Because we all struggle with doubt, sometimes a crisis in our lives is the one thing that can propel us to set aside fear and do something truly remarkable. A failed business can lead to an exciting new startup. A serious disease can lead to a cutting edge remedy. A failed relationship can lead to a wonderful new friend. Infertility can lead to a glorious adoption.
This is the way we started homeschooling. In kindergarten, my oldest son got sick. For four years we tried to balance the demands of our son’s illness with the demands of our son’s school. When we just couldn’t stand the stress of it any longer, we threw in the towel and tried something revolutionary in our community. We started homeschooling, a choice that ultimately changed the lives of everyone in our family…and got our son healthy again in the process.
This same sort of crisis led to our decision to homeschool our children in new and different ways. The crisis started on the first day of homeschooling my third child. Hello world….meet Jesse.
Everyone who knows me has heard “the Jesse stories.” At five years old, Jesse could run faster, jump higher and cause more trouble than all the neighborhood kids put together. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t mean, or disrespectful, or destructive, at least not on purpose. He was a cute kid with a friendly personality that everybody liked. Take a look at the cute kid in the photo….
What’s not to like, right? I call Jesse a “troublemaker” because Jesse didn’t want to do anything the way everybody else did it. He didn’t want to sit in a chair unless his feet were higher than his head. He didn’t want to walk across a street because he would rather explore the concrete tunnel underneath. He didn’t want to play with his little kid toys because the big boy toys — things like full-size skateboards and power tools — were so much more interesting. We are probably the only family in the neighborhood who once got a visit from the police because they saw Jesse playing in our garage and were afraid he was going to hurt himself.
As you might guess, when it came to school, Jesse was the prototypical “reluctant learner.” On the first day of kindergarten, when I pulled out the electric skillet to fry apples (so we could talk about the letter “A”), he looked at me like I was crazy. He sat there at the kitchen counter (with his feet higher than his head) and asked me repeatedly, “Can I go outside and play now?”
I tried to teach Jesse to read “in 100 easy lessons” and 100 turned into 200. Then I tried Hooked on Phonics. And Bob Jones. And Sing, Spell, Read, and Write. Nothing worked.
Over the course of the next 10 years, doing school with Jesse was such a painful and unproductive process that I did as little as my pride and good sense would allow me to do. I simplified the lessons. I decreased the lessons. I scaled back my expectations. We did so little school I wondered if I could get arrested for truancy.
So, if Jesse wasn’t doing school, what was he doing? He played. A lot. He lived to go outside. He rode his skateboard and his bike. He explored the neighborhood. He built things. He took up soccer and got good at it. He played video games. He played the drums. He wrote digital music. He had fun.
And something happened that I didn’t expect. Jesse got smart. Really smart. He learned to read well and count his money. He developed interests that were typically the interests of smart kids. Interests like politics and finance. He not only found his way in the world around him, but he developed a beautiful mind. He was happy.
But there was still one mountain yet to climb: we wanted Jesse to go to college. This presented a definite problem. Jesse had zero study skills, little foundational knowledge of core subject matter, and no interest in anything academic. How could a child like this thrive in a purely academic environment? We were about to find out.
His junior year of high school, we enrolled Jesse in a couple of classes at the local community college just to see what would happen. He passed. After that, he took the college entrance exam. He got the score he needed. After high school he enrolled as a full-time student in a private, liberal arts college not known for easy coursework. He did well.
How could this be? How could a child like Jesse beat educators at their own game? Because Jesse had something very special. He had a God inspired, God created, fully functioning brain. When that splendid brain was properly stimulated and given the freedom to grow, it naturally began to do amazing things.
Here’s the deal with the brain: it has been designed to grow and learn in natural environments, apart from the suffocating structure of traditional classrooms. Fortunately, the brain is so advanced and adaptive, so capable of meeting every intellectual need at every turn, that it CAN function and grow in almost ANY environment. But the place it loves, the place where the childhood brain thrives, is in low-stress, highly creative environments where children can play and apply and imagine and create. Places like playgrounds and back yards and bedrooms and ball fields. If you don’t believe me, consider this: the brain grows faster and children learn more during the first five years of life than during any other five-year period. It accomplishes this with no textbooks, no classrooms, and no professional teachers. The human brain learns best in an unhurried and nurturing place where mommy and daddy are at the helm and there’s a sign on the door that says “home.”
Inadvertently, my husband and I created a great learning environment for Jesse, one perfectly suited for his personality and sensibilities. We had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, but, eventually, we gave up on the long assignments, structured lessons, and complicated curriculums. Instead, we gave Jesse the time and freedom to pursue his own interests and the love and support to make the journey possible. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were putting Jesse on the fast track to future success in college and life.
Today, we see evidence of Jesse’s bright and enterprising mind in almost everything he does. He does all the things proud parents want their kids to do, things like make good grades and work hard. But, where he really shines is in the ridiculously clever and creative ways he attacks life. The same spark that spurred Jesse to forge his own path as a little boy is still burning brightly. The best thing I did as a homeschool mom was not snuff out that spark.
There’s a fascinating statement by Michelangelo that homeschooling parents like to quote. It goes like this: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” It’s a reminder that parents and teachers are not in the creation business. We don’t create anything, build anything, form anything, fill anything up. That’s God’s job. Ours is just to love and nurture our children, holding their hands as God’s creating work unfolds before our eyes.
If you have a child like Jesse, one that scoffs at traditional studies and insists on making his own way, don’t be afraid. It’s quite possible he might be leading you down a different, but very good, road to personal success and happiness.
Until next time…Be fearless.