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Ten Things That Really Make a Difference


Homeschooling is about raising children, forming them in the right way, academically and spiritually, and achieving these goals with the children's cooperation. Without the children's cooperation, these goals can't be achieved, because the goals are primarily realized in their hearts. So acquiring the cooperation of your children, in the right way, becomes a matter of grave importance.


In 1994 I wrote a book called Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum. It had a number of ideas for how to homeschool children and achieve good academic results. Almost all of the ideas had to do with curriculum and methodology. Before long I found myself with a school, Mother of Divine Grace, and a number of enrolled families who called regularly to discuss their academic programs. I expected these discussions to focus on individual children and the right curriculum choices for each particular child. In large measure that's what our discussions have been about for the last five years.

However, homeschooling is not only concerned with which materials are better, and how they ought to be presented. Homeschooling is also, and more essentially, about raising children, forming them in the right way, academically and spiritually, and achieving these goals with the children's cooperation. For without the children's cooperation, these goals can't be achieved, because the goals are primarily realized in their hearts. So acquiring the cooperation of your children, in the right way, becomes a matter of grave importance.

As my own six children have grown (my oldest is 26 and married, and my youngest is 13), I have seen a number of things that help achieve cooperation. Much of this has been learned by trial and error (lots of error), but also by watching the successes and failures of other parents, and listening to the 150 or so families who call me regularly, or to the other consultants in my program who talk to the remaining 500 families enrolled in Mother of Divine Grace School.

I have gathered the items that have occurred to me as especially useful in encouraging cooperation under ten headings: the right approach, clear directions, observing limits, keeping notes, formation vs. information, respecting individuality, training in virtue, having conversations, being respectful, and encouragement.

The Right Approach

First of all, I have some suggestions about the approach you take with your students, These suggestions move from the specific to the general. One of the issues that comes up frequently in my consultations with families is how to achieve cooperation with the daily math lessons. I don't know if you've ever had a child who groaned when math was mentioned, assured you that it was too hard, and then took 2 hours to do a lesson that could have been done in 40 minutes, but if you have, you are not alone. Here are some ideas that have helped other families.

Break up the math lesson. I don't necessarily mean do half a lesson in the morning and half a lesson in the afternoon, though that's one possibility. My suggestion is more like this: say to your child, in an interested and pleasant tone, "Honey, I wonder how long it would take you to do two problems? Why don't you do two problems, and tell me when you start, and when you finish. I'll time you. I just wonder how long that would take." Then, watch the time. Now, the very novelty of doing only two problems, or the idea of timing, may have already made the child more cooperative, but even if he groans it's ok, as long as he does the problems. Then watch the clock. When he tells you he's done, say, "That's great! You did those two problems in 10 minutes! I wonder if you could do the next two in the same, or maybe less, time?" Then watch the clock while he does the next two problems, and tell him the time. I usually find that each successive part of the lesson takes less time, and that the end of the lesson comes sooner than either of you would think.

The reason this works is that you have given your child short term goals, so that he's not staring at all 30 problems and thinking how long that's going to take. You have also introduced the notion of timing, trying to move faster, but put it in terms that seem do-able: "Can you beat your own best time?" And, of course, you have been pleasantly involved. That's a big motivation for students. It's also an important part of making this technique work. You need to say what you say pleasantly, even if you really want to snarl. The old saying is true: you catch many more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Now, you couldn't do this for every math lesson, all year long, but you could do it for a number of days at the beginning of the year, and help the student start getting the habit of doing his work in a timely, focused manner. And you could practice this technique on particular occasions throughout the year, when the student is particularly grumpy, or unfocused.

Here are some other ideas for math lessons: let your child do the work in his head, if he can. Mental math is an important skill, and it gets better with practice. I've talked to a number of mothers who were having a daily fight with their children about showing all the math work. My suggestion is: don't make him show his work, unless he gets the problem wrong. In our house, this is the deal. I tell the children, "You can just write down the answers to your problems. Bring the lesson to me as soon as it is done. I will stop whatever I am doing, and take the 5 minutes required to correct the lesson. I'll circle those that are wrong, and give the lesson back. Any problems that are wrong should be re-worked, and for those problems you need to show your work." This way there's a reward for getting it right: less work.

