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Conference Talk Notes: Sanity (Memphis – March, 2010)

March 20, 2010

Sanity, Simplicity and Exploding the Myth of the Supermom

As an experienced homeschool mom, the question I hear most from people is, “How do you do it all?” The answer, quite simply, is “I don’t!” I have taken as my own motto this quote from St. Francis of Assisi:

Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

There’s a certain simplicity in this idea that keeps me from being completely overwhelmed with the demands of family life and home education.

Insecurities stemming from the plague of perfectionism run rampant in modern society and homeschool parents tend to be hit particularly hard. They are trying to juggle so many things and life is a struggle, so when they hear something positive about another homeschool family, they can easily spin it into an idealistic image of perfection that is impossible to attain. The reality is that everyone struggles. Experienced homeschool families learn to accept that they can’t “do it all’. They know they can’t control everything and try to place their trust in God. They pray for patience and serenity and develop priorites, strategies and enough balance to bring a sense of peace.

Necessary – Love:

The Two Greatest Commandments – Love God, Love Your Neighbor (Matthew 22)

Regarding ‘Love Your Neighbor’:

We are called to be manifestations of God’s love to others (c.f. Deus Caritas Est), to be Christ for others… we need to bring Christ’s love and joy to the world beginning with our own families.

Whatever you do to the least of my brothers you do unto me…

…includes your spouse and your children!!!

Love comes first and if in doubt, love!

Necessary – Faith (plus note about prioritizing Sundays for God and family)

Precepts of the Church

Necessary – Education

Your State’s Homeschool Laws

Possible – Important Distinctions

Absolute truth (e.g. I need to educate my child.) vs. Prudential Decisions (e.g. Should I use a homeschool program?)

Note: Many experts don’t make this distinctions. Don’t surrender your thinking to them as their favorite method (or whatever) may or may not be useful for your family. Embrace what works for your family

Study on how listening to experts tends to inhibit decision-making.

G.K. Chesterton offers a helpful and humorous perspective on this important distinction:

A man’s minor actions and arrangements ought to be free, flexible, creative; the things that should be unchangeable are his principles, his ideals. But with us, the reverse is true; our views change constantly, but our lunch does not change. Now, I should like men to have strong and rooted conceptions, but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top of a tree. Let them argue from the same first principles, but let them do it in a bed, or a boat or a balloon.

Cardinal Ratzinger also explains that the content of catechesis should be fixed and the method of presentation flexible – we are mediators, the method is the bridge.

One aspect of homeschooling that many seasoned mothers will caution you about is getting carried away in purchasing curriculum for your children.

I thought this quote from Gretchen Rubin, writing in Real Simple magazine, made a useful distinction about how we choose things…

There are two types of decision makers. Satisficers… make a decision once their criteria are met. Maximizers want to make the best possible decisino. Even if they see a bicycle or a backpack that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option. Satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices. Sometimes good enough is good enough.

Beware of perfectionism, scrupulosity – rejoice in the good!

Video game example – don’t get so caught up in making plans that you never ‘just do it’!

Don’t blink!

Enjoy the process. Don’t try to do everything! Being available for your children and loving them are the most important things.

Age quod agis!

Age Quod Agis is an old Latin proverb that means “Do What You Are Doing.” I think this concept is both helpful and encouraging to homeschool moms who are trying to move fifteen different ways at once – often at the expense of being effective at accomplishing what truly needs to be done.

Fr. Thomas Dubay explained this concept quite beautifully:

Little children live intensely in the present moment, neither in the past nor in the future. As the French writer La Bruyre once put it, ‘Children have neither past nor future, but they have something we seldom have – they rejoice in the present.

This is the child-like trait which the New Testament would have us imitate. Age quod agis – literally, ‘do what you are doing’… The future does not yet exist and the past is gone forever. What we have is the present moment. By it we are fashioning our eternity.

Diversity of the Saints

One of the most beautiful and encouraging sources of reading for me as a mother has been the lives of the saints. Not only do the saints inspire me and show me how God works through people in every age of history, but they help me understand my children better. In the saints we find great diversity of background, personality and accomplishments. My child might drive me crazy at tines, but St. Augustine and St. Maximilian Kolbe drove their mothers crazy too! A good reason to hope! Some saints were great scholars like St. Dominic de Guzman and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Others lived simply to love God and others, and through God accomplished great things, such as St. Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. When we love our children and teach them what is good – even at great sacrifice to ourselves (and parenting does require sacrifice!) we help prepare them to follow the great and unique plans that God has in mind for them.

