Home Education Magazine
May-June 1998 - Articles
When Dad Homeschools: from Breadwinning to Baking - Jim Dunn
As the primary homeschooling parent for my nine-year-old daughter, I am not your regular dad. Even among homeschoolers nationally, I am one of only .5% of primary caregivers who are fathers. Fathers as full-time care givers are pretty scarce, but far fewer are full-time homeschooling dads. This is not surprising, if we consider the father's place in our culture. Dad has a fairly ambiguous position in the family, on the one hand the breadwinner, the one whose income is counted on, the one with the most earning power. But on the other hand, this role outside the family removes him from much of the family's daily growth processes. His integrity in the family depends upon his absence.
A large body of literature, for instance, tries to help dad bridge the gap he feels in his connections with the family, from ways to play with his children to ways of overcoming his discomfort with their sexuality. His tenuous cultural status can be seen in the comics section of the newspaper. Like Calvin's dad or Dennis the Menace's dad or even Dagwood, he is often a buffoon intermittently connected to the needs of his children and family. For a man to place himself in the home on a full-time basis turns cultural assumptions on their head, but for him to take on the task of full-time homeschooling forces him to re-evaluate his own assumptions. The processes of the home replace his role as breadwinner, and as homeschooling itself will, his new work brings into question the reality of his old world. More importantly, for the dad to take up homeschooling full time is for him to take an unambiguous, if unfamiliar, place in the middle of the family.
In the years I have been full-time homeschooling I have gone through sea changes spiritually and pedagogically. I have slowed down a lot, for instance, delighting in being with children, in the spirit of play. It could be said that I have taken up the spirit of play over a past effort at being serious. I had long considered play as the more encompassing of spirits, as you can play at being serious, but if you are serious you can't play. To put this aphorism into practice, however, was no easy task, and certainly not the work of a day or a week, but of years.
Leaving my own work as a breadwinner in the great world has challenged me on a number of levels. I have been forced to confront my old behavior and habitual thinking. I have had to reexamine my relationships with those I love and my place in the world as well as my role as teacher. Relearning myself has meant relearning to teach.
After almost twenty years of teaching in the classroom, I have had to relearn learning. Some of my retraining has followed principles that I had ascribed to intellectually, but had no opportunity to practice. These principles is that good teachers follow their student, and indeed it is The pedagogical reasons we decided to homeschool, to give our daughter an interest-based education.
By the time our only child, Tianli, was born I was already fully convinced of the dumbing effect of the classroom assignment and the boredom created by the syllabus. When I could follow my students interests, the class cooked. But when it came to my own daughter, my anxieties overwhelmed my good sense.
In Tianli's first year of homeschooling I had to confront the contradiction I felt about what was worth learning and the conflicting need to follow Tianli's interests. I found myself directing indirectly, the way I had learned to coerce a college class into doing what I wanted them to do. Asking questions contrived to lead students to the neat trap you have prepared for them had always seemed necessary, if a tad sleazy. But unlike my former students' need for three credits, my daughter had no reason to put up with my academic dishonesty and she began early to rebel against my covert direction.
Many mornings I would try to direct her by offering choices. "Would you like to do this or that," became, as I would grow more frustrated, "What would you like to do," and as I became more frustrated, she became more resistant, antagonistic, argumentative, non cooperating. After trying to manipulate her with threats of possible sanctions, I would leave the room to cool down. I would drive myself fuming stupid, and each of these incidents would drive Tianli farther away from homeschooling.
One such morning I went back to her room after calming myself down, and I said, "Ok, let's start the day over. Do you want to play with me?" Right away she suggested that we sew. I got out my sewing kit and followed her directions about what she wanted to create, a heart made of beads sewn to a piece of fabric. We did this for a while, and after taking a break to play baseball, at her suggestion, we returned to the project, which she finished.