Something else that has made a difference, especially with older children, in getting math lessons done in a timely way, is setting a time limit. I've been amazed, in my own house, and with many of the people I work with, what a difference this makes. Tell your child that he only has to do one hour of math (this works well with Latin, too). Set a timer. When the hour is up, stop. I introduced this in my house when I had decided to give up. I said to myself, "We will never get anything else done at this rate. I just have to make up my mind that this text is going to last two years and hope it is not three." Well, astonishingly enough, once the time limit was established, the lessons that had been taking two hours or longer, began to take only one. I realized it was because I had changed the goal to something that seemed do-able to the child. Thirty problems looked like an all day project, but one hour looked possible.

My last specific suggestion with respect to mathematics, is to be consistent. Have the math lesson done every day, and correct it every day. I mentioned earlier that the recommended approach is to tell your child to do the lesson, and to bring it to you, and that you correct it right then. This is a matter of discipline, both for you and your child, but it makes a great difference in how well the math gets done. Math is a subject where daily practice makes 45 minute lessons the norm, whereas the same material, with the same child, can take an hour and a half or more, if he is out of practice. If doing the math corrections regularly is something you have tried and it just doesn't seem to work, I suggest that you tie the math corrections to something that does happen. For many years, with one of my children, I "did the numbers" daily. That is, I wrote on his paper, each morning, the number of the lesson, and the numbers for the math problems, 1-25. This was something he certainly could do himself, but it got us started; he appreciated the help, and it only took 3 minutes. One year I had real trouble doing the lesson corrections immediately after the lesson was done (though I still think that's the best way), so I tied the corrections to "doing the numbers". That is, I would always correct yesterday's lesson when I "did the numbers" for the current lesson. Then my son would make the corrections before he went on to the new lesson. That worked, because I tied the correcting, which hadn't been getting done, to something that was already a permanent feature of our schedule.

Another area that comes up regularly in the consultations I do with families is the need for regular sustained silent reading. Good readers may be born, but they can also be made, and good reading habits are essential for good academic formation. As your children develop their reading skill, I suggest that you initiate a 'directed reading time' in your house. This is my title for the regular, daily reading time spent reading a book I have chosen for my child. He is welcome to read anything else he wants (within reason) for the rest of the day, but during this time, he reads what I have picked for him.

When the children are little, and just developing reading fluency, the directed reading time is to help them do just that. I will have an early reader read three times a day, at first for five minutes each time, from a book that is actually below his reading level. There is a place for challenge in directed reading, but it comes after fluency has been acquired. People only get better at reading by practicing reading, and so I think you need to incorporate regular reading time in your child's day. And 5 minutes, three times, is easier than one long fifteen minute period. When five minutes becomes easy, make it ten minutes three times a day, and when that becomes easy move to fifteen. When that is easy, the child is usually ready to move to two half hours, or one full hour. That's your target. Each child should, in my opinion, read for one hour of directed reading each day. In our house this is usually in addition to any reading the student may be doing for history. (I say usually, because I have had a reluctant reader, and asking for an hour of reading beyond the reading required in history would just have been too much.)

When the children get older, this directed reading time provides a place to introduce the classics. One of my children had gotten to the Hardy Boys stage, and seemed to be stuck. I suggested several times that if he liked Hardy Boys, he would like Sherlock Holmes, but he looked at my very large book, with very small print, and said, "No, thanks, Mom."

Finally, I decided that Sherlock Holmes was going to be part of his directed reading time. So, that night after dinner, I handed him the book and told him he could read it for an hour. Every ten minutes of that hour, he asked me if his time was up. At the end of the hour I asked if he had liked the book. He said, "No," and I said, "That's too bad, because you're going to be reading it for awhile."