Confidence Issues

Story of the lady at Target (That’s one I happened to blog about a few years ago, so you can click through and read the story) – I’ve often found I’m more confident and prepared to help with others in need than to assess my own situation. This is partly because we need help from a mroe objective view and partly because God wants us to support each other!

Also, many times I’ve found that when I’m brave enough to share a problem *I’m* having with a friend, it turns out to be something that *they* really needed to talk about.

(Click here for an extra quote that I didn’t have at the time of the talk, but that is quite relevant.)

Concerning Messes

Kids are supposed to make messes – Life with kids is messy. Give ourselves (and others) a break. Some day your house will be cleaner – and you’ll probably miss the chaos, if not the mess. I often apologize to guests (especially if they’re younger homeschool moms) because our house “isn’t usually this clean!”

Aim and prioritize – cleanliness will never be the highest thing! Do what works for you and your family.

Purge and organize when overwhelmed (i.e. don’t just fight fires).

Keep it simple. Focus on decor that can hang on the wall (thus out of the way) rather than cluttering surfaces. Keep hair cuts simple. Donate clothes (especially kids’ clothes) that are hard to take care of.

A story about keeping it simple (a story from our own family):

One night, a few years ago, my youngest daughter, age 6 at the time, was playing with a wooden tower toy that had a ramp for little cars to roll down. Though she couldn’t find the cars, she did find a handful of dice and discovered that they slid down the ramp in a very satisfying way.

Trouble soon came in the form of her four year old brother, who wanted to play too. They were soon squabbling quite loudly over who had how many dice and who took whose dice from whom. The chaos was rather aggravating and I promptly took away all of the dice except for one for each of them and braced myself for the protests that were sure to follow.

But they never came. The change was like a light switch – all they really needed was just one each and the room was suddenly filled with giggles and squeals of delight as they took turns with the toy.

Not all of our family squabbles end so easily, but it was a great illustration for me of the beauty and delight of simplicity.

Distinguish between ideal and necessary. Each season of life provides different challenges and opportunities. Work on avoiding comparisonities and keeping up with the Joneses. A good example of an ideal is going to daily Mass. This happens to work well for me at this stage of my life, but certainly has not always been a possibility.

Take advantage of technology. Basic appliances, cordless phones and answering machines are your friends. Online or automatic bill-paying programs can also be really nice!

Aim to do the little things with love. I fell in love with the Morning Offering during the chaotic littles stage. It’s SO comforting to know that frazzly messes and chaotic tiredness aren’t pointless!

A little inspiring reading can go a long way. Stories of people overcoming difficulties (especially bringing good out of a bad situation) are comforting. Also, some of the family magazines out there that are meant for busy working moms have a lot of applicable stuff for us too! (After all, we’re working moms too!)

Don’t try to be efficient with your little people (or any people for that matter).

You [should] think effectiveness with people and efficiency with things… I see many parents, particularly mothers with small children, often frustrated in their desire to accomplish a lot because all they seem to do is meet the needs of little children all day. Remember, frustration is a function of our expectations, and our expectations are often a reflection of the social mirror rather than our own values and priorities. (Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)

Don’t do everything *for* your kids – give *them* a chance!

It can drive parents crazy when their young children constantly beg to do things for themselves. “Me do! Me do!” is their constant cry. While giving in to temper tantrums over such an issue is not recommended, allowing children to do these things and more for themselves is. Giving children a reasonable amount of responsbility builds confidence, competency and their sense of self-worth. In the long run, at least, it makes a parent’s job easier as well.

Maria Montessori explains this concept beautifully:

To teach a child to feed himself, to wash and dress himself, is a much more tedious and difficult work, calling for infinitely greater patience than feeding, washing and dressing the child one’s self. The former is the work of an educator, the latter is the easy and inferior work of a servant. Not only is it easier for the mother, but it is very dangerous for the child, since it closes the way and puts obstacles in the path of the life which is developing.

