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Your Questions Answered: Charlotte Mason with a Large Family
Today I’ve asked two friends to join me: Laura Pitney and Jenn Faas. We’re going to be talking about the unique challenges of home schooling, Charlotte Mason style with a large family.
Sonya: So between all of us, we’ve got 14 kids?
Jenn: Sounds right.
Laura: Four, six, and four. Yep, good job.
Sonya: Jenn gets the trophy for the largest family here. But let’s talk about some of the ins and outs of doing home schooling Charlotte Mason style with a larger family. Jenn, do you want to lead off?
Jenn: Okay. Well, I was thinking about this topic and the first thing that comes to my mind is expectations. That’s something that I have had a difficult time with.
Sonya: Explain what you mean by “expectations.” From the kids? From yourself?
Jenn: From myself, I think. Maybe from the kids too; but mostly from myself and our home school. When we first start homeschooling, I think we all have this picture in our heads of what it’s going to look like. And with each child it becomes less and less.
Laura: Like a circus.
Jenn: Right, messy beautiful for sure. And wonderful. But definitely not that kind of idyllic picture of what you think your homeschool family is going to look like. My oldest is 18; my youngest is one. I just think the expectations that I have for myself in running the homeschool are high. Probably too high at times. So, I really have to stop and tell myself—or more often it’s my husband stopping and telling me—that when you have a lot of children and you’re managing all these multiple ages in your homeschool, it is difficult and it’s a lot. And it’s very unique. I was a public school teacher before I homeschooled my own children.
Sonya: And so that’s an “advantage,” everybody thinks.
Jenn: Everybody thinks.
Sonya: But . . .
Jenn: Oh, you have to relearn a lot of things.
Jenn: Advantageous in some ways, but definitely a disadvantage in others. But I often think running my homeschool now with six children—and they’re not all doing school yet!
Sonya: But you’re still managing all of them.
Jenn: You’re still managing all of them, right. It’s such a different challenge. Often times I feel like it’s much more difficult than teaching a classroom of almost 30 first graders. Teaching a classroom of almost 30 first graders is very difficult work, and I loved my time as a public school teacher. But it’s unique in that you just have a lot of ages and grade levels or forms to manage. When I was teaching school, I spent so much time on those lesson plans and making sure everything was just so. But now I’m trying to do that same thing for all of these different ages: for high school, for middle school, for elementary school, for a preschool-age child. So just managing our expectations is huge.
Jenn: My oldest is a senior in high school this year, and I’m still trying to manage those expectations. So for everybody reading this, I know it’s easier said than done; but we really do have to keep those expectations in mind and not be too hard on ourselves. I think homeschool moms are so hard on themselves, because we feel like everything is in our hands and everything, every decision, depends on us. And the reality of it is (I’ve heard this so many times) we’re building the hammock. And everybody worries about having holes in your curriculum. There are going to be holes, but that hammock is going to be strong enough to hold the children up. There’s holes all over it. You cannot teach them everything nor do we want to teach them everything.
Jenn: But we have to remember what that goal is. And that goal is the love of learning. We want them to care about what they’re learning. Because if we accomplish that goal, then moving forward, they’re going to want to continue their education. And that’s what we want.
Sonya: Yes, there will always be more things to learn.
Sonya: Every year, so much new!
Jenn: I’m learning with my kids every single year. So I think maybe reevaluating our goals and remembering why we are doing this in the first place. It’s not to teach them everything in their 18 years, and to do a perfect job of that and to have no holes. That’s not the goal. Now I have two high schoolers—I have a senior and a freshman—and so, things are starting to look a bit different. As you look forward, if the plan is for your child to go to college, things do start looking a bit different. And they do have to have some form of grades eventually. I always tell my older kids, “I don’t care what your grade is. I care that you learn this.” So just trying to instill that same goal in them and communicating that with them: “Yes, we do have to have grades, and that’s all going to work out and it’s going to be okay. But, I care that you know what you’re learning. And that you care about what you’re learning.” So having those discussions with them.
Sonya: I like what you said about making sure you stay in communication with each child. That has to be a challenge. I know it was a challenge with me with just four. Laura, what are some ways that you keep that one-on-one attention and communication? The more kids you have, the harder that is. You feel like you’re stretched pretty thin.
