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How to work and homeschool—advice from someone who's done it

Parents: What we are being asked to do is not humanly possible. There is a reason we are either a working parent, or a stay-at-home parent, or a part-time working parent. Working, parenting, and teaching are three different jobs that cannot be done at the same time. It's not hard because you are doing it wrong, it's hard because it's too much. Do the best you can.

Emily W. King, Ph.D.

Years ago, I was working on a magazine article about big banks buying small ones. I had begged the PR rep of a multi-billion-dollar bank holding company to get me 20 minutes on the phone with the executive in charge of acquisitions. Finally I got the interview and was in the middle of the call with this very self-important man when my newly potty-trained child woke up from his nap, toddled into the bathroom next to my office, and started yelling: "Mama! Can you wipe my bottom?"

When my kids were young, I homeschooled and worked part-time from home. It was a walk in the park compared to what thousands of parents are being expected to do now, thanks to COVID-19. I did not have to homeschool in the midst of a pandemic while holding down a full-time role or job hunting. I did not have to go to extraordinary lengths to get groceries or sanitize my mail. I was not afraid that if my kids got sick or hurt they couldn’t go to a doctor or hospital. And my kids could easily go outside and visit public places. I chose to homeschool whereas parents of young children today are thrust into it, dealing with kids who are simultaneously untethered and confined, underfoot and off schedule.

However, I did learn a thing or two that might help other parents get through this a little bit easier.

I chose to homeschool whereas parents of young children today are thrust into it, dealing with kids who are simultaneously untethered and confined, underfoot and off schedule.

Breaking the rules

The first thing is about fear of failure. I have both homeschooled and had my kids in school. The oldest only had one year of “school” before college. The other two went to one of the top academic high schools in Austin, Texas, where the teachers put a lot of pressure on attendance, indicating that if my kids weren’t in class every day, stressing about college and grades, they were doomed. To what, I’m still not sure, but it was going to be bad. What I knew, that the school didn’t know, was that my kids had spent the first decade of their lives in a form of schooling that could only be described as “freestyle.” And while they weren’t in contention to be valedictorian—partly because that wasn’t a goal we were focused on—they were keeping up fine. Later, they would have semesters on the honor roll. They would all graduate from college and have meaningful work in arenas they love and be creative problem solvers in all the areas of their lives.

I was not a “good” homeschooler, by most accounts. Other homeschool moms had elaborate curriculums, regimented schedules, workbooks, and stickers. Many acquired cast-off schoolroom desks and posters. They basically tried to replicate “school” in their own homes. I was the only one I knew who had to work, and I was also the only single mom. We literally had whole weeks when I was slammed with work and nothing resembling school occurred. My children wandered around barefoot like feral cats, living off Tombstone pizza. I am not sure if I ever taught any of them to diagram a sentence because that process never made sense to me. They never took tests. I got super distracted by teaching them things they would never be asked—

My children wandered around barefoot like feral cats, living off Tombstone pizza. I am not sure if I ever taught any of them to diagram a sentence because that process never made sense to me.

Though “school” wasn’t always on the menu, building their brains and learning was. I tried to motivate them in ways I thought would resonate. For example, every time we watched an action movie, I pointed out that people like James Bond and Jason Bourne use chemistry to create explosions out of whatever is handy; they use knowledge of history to navigate tunnels in ancient cities; physics to escape bad guys; cultural literacy, languages, math...it’s kind of amazing when you start noticing. I think parents often know best how to motivate their children and it isn’t something prescribed—it’s individual to the kid. I was able to do that with my kids, each of whom was motivated differently.

[Related read: Designing call centers for empathy—can it be done?]

There’s value in (and a method to) “unschooling”

Someone explained to me that what I was doing during those structureless parts of my children’s lives wasn’t just failing, it could be framed as “unschooling.” Unschooling is basically letting a kid learn whatever draws their attention, which often leads to them becoming lifelong learners who are very good at managing themselves. There has been a lot of research on unschooling and, since it’s not a science, the results are mixed. But many adults who went through it expressed appreciation for the freedom it gave them and the ability to direct their own lives and choices. They felt it made them more competent in adulthood.

As one author argued for the benefits of unschooling, teaching kids in a classroom can be like living off the food in the frozen section at the supermarket—it’s highly processed, packaged, and homogenous. It has to be to help a diverse group of kids reach competency to a predetermined set of standards. While schools and teachers can do an amazing job, simply having to work to those standards can kill curiosity. If a child’s imagination is sparked by something tangential in the lesson, a teacher may not be able to derail the lesson plan for that one kid. But at home, a child can pursue a line of inquiry to their hearts’ content. While I worked, my kids spent their time making Rube Goldberg machines, writing songs, reading about mythology, and building Hobbiton out of dirt, sticks, leaves, rocks, and moss, among other things.