The following night, after dinner I handed my son the same book, and he sat down to read it. This time, however, he didn't ask me every ten minutes if his time was up. In fact, when I told him his hour was up, he said, "Thanks, Mom," and kept reading. He kept reading until bed time, and when I got up in the morning, he was up before me, reading Sherlock Holmes.

I tell you this, both as an illustration of what I mean by directed reading time, and an encouragement to you to go ahead and introduce your children to the classics. Classics are classic in part because people like them, and our children will like them if they persist in reading them. Occasionally, I admit, they don't like something we have picked out for them to read, but that's life, and everyone has to do a certain number of things that are just good for them. My own experience is that if you do something that is good for you often enough, even though you may not have started out liking it, your liking for it will grow as the action is repeated.

Writing is another area that comes into homeschooling conversations on a regular basis. The most helpful thing I have to say about that is the importance of using models, especially with younger children. Imitation is the first mode of learning, and is always a valuable practice. Children need to know what is expected. They need clear and defined goals. A model can provide these. One of the reasons I like Emma Serls' Intermediate Language Lessons is because she uses models of writing to prompt the children in their creative writing stories.

A story is presented, the student recounts the story using an outline provided in the text, he is given an assignment to write a story very similar to the first story, and he is asked to verbalize the story first. Then he knows just what is expected of him and is free to be creative within that framework. A framework always encourages freedom, by releasing one from doubt and indecision.

Older children, though they may not need models of writing, do need to verbalize the material before committing it to paper. I have seen that high school age children have a tendency to put off writing papers, waiting for the moment of inspiration to strike, when, they are confident, they will have the perfect opening, coherent arguments, and a striking conclusion. Unfortunately, the moment of inspiration may not come for weeks. To avoid this problem, we have developed the 45 min. essay. The children read about a topic, talk to me about it, so that it has already been verbalized, and then set a timer for 45 minutes. They write "45 Minute Essay" on the top of the page, so that it is clear that this is not a studied work, but an example of what can be done in 45 minutes. Then they write as much as they can about the topic discussed in 45 min. I have found this to be really helpful in getting a reluctant writer started. The 45 minute essay can form the basis for a longer paper, or it can stand alone.

All of these particular suggestions: timing math, doing mental math, setting time limits, doing directed reading, using models for writing, and verbalizing material before writing, have certain attributes in common that have to do with how one approaches difficult areas. They all employ do-able, short term goals, they are all clearly defined, and they all put the parent on the side of the student. These three qualities can make the difference between success and failure in homeschooling. So this is the first of the ten things that I think can make a difference. Pay attention to your approach. Make sure that it includes clearly defined, do-able, short term goals, and that it makes clear to the children that you are on their side.

A mom once called me to ask a series of questions about her curriculum. She thought her younger boys needed more help with their writing, and I suggested the method I use all through the early grades, where we read the story one day, the student re-tells it the next day, and the parent writes down the re-telling. This gives the student practice in oral composition, and an opportunity to see the story once again in its entirety. The following day the student copies what the parent wrote on the day before. Thus, the student both sees and writes his own composition, with the correct spelling and writing mechanics. The finished product is truly his work, both in terms of composition and the physical act of writing, but the two parts of the process have been separated.

(Young children, particularly boys, can find writing very frustrating when these two parts of the writing process are not separated. Their thoughts move faster than their pencils can. When the parts of the process are separated, they can compose at the level of their ability for that skill and they can work on improving the physical act of writing.)

The lady I spoke to liked that suggestion, and then she asked about using science tests. I said I wasn't too keen on the kind of test that had a great number of questions about particular facts, especially in the younger grades, and that I preferred to encourage the children to tell me what they had read and enjoyed in the science books. Similarly, I said, I like to test reading comprehension in most areas by inviting the children to tell me about what they have read, and I try to ask intelligent and interested questions. I pointed out that this way we were conversing in a comradely way, learning and exploring together, rather then putting the children in a situation where I was simply testing them, trying to find out what they didn't know. This way they were being allowed to show me what they did know.

