With the holidays approaching, I want to address a topic that can often create an issue among family gatherings. When relatives of all ages get together, it is not unusual for someone to ask your child, “What grade are you in?”

I haven’t figured out why that question is asked more often than “How old are you?,” but it seems like most people focus on “What grade are you in?”

Now, on the surface that may seem like a quick and easy question; but to many of us homeschoolers, there’s nothing quick and easy about it, because we don’t operate on a grade-level mentality. Homeschooling offers the advantage of teaching the child, not the curriculum. We have the freedom to customize our curriculum to fit each child’s unique strengths and struggles and to go at his individual pace. 

I didn’t tell my children what grades they were in, because our home school didn’t operate that way. Most of our subjects were done with all the ages together, because those subjects were topical, not skill-based. So we all studied the same history time period, for example, because it doesn’t matter whether you study the middle ages during fourth grade or sixth grade or ninth grade. It’s a topic. It doesn’t matter if you study Joplin or Monet or Longfellow in second grade or in tenth; those are topics. 

For skill-based subjects, like math and language arts, our home school operated on a “what’s next” mentality. When this child had grasped a particular skill, we would move on to the next skill and not worry about what grade-level number was attached to it. In fact, if a person asked what grade my child was in, I would reply, “In which subject?”

It’s only natural that a child will excel in certain subjects and move more slowly in others. We all do that, because we’re all unique persons. It makes no sense to try to fit every child of a certain age into the same exact level of learning in every subject. Grade levels are part of a system that is used for organizing thousands of children. Homeschooling doesn’t have to use that system. We have the freedom to focus on each child as a person and individualize his learning. 

But not everyone understands that concept or is comfortable with it. Sometimes an adult or even another student will use a grade level as a point of interrogation: “Oh, you’re in fifth grade. Are you studying _____?” or “Have you learned about _____?”

You may want to take a look at some past blog posts that give ideas for Dealing with Homeschool Critics in the Family and Explaining the Charlotte Mason Method to Your Relatives. But today, I want to focus on how those grade-level questions and interrogations can sometimes affect our children.

If your beautiful, Charlotte Mason, individualized, tailor-made homeschool curriculum doesn’t fit your relative’s idea of what should be taught and when, your child might find himself in a potentially awkward situation. And if enough people imply that you should have studied _____ by now, and you haven’t, it’s easy for doubts and insecurities to crop up. We deal with that issue even as adults; how much more so for a child! 

If that awkward situation happens repeatedly—if cousins or grandparents are continually wanting to pin a grade level onto your child with its accompanying expectations and assumptions—it’s only natural that your child might begin to feel uncomfortable and maybe a little “less than.” He knows he’s not measuring up to that relative’s expectations, and that’s rarely a good feeling.

We might do well to prepare our children for the holidays or other situations in which people ask that all-too-familiar question. I know some moms who tell their children their grade numbers just so they will have an answer, and that can be helpful for a quick response in a possibly awkward situation. But behind that quick answer, let’s make sure that our children understand why we don’t emphasize grade levels.

Recently I was talking with a homeschool mama whose children were having a difficult time dealing with this “grades” issue as they interacted with relatives and neighbors. She was concerned that her children were feeling inferior because they didn’t fit the standard system by which everybody else seems to judge a child’s education.

As I pondered that situation, a phrase occurred to me. It’s a phrase that I think we would do well to impress upon our children—all year round, but especially during the holidays. The phrase is “You are much more than a number.”

Any number assigned to you—whether age, height, weight, clothing size, or grade level—any number doesn’t do you justice. It doesn’t come anywhere near describing who you are. It doesn’t reveal your kind heart. It doesn’t showcase your creativity. It can’t communicate all of the effort you put forth. It doesn’t convey your interests and your passions. It’s not you. It’s just a number. You are much more than a number.

In a way, it’s like sitting down to a gourmet meal and focusing only on counting calories or macros. Those numbers tell you nothing about the whole picture of how the food looks and all of the flavors and textures involved in that experience.

In fact, you could use that example as a discussion starter with your child. You could prepare a special meal and set the table with extra care. Then as you are enjoying the food, talk about what all is included in that experience and how that bigger picture compares to focusing only on the number of calories or macros. That meal is much more than a number. 

If your child isn’t into fancy meals, you could draw the same comparison with a pair of shoes. Your child probably wouldn’t send you to the store and say, “Just grab me a pair of size 5, please.” No! There is much more to a pair of shoes than just the size. Shoes involve the color and the style, the comfort and the fit. Those shoes are much more than a number.

Or if your child is into cars, discuss the idea of focusing only on the horsepower and not looking at the paint job or the wheel covers or the air conditioning or all of the other features. A car is much more than a number.

“And you, my child, are much more than a number.”

Let’s make sure our children know that truth, and not just with their heads but deep inside their hearts.

Maybe you’re not used to giving affirming words to your child. It’s just not your personality. I understand. Yet think about how many things we do as parents that might feel uncomfortable to us but we do them because we know they are what our children need. 

Your child is listening to somebody. It might be that relative who is saying that he’s “less than.”

Your child needs to hear the truth from you. Say the words, and say them often:

You are much more than a number.


  1. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Thank you. This issue of my children responding to interrogating adults has been on my mind, and I appreciate your words of wisdom.

  2. Excellent. Thank you. I’ve told my kids to answer with their age, since, you’re right– that’s really what the person is asking. And I try to toss humor into my answer, laughing it off with, “Oh, you know how homeschooling goes… grades are a fuzzy concept.” But I’ve found that ignoring grades kinda came back to bite me when my kids hit high school. At that point, they really needed to claim a “grade level”, because being ambiguous didn’t fly for them any more. I, too, needed a bit more formality as I filled the role of high school counselor and record keeper. However, when they’re young, I completely agree that grade levels are unnecessary. (For that matter, when they’re young, I also think recording grades– as in scores– is unnecessary, too. But that’s a different topic.)

    Thanks for the verbiage as we head into holiday gatherings. I’m sure that will help your readers.

  3. This was such an encouraging article. Thank you for sharing this perspective. Also an interesting observation that most people will enquire about grade before age.
    Occasions where these scenarios happen could also be opportunities to learn about people and society, to have a discussion with children (age dependent, perhaps) about expectations in society and why they might happen, societal pressures etc. People will often shun or disregard (or even ridicule) things they are uncomfortable with, and this isn’t necessarily a reflection of who or what they are uncomfortable with but rather their own insecurities or belief system in relation to what they are uncomfortable with. These can be valuable insights to teach our children alongside the very important perspective that they are much more than a number. Thank you for sharing!

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