. And yet, he needs to have others that are there for him as well; there is the rub.
But it has been a challenging year. When I asked him what he would have me say to you today, he said, “Homeschooling high school has been a good influence for me. I have been able to go into more depth with what I am interested in learning. I have found that there are more tools for me to learn. I am able to choose friends wisely; I am not forced into artificial social situations; I am able to be who I am, introverted or extraverted. I do get a lot of grief for homeschooling from my friends which I defend with humor.”
As Beatrix Potter once said, “Thank goodness I was never sent to school - it would have rubbed off some of the originality.”
Navigating loss is a part of life, a difficult part of growing up. It has not always been easy for my kids finding healthy, local relationships while homeschooling, but they have all come out on the other side ahead and with true friends.
We have had time to be family. While they are very busy in high school, we had time. When life threw us curve balls, we could approach them together.
From illnesses, tragedies, sudden and expected deaths, miscarriages, Sacraments, weddings, graduations, moving again and again, the homeschooling was a constant.
In the Final Four years, what is important? So much - here are two of my standards:
First: feelings aren’t facts. Put your feelings in the passenger seat, and if need be, in the back in the car seat facing backwards, but never let them drive! Acknowledge the feelings but let your reason do the driving of your life.
Second: just because someone says it, posts it, or tweets it, doesn’t make it true. Look for the truth, show them how to get the correct information, and where to find it.
As St. Toribio Romo Gonzalez, martyred in 1928, said, “Christ said, 'I am the Truth,'; He did not say, ‘I am the custom.'"
We are in a battle of misinformation.
Dr. Dobson has said, “Those who control what young people are taught, and what they experience, what they see, hear, think and believe will determine the future course for the nation.”
It has never been more important to put in the time! It is your call, your God-given duty to safeguard the truth with your children and equip them for the battle as adults.
St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The things that we love tell us what we are.” What do you really love, and does your life reflect it?
Pope St. John Paul II said, “Do not be afraid when love makes demands. Do not be afraid when love requires sacrifice”
And, needless to say, our Good Lord has given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on His Words in Isaiah 55:9:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord, as high as the heavens are above the earth so high are My ways above your ways and My thoughts above your thoughts.”
I say to you, His Grace is Enough!