Sometimes homeschooling can feel like a lonely job. You’re doing your own thing within your four walls, and you never see anybody else. So it’s great that homeschoolers are forming communities. Today, we want to talk about some of the pros and cons and what that might look like, and joining me for that discussion is my friend Amber O’Neal Johnston.
Sonya: Amber, it’s good to have you back.
Amber: Thank you, so glad to be here.
Sonya: I know you have a lot of experience with communities.
Amber: I do. It’s something that we’ve been doing from the very beginning, but it’s looked different every year or two. So my family has always been a part of at least one community, but exactly which community that is changes over time.
Sonya: So how have they changed? What kind of communities have you belonged to? Let’s put it like that.
Amber: Well, when my kids were really young, I was mostly focused on play dates, so I was looking for groups of moms who were interested in meeting at the park and playing. Not that I never do that anymore, but I’m a little bit further away from that, because I only have one guy that is interested in that now. As time went on, I tended to look for what my family was into, and we would do more of that. At one point we were doing a nature group, and we would meet weekly and go on different trails and hikes and things. Those were things my family does enjoy, but our hikes were getting stale, and I wanted to experience more of what was in my area. I personally don’t feel comfortable during the day being out on the trails alone when I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing with my kids, and so I thought, “Well, let me meet up with other families, and we’ll all go out and explore some uncharted territory together.” So that year was really about finding new trails. That’s just one example.
There’ve been other times where I feel like I have a deficit in terms of teaching, and I’ll try to connect with other moms who are really good in that area and say, “Can I tag along with you?” We’ll end up having just a small group, maybe three families, maybe four families. That’s how my children were introduced to sloyd and watercolor and some of the other things, from meeting up with other families that were really good. They were jammin’ in those areas. I picked that as an opportunity for those years.
Sonya: I remember once, we teamed up with one other family because she was really good at foreign language, and so we had her doing the foreign language with my kids, and then she had me doing the hymn study and the music aspect of it with her kids, so it just worked really well. A lot of times when we have what call a deficit, or a weak area, our first instinct is often, “Well, what do I need to learn to shore that up? How can I get better in that?” And there’s something to be said for that, but sometimes it’s good, too, to say, “Who can help me with that?”
Amber: That’s been a huge part of our group, finding our groups and finding who our people are at a place in time. It’s interesting, I find both end up happening. So I’m going lean in to this other mother, and I’ll share what I’m good at with her children, and she’ll share with my children. But watching someone else teach my children something that I’m not familiar with has made me better at teaching that subject and given me more confidence as well. Sometimes you just need to be able to watch how someone else does something that you don’t know anything about. That’s been really fun, but this year we’re not doing that. This year I was like, “Well, let’s stay closer to home and focus on some of the projects.” We’re really going deeply in some of our handicrafts. My tween is really into some of her things and wanted some time to just explore without having to leave the house or having to be somewhere at a certain time. So we pulled back in that area, but we’ve leaned in to what I’ll call micro-local community. We live in an area where the traffic is horrendous, and so even somebody who’s not that far away, it can take a really long time to get to them. I really started focusing on my hyper-local community, and I ended up forming a group based on that. That is the need it’s fulfilling. We can get to people quickly, other homeschoolers, for a dash-in hangout and dash back home without feeling like we have to commit to an entire day.
Sonya: As you were talking about looking and watching other moms teach your kids, it seems like we can glean and gain so much from this community with other people, because it’s not just the skills or the content, but you’re also learning from who that person is and how she interacts with her own children and some of her past experiences. You have a chance to get to know her as a person, and you’re learning from her character as well. So I can see a lot of ways that these connections with people can benefit us and our children. What are some other ways that you’ve seen these communities add to your family, add to your children?
Amber: To piggyback on what you just said, I’ve definitely benefitted from getting to know the mom, her character, and how she’s pouring into her family and mine. I have a specific instance where being able to build relationships with other women was helpful for one of my children. So it’s going to seem like a petty thing, but it was a big deal to my daughter that I was buying her clothes that she did not want to wear. I have a certain style in my mind of little girl clothes, and she was like, “I don’t want to wear those little girl clothes. I want to pick my own clothes.” We were having some friction there. It was really interesting to me one day when a friend pulled me aside and she’s like, “Hey, can I talk to you about something?” And I was like, “Okay.” She said, “You know, your daughter came and told me that you made her wear this today, and that’s kind of why she’s been in a little sullen mood. We talked about it a little bit, and I want to share some of the things that she shared with me.” And she did, and it was eye opening for me. She said, “Would you ever consider letting her pick her own clothes?” And I’m like, “Yes, in fact, I would.” It felt good for me to have a peer come alongside me and give me a different way to reframe some friction I’d been having with my daughter, and I know that she was able to go to her because of the time we had spent together in these groups. So there is a level of mentorship that can occur between the mothers and children across families. That’s something you can’t plan, you can’t pay for. It’s something that is only born from time spent together. That would definitely be a benefit. Sometimes as a homeschoolers, we’re so used to doing everything exactly the way we want it.