Laura: I definitely feel that way. Especially as we’ve crossed over from survival mode—of having babies and little ones—to where now parenting is a lot harder, because I’m a counselor, I’m a referee.
Sonya: Your youngest is . . .
Laura: Eight. Mine are real close together, so it’s like herding cats.
Sonya: Eight to thirteen?
Laura: Yes, eight to thirteen. So mine are kind of all clumped together, which is great as far as relationships go, because they do have a lot of common interests being that close together. Now practically, what I try to do is have certain school subjects that we do together as a family, because we can group the ages together. But once we do our family block, or our family time, I try to have one-on-one time with each kid for the subjects that need that one-on-one attention. And that’s also an opportunity where no other kids are necessarily involved. So it lends itself to conversations and relationship-type things. Not always, but there’s at least some time allotted one-on-one with each kid.
Sonya: So even though that time is during “school work,” you are open to discussing personal things.
Laura: Right, I am. And usually it comes out eventually, because they realize, “Hey, I’ve got mommy by herself, so, can I ask her about this” or “I really want to tell her about this.” I think one of the hard things that I’m going through right now is really having to guard our family time, our school hours. Those things should be the priority, but it’s easy to let them fall away because I’d rather be doing something else. So I’m really having to guard our family time and our commitments outside the home. I have one in choir, one in basketball, we have church stuff, we have a co-op group. So I try to take advantage of even car time. Even though I try to balance those things, because they are happening, I still try to take advantage of the moments I have with whatever kid I’m with. And so when you, Jenn, were just mentioning about expectations and knowing your goals, we’ve also (you and I) talked about how this year you’ve looked at each kid individually and decided, “Okay, if I could choose one thing for that specific kid that I can help that kid work on . . . . You know, that makes things seem so much more manageable.
Laura: I tend to be like All or Nothing. I’m thinking, “Oh, I totally messed up my kid and I’m just going to quit now.” When really they’re great kids. It’s just that I’m choosing to dwell on that character flaw or something I wish I had trained better.
Jenn: Well, I think it’s easier for all of us to see where we’re lacking than where we are doing a good job.
Sonya: So when you choose one focus, are you talking about a school subject or are you talking about a character issue habit?
Jenn: Well, I try to look at their school for the upcoming year and choose one school-focused goal for each child, one area that really needs my help and attention for that year. For example, my freshman in high school really needs some extra help with writing, what is needed from him in his written narrations and moving towards being able to write essays. That kind of thing. We’re moving in that direction. So that is my main focus for him this year. For each child I just look at, “OK, where is the biggest hole that needs to have a few strings going through there?”
Sonya: A little repair there.
Jenn: Yes. So what is that main focus for each kid? Because we can’t do it all. Now that doesn’t mean I’m not doing anything else. Of course, we are still trying our best in everything else. And having a plan, of course, is huge with a large family. But the plans definitely don’t always go as you plan for.
Laura: But to have one in place is important.
Jenn: To have one in place is important. But I just try to focus on that one thing that is my big goal for that child for that year. I would say another thing as far as not letting each child slip through the cracks: every morning after our morning prayer time, I try to ask my kids, “What do you need from me today?” (I did not make that up; I heard that from someone. I don’t remember where.) And that has been a big game changer when I started doing that. Because often times you have them coming to you throughout the day, and you may not have time to do what they need you to do. So asking them in the morning, “What do you need from me today?” helps them to focus and look at their day and sets me up for maybe a little bit more success.
Sonya: Yes. At least not to get blind-sided.
Jenn: Right. Then I know both Laura and I try to have dates with our kids and our husbands too.
Laura: Time management is really hard, because you feel like there’s not enough hours in the day to get it all done. But we have a habit of, usually Sunday nights, we look at our calendar for the week and we figure out who needs to be where and who’s driving who where.
Sonya: “We” as in you and your husband or your whole family?