As we worked I repeatedly asked her which beads she wanted and how it should go. I marveled aloud at how she was doing the whole thing herself, design and execution. After lunch I read her a kids' complaint column about parents in a homeschooling magazine. She enjoyed that. It was the beginning of my learning to follow my "student," and I had learned something about the open-ended question. More importantly, Tianli was learning something about how to lead, and this would regularly bring me to look critically at myself.
It is very hard to let go of the need to lead your child, and perhaps this is more true for men than women. When Tianli wanted to learn keyboard, I once again fell into putting pressure on her to conform to what I thought were the necessary behaviors: practice, exercises, reading music. I tried again to lead her indirectly, not really demanding that she do the "work" so much as nagging her about wasting money and respecting, of all things, her teacher's work. After a couple of months of this sort of dishonesty and building frustration, I gave up. Once I stopped trying to coerce her, her interests in music expanded to other instruments with which she played but did not play. She didn't give up the keyboard, but she gave it much less time, stopped measuring her progress, and started exploring the guitar and later the banjo. My own anxiety, however, in my need to gauge progress, would again threaten to smother her interests.
Tianli had taken up the banjo, because her uncle had given her a fretless wooden one he had made. Her interest had come after some work with the guitar, for which I had mistakenly enrolled her in lessons. Essentially, the lessons watered her spark of interest, as they were very boring, plunk-plunk practice. The guitar lessons had driven her bonkers, so she decided very reasonably to quit the note plunking and go her own way of learning chords and singing. This is again a story of my learning not to lead, as my fear of dilettantism had brought me to imagine her to be making "progress." Because I wanted her advanced and "showable," for my own emotional purposes, I could not see myself, or her learning style, clearly. So, I kept on pushing.
One night after dinner, on the day Tianli had decided not to continue her boring guitar lessons, we stayed home with plans of singing and strumming together. Tianli brought her banjo, on which she had learned two chords and two songs from the beginning banjo workbook.
Instead of staying with her banjo workbook, singing the two songs she had learned, I trotted out the song book Rise up Singing, which contains songs too difficult for someone who only knows two chords. I kept insisting, however, that she was able to play the songs we were singing because they only used the two chords she had learned. After her frustration grew from trying to cooperate with my plan, Tianli's angry and vociferous response was that I had not taught her what she needed to know to do what I was asking her. In fact, she went berserk at my inability to judge where she was and what she needed. She knew how she learned, but I had once again forgotten. After some short contemplation though, I admitted that indeed she was right, I had made another mistake.
Learning to act like a crane fishing, quietly standing on one leg, as if asleep, as if not wanting fish, has been my task as a homeschooling dad. These moments of come-uppance, when I am convinced I am right at first, only to discover on further thought that I was trying to drag my daughter away from her own learning, are the moments when I learn the most. These are moments I find my daughter and my place with her. My task is to be still, to be with her quietly. I have learned, too slowly it seems to me, that to rub her back when she is frustrated is far more helpful than solving her immediate problem.
She was writing a story once, while I sat beside her occasionally giving her the spelling of a word or reminding her of what she had planned or decided in the plot and characters.
She had reached a level of difficulty at which she was losing control of the elements she had to manipulate in the story. She could not write fast enough to keep up with the thoughts that were slipping through her mind. I saw her as she insisted on keeping her handwriting and spelling neat and correct, while at the same time she was working with the difficult task of narration and characterization.
Once again I fell back on my professorial behavior, urging her to abandon her concerns with neatness and spelling. I kept telling her that she should do as most writers do, just get the elements down in any way at all, then go back to it and rearrange, revise, copy, and adjust. I was trying to tell her how to write as if she had to believe me or even as if she understood my own experience in writing.
I was locked into my own righteousness you might say, because the more she refused to listen to my advice, the more frustrated I saw her getting, the more indignant I became. My feelings were taken over by an old rectitude, something I have come to associate with my man-training, that if this benighted person was not willing to take good, correct advice from the expert in these matters, then she could just go pot. Let her succumb to her own frustrations that she might see the wisdom of the true way; this sentiment was on the verge of lifting me up to stomp righteously away, to somewhere I would probably have calmed down enough to return and apologize for abandoning her.