Sonya: Isn’t that why we choose to homeschool? [laughs]
Amber: Yes. And I’m like, so maybe we could be, we’re like that a little bit sometimes. And what I’ve seen with my children, though, is they’re use to everything catering to exactly where they are. “Oh, you’re really into art right now. I will take you, and we’ll dive deeply into these experiences.” “Oh, you’re really into music,” or “you want to be on this math competition team,” or whatever it is, and I find that when we’re in a group, sometimes it’s “We’re not going to do exactly what you want to do today. We’re going to do what the group is doing today, and maybe you’ll learn something from it or maybe you’ll just accept it and you’ll go with it and work on having a good attitude about doing something that someone else is passionate about today.” I find that we didn’t have that many opportunities for that when we were staying home more, and being in a group has done that for the children, and quite honestly, for me too. There are times when I’m with the group and I’m like, “Oh, okay, that’s what we’re doing today.” But it’s good for me as well, because I can get stuck in that, too. I’m the homeschool mom, I’m in charge of everything, I make all the decisions, and sometimes, you know what, I need to go with the flow. That’s another benefit of being part of a group and learning to be flexible and gracious when things aren’t exactly the way that you want them to be.
Sonya: That’s a good point. And sometimes we feel like our kids get enough practice with that if we have more than one child, but it’s not the same.
Amber: No, it’s different outside of the family. My children, thankfully, do not speak to other people outside of the family that way, and they tend to be more patient with people outside of the family than they are with their siblings, and also they’re having to deal with people who don’t know them so intimately. So my children can sometimes push each other’s buttons. Outside, there isn’t an assumption that someone’s pushing your buttons. They’re just being themselves, and you need to figure out how relationships work, the give and take and that push and pull, working and doing something alongside someone who doesn’t know you and isn’t pushing your buttons, they’re just being themselves, and you need to work with that.
Sonya: When you were talking about the different types of groups that you’ve been a part of over the years, it sounds like you’re not getting locked in where “this is the type of group we’re going to do, and we’re going to do it for all the years we’re homeschooling, that’s it.” Some of the change and the freedom to change in those groups comes from your family, as their needs change, as the kids grow older.
Amber: Yes, I basically reevaluate our groups and what we’re going to participate in the beginning of each year. There’s sometimes shifting even during the year if something’s not working or I find out about something that I think would be good for us, but typically I’m making a decision and committing to a group for a year at a time, and sometimes I find that we don’t need that particular group anymore. And oftentimes we’re taking the friendships that were forged there, and now those friendships are so solidified that they no longer need to revolve around a set time and place. Sometimes it’s that we kind of got what we were going to get out of that. We’ve moved several times, even within our Metro area, so what was hyper-local is no longer hyper-local. I don’t like to drive, so that is a driver for me. Sometimes finances have driven what we’re participating in in a given year. And also what we’re focusing on with our school lessons. I may want to go deeply into one certain type of group because I know I’m not going as deeply there at home with my lessons this year, or vice versa. I want to lean into something because we’re going for it this year, we’re going to do this thing, and I may want to lean into that with the support of a group. So I try to look at it, I do try to commit for a year, but I don’t feel stuck with that. I do think continuity helps because of the relationship-forming, but our group situation changes every year, and also, sometimes you have to let go of something in order to pull something else in, because otherwise you have too much of a good thing.
Sonya: It sounds like you’re using groups as another resource option rather than a dependency: “I have to have this or I’m a bad mommy” or “I have to do this for other reasons. No matter what it looks like we have to have this.” When you get into that dependency mindset, it’s easy to, as you said, overload.
Amber: That’s it. And I think that, for me, I’m looking to see how can these groups that I may choose to be in (or maybe it’s just one group, some years it’s more than one group), How is that enhancing our program, our family, and what we’re trying to achieve, our goals, versus the group centering, and then me fitting other things around it?
Sonya: That’s a key, right there.
Amber: It’s a difference, it’s a shift. So I look at, “This is our family, this is what we’re doing. Where can we plug in with groups that are going to help build on that?” Sometimes when you plan everything around the group itself, if things don’t go well in the group or your expectations aren’t met, if the group fails or something else happens, you can start to feel like, “Now my homeschooling’s messed up.” Everything collapsed because the core collapsed. I would recommend that the core be home, and that the groups can come and go and “nice to have, but if I don’t, that’s okay, too.” It really helps in terms of maintaining consistency for the kids, and for your mental health in terms of whether the you’re feeling successful and confident about your homeschooling.