The lady listened to all of this and then said, "You make it sound like what we're supposed to do is work with the children, helping them achieve the goals we set, rather than telling them the goals and seeing if they can get there." And I said, "That's it, exactly." Schooling is not and should not be an adversarial situation. It should be a situation where we are working together with our children to attain one of the great gifts of nature and grace, an understanding of reality. We need to work together to achieve this goal. There is no room for an adversarial relationship in home education.

Clear Directions

As you can see by the preceding suggestions, I think clear direction is another important component of successful homeschooling. Children like to know what to expect. For that reason I have found that one of the most helpful things we have done was to start school at a regular time each day, ignoring the state of the house until lunch time. If we start out cleaning, it will be noon before we are done, and the optimum time for school is gone. On the other hand, if we go ahead with school, and take a break at lunch time to clean, we get everything necessary finished.

In my house we have developed a routine that involves getting up for early Mass, coming home and having breakfast, doing assigned chores, and starting school by 8:30. This schedule is extremely freeing, because the children know what to expect, and what is expected. I do not have to tell them each day what to do when. They already know. I don't think it matters much what the starting time is, as long as there is one. This is especially helpful for older, sleepy, adolescent children. If they don't have a time when they expect to start school, they are apt to be found sleeping in until noon.

We also assigned each of the children one area of the house, in addition to their bedroom, that is theirs to keep clean. They straighten that area before school, and then periodically through the day we would have a clean-up time, where each child again straightens up his area. I came to this method after I had tried the "Each person will pick up after himself" tack. That failed because the children could never agree on who was responsible for the particular mess. One would say, "Well, she took it out." The other would say, "Yes, but you played with it last." Once we assigned the areas, those particular disagreements stopped.

The single structure that has made the biggest difference in our homeschooling, however, is the weekly list for each child. My life changed dramatically after we introduced that weekly list. I had found that when I was trying to teach religion to one child, and another asked me a question about history, and a third and fourth started saying, "What should I do now, Mom?" I began to feel like I was being pulled in five different directions at once. I would go on overload, and couldn't think. I would want to say, "I don't care what you do as long as you leave me alone." However, I knew that would not really be a solution. Once we had our lists, I could say to the children asking about what to do next, "Look at your list, dear."

This is the second of the things that I have found make a difference in homeschooling. If you give clear directions about the beginning and ending of each goal, you will be far more likely to achieve it, and to do so with your children's cooperation. Make clear to your children when the day starts, what schooling should be accomplished on any given day, and who is supposed to clean up what, when.

Observing Limits

I have also found that instituting limits for me helped our homeschooling. Saying no to most outside activities makes a big difference. This was a hard decision for me to come to, because I liked having many opportunities for our children. I enrolled them in numerous enrichment courses, and we took field trips with other homeschoolers. It was fun. But I found, as we had more children, that the calmer life was, the better behaved the children were. They seemed to learn more and be more cheerful, in so far as there was more general order in their lives. I had to realize that I had a job to do, in my house, that required most of my time. We now have four-day school weeks, and on those days we try not to do outside activities. The fifth day we use for field trips or music lessons, or grocery shopping.

This is the third of the things that I have found makes a difference in homeschooling. We need to be less distracted, and to institute limits for ourselves. While we are homeschooling, homeschooling is our job. As my mother says, in her introduction to Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, "An appetite for achievement is built into human nature. What men and women seek is not a life of easy luxury but a lifework deserving the expenditure of all their gifts. I believe that Catholic parents, especially mothers, find that kind of joy in the work of leading their children to God within the shelter of a living Catholic culture." Homeschooling is not easy, but it is a holy work that deserves the best we can give, and the fruits are eternal.

