Your Questions Answered: Common CM Homeschool Mistakes

Recently, Sonya Shafer and Laura Pitney and Karen Smith sat down to discuss this question:

What are one or two (or three, four, whichever we get to) common homeschool mistakes that get in the way of success with the Charlotte Mason methods?

Laura: I think we’ve all been there, right?

Sonya: We have made mistakes—at least, I have. I don’t know about you.

Karen (smiling): A few.

Sonya: And we talk to a lot of people in the booth and help them with some mistakes they might have been blind to or need help with. One that comes to mind that I hear quite often is that they try to cram too many books into each day. They think that Charlotte Mason is all about living books, which is a hallmark, but then they think they need to read six or seven books each day. If you look at Charlotte’s schedule, it’s not like that at all—especially in the younger grades. They were only reading from two books a day, maybe three at the most in those younger grades. So that’s one mistake I often see. And the other thing (I don’t know how long you have here. I’ll just keep talking.)—but the other thing along with trying to cram too many books in a day is that it can push aside a lot of other things that are of importance, like picture study, music study, all of those other subjects that don’t use books. And cramming all of that into the day . . . okay, I’m going to move on to my second mistake. Is that okay?

Laura: Okay.

Sonya (to Karen, laughing): You don’t have anything to say yet, right?

Karen (laughing): Nothing.

Sonya: I’ll just get mine done, then you can take the floor. The other thing is if you focus so much on the book reading and the academics, it’s easy to also push aside the character training and the habit training that needs to take place. So those all kind of go hand in hand, I guess.

Laura: Yes, kind of getting lost in the academics versus seeing the whole person and the things that we can instruct that are outside of those school hours.

Sonya: And even in the school hours. Because so much of education—we are educating a person, and two-thirds of that is the atmosphere we set and the discipline of the good habits. It’s all a big package. We’re not just dumping stuff into their mind.

Laura: Right. So finding the right balance with the books and the habit training, that would be a way to counteract that natural mistake that we see a lot.

Sonya: Yes, I think so. Just keeping in mind the whole person and not going overboard on the number of books that you try to read during the day. That’s where it all started.

Laura: We know that there are some book lists out there that are miles long, that say Do this, do this, do this.

Sonya: There are so many good book lists, but the temptation is, “I’ve got to do all of it every day.” It’s a good thing there are so many good books, but don’t try to do it all.

Laura: All right, Karen, let’s hear some words of wisdom here. We’re ready.

Karen: I think one that I see quite often is trying to make the education fun for the child and not requiring the child to do the work that you know that child can do or even raising the bar just a little bit and ask a little bit more of the child. Education can be fun, but it’s not about being fun. Sometimes they have to buckle down and do the work.

Sonya: A lot of Charlotte Mason methods are what I would call enjoyable.

Karen: Yes. Enjoyable is different, though, than being fun.

Sonya: I would agree. It’s not like we’re the entertainer.

Karen: Exactly.

Sonya: If the child is not giggling and saying “Mommy, I want to do more,” then we failed.

Karen: Right.

Sonya: That’s not necessarily the case.

Laura: So what would you say to the mom that would feel discouraged thinking that maybe her children won’t like her anymore? What would you say to that? Because I feel like that’s kind of the root of that emotion: we want our children to love the education, to love the books, but that means that they either like us or don’t like us. We take it personally.

Karen: I agree, but when you are wearing the mom hat and your child doesn’t obey, do you try to appease the child or do you make the child obey because you know that’s what’s right? And do we worry then about if our child will like us or not?

Laura: Yes, a good thing to reflect on.

Karen: It’s the same type of thing. And sometimes children respect us more if we make them do what they know they can do, rather than appeasing them.

Sonya: It’s kind of like the best kind of love, that thinking love that Charlotte talked about. That it’s not just doing whatever makes the child happy, but it’s giving the child what is best. And as you said, we have to remove our personal feelings about that sometimes, knowing that we are doing this out of love. And as Karen said, sometimes we’re also helping the child not just do what they know they can do, but do, sometimes, more than they think they can do.

Karen: Stretch them a little bit, so they learn that they can do a little bit more.

Sonya: “I am, I can . . ..”

Laura: So with that thought in mind, that sometimes as moms/teachers, we kind of let our emotions get in things, I started thinking about mistakes that I have seen when we’ve been in the booth traveling or on forums, that kind of thing. And one mistake I feel like I have seen a lot is that when we decide to home school, we think we have to have all our ducks in a row, or we have to have our act together, like we know what we’re doing.

Karen: Everything organized just perfectly.

Laura: Right. I think that that’s a mistake to think that way, because we’re,—honestly, I feel like we’re setting us up for failure. Because who of us have our ducks in a row?

