When the school struggled with one of our boys throughout Kindergarten, the thought of homeschooling started to be a very real possibility. Tim and I had spent countless hours in conversations, meetings, and parent-teacher conferences discussing how we could teach Jack to have more self-control in difficult situations so that he would make “good choices”. At home we dished out consequences any time a negative report came home in hopes that Jack would learn that his behaviour needed to improve and that we, as parents, were fully supportive of the school’s expectations and committed to seeing him change. As the months went on, Jack did start to change — but not in the ways we had hoped for. He developed an angry streak that we had never seen before and his outbursts at school started getting worse. Our happy-go-lucky, nothing-gets-me-down kid was now having regular emotional breakdowns, sobbing over something as small as a few pieces of Lego not breaking apart. Plain and simple, he was stressed.
But as with all hard lessons in life, the puzzle didn’t solve itself and it took time for all the pieces to come together. The hardships we were experiencing at school were like the edge pieces, providing a framework for exploring the rest of the puzzle. The advice of friends and family who know Jack and Liam well, the candid thoughts and struggles of other moms around me, our family’s personal goals — these were all other critical pieces of the puzzle that needed to come together.
The first puzzle piece fell into place about half way through Kindergarten. It was the 100th day of school and the kids were having parties in their classes to celebrate. The boys came home with a goodie bag of 100 things that they had assembled during their class party and Jack was over-the-moon excited. I’m sure he was counting down the seconds until he could get home and eat the 100 treats; M&M’s, pretzels, Cheerios and other junk food we don’t eat regularly. But Jack came home with more than just his goodie bag that day. A shoving match with another kid landed him in the principal’s office and he had a letter to prove it. I didn’t even think twice. Because Tim and I were fully committed to showing Jack how important it is to make better choices at school, I dumped his goodie bag of 100 things into the garbage. I explained that “boys who get sent to the principal’s office, do not get treats.” Reality discipline at it’s finest, I thought.
But as with everything, too much of a good thing is not such a good thing. And as I looked in Jack’s eyes, I immediately knew I had gone too far. I wanted to just hit the rewind button and suck all the 100 goodies back into the bag but they were all splayed out amidst the rotting garbage. As Jack completely lost it, and broke down into the most devastated fit of tears I have ever seen, I was left with nothing but my authority and a son who was incredibly hurt.
On that 100th day of Kindergarten, I realized that Jack needed a loving mother to tell him that everything was going to be okay and not just another rigid consequence. I finally stopped trying to “condition” Jack and decided that if school was going to be a hellish experience for him, the least I could do was make home a safe haven from the storm. We stopped giving consequences for things he’d already been punished for at school, I politely disregarded the emails from his teacher which outlined every little thing he had done wrong that day, and I shrugged my shoulders at news of another run-in on the playground, opting for encouraging words instead. It might sound like I “checked out” but in reality, I checked in. I stopped pressuring Jack to be “better” (since who can live up to that, anyway?) and spent more time acknowledging what a great kid he already is and how we can love others through our words and actions. I did my best to provide positive affirmation that would prevent him from suffering total defeat, trusting that if we could just preserve his self-confidence, he would eventually grow out of these immature tendencies that were causing all the problems at school. I stopped allowing fear to convince me that I was “coddling” him and just listened to my heart’s voice instead. The truth is, Jack lives to help others, he loves making people happy, he freely gifts his possessions to other children even if it’s a sacrifice to do so, and plain and simple, Jack loves to love you. This is the kid who used up his last coveted birthday invite for the loner kid at school because, as Jack said, “he’s sad a lot and I know he’ll be happy if he comes to my party”. Jack lives empathetically and he hates to see other people upset. This is the boy who, while his brother prepared to pull out his own loose tooth, went to the garage and grabbed his sound blocking ear muffs because he couldn’t bare the sound of Liam in pain.
Tim and I were hopeful that the first grade would be better. We requested that the boys be in the same classroom, believing that the familiar presence of Liam might relieve some of Jack’s pressure to impress his peers (preventing the whole class clown issue) and we were given not one, but two amazing teachers for their classroom (who job-share). We were thrilled to have such kind and open-minded teachers for our outside-the-box learner. But despite a great improvement in Jack’s classroom success, the overarching problems remained. Constantly feeling like a failure was taking its toll on his self-confidence and he continued to exhibit signs of stress. Overwhelmed and overstimulated, he routinely misbehaved during recesses, resulting in play time spent sitting on the bench, more visits to the principals’ office, and the start of him embracing the role of rebel and troublemaker. Every day spent in school felt like another little piece of our genuine, loving boy slowly being replaced with an angry “troublemaker”.