Laura: My husband and I right now. We have all the kids’ events on our calendars. So just that communication of having, again, having that plan for the week. And then figuring out when we can have quality time: my husband and I, but also with each kid. And honestly, if we can just take one kid a week. I can’t get all of them in in a week. So even just having maybe a lunch break on Wednesdays. If we rotate through each kid, that’d be once a month that that kid gets a special time. So I think that’s one of my struggles: if I’m going to do something like that, I want to be able to do it all, versus remembering that once a month with one-on-one time for a special lunch date is better than nothing.
Sonya: That’s right.
Laura: So I’ve got to lower that expectation of being “Supermom,” because that’s out the window!
Jenn: Or thinking about it like even if you’re just going to the grocery store or going to . . .
Laura: Walk the dog.
Laura: Take a kid.
Jenn: Take one child and make that . . . it’s not that we’re going out to dinner or doing anything fancy. But we’re getting time together.
Sonya: With no agenda.
Jenn: Sometimes it’s just changing the way we’re looking at things.
Laura: That downtime. I know we’ve talked about that before: understanding that it’s okay to sit in a car with your child and you be the one that’s quiet. Because that gives them opportunity to talk.
Laura: Often times I feel like it’s my duty to manage everybody and everything and all that. But I’ve had to be purposeful to make myself be a better listener.
Laura: Because I can tell you all how to do what you need do!
Jenn: And it seems that the older ones always want to talk to you after the younger ones are in bed.
Laura: You’ve been telling me about that, and it’s happening.
Jenn: It’s happening now?
Laura: And I’m just like, “I love my children but I just want to go to bed.”
Jenn: Well, I do tell them that sometimes. My two oldest stay up later than the others, and there are some nights where I say, “I love you, but you have to go to bed now. We can’t talk anymore tonight.” But I try really hard. My husband and I have talked about it. We just have to let them talk, because that’s when things start coming out.
Sonya: When you talk about taking a kid out for lunch or taking a kid out to the grocery store, one of the big advantages of a large family is built in babysitters.
Sonya: Huge advantage.
Laura: Yes, that’s true.
Sonya: Because you can leave an older child home to watch over the others. With some of the younger, smaller families, that’s not possible.
Jenn: That is true.
Laura: I think it’s good to focus, when you have a larger family, that you’re a team. It’s teamwork. “We’re going to get school done, and then we’re going to get house chores done. And then, you know what? We have free time!” We’ve all worked together; we’ve all worked hard. So now, we’ve earned that “masterly inactivity” kind of afternoon.
Sonya: And with Charlotte Mason’s approach, you can do so many school subjects together. With your first grade classroom, Jenn, you had certain every subject for the first graders. And then the second graders had every subject separate, and then the third graders. And you don’t have to approach it that way.
Sonya: You can do so many subjects together as a family. Really just language arts and math need to be done separately. As the kids get older, they’re going to have more, like science will need to be done separately. Literature is always an interesting one, because we talk about doing a family read-aloud. And I often get questions: “I’ve got a huge age range; where do I focus? How do I pick the book?”
Sonya: I like to say, “Shoot for the middle.” But sometimes you’ve got . . . I had kind of two waves going. I had two with two years between, and then a four year gap, and then two more. So it was kind of two waves going. And often, I already had read the book to the older ones, but the younger ones hadn’t had a chance to hear it yet.
Sonya: Do you have any tips on that?
Jenn: I have some good, practical advice on that. Again, I picked this up somewhere, and this has been a game-changer for us. Now my oldest is doing some dual enrollment, and she just has some other activities going on and can drive herself—which is kind of amazing, actually. I wouldn’t have said that probably a year or two ago.—But I found myself having our read-aloud at lunch time, but then she was gone sometimes, so we wouldn’t read our read-aloud because we didn’t want her to miss anything. And then, I read or heard somewhere, someone gave me the idea to have more than one read-aloud going at a time. And this has been wonderful. Now we have a read-aloud that we’re doing when she’s home and then we have another read-aloud for when she’s gone. It’s something that she’s already read but the younger ones haven’t. So that’s been really, really wonderful.
Sonya: That’s brilliant.