Sonya: I’m not raising my hand! (to Karen) Are you raising your hand?

Karen: Or you never get started.

Laura: Correct.

Karen: Because it’s never the way you want it.

Laura: Right. Well, I feel like there’s this misconception that “I have to have my act together, because I’m deciding to homeschool and educate my children. Because if I don’t, it’s going to look badly towards the homeschooling idea. Or I have friends and family that are against homeschooling, so I’m afraid I’m going to dig a pit, and they’re just going to see that I’m not worthy of it.” So I feel like there’s a lot of emotions attached to that side of things, when really, it’s about loving our children enough to give them the best of ourselves and what we can give them. And they’re going to see that we’re learning alongside of them. We’re going to try it, and we’re going to attempt it; and if it doesn’t work, we’re going to try the next thing, and we’re going to keep evolving and adjusting. So I think the mistake is thinking that once we have it together, it stays that way. No.

Karen: It’s always changing.

Laura: And that’s okay.

Sonya: It’s life.

Karen: And I think, if you’re just starting out, sometimes the beginning of the school year or maybe you’re just starting homeschooling, it’s better to get a few things going well to begin with and add in more as you become more comfortable than it is to try to do everything at once and fail miserably.

Laura: Yes, setting yourself up for success in that way.

Karen: Yes.

Laura: The other common mistake that I feel like has crossed my path is that you should never ask for help. That you decided to homeschool, therefore you do it. You handle it. You figure it out, that kind of thing. I know, personally, that has come to light in my own life, that it’s okay to ask for help. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing; I don’t know what to do next. And when you stop and think about the good resources that are around you—friends that have been doing this for years, online resources, like we mentioned before, forums (which I know, Karen, you’re a huge part of our forum)—so to think about that you can stop and ask for help, and that’s okay. What would y’all say to that?

Karen: Sometimes asking your husband for help, just a listening ear sometimes is all you need as you work things out in your own mind. You just need someone to listen at times. Sometimes you don’t know What am I going to do next? What are the options?, and asking a more experienced homeschooler who’s already been down that road is a good way to get information, so you can make a better decision for your family.

Laura: Yes.

Sonya: Another mistake, that came to mind when you mentioned that, is pushing our children to learn something or to tackle something when they’re younger—too early, let’s say. For example, starting with English grammar in first grade. That’s not the Charlotte Mason approach. And requiring written narrations or even requiring the child to do copywork before they can read.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: They have no clue what they’re doing. If they’re learning one letter, that’s fine, but requiring them to do a whole sentence that they do not know what it says. Things like that. You’re feeling the pressure, sometimes from these other people, or from yourself—because we all know What’s the number one fear when you start to homeschool?

Karen: You’re going to fail your children.

Sonya: I’m going to ruin my child. That’s the number one fear. We hear it all the time. We had it ourselves when we started. So sometimes that pressure, either that we put on ourselves or from other people, makes us want to just push them. As we were talking earlier about You can do more than you think you can; well, there’s also a balance there. It’s not pushing them to do more than they should, especially in a Charlotte Mason approach.

Karen: It’s not pushing them to do things that are not age appropriate.

Sonya: Yes.

Karen: But stretching the child within that child’s abilities.

Laura: Yes, for sure.

Sonya: And Charlotte had good reasons for delaying some of those studies until the children were older. It just makes total sense when you study child development and the layering of how she taught things. It all works out; it does make sense. But often I see that mistake that they’re pushing a little too hard too soon.

Laura: All right, so I’m going to ask you a question. Are you ready?

Sonya: Maybe. (to Karen) Are we ready?

Laura: I know you’re scared.

Sonya: Here we go.

Laura: So how long have you two been friends? Give me like an estimated years.

Sonya: About 30 years?

Karen: 30 years.

Laura: I’m guessing that y’all have probably helped each other through some of these common mistakes. Whether they were the ones we mentioned or other ones that were related to y’all personally.

Sonya: No, we never talk about homeschooling. (Laughs.)

Karen: Yes!

Sonya: When we started out, we both were going to dive into doing Charlotte Mason, and we were the only two in our vicinity that we knew who was doing Charlotte Mason. We did not know anyone else, and so we kind of helped each other along as we were learning things and stayed in touch all these years.

Karen: We didn’t have the internet.

Sonya: We didn’t, that’s true.

Karen: So we really did have to figure it out on our own a lot without the resources that are available today to moms.

Laura: So what advice would you give to a mom who just realized, ” You know what, I have been making some mistakes and I need to break that mold. I need to make some changes,” but yet she’s just feeling kind of defeated. What would you say to that mom?