Keeping Notes

I've talked about what a difference the approach you take can make, how important clear direction is, and the help that setting limits can give. Another suggestion that can make things easier is to keep a list of what has worked for you. I work on memory exercises with my children all the time. I have them memorize poems, Baltimore Catechism questions and answers, history dates, and geographical features. I do this so that when they are 46 they will have a better memory than their mother. Maybe they won't have to keep a notebook of the things that they have found worked, but I didn't do memory exercises when I was young. When I am having a bad day, it is helpful to look at a list of approaches, or clear directions that have helped in the past. If they helped before, they will often help again.

Formation vs. Information

A more general item that makes a difference to successful homeschooling is the importance of remembering the difference between formation and information. Though information and formation are closely related, they differ in a significant way. Formation is primarily about developing the habits of thought that make it possible to use information rightly. An intellectually well-formed man is able to think about any subject he chooses, for he can acquire the information necessary when he needs it, and his habit of thought will make it possible for him to follow an argument, as well as make reasonable deductions and right judgments about it. Our homeschool curricula should be primarily directed toward developing this kind of formation. And if we succeed, our children will truly be equipped for life. Whether or not they learn all the possible subjects in school, whether they finish every text, whether they learn the names of all the bones in the body, they will be able to learn any subject when it becomes necessary or desirable, because they will know how to learn. Until they know how to do this, most (though not all) of the subjects studied are less essential than that formation itself.

If you keep this in mind, you will be less anxious about whether you have finished every book every year. You will realize that education is not about moving forward as fast as possible, but rather about understanding what you move through. I don't want you to think that I am opposed to finishing texts. I'm not, and most years we finish our texts in most subjects, but I care more about whether we have done well what we have done, than I am about how far we got. I think you will be happier with your schooling, get better results and more cooperation from your children, if you are clear about the fact that their formation is what matters, and that can be achieved by careful attention to the task at hand, regular application, and doing well what you do, whatever may not get done. (Michele Fitzgerald's story)

Respecting Individuality

The sixth item on my list of helps for successful homeschooling is the importance of keeping the individuality of each child in mind. This is why "school in a box" doesn't work very well. Each child is different in terms of his interests, his gifts, his needs and responses. Even for those of us who design our own curricula, it is essential that we think about each particular child as we plan the next year's curriculum, and take his interests, strengths and weaknesses into account as we plan. For example, you may have one child who loves family stories like All of a Kind Family, Caddie Woodlawn, and The Moffats, and reads them at the rate of one a day. Don't assume, because of that experience, that all succeeding children are going to be equally interested in those books. There may be a certain number of stories that you want each child to read, because they contain a kind of formation that you want each of your children to have, but if you just assume that this next child will read and enjoy the same material at the same rate, you may find yourself with an uncooperative student. (Theresa's story)

Try to determine, by analyzing the responses you have had up to the present time, what this student will enjoy. With respect to reading I often suggest to people that they try a variety of types of books during the directed reading time: biographies, adventure stories, science fiction, family stories, animal stories, historical fiction and plays. Notice which books the student likes best. Then include more of those in the directed reading titles. Pay attention to whether this child retains information best when he draws a picture about it, or writes about it, or re-tells it, or simply reads and enjoys it. Think about each child in particular as you plan your curriculum.

Now, this is not to say that there is nothing about education that can be applied "across the board". The stages of formation that I talk about in my book, Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, are natural stages of intellectual development that are true for everybody. We should take these stages into account in our curriculum planning. If we do that, we can help the child do what he is ready to do at any particular time.

Students should memorize at the grammatical stage. This strengthens and makes docile their imaginations, so that in the next stage of learning, the analytical (sometimes called the logical or dialectical), they will have the help of a trained imagination in following and constructing arguments. In turn, it is imperative that when the students are capable of grasping and marshaling arguments, they should practice doing so. If they do, the last stage, the rhetorical, can be given to articulating those arguments elegantly, in the service of the truly noble.