Jenn: And also, for our family block time often—those things that we do together—our composer study and our poetry, those kind of things, because she’s gone a few days of the week when we’re doing that time. I just had a conversation with her at some point. It’s hard to give up that control and accept that she’s not going to be here for everything. I want to wait for her to be here; but she’s got a different level of school work now. So I had a conversation with her. “Okay, you’re home two of those days when we’re doing our family block time. Which things are the top on your list that you still want to be involved in?” She really wanted to do our music study and she really wanted to do Shakespeare. Those were her top two. So we still plan for those on the days that she’s home.
Sonya: That’s a great idea.
Jenn: So that way, she may not be getting everything anymore, but it helps to find those different ways of working around things. I feel like with a large family that is one thing. We have this plan, but I feel like the plan changes every six weeks. There’s always something in the dynamics of the family that’s changing. Or maybe you hear something, or you give me an idea. Being willing to tweak the plan is huge, I think.
Laura: One comment about the read-aloud. For us right now, I feel like my battle is just our busy schedule. I mean, honestly, I just feel like we have something every day out of the house. So, our family read-aloud is on Audible in the car. That’s the time I have, and the time we can do it. Nobody is going anywhere; we’re there. And it’s actually been really great, because we look forward to it. It makes the car time more bearable, I guess; because I feel like we just have so much going on.
Laura: I would live to curl up around the couch and read and enjoy that time, which we are able to do some of the times. But practically, right now, Audible in the car.
Jenn: But they’re going to remember that too. They’re making memories doing that.
Laura: Again, I have to tell myself, “It’s better than nothing.” I have to take advantage of what I can. It’s not necessarily always ideal, because like you’re saying, the plan changes.
Laura: And you know, a month from now we may not be in the car as much, so we will go back to our living room setting or our lunch time read-aloud. So I just think, like you’re saying, the flexibility of at least having a plan, knowing what the boundaries are for what you need to accomplish, and then adjusting with that.
Sonya: We’ve been talking about challenges, and you’ve given some great practical tips. I’d love to just, at the end here, brainstorm some of the blessings of doing CM with a large family. Because it’s really easy to get focused on the challenges and we forget about all the blessings. A couple that come to my mind are your younger kids are going to have narration models built in.
Sonya: If you’re doing this all together as a family, they’re going to hear those older, more experienced narrators, and it’s going to shape how well they try in their narrations and what they’re going toward. I think that’s huge.
Jenn: My four-year-old, I was putting him to bed the other night and I read him a bedtime story, and he asked if he could narrate it. He wants to narrate so badly! It’s really cute. And it’s amazing, they just all of a sudden know things. And you’re like, “Who taught you that?”
Sonya: Yes! You are thinking, “Okay, I need to be sure I teach so-and-so this,” and he already knows it.
Jenn: That’s right!
Sonya: Which is another blessing, that there’s such a great exchange of ideas in the narrations but also in the discussions, as the older kids are talking about what they’ve gotten out of the picture study or even the fact that your oldest loves the Shakespeare.
Jenn: Right, yes. Because those oldest, . . . I will say, it really does make a difference, those oldest kids. I think there is a burden on them for sure.
Jenn: I tell my oldest, “God chose you to be the oldest in this family, and He chose you for a reason.” Because they are looked at; they’re up on a pedestal by the younger kids. They really do set a precedent for the younger kids. So, it is really neat to see that, yes, she does have a love for Shakespeare; and the rest of my kids now think Shakespeare is the greatest thing ever. We go to the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta and it’s so much fun. They have some homeschool programs, so it’s just been a family culture now. Now all of my younger kids think Shakespeare is great. So that’s really neat to watch.
And I would say another thing is—just in the daily life setting up—we have buddies. My older ones will pair with a younger child, and they’ll help them do chores or they will help at clean up time and that kind of thing. That’s just a real practical thing, but it builds those bonds. I grew up an only child and always wanted a big family. And I had some friends when I was in high school that had a large family, and I thought it was the most fun to go to their house. I just loved it! It is just a messy beautiful thing. It for sure has its challenges. But it’s wonderful to watch all these kids. I think they’re able to have these bonds because they’re together every day, all day. And they just think that’s normal.
Sonya: I agree, those bonds that the kids form are so important, whether the older to the younger or the younger to the older. Now, large families it can be a challenge with the sibling relationships. But isn’t that one of the main reasons we are bringing them up in our homes. And having them there every day all day long . . .
