Home Education Magazine
January-February 1999 - Articles
Interview with Marty Layne
Homeschooling mother Marty Layne, of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, has written The most interesting, encouraging, and thought-provoking books on homeschooling we've seen in many years. Marty has a perspective on homeschooling - and mothering - that we can all learn from, and she shares her unique perspective freely and openly with her readers. This is a book to savor, to linger over, to read and reread and to share with friends.
When did you first hear about homeschooling, and did it seem like a good idea at the time, or was it something you needed to think about, to grow into?
Let me start by saying that I am 50 years old. That means that I was a teen-ager from June 1961 to June 1968. Those were times when the United States was faced with two large issues involving freedom. These political issues of the times - civil rights and the war in Vietnam - were part of the air I breathed. I spent my teen years questioning just how a country devoted to "liberty and justice for all" could be a country divided by race. I was appalled by the response to those who opposed the war in Vietnam and the violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. I read a lot during those years to clarify what freedom and democracy meant; accountability, integrity, and honesty were also concepts I tried to understand in a political context. I did some small things to help migrant workers and inner city children through volunteer church programs and the work I did. I participated in peace marches and sit-ins. That's one strand of my background.
My personal background is another strand. My parents immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands in 1956, when I was 8 years old. We were "Aliens" (that's what immigrants to the U.S. are called). In other words, we were different. My parents viewed what was happening at that time in the U.S. (the McCarthy era) with a different perspective. They felt both a sense of personal freedom (from the restrictions of their family expectations) by moving to a different country and utter surprise at the restrictions of the new country they had immigrated to.
My experience with education is yet another strand. I did quite well in school, being in the "accelerated stream" in high school. After graduation, I just could not cope with all the hoops I had to go through to finish college. It all seemed so irrelevant, so needlessly caught up in negative judgments and endless power struggles. I had a few good teachers and I thrived in their courses. Unfortunately, I found many of the teachers and courses at the three different universities I went to very unsatisfying and boring. I didn't like paying to be bored, so I decided to quit and began working again.
My personality braids these three strands together. Many other people were teens during the 60s, many others were immigrants and grew up "differently" from the society around them. Others had varying degrees of satisfaction with public and post high school education, but not very many began to homeschool their children in the early 80s. I braided those different strands together the way I did because I like children. I like observing them, I like being with them, I like listening to them and watching them learn and grow. Most of the paid work I did before becoming a mother was with children, especially young children.
As I wrote in the first chapter of my book, I worked as a teacher's aide in a first grade classroom from January to June of 1969. During those 6 months I began to read about elementary school aged children and schools. John Holt's work, especially How Children Learn, published in 1967, appealed to me. John Holt really liked children, and he could observe them as they played and learn from what he observed.
I decided that, if I ever had children, I would not send them to school. In 1971, I met a woman who was homeschooling her children, and I was pleased to meet someone doing this. I was intrigued by her family and how they homeschooled.
How did your husband feel about the idea?
When my husband and I had our first child in 1977, we already knew that we would not send him to school. This was an intellectual decision. After I had my first child, the decision to homeschool was also an emotional and spiritual decision. Although I had enjoyed working with children before being a mother, I had no idea how much I would love my own children, how much joy and delight my babies would bring into my life. I loved being with my babies as they grew into children. It wasn't all easy - there were many difficult times. Living with children calls for honesty, integrity, and awareness. I had a lot of learning to do to become the kind of mother I wanted to be, to create the kind of atmosphere I wanted my children to grow up in, but that work has been and continues to be more valuable than anything else I have ever done. I can't imagine my life if my children had gone to school.
Is there anything in particular, something special, about homeschooling that appeals to you, your husband, or your children?
Yes. A couple of things. First is the freedom to find suitable ways to help a child learn the skills needed to thrive in our world. As I mentioned above, freedom, integrity, honesty, and accountability were prominent background issues during my teenage years. (I moved to Canada in 1970 because I could no longer in good conscience live in the U.S. during the war in Vietnam. This is not to say that Canada doesn't have it's own political problems.)
Second is the opportunity to build close relationships with one's children and for the children to build close relationships with each other because of the time one has as a homeschooling family. Time is probably the greatest blessing of homeschooling. Time to work at a child's pace, time to read aloud, time to play, time to just sit and think, time to learn about each other.
Tell us about your family.
My husband is an elementary school teacher. When we met he was teaching in junior high, grades 7-9. Now he teaches a grade 4/5 split class. He has always been a supporter and proponent of homeschooling. He is an unusual teacher and uses many materials instead of text books to teach the children in his class. Although people are often surprised to learn that my husband is a teacher and that we homeschool, it has always made perfect sense to us. Who better than a teacher to see the drawbacks of school?