Further information:

This concept of not taking initiative away from the child is related to the Church’s “Principle of Subsidiarity”. You can read more about that in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1883.

Academic Sanity

Some tips for assessing/reassessing:

1. Distinguish between different subjects – What does your family learn well naturally (and can thus be left as is – i.e. don’t fix what’s not broken).

2. How to study a particular subject in general – For example, Math requires more order and regularity than literature.

3. Learn to recognize unnecessary conventions from the school system that don’t need to be applied at home.

4. Thinking about homeschool programs: These are helpful tools for some (for example, some moms tend to over-plan and a program can help keep things more reasonable) and an unnecessary stress for others. Each family is different!

5. It’s not all up to you. Some parents reject the involvement of other adults in their children’s lives because they believe it’s *their* job – but our Catholic faith teaches that community is important – and our children do need good mentors!

Playtime is essential:

A recent American Academy of Pediatrics study tells us that children’s development and important family time are being compromised by today’s hectic lifestyle. Modern society tells us that we need to pure more and more formal lessons and activities into our children’s lives in order for them to succeed. Give yourself permission to slow down as a family and keep that desire for efficiency in check when it comes to your children.

More Isn’t Always Better:

If a child finishes an entire school book on schedule, but remembers little or none of what is studied, he has accomplished very little. It’s much better to study less and learn it well.

Here are a few possibilities for adjusting your studies accordingly:

Measure a day’s or a week’s progress according to effort and time expended upon a subject rather than the number of pages completed.

Don’t latch onto formal work at the expense of the informal learning that fills in the cracks and makes formal learning easier and more delightful. For example, a child is read to and talked to and given an initial and very important grasp on the language (largely through communication with his family) before he learns formal reading skills.

For a subject like Science or History, split a textbook up into two or three years and study the material in greater depth. Supplement with excellent books and videos, visits to a museum and hands-on projects and experiments.

Many areas of learning can be handled more informally in grade school and more formally in high school – like Science and History.

Stealth Academics for Busy Moms

Prerequisites that seem to help these work in our family:

A. Limited TV and computer because they can be all-encompassing distractions.

B. Parental accessibility – e.g. floor time

C. Strong family interest in learning – kids are often interested when their parents are.

Story about the state Latin Convention and how our more informal style of learning tends to match up well against the schools we compete against.

Informal learning is both efficient and delightful (and can add up to a lot more than we tend to realize) – especially when initiated by the child. (c.f. Nurtureshock)

Stealth Academics list:

1. Board and Card Games (like Set) – tell story about the English from the Roots Up card game.

2. Audio Books (including those from librivox.com and audible.com)

3. Audio Academics (especially in the car) – like IEW Spelling, Power Glide Languages and Lyrical Life Science

4. DVD Courses and Educational Movies

5. Building or Construction Toys (like K’nex, Legos, Architecto) – good source: Timberdoodle

6. Art Supplies (simplicity tip about one nice set of Prismacolors)

7. Season pass for the zoo, living history museum, art museum, etc.

8. Service work!

9. Get enough sleep (c.f. NurtureShock and huge impact on academic scores)

10. Local community involvement and activities – including your parish and public library.

11. Pen pals

12. Pocket Atlases (and map puzzles) – bring on car rides and plane trips

13. Group classes and activities

14. Picture books

Story about picture books from our own family:

When the Vatican Collection went on display a few years ago, we visited the exhibit with a wonderful docent who knew all kinds of stories and symbolism behind the artifacts and really made the exhibit come alive. She was obviously well-read and when she started explaining a piece, she generally captured the attention of all those in the room. I was amazed and delighted to discover that when people asked her where to learn more about these things, she suggested that they turn to children’s books.

What a wonderful idea! There are loads of beautiful picture books, simple biographies and even coloring books available today that adults and children can learn from together. If you’re just starting out homeschooling your very young children, this is a great place to start. Children have a great capacity to enjoy such stories which gently introduce them to the realms of history, science, religion and much more.

For those with a broad age range, match some of these fun books up with your older children’s school studies and let everyone get involved!

Doing the Impossible

When you get to the point where you’ve developed some balance, perspective and a certain comfort with who you are – imperfections and all – you might suddenly find that you’re accomplishing amazing things that you never thought possible.

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