Laura: Is not a bad thing!
Sonya: Some days it sure seems like it!
Laura: Okay, go ahead.
Sonya: Well, it seems like that just gives so much room for conflict. But it also gives room for conflict resolution.
Laura: Those are life lessons, for sure. Life lessons right there in our home. It’s so practical. And I’m glad I’m there for that, because I’d lots rather them be in the home hashing it out, figuring out how it should have been managed, and how we can manage it better. I mean, that’s what parenting is.
Jenn: It really is harder to be kind and to put all these virtues into practice, and these good habits that we’re trying to foster, it’s harder to put it into practice within your own family—the people that you’re with all day long every day—than it is to go out in the world and be kind to everyone else and treat them the way we know we’re supposed to.
Laura: Yes, that’s way easier, because the people in your home know you best and you know them best. So to be able to navigate those situations well is a good thing. And that is definitely an advantage to having a big family.
Sonya: What’s been coming to my head as we’ve been discussing is, we’ve talked about how it’s a real advantage that Charlotte Mason is not just a set curriculum, because that would really make it difficult if you had to adhere to exactly this, this, this, and this. But it is a group of methods and it is atmosphere, discipline, and life.
Sonya: And all the ways you have talked about—how you make the atmosphere of your home, and the discipline of the good habits, and the living ideas that are spread—that’s so flexible. No matter if you’re in the car, or if you have a huge family or if you have one child. It is applicable to so many situations. And that’s the beauty of Charlotte Mason! Thanks so much for sharing these great ideas and encouragement.
And I hope it’s been encouraging to all of you reading this post. Whether you have a large family or a small one, or you’re just researching or you don’t have any kids yet at all. You have so much to look forward to with the Charlotte Mason method!
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Thank you for this podcast. I have one question for Jenn. Every morning she asks each child “What do you need from me today?” What kinds of responses do her children give or what kind of responses is she looking for?
Thank you for your time.
Hi Kelly, when I ask my kids what they need from me, I get a wide range of responses. My oldest is currently dual enrolling at a local college and might tell me that she would like me to read over her English paper before she has to turn it in the next day. My fifteen year old may remind me that he has an extra rehearsal for the play that he is in and he doesn’t want me to forget. My twelve year old, who is an avid letter writer, may tell me that she needs me to get her an address or that she needs more stamps. My younger boys may remind me to do something with them that I have been putting off and they want to make sure it really happens! Occasionally, one of them will say that they need to talk to me later about something. Most of the time, they all say they don’t need anything. It is just a way of making sure they know I am available and that they have my attention. I think it makes them feel important and it sets a nice atmosphere for the day. I hope that is helpful!
Thank you Jenn, for taking the time to reply. I see this as a great blessing for our family. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you all, this is very helpful! I am a mom of 10 (2 graduated, so homeschooling 8 including a toddler.) I am trying my best to use the CM method, but am wondering about combining subjects like history and literature, I’ve found sometimes this causes boredom for the older kids, or is over the heads of the littles, also how do you work in the extra reading (and how much do you require) into the older kids’ schedules for those subjects? I’m trying to make things as simplified as possible, any suggestions?
Hi, Mary –
A big factor in combining the ages for history and literature is the book choice. As you said, you want something that will be interesting to the older and not lose the younger. There will be bits of the reading that might go over the heads of the littles, but there should be enough for them to picture in their mind’s eye and touch their emotions too. A good living book can be enjoyed by a wide age range. If you keep the family-combined lesson to only 20–30 minutes, it should not eat into the older students’ schedules much. Then their additional reading for history would be another 30-minute time slot or so. The schedule sample and Q&A in this post on “Scheduling with a High Schooler in the Mix” will give more details.
Including your high schoolers in the family-combined subjects can be a big help to the younger students, for they will be able to hear those more experienced narrations and have that model. It can also be a nice change of pace for the olders to hear an easier book (though still with good, meaty ideas) in one session of the day. However, do what will work best for your family. If combining history or literature is irritating your older students, feel free to allow them to do that work individually.
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