Any of these formative activities memorization, analysis, and communication can be done with many different subject matters. It is usually a good idea to exercise them with the materials that are easiest to use, or that meet the particular student's interests. This is not because there is nothing in one material that is better than another, but because students learn better when their differences in interest and learning style are taken into account.

Training in Virtue

The seventh item on my list I bring to you with some trepidation. There are certain virtues that need to be developed in our families. I live in a homeschooling community, and I have been homeschooling myself for about 16 years. I have seen again and again and again that those who are successful at homeschooling are those whose children are obedient, and who are themselves disciplined. I say this with some hesitation, because I know I am not the best role model in this area myself, but it is nonetheless true that both obedience and discipline are keys in homeschooling.

If your children will not do what is on their list, or take their turns watching the younger children, or get back to work after taking their turns, it is going to be hard to accomplish what you intend in your schooling. I have found that targeting unwanted behavior can be helpful. Even though there might be many areas you could concentrate on, pick one. Say, for example, that your 12 year old has started saying, "Aw, I don't want to," when you ask him sweetly to empty the dishwasher. Tell him that you expect that when he is asked to do something, he will say, "Yes, Mama." Then give him the positive and negative consequences of doing or not doing what you have asked. Think about what matters to him. For instance, does he like to use the computer? And is there only so much time available for such use? Then tell him that each time he says, "Yes, Mama," you will add five minutes to his computer time, and each time he says, "Aw, I don't want to," he will lose five minutes. Then comes the hardest part. You need to keep it in mind all day long for as long as it takes. I have found that if you are consistent about rewarding and punishing the targeted behavior, it won't take long to improve. You will probably have to address the problem again, or similar problems, but that can be remedied.

Other virtues that are extremely important for both teaching and learning are self-control and self-discipline. These are areas that our children need to learn, and I'm sorry to say that the most effective way of teaching them seems to be good example. The 'do what I say, not what I do' school doesn't have many graduates. When frustrated with the children or feeling the pressure of time constraints, we are apt to react in ways that are not models of right behavior. For myself, it is this consideration itself that I have found most helpful. I don't want my children to think that the appropriate response to stress is to snarl, or that unwelcome but necessary tasks can just be neglected. I try to say to myself, "If this were Margaret, Theresa, John, Rachel, James, or Richard, what would I want them to do?' Whatever behavior I would like to see in them is the behavior I better model now, otherwise I'll never see it in them.

It's a little bit like handwriting. You need to teach it initially, and model it consistently, and then have periodic refresher courses. I don't know any perfect children, or perfect adults, and I myself am very grateful that I am a Catholic, because I can regularly leave the past behind and look forward by virtue of the sacrament of Penance.

This brings me directly to the eighth item on my list.

Having Conversations

If you want to have your children develop obedience, or any of the other virtues, you are going to need to talk to your children. This is probably the most important thing I have to say. The first time I mentioned how important regular conversation with children is, it was as an aside in a talk I was giving at a conference. It wasn't at all the main point of the talk. But after that talk, not only was it the topic most frequently mentioned to me from the talk, but the other speakers at the conference came to me and said, "I'm going home and talking to my children." We homeschool, so we have our children at home with us, but I think many of us talk at our children instead of with them.

I asked my own older children what they would say about how to form the character of children. Unanimously they said, "Tell parents to talk to their children." My three oldest children are either in college, or have graduated from college, and they have had an opportunity to see, on occasion, someone from a good home who seemed not to have made internal the lessons he was taught. It is as though the virtues were always external, imposed by an exterior force, namely, the presence of the parent. Once that force was gone, the virtues were also gone.

We want our children to be formed internally. As a friend of mine said, "Obedience is no good unless you have their heart, too." The best way I know to gain the heart of your children is to talk to them. Enjoy being with them, make an effort to spend time with them that is mutually pleasant. But above all, talk to them, and don't talk 'at' them.