Eventually, Tim and I started to question if we should really be trying to “fix Jack” because maybe it wasn’t Jack that needed the most fixing. We began to question a system that expects 5-year-olds to be in a classroom for 4-6 hours a day and has one teacher for 25+ kids. I started volunteering in the classrooms and seeing firsthand what a challenge our teachers are faced with as more and more students require special attention due to special needs, ESL challenges, and learning disabilities. Heck, even just the crappy diet most students are eating is affecting how they learn and cope in the classroom! Tim and I wondered about the possible long-term effects of a stressed out child who logs away the memories of every shameful trip to the principals’ office. We debated the efficacy of constant time-outs for minor mishaps, or in some cases, blatant misunderstandings. With the admirable notion of teaching Jack to make better choices, we had to face the reality that perhaps we were forcing Jack into an ill-fitting mould. Like ramming a square peg into a round hole — there is nothing inherently wrong with the square peg. It’s just not round.
Yes, Jack needs to learn how to make good choices. Yes, he needs to learn how to manage his frustrations. And yes, he needs to learn how to bite his tongue and keep quiet. We get that. But are the recess parent volunteers or the teacher who has our kid for nine months the best ones to teach these lessons? Furthermore, are we catapulting our young children into these “life lessons” when they’re simply not ready to learn them, creating even more hurdles to teaching those lessons well?
So although the first piece of the puzzle was back on that 100th day of Kindergarten, the final piece of the puzzle didn’t happen until this past month. It was just another school day and I caught a friend’s blog post about her daughter’s struggle in Kindergarten and it got me thinking about what was really holding me back from homeschooling. I spent the day meditating on the reasons for why my heart knew exactly what to do but my mind was still a few steps back, not ready to take the homeschool leap. I began pinpointing every reason for not homeschooling. The truth is, I have no job or career responsibilities other than homemaker. I have the knowledge, the organization, and the skills to successfully teach them. We have the financial resources to provide them with great curriculum and supplementary activities like music lessons, language lessons, private tutoring, etc. Our family is extremely social and the boys are no exception so we don’t even need to talk about how we will “keep them socialized” (I swear the next person who asks me that will get punched in the face. That is possibly one of the most outdated stigmas of our time and it drives me crazy that people still believe homeschooled kids are all socially inept).
So what is holding me back?
After being brutally honest with myself, I was left with one shaming truth: The only thing holding me back from educating our kids myself is that I don’t want to make the sacrifice. I was under the belief that this was “my time”. Society tells us that we pay our dues raising small kids and then we all rejoice when we can send them to school and have the SAHM “freedom” that we’ve been waiting for. And yet here I am, asking myself, is it worth it?
After a day of this new reality sinking in, I cuddled with the boys later that night. As Jack drifted in and out of sleep, he entered a somewhat dreamy state and seemed to pour out his heart in a manner that was so clear, I wondered if it came straight from his soul.
“Mom…I need to tell you this. School is just so…hard. I get in trouble all the time and even though I try not to, I still do. And I’m so bored. We do our work but before we’re done, I get so bored that I don’t want to do anything. I don’t know. I’m just having a hard time, Mom. I feel sad for most the day. But the best time of the day is at the end, when you pick me up.”
And then he closed his eyes and went to sleep.
My heart lodged into my throat as I heard a crystal clear message from a little boy who loves to do the right thing but doesn’t always know how to get there. A boy who is desperately trying to reconcile the two extremes and is saying, “I really don’t want to be a failure, but I feel like one.” I kissed his forehead and whispered in his ear, “I know honey, I know. We’re going to figure this out together, I promise.” I squeezed him a bit tighter and that final puzzle piece clicked into place. Because I knew the answer. Jack needed more time. More time to grow and mature without the harsh realities of the “real world” coming down on him and telling him what a screw-up he is. More time to flourish into the self-assured and confident young man he is meant to be. And not because I want to shelter him from every hardship but because perhaps our kids could use a few more years of sheltering while they sort themselves out.
Hearing Jack’s poignant and honest words tipped the scales for good. Not just for me, but for my husband as well (a self-admitted homeschool-doubter). Over the next few weeks, we made preparations and discussed ideas, both ready for this challenge and excited to make it a successful and exciting season in the boys’ lives. We started to see how Liam, our gifted and obsessive compulsive perfectionist, would also benefit from a more tailored learning environment. In fact, just last week Liam told me that “school is a bit boring. They teach me things I already know.” How can we expect a teacher of 25 kids to continually challenge this first grader who is easily reading chapter books while his peers are learning basic sight words? Who is solving long division math while his peers are learning 2+4? It’s not fair of us to think that the public institution can handle it all.
In an ideal life, one makes the correct decision right from the start. But more often than not, we learn lessons the hard way, experiencing both sides of the equation before knowing with conviction which is best. And we pray that we remain open and mindful through life so that when we find ourselves on the wrong side of that equation, there is still a chance to self-correct. This is us self-correcting. And ready for a brand new puzzle.