Sonya: Sometimes, if you go to the other extreme where we are centering everything around this group, that the group is the main thing, it’s easy to start adding in other groups, like, “This one’s going to be the main thing for the social aspect, and this one’s going to be the main thing for the literature aspect, and I’m going add this one in for the nature study aspect,” and then you spend your whole week running here and there.
Amber: And you’re never home for the homeschooling. That can happen very easily, particularly with Charlotte Mason families, because we are doing our short lessons, and because our children do have opportunities to pursue passions and afternoon occupations. We see white space on our calendars, or our schedules, and feel like, “Oh, look at all of this I can fill up!” When we do that, we have a couple of things. One, we’re not home for our lessons, and so you have a temptation to jam pack and try to do more or make the lessons longer than they ought to be, or do more than what should fit into a day, because you’re still trying to do all the things, but you’re rarely home.
Sonya: And you’re pushing your kids, “Come on, let’s get this done. Come on, come on, we have to leave.”
Amber: Then you’re wondering, “Okay, what am I really doing?” The other thought, a problem that I’ve seen creep up with me, and I’m glad that I noticed it, is that that actually isn’t white space. That is a time, it’s an intentional time for the children to be pursuing things that interested them during their morning lessons or things that they would like to go deeper into. And so what looks like free time on my calendar is taken up with scheduled activities, even good ones, then I actually am taking away from part of the Charlotte Mason lessons. Does that make sense?
Sonya: Absolutely. That reminds me of a book I recently was reading, how it’s so easy in today’s culture to never have time alone with your own thoughts, because we have so much information always coming at us. And if we have any white space, perceived white space on our calendar, we usually whip out our phone and look for someone else’s thoughts to come at us. It’s so easy for us to then project that idea on our children and never give them time to be alone with their thoughts as well, but it’s so important as part of their education. Charlotte talked about that the feast we’re spreading is the same as a food feast for the body. We’re spreading a feast for the mind. And just as you give the children time with a food feast—they eat it, they take what they are ready for, and then they give their body time to digest it—it’s the same thing with the mind. We’re spreading this feast and letting them take what they’re ready for. We’ve got to give them time to process it.
Amber: That’s so true. I’m a dietician, so you’re speaking to my heart right now. That’s part of my past life. But it’s really true, and I think one of the gifts we can give our children as mothers is to help them protect what they may not realize is a gift. Because some children have a bent, I know I was like that, to want to go and do and do and do and do. It helps if we can help them have those opportunities, those “do nothing” times. It takes intention.
Sonya: You might have to guide them as to “What do I do in this unstructured time?”
Amber: Right. I remember in the beginning having a list of things to do in your time when you’re not doing anything, and at first I was like, “This is so peculiar. I feel like I’m prescribing,” and I said it. “But she needs this. She’s asking me. She doesn’t know, ‘What do I do right now?'” So I had this list, “When you feel that way, go over to this list on the wall and look at all the different avenues you might be able to take.” Now I don’t need the list anymore. You have to have a lot of open time, and groups can easily suck that up. The other thing that I’ve fallen prey to is thinking, “Oh, this group only meets on Tuesdays from 1 to 3.” No, because now you have to pack a lunch because the kids are eating in the car on the way there, and you have the commute and set up time, and then you don’t leave at 3:01. You’re outside talking and then the kids are playing, and then you’re on your way home. You didn’t prep dinner and it backs up, and now bedtime’s later. It’s never 1 to 3. Again, that doesn’t mean I don’t do groups, but I’m much more realistic now to say that if we’re leaving the house this day, that’s about it. We might get some things done earlier, but once we come home, the day’s kaput. So I need to be realistic about what that means for our family schedule.
Sonya: That’s a good point. Knowing that, and that experience, helps you make those choices and those decisions about which groups are going to enhance your core studies in your home during this particular season of life.
Amber: Definitely. And one more thing I was thinking, we were talking about the children, but I remember a couple of years ago, I was in a mom’s group. So it had nothing to do with the children. We met once a month at night, and that was a totally different aspect. That was a homeschooling group, but it was for me. And so you have those opportunities as well.
Sonya: Those can be invigorating and helpful to parents to keep going, to keep learning for themselves, but you also need to put that in perspective. When you say yes to something, you’re saying no to something else.
Amber: Well, that’s it. I was in it for two years. Great group. I still recommend it to other people, but I’m not in it now, because I started to covet my evenings, and I started to have more pre-reading and more prep for lessons, and I find that the evening before I need to be home. That’s just where I am right now in this season. So even for the children, there are seasons for this and a season for that, and for the parents as well. Slowing down and not just grasping at every good group—there are so many good ones. Thankfully, the homeschooling community is growing. We have choices now, and it’s important to take some time to think about it, seeing how that group fits into the rest of your plans for the term or for the school year, and talking to your kids, talking to your spouse, and see kind of where you land.
Amber: You’re welcome.