In my experience, if you do that faithfully, thoughtfully, and regularly, your children will come to view the world as you do. They will learn the principles of your decisions and make them their own principles. (Nancy's story)

I think that to have such conversations take place in a one on one situation is a factor in their effectiveness. There is a natural inclination, when you are talking with only one other person, to agree with that person. Talk to your children about the things that are going on in your life. Tell them about the decisions you have to make and how you have arrived at those decisions. Do this with respect to the decisions that affect them, but also those that don't.

Another reason regular conversation can make such a difference to the formation of children is that the spoken word is closer to the concept than the written word. The written word is a sign of the spoken word, and the spoken word is a sign of the concept in the mind. When one looks at the printed page, the symbols seen stand for certain sounds. It is the sounds themselves that stand for the understanding in the mind. Thus, the spoken word is closer to the concept than the written word. As a consequence, the spoken word conveys more than the written word can. The inflection of your voice, where you pause, and the emphasis you use all help convey the meaning, in addition to the bare word. Practically speaking, what this means is that when we are trying to pass on something more difficult or more central we need to make sure that the spoken word is involved in the teaching. As you deal with the difficulties in your parish, or reflect on the goodness of one of your friends, or bemoan your inattention to something that you should have paid attention to, verbalize these things to your children. Don't gossip, don't talk about other people for the sake of talking about them, but use the occasions that arise as ways to pass on your understanding of reality. (Fr. Harry)

Now, this kind of conversation with your children does not mean giving a speech. It involves listening, and acknowledging that you understand. I've been on a pregnancy hotline for nearly 20 years. When I was training to go on the hotline, I learned a very valuable procedure for conversations. Listen actively to what is said to you. Make eye contact if you can, so that the person you are talking to knows that you are listening. (One of my little children would try to assure my attention to his conversation, by talking my chin and moving it till I was looking him in the eye. I don't encourage that behavior, but it does show that eye contact indicates interest.) Whether you can look at the person or not (I've had great conversations in the car, but we were both looking at the road), make the sounds of understanding, and follow what is being said well enough to ask questions when you don't understand. Make it clear, whether you agree with the position being presented or not, that you are listening with attention. Then say enough to show that you understand. Talk about your personal experience, if possible. "Yes, I was once in a similar situation, and it was sad, or confusing, or unnerving..." . Now you are in a position to give advice, or help, or direction. You have listened, so that it is clear that you do know what the question or position is, and you have said enough to demonstrate your understanding; you have, in fact, established your credentials, so that your child has some reason to think you might really be able to give help.

Our conversations with our children are not always, in fact, they are not usually, in a crisis situation. But many parts of the procedure outlined above are helpful. You need to listen to your children, and you need to establish your interest in them and respect for their understanding, before you can expect them to listen to you.

Being Respectful

This brings me to the ninth item in my list, respect for our children. Because we want to instill the virtue of obedience, which is central in life, we are tempted to be hard on our children in the wrong way. Please, don't misunderstand me. I have high standards and expectations for my own children. I want them to be polite, pleasant, honest, helpful, responsible, cooperative and all the other qualities we try to instill in our children. And I think it is my job to train them in these virtues. But I don't think that the way to achieve the virtues is to humiliate the children.

I was once the witness to a very painful situation. A good mother had introduced her fourteen-year-old son to an adult. The child had done well, looking the adult in the eye, shaking hands, and even conversing briefly. I was impressed. Then the adult's attention was claimed by another person. She turned away, and the child started to move off. As a kind of after thought the adult called out, "Good-by, Sam, nice to meet you." The child sort of nodded, and kept going. The mother was not happy with this, and she called her child back, "Sam, you get back here, and say good-by politely." She said it loud enough so that everyone in the vicinity turned to look. The child was embarrassed, and so was the adult. That was not respectful. The mom should have waited until they were in private and then suggested to her son that he could have said good-by more politely. And she should have started out by praising his initial manners. If she had done that, he probably would have done better the next time. As it was, I don't think he will be too eager to be introduced again.