Our oldest son, Josh, is 21. He's a professional musician, a harpist. He has self produced two classical solo harp CDs and one cassette of popular and classical solo harp music. You can visit his web page at http://members.home.net/lbstudio/
Noah is 19 and a visual artist. He painted Josh's hands and a portrait of Josh for his CDs. Robin is 16 and is also a professional musician. He plays the marimba and other percussion instruments. Holly is 13 and a dancer.
Everyone in our family follows a slightly different schedule. We eat supper together, but other meals are fixed by each person at various times throughout the day. It tends to be rather quiet here, in the mornings. We all seem to get livelier as evening rolls around. Music is practiced throughout the day. Noah draws and/or paints every day.
Holly practices her dance. We all read at various times. I do errands and try to convince someone to come with me because I enjoy my children's company. I find that it is as important now as ever before for me to be home and available. The conversations we have don't take place at predictable times. They often happen just because I am available and someone begins to talk to me. Soon others drift into the room and we end up all talking and sharing our thoughts. Since we acquired a computer in August of '97 (which I used to complete my book), my sons have enjoyed playing games on the internet. Whenever Them plays, he usually has a peanut gallery audience of a brother or sister who gives comments and suggestions.
We live in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. That's on the Southern tip of Vancouver Island, near Seattle. Victoria is the capital of the province of British Columbia. British Columbia has very simple requirements for homeschooling. One needs to register one's child with a school - it can be public or private. That's all except, of course, one must provide one's child with an education. However, homeschoolers are not asked to demonstrate their children's progress or their competence as teachers by required testing. Homeschoolers are basically left alone unless they ask for services from a school, such as textbooks, participation in school related events, or educational testing services.
Our city is fairly clean and public transportation is used by people from all walks of life. We are a multi-cultural city with English roots and a large immigrant population from the Pacific Rim. I love the beaches and the views of the mountain ranges that we have. Sometimes as I drive downtown to take Holly to a dance class, I feel like someone has pulled down one of those backdrop pictures of snowy mountains that portrait photographers use. Seals swim in the waters in the bays, whales are sometimes seen as one travels the ferry to the mainland. The natural beauty around me feeds my soul and gives me a sense of calm. I find it vital to be near the water for my sanity. I know that oceans are polluted and that the air we breathe is not as clean as I would like, but when I walk to the beach or when I took my young children to the beach when they were little, the knots of tension in my body and mind would unwind by inhaling the beauty around me. I speak about this in my chapter on burn-out. I feel fortunate to live in such a beautiful place.
We have a very short time of real winter weather (it rains more than it snows), and a long spring and fall when it rains a lot. Summers can be dry and warm, but never really hot. We have all that cold Pacific ocean water to keep it cool. Flowers grow in abundance in public and private gardens. I love the beauty that is created by all the hanging flower baskets downtown, the flowers in the parks, and the flowers people put in their yards. It is a gardener's paradise. And it makes me feel hopeful to realize that a number of people in allotment gardens all over the city try to grow their food without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Our municipality has an extensive recycling facility, including curbside recycling pick-ups and restrictions to what can go in the garbage cans. All of these things contribute to my feeling good about where I live.
Your book cover says you're a former La Leche League Leader, farmer, day-care center director, and nursery school teacher. Obviously this background would influence your ideas on children, teaching, and learning. Can you talk about how these experiences - or others - affected your thoughts on homeschooling, and/or your insights on children and learning?
My years as a self-sufficient farmer in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia were a time of reading and hard work. I read a lot about nursing babies, indigenous people and their approach to child rearing, more books about children and education, and many psychology and nutrition books, as well as novels. The time in Cape Breton was a time of great anguish and great reward. I set my own agenda, as a farmer doesn't work by the clock, she works by what needs to be done and does it until it is finished. During the winters, I had a lot of time to think about what I was reading and time to play with my dogs, cats, horse and goats. I loved this time of not being tied to a rhythm set by clocks but by the demands of the season and the animals we had. It was great preparation for being a mother at home with small children. But my marriage crumbled. After a while, I met my present husband and the father of my children.
We moved every year for the first five years of Josh's life. My husband was my main friend and support system. And of course, my two little boys were there to play with, cook with, and read stories to. They were difficult and good years. I learned a lot about mothering through experience.
By the time we moved to Victoria, I was ready to interact with more people. I began to attend La Leche League meetings regularly in 1982 when our third son, Robin, was a few weeks old. I was so excited to find other women who took pleasure in meeting the needs of their babies and toddlers, and liked their children. This organization gave me new directions for my reading and gave me practical information about attachment parenting that I found very helpful. I already understood the basics of attachment parenting, I needed some place to practice it and other people who appreciated the effort of doing so. I found that my involvement with La Leche League strengthened my ability to make the changes I wanted to make in my responses to my boys when they got into fights or drove me over the edge.