Instead of succumbing to the old behavior though, I put my hand gently on her back, shut my mouth, and sympathized with her feelings. I gave up trying to solve her problem, and this made all the difference. Perhaps what I learned is that our bond is more important than the task at hand or certainly more important than progress.
Stick-to-itiveness and other old saws have surprised me in their ability to get in my way as I learn to homeschool. I have had to abandon the model of the graph, the gradient, or incremental improvement. A more dynamically recursive model is closer to Tianli's learning style. By recursive I mean that she will shift from one interest to another and these interests and foci feed into each other so that she revisits where she was in the earlier study of something, connecting and comparing. Diversion and indirection are closer to describing a real learning model, rather than assembly and design. But in her going back and forth, around and around, the struggle for me is to disregard my learned fear of play, to turn off my frivolous-editor, to allow her interest and enjoyment to grow and blossom.
My training as a man and as a teacher have prepared me not a whit for the task of patient observation and calm companionship my daughter needs. In contrast, I have been rewarded and encouraged to intervene, to fix, to design the solution, to critically evaluate. These skills have some limited use and may be very helpful in situations like auto repair or woodworking, but I have come to suspect that they are generally counterproductive in the world of human relationships. They are of almost no use in tasks like gardening, which may be the best metaphor for the task I face in homeschooling, where organic process, rather than logic and extrusion, is the primary dynamic. It is the difference between obstetrics and midwifery.
I often reflect that this organic metaphor model of teaching and learning is especially difficult for men, who have learned to rely primarily on the mechanical model in most things. Interpersonal relations, for example, from a man's point of view are often seen as running smoothly or not, and if they are not running smoothly, he may try to fix them. More often than not, in response to the complaint of a loved one that something is not well, a man will try to define the problem in order to fix it.
In an organic model, however, the best thing to do is nothing but be there, to watch and to offer support. Organic growth is slow and it is not as easily delineated or predicted as change in a mechanical model. So, men in particular must set themselves to learn the lessons of organic change, to be quietly with change, to observe, not to interfere, and to follow. In such a case, silence may be wisdom.
In terms of homeschooling, to stick with a model of predictable and directed change in a child's learning, I would argue, is to be restricted to a critical analysis that finally will misunderstand the value of error. The great value of mistakes is that they have a logic, and to discover the logic of error is to understand the child's learning process. The alternative is to take what might be called the red-pencil approach. Like an old-fashioned composition teacher culling a paper for spelling mistakes, an emphasis on correcting mistakes restricts a child's ability to learn from them. The learner's concern is changed from expression to avoidance of error. To quietly observe the patterns of error, instead, can provide the learner and the parent with a dynamic picture of learning strategies and goals.
By perceiving my own mistakes and misunderstandings I arrive at new perceptions and definitions of economic and social roles. "Working for a living" and "bringing home the bacon," for instance, take on new meanings in my home-centered world. The dominant culture's definition of supporting a family is exclusively oriented toward the market place. But, I know now that real family support is invisible to the market. I have slipped out of the economic world and into the invisible economy of household maintenance and child care. Without the invisible support that the wage-earner needs to stay on the job, however, the visible economy of the market place would be brought to a halt.
I believe once most men were to perceive and understand the vegetal world of a growing child, they would not want to return to the narrow definition of support that isolates them from their family. My new meaning in "supporting the family" has helped to resolve my ambiguous and sometimes contradictory role as dad. But, this is not a matter of personal choice when our economy dictates the absence of dad. The economy still pays women less for equal work, in most cases requiring dad to be the main breadwinner. This economic imbalance would not only cheat me of my place in the family and underpay my wife, but my daughter's expectation of equal treatment will eventually hit the wall of being paid one third less than her male colleagues. We must question our assumptions about bread winning when they allow us to accept unequal values. At the heart of the need to bring dad home is the need to pay women equally.
©1998, Jim Dunn
Read more about Homeschooling, Homeschooling Dads, Becoming a Homeschooling Father and being a Home School Father
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