If we want our children to be polite to others, they need to be treated with politeness. If we want them to respect us and our opinions, we need to respect them. This doesn't mean that we are not in charge. It means that we accord them the dignity that we should accord all people. This has another aspect. We are to protect our children, not only physically, but in other ways. One of those is to protect their good name. It is not appropriate to talk negatively about our children to just anyone. It is, of course, appropriate to ask for good advice from those who might be expected to know, but that is not the same as to complain about the child who is being obnoxious to whomever happens to walk down the grocery aisle.


This brings me to the last item. When you have a child who is being obnoxious, especially during school time, think about the possible reasons. Make sure that you have given him clear, short term goals, and explicit directions. Think about whether you are too frazzled from multiple activities to be cheerful, and whether you have taken his individual interests into account. In other words, go over the items listed on your paper from 1-9. And then ask yourself if you have remembered to praise your child and tell him that you love him.

Children need to be told that they are loveable and that they are loved. One of the problems, certainly at my house, and perhaps at yours, is that when the children are being good, it just allows us to get on with what has to be done. We often don't even notice, because we are so intent on getting the enormous number of tasks that we have to do done. It's only when the children are being bad that their behavior comes to our attention, because then we can't get on with our tasks. There are two difficulties with this situation. First of all, there's not much incentive for a child to be good if no one notices when he is being good. Second, there's quite a lot of incentive to be bad, because that gets attention.

Children need to be praised on a regular basis. They need to have their good behavior rewarded. I suggest that you make this a part of your daily examination of conscience. When you are going to bed at night, think about whether you have remembered to praise George, and Sue, and Tom. And if you haven't, make a resolution to start off tomorrow by doing so. Look for an occasion to praise. It has to be real, but it doesn't have to be large. I think you will find the level of cooperation goes up enormously if you can remember to praise your children regularly.

Also, tell them that you love them. I met and spent some time with a family that had young children. The oldest of these children was one of those lovely people who are good at everything they do. He was kind, helpful, sweet, intelligent; perfect in every way. His next sister had a much harder time with life. She had difficulty in school, got angry quickly, was inclined to whine, and as a result had to deal with many corrections from her parents. I saw these children, now and then, as they were growing up, and the situation seemed to stay the same for many years. Then, one time when I visited them after a fairly long period away, I was amazed at the change I saw in the younger girl. She was now just like her older brother, sweet, kind, helpful and happy. I wondered what had happened, but didn't like to ask, since it wouldn't sound too good to say, "What happened to Jane? She's so pleasant now."

However, I didn't have to ask, because the father, in our conversation, told me himself. He asked, "I don't know if you noticed a change in Jane?" I said, well, yes, I had. He told me that he had been concerned about her, and praying for her, and it had come to him in prayer that he should tell her that he loved her. So from that day forward, he had, at some point every day, put his arm around her and told her that he loved her. He said, "Jane, I love you so much; nobody loves you more than I do, except Jesus."

It changed her whole attitude toward life. Reflecting on the situation, I can see why it would. She had probably felt unlovable, because her brother was so lovable. She needed to be assured that she was also loved, and her father did that. We all need to do that. Probably more than any other single thing we can do to help our children cooperate, we need to tell them that we love them more than anyone else does, except Jesus.



Laura M. Berquist. Ten Things That Really Make a Difference.

This article was prepared for a conference given in Southern California in 2001 and is reprinted by permission of Laura M. Berquist.

The Author

berquist1 berquist2 Laura M. Berquist is founder and director of Mother of Divine Grace School, a home study program accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Mrs. Berquist is the author of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum and editor of The Harp and Laurel Wreath:Poetry and Dictation for the Classical Curriculum, both from Ignatius Press. Based on the philosophy of the classical Trivium grammar, logic, and rhetoric she has developed a modern classical homeschool curriculum for grade K-12 that strengthens character and intellect, and reinforces virtue.

Copyright © 2003 Laura M. Berquist