I pointed out that people like James Bond and Jason Bourne use chemistry to create explosions out of whatever is handy; they use knowledge of history to navigate tunnels in ancient cities; physics to escape bad guys; cultural literacy, languages, math...it's kind of amazing when you start noticing.

When they got older, my kids wanted to go to school. I worried about how they would do, but within a semester, they had figured out how school worked and caught up. So when I was presented with the narrative that kids had to cling to the track for survival, I knew better. Having stuff to study from school might be really good for kids’ sense of continuity in the midst of the craziness that is Coronavirus. And if it’s helping with everyone’s mental health to do so, great. But if it’s derailing mental health, or making it impossible to get your work done, all is not lost if you just let them unschool a little.

Pandemic-edition unschooling isn’t about releasing kids on their own recognizance to talk on the phone with friends or wander into the sketchier areas of the internet. In order to not get crabby and weird, they have to have their brains engaged. I learned this one day when I really needed uninterrupted time and let my kids watch whatever they wanted. They binged on the kind of vapid shows I normally forbade: like the ones where uber-attractive teens vie for popularity, make dumb jokes, and wind up with a saccharine message about friendship; or the ones that paint it as “normal” for kids to be mean to each other. Instead of being amused and sated, after watching these shows they were bored and bickering. I realized that junk entertainment has the same impact as junk food: Donuts and crap TV should make you happy, but they don’t.

That day, I still needed time, so I picked the next show: Gandhi. Three hours later, when my story was turned in, I had dinner with three kids who were very thoughtful, and we talked about racism, imperialism, and peaceful protest. It was like a solid meal after a day of cookies and it made us all feel better.

These days, the readily-available educational resources are mind boggling. There are a million apps and games to teach everything from coding to Hindi. YouTube can teach kids to dance or drum or bake. They might want to study martial arts, history, or anime or build a computer. There are virtual museum tours, the entire Planet Earth series, Brian Greene’s stuff on physics and the universe, historical movies like Lincoln, Hidden Figures, The King’s Speech, Apollo 13, and a weird and wonderful resurgence of love for Bob Ross. There are programs like GarageBand and iMovie where kids can make their own movies and music and all kinds of art. And for little people, everything from pillow forts to making up your own dance to Baby Shark counts as learning.

[Related read: Harness the power of parenting at work]

"But I’m boooooorrrred…”

Boredom has something in common with black holes. Once upon a time, physicists believed that black holes were destructive forces that just devoured all light and matter and threatened the universe. Then they realized that these bottomless pits of darkness are actually the birthplace of galaxies.

“Being bored has become this frightening and dreaded experience to which we parents must respond immediately,” writes therapist Nancy Colier. “Boredom is not up to a kid to figure out anymore, it’s a parent’s issue and a parent’s problem. Boredom is a state that our children shouldn’t have to endure, and allowing our kids to experience it, not taking it seriously, might even be a sign of parental neglect. As we mistakenly imagine it, boredom is a case of a moment not fully lived, a moment deprived of interest.”

But despite that prevailing fear many parents share, research shows that boredom can be good for us. It’s a moment of rest from constant stimulation. And when it becomes uncomfortable, it forces us to think of solutions—which often results in creativity.

But despite that prevailing fear many parents share, research shows that boredom can be good for us.

According to Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, giving a kid lots of unsupervised hours when they have to find their own entertainment is the birthplace from which a child learns they can devise their own entertainment, find their own solutions, create something from their own imaginations—all skills that are considered crucial for work in the future.

Obviously kids might not be as excited about the research praising boredom as you are, but if boredom comes with the freedom to pursue what they’re interested in, they might receive it better. And if they just can’t reconcile with the boredom, you can always assign them busywork or chores to ease their pain. Works like a charm.

[Related read: Preserving the parent connection in the age of distraction]

Everybody does their part

One of my favorite books I read to my kids was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter—part of the Little House on the Prairie series. It’s her least fun book, all about the year when the Ingalls family was snowed in for months in the Dakotas, unable to get food or firewood because the supply trains kept being buried in snow. It was about how they worked together, twisting straw into fodder for the fire even though their hands were dry and cracked; and about how they survived on very little food. The lesson was, when things are hard, everybody has to work to make it easier for each other. Nobody gets to fall apart because it makes everyone else work that much harder. This is one of those times. For many of us, this global event will be a defining moment that shapes how we live the rest of our lives—like the Great Depression and Vietnam shaped generations before. The data that we consume and produce, for school and for work, will probably be subsumed by new data in short order. But there will be lessons that last forever, like how to get through tough times in a loving way where everyone pitches in. Those are the lessons that matter.