It was also a place where I could contribute, where my perceptions and thoughts about mothering and childbearing were valued, where I could use and improve my skills as a listener and teacher. Another thing that was important to me while being involved with La Leche League was that it gave me a place to act in a political way, supporting women who chose to breastfeed their babies. As I was politically aware at a young age, I had struggled to find ways to do something meaningful about the many things that I saw needed to be changed in the world. La Leche League gave me a chance to do this by sharing my experiences and thereby helping other women who wanted to change the way they were raising their families.
I was in charge of the 260 volunteer Leaders of British Columbia and the Yukon from 1989-1992. During that time, I honed my writing skills as I had to write articles for a newsletter and many letters to Leaders in various parts of this large geographical area. As I did this work, my understanding of how people learn matured. I came to understand and accept that people can only acquire new information a small bit at a time.
La Leche League's continued focus on the needs of a baby for it's mother as well as a mother's need for her baby encourages me. One of my hopes is to someday write a book about the seven founding mothers of La Leche League and how their mother-to-mother breastfeeding support changed the face of infant feeding practices through out the world. As a La Leche League Leader I felt I was in a small way undoing the damage that my culture had done to those in Third World countries by undermining breastfeeding. Those seven women have had a profound effect on me that has led to my recognizing the value of sharing personal experience to institute change, slowly, one mother at a time.
The back cover text for your book says it is "as much about establishing good relationships with children as educating them." Would you discuss that idea a little? Specifically, don't all caring parents seek to establish good relationships with their children? Isn't it simply a part of good parenting, or did you have something else in mind?
Yes, that's right, establishing good relationships with children is important to all parents. My hope in putting that quote on the back of my book was to encourage parents who are not considering homeschooling to also read my book. Many of the people who have read my book tell me that it is the parenting, the mothering information that they find the most valuable. One woman said in her review that she almost wished that the title were Learning at Home: A Mother's Guide without the homeschooling so that more parents would read it whatever their choice of education for their children.
Every parent wants to establish good relationships with their children whether they are homeschooling or not. The things that can make mothering and homeschooling so special is that one has time to spend with one's children. We get to know our children as they grow. We watch them as they learn to master all kinds of skills from reading to riding bikes or driving a car. There is an intimacy we share that comes from sheer time spent together in everyday things like cooking a meal or raking leaves.
The more separation there is the more difficult it is to have this opportunity to learn through doing. This is difficult to understand for those who have had a lot of separation from their children. They have no picture of anything else. Of course they interact with their children when they are together, but they often have no way to picture a more extensive amount of time together.
I think The most difficult issues facing parents is how to make the time to get to know who their children are. Many children have no one who really knows them. For many children, a teacher knows more about them than their own parents. This seems sad to me.
What made you decide to write a book about homeschooling?
I wanted to share my view of the importance of mothering when one homeschools. I wrote it because many homeschooling books are written by men, and women do most of the work of homeschooling. I wanted to share my struggles as well as my delights so that other women could read it and feel that they, too, could do this if they wanted to. I wrote the book that I would have loved to read when my children were young. One that describes the worries and anxieties as well as the satisfactions.
I also wanted to encourage those who wanted to try it but weren't sure how to start and those who had doubts about their abilities to do it. I wanted to give them assurance that it's possible, that one does not need a college degree to teach one's child to read or do basic math. One does need a willingness to learn from observing one's child and the curiosity to discover new ways to teach a child who is struggling. I wanted to give readers concrete examples of how one could homeschool without defining how it must be done.
I sometimes feel very giddy with joy that my book is in print. Other times, the backs of my arms prickle with the realization that I wrote a book and people are reading it and "Aargh, what if they make a decision based on my book and it messes up their lives." I also feel those prickles because writing the book has made me and my family visible. Then I receive a letter or phone call from someone who has read my book and I am thrilled because they tell me that what I wrote has made a positive difference in their lives.
Your book includes a chapter on burnout. Can you identify some typical causes, and talk a little about how parents might be able to avoid, or at least alleviate, this problem?
I'd say that the main cause of burn-out is expecting too much of oneself and not being in touch with one's own emotions. Our emotions are powerful and very basic. Young children live in a world of emotions and bring us back into this world of emotions. This gives us a chance to learn how to use emotions in positive ways rather than be used by them, as we help our children find safe, suitable ways to express their emotions. This can be very stressful if one has been burying emotions since childhood.
Doing and expecting too much is the other main source of stress. I have met people who signed their children up for so many educational activities that both parents and children became exhausted. Those who have read my book and have given me feedback frequently remark on how helpful my chapter on burn-out was to help them re-evaluate what they were doing and why.