Sonya: Number one, I would say, give yourself some grace.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: None of us has it all together. And we make mistakes all the way along, if not the ones we mentioned, we make other ones. The mistakes are often the best learning opportunity. Once you recognize that mistake, then don’t waste your time beating yourself up over it, find out what the solution is or what solution will best fit your family and take the first step. Don’t think, “I have to fix all of this. I have to do it perfectly. I have to do it now.” You know, go from here to here and be perfect at it. Just take the next step and you’ll be heading in the right direction. That’s the big thing. (to Karen) What would you say?

Karen: I’m pretty much like what you said. Re-evaluate what you’re doing. If it’s that you’re pushing some of the academics too soon for a child, back off on that and just set those aside for awhile. If you’re . . .

Sonya: Reading too many books in a day . . .

Karen: Choose the ones that everybody’s enjoying the most and continue with those and put the others aside. Let the children read them on their own.

Sonya: When they get old enough, yes.

Karen: When they get old enough, or read them another time.

Sonya (to Karen): Did you have this problem with your kids too? Once they got old enough that they were reading on their own . . .

Karen: I wanted to read with them.

Sonya: Yes. But after awhile, they had read all the books that we had in the house that were at their level, and they wanted more. So if you have more of those titles stockpiled, it’s not so much “Oh, we’re never going to get to them.” It’s “Hey, yeah, I’ve got another one you might enjoy. Here.”

Laura: I think one thing that kind of gives me an anchor, when I think about past mistakes and I think about all the mistakes I’m going to make, is that yes, I have my children for those 12 years of their education, but the big picture is I’m teaching them these life goals of “Okay, I’m going to learn how to be curious and find the answer; I’m going to learn how to enjoy a book and be able to choose the next one I want to dive into.” But for me, knowing that once they are done and are leaving my house, that they can continue learning and educating themselves and learning from their mistakes as they see me learn from my mistakes, I find that encouraging to me. Because that’s life. It’s like we said. We’re going to get on the bandwagon of “Our home school’s going to be like this, and I’m going to do it well,” and then life circumstances happen and everything falls apart. And that’s okay, because that is still a learning time; and then you pick up and move on. For me, that encourages me; that’s kind of my anchor I hold onto. It’s kind of, I think you might have used this illustration before, we’re here laying that net and as they grow and as the Lord teaches them, He’s the one filling in the gaps. Their life experiences are going to fill in that gap, but we’re laying that foundation of what education should be like and how to pick up ourselves when we feel like we’re totally a failure, which I think is common for the homeschooling mama—to feel like a failure, unfortunately. It’s something we struggle with.

Sonya: It’s a huge life lesson to be able to learn from your mistakes, view it realistically: “Yup, I’m not perfect, but here’s what I learned. Isn’t that great?” And move on from there. That’s a wonderful thing.

Karen: And I think you hit on one of the keys, for you said, “How do we move past our mistakes?” How we do that is to remember that learning does not end with graduation. It’s a lifelong pursuit.

Laura: And doesn’t that just help you relax a little bit and know that all this pressure we put on ourselves for these school years . . . . It’s okay.

Karen: Yes.

Laura: We still want to do it well and do it the best we can.

Karen: Absolutely.

Laura: I mean, there’s freedom in knowing that it’s a long term thing we’re trying to teach them. Thank you for your words of wisdom.


  1. Hello! I enjoyed watching this episode over on YouTube while I was cooking. You mentioned reading too many books in a day. We have done that, but I wonder about spreading them out through the week. There are some books that we might read once a week, but does that work well for all books? Once my children “get into” a book (fiction mostly), they usually ask to hear it every school day. Or “just one more chapter, pleeeease… ” 😊 I am thinking about their independent reading as well; perhaps I need to spread it out a little more.

    • Hi Beth! We recommend a family literature (Charlotte’s Web, Pilgrim’s Progress, Little Britches, The Hobbit, etc) be read aloud daily. Those books are meant to be read and enjoyed for their literary value as well as a resource to bond over. The same holds true for books your children are reading in their free time. Allow them to enjoy the books.
      As for school books, Charlotte believed that books read slowly are afforded time for slow assimilation. Children (and I’ll venture adults) are granted time to think about that which was read mull it over before reading another episode from the book. This ties in wonderfully with her idea of the Science of Relations. When we take time to carefully ponder that which we’ve read, we begin to make connections from other readings, events, things we’ve seen, etc. There is an added bonus to “just one more chapter, pleeeease…”. ;-). Your children will be eager for the next reading. It builds an excitement in them where they just can’t wait to know more. I love closing the book at that moment and looking into their pleading faces. It creates an energy in the family and a desire to be together. It creates an eagerness to “know more.”
      It sounds like you have a wonderful relationship with books in your house. Job well done!

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