There is a Zen Buddhist saying "Before enlightenment, fetch wood and carry water. After enlightenment, fetch wood and carry water." In other words, no matter what our state of mind, we must provide for our physical existence. The awareness we bring to each moment as we engage in these tasks of daily life can brings us a new perspective. That awareness of the moment - say by looking into our child's eyes or taking a deep breath - can bring about a sense of peace and calm. Slowing down seems to me to be the most important stress-reliever.
In your book you state, "I think the world can use as many creative and original thinkers as possible. People who can see around what has always been done to find new ways to do things are in short supply." This seems like an important point. Would you talk a little about why you think original thinkers are in short supply, and how we can encourage our children to be more creative?
The most difficult times for many parents is when a child of three or four begins (and never seems to stop) asking "Why?" One can go to extremes in response to this constant questioning by either answering each question a child asks with great detail or never answering the questions asked. Finding a happy medium that works for both parent and child requires time and patience.
When my children were at that stage, I often found their questions intriguing. They led me to re-examine the presumptions I had acquired about how things work, how they should work, and why they worked.
What I find so delightful in two to five year olds, is their willingness to share their perceptions of the world. Let's take the example of the proliferation of Christmas decorations in stores as the Christmas season approaches. A three year old's memories won't be very clear about what happens at this time of year because he/she is so little. The three year old notices that all of a sudden the stores are filled with lights and sparkles. People decorate their houses. People seem to smile at each other in a new way. Some people seem to be very grouchy. Something is different. A child's questions about why this is happening helps us to see this with fresh eyes. As we search for answers suitable for our child, we discover how we feel about Christmas, and we may notice things we never did before.
As our children grow older, and as we continue to help them find answers to their questions, we discover that there are many ways to think and to sort information. When we take our children's questions seriously, we validate their curiosity and encourage them to think things through. This helps them to create their own unique viewpoint based on their experience.
If we give our children permission, support, and encouragement to see things in their own way, we will find out all sorts of interesting things. We see that the world is much fuller and richer and more diverse than we might have suspected. Children who have been nurtured in this way can become creative adult thinkers. People who invent things or solve problems are people who are not caught up in the trap of assuming that what is, is the only way it can be. You can't solve a problem by continually going over old ground, you have to add something new to it. Often, that something new is just a different perspective.
Creativity can make some people uncomfortable. It may mean that dearly held beliefs are challenged or shown to be incorrect. Creativity and originality are not necessarily rewarded, although we like to think they are. Creativity is messy and can be chaotic. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, as the saying goes. The same way with raising creative children. Some of our preconceived notions of how homeschooling works will bite the dust. But, as one lives with children who are alive, and vibrant, and curious, one begins to enjoy the process of discovery and finding things out.
I was especially drawn to one passage from the introduction to your book, where you talk about it taking three years to write your book because you were writing in what you term "mother time." You wrote: "In Western culture, freedom from child caring responsibilities is often seen as the best and only way for a mother to continue to develop herself. I couldn't disagree more." Would you share your thoughts on this idea?
I am glad to know that you were drawn to this passage. We have all lost a lot by the assumption that women can only reach their full potential as human beings if they separate from their children. As I see mothers returning to work to pursue careers and leaving their children in day care, I think of something I read years ago about life behind the Iron Curtain. A group of women asked the person who was writing the book, "Why would women in the Western world want someone else to raise their children?" The women in Russia had no choice. Their children were raised by the state in day care centers while they went to work.
For a multitude of reasons, our whole culture has come to believe that raising children is not as "important" for women as entering the work force and having a career. The time that I have spent and continue to spend as a mother at home with my children has been an incredible time of growth and learning. I could never have done this any other way. Raising children and helping them learn at home has been deeply fulfilling.
The world changes one person at a time. A mother can exert influence by the way she mothers for many generations to come. Just as in the Christian Bible it states that "The sins of the fathers are visited on the sons for seven generations," so are the blessings. The things that we have done right are passed on. Each of us can make a little difference. We can show our children love in a slightly more effective way than our own parents did. If we do so, then our children can build on that and go on to do the same in their lives. The point of the wedge of change is invisible but continues to grow wider and wider. I think the way we mother our children is like that - difficult to see at the beginning, but bigger with time. What other work can give a person as much variety and opportunity to explore different interests? What other work has as much influence on the future?
©1999, Helen Hegener
Learning at Home: A Mother's Guide to Homeschooling, can be ordered from the author at Sea Change Publications, 1850 San Lorenzo Ave., Victoria, B.C. V8N 2E9 Canada. For those in the United States the cost is $11.95 (U.S. funds) plus $2 (U.S. funds) for shipping. For those in Canada: $15.95 Canadian plus $2 Canadian for shipping. If ordering from overseas please pay in U.S. funds.: $11.95 plus $3.50 U.S. for shipping. Check out Marty's website at: http://members.home.net/seachangepublications/
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