I remember holding our newborn first baby in my arms and feeling a deep sense of being out of my depth. I wanted a manual, a step-by-step guide to show me how to really nail this parenting gig. It wasn’t long before I realised no five-step program was going to show me how to be the parent I wanted to be. I came to learn (and am still learning) that parenting is a process. Sometimes a joy. Sometimes downright hard work. Always a desire for Spirit-led godliness in a flesh-driven world.
Since COVID-19, now more than ever parents are seeking a manual; something to show them how to parent full-time, work full-time, all the while staying in the confines of their home. In light of the fact no step-by-step is going to make a perfect playbook for the days ahead, it is biblical to gain wisdom from others who have gone before.
To gain wisdom, I turned to faithful Christian homeschooling mothers- Catherine Reilly from the Southern Highlands of NSW, Barbara Somervaille from Toowoomba, QLD and Anna Hogbin from the Northern Rivers of NSW. Each of these women have individually homeschooled their 9 children over a period of 20 years. They know how to teach, work and live at home, and do so in a way that aims to glorify the God they serve.
As we chatted, the key practical ingredients to thriving through this time of parenting at home were:
1. Start the Day with God and with a Focus on Relationship- We are called to love our children as a reflection of the way God has shown his love towards us. I love the story of Jesus with the little children; I am convicted of the fact the parents brought the children to Jesus. This morning, my children started the day bickering at one another, as my nerves started getting a little frayed, I gathered the children together in the lounge room and explained we were going to read God’s word and pray to focus our eyes off ourselves and onto loving God so we can love each other. Because of the change of pace in the mornings, I was able to do this rather than nag them about their uniforms, school bags and car run. Is there a particular book of the Bible you could start reading together? Often when we are feeling frustrated and inadequate, it is easy to think we need to hide this, squashing it down. Instead, Barb Somervaille urges us, “Humble yourself and be real – bring your fears and insecurities out in the open and pray with each other. Ask your children to pray for you! Focus on relationships. Strengthen those heart bonds. Maybe they’re frayed and neglected simply because life has been busy. This time is a gift.”
If you are working from home, it may seem counterintuitive to engage with your children before engaging with your work; however engaging early will actually give you more time later. Once children feel connected with and supported in their learning, they are more ready to independently work or play. The opposite of this is that you put the weight of the education on their shoulders, encouraging them to spend their days playing on their own because “I’m working,” and then you proceed to spend the rest of the day exploding in constant frustration with their interruptions, nursing a growing bitterness and resentment at the situation, the education system, the work set by the teachers, the lack of input from your spouse or the absentee help.
2. Set Realistic Expectations– Recognising that each of our children are unique, with strengths and weaknesses just like us, will help us as we school our children. Spend time getting to know your child as an individual- What do they enjoy? Where do they feel frustrated in their learning? Then try and incorporate these into your day. Don’t look at your friend’s children and question why yours aren’t the same, instead pray and ask God to reveal how your child is created in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. As an aside, if your child has a shorter attention span than others, try to set shorter spurts of time, prioritising the ‘must do’ activities (reading, writing and maths) first up in the day. Part of the setting of realistic expectations is also discussing the use of media in the home- set a particular time of day and length of time so that you all know when your children can play their Playstation or watch the show they enjoy. As Anna Hogbin shares, “Limit screen time and make it a reward for completed work.”
3. Find Your Family Rhythms- every family is different. Some families have children up at the crack of dawn, ready to start their learning at 8am; while others enjoy slower paced mornings and work into the afternoon. Find what works for you and your family. Remember though that once you find your rhythm, set a routine and implement structure into your day.
As Catherine Reilly says, “Your children are used to structure at school so allowing them to settle into a holiday mentality where they can do whatever, whenever, will not be helpful for anybody. While you cannot fully replicate the school experience in your home, finding a balance with structure and routine will be the key. You know your children and their personalities. If they thrive on structure, give it to them. If they need lots of breaks and incentives, think creatively. Come up with a general routine for the day together, including breaks, meal prep and meal times, time outdoors, and household chores. Embrace the fact that there is no travel time and most extra curricular activities have ceased, and add in some quiet time activities (lego, reading, craft/art, colouring). Allow screen time in carefully managed timeslots as age appropriate, and as rewards for completing work that has been assigned.”
4. Share Your Passions- While we are social distancing, it is important that we have time to enjoy our own passions. Why not share this with your child? As Barb Somervaille suggests, “You and your husband can impart your gifts to your
own children. Share your interests! Music, art, debating, engineering, politics or woodwork. So many possibilities!”
5. You’re Not Doing This Alone- Schools across the world are rethinking the way school is done, ensuring that your child has resources, lesson plans and the learning opportunities that will help your child continue to learn and grow in their understanding of the world and content. Reilly suggests, “Take the time to communicate with your kid’s teachers and with your children themselves so that you are working together and so that everyone is aware of the expectations.” Remember that the teachers are not to blame- they are not to blame for your child’s academic struggles and I would guess that the large majority of teachers are just as passionate at seeing your child get a good education as you are.
6. Spend Time Outside- Enjoy time with your children outside. Go for a walk, put in a garden, play handball. As you are outside, Barb Somervaille encourages us to “whet [our children’s] appetite for the beauty and wonder of His creation.” Your children may not be able to go to the park, but they can stare at the clouds. Depending on their age, you could give them time outside with no objective and their creative minds will take over.
The other day, we sent our children outside for their 30 minute play and for the first 5 minutes, they were walking around like it was some alternate universe. However, 15 minutes later they were making crowns out of vines, scaring me with their rushing down the driveway on their too small toy car, skinning their knees. All the while, they were getting fresh air in their lungs and enjoying being creatively outdoors together. It was great.
7. Enjoy Reading Together- God has communicated through words. As people, we have been created to delight in stories. So, enjoy stories together. There are so many great books you can read together with one child or as a family. Anna Hogbin suggests, “Choose a great chapter book you can read each day over the coming weeks. The Chronicles of Narnia, the Little House on the Prairie series, Pinocchio (the original one), Seven Little Australians, Alice in Wonderland…” There is a great list put together by Sarah Clarkson here and on The Gospel Coalition by Justin Taylor here.
8. Set Quiet Time– As part of your routine, ensure each day each child is expected to spend time doing something on their own. This may take training. Barb Somervaille says, “It’s good and necessary to have time apart and to cultivate quiet time, especially if the baby needs to sleep.” During this quiet time, encourage your child to start reading a novel, doing a finder word, playing with lego, colouring-in, playing in their room. As we are all pretty much confined to our homes, it is important that we each have time on our own to regroup and rest. In the early days, we used a timer to help children see how long they have and gradually increased this time. It is amazing to see a child’s creative play and interests emerge as they rest and play on their own.
9. Extend Grace- to yourself and to your children- During this time, we need to extend grace to ourselves and to others. It is easy to set amazing expectations and when you get to the end of the day without accomplishing what you wanted to, it is easy to feel disheartened. Remember this is something we are all adjusting to- our children included! As Barb Somervaille encourages, “Don’t do God an injustice by thinking you are incompetent. You are well and truly able to love your children and to teach and train them at this time in things that matter.”
Sometimes, taking a break is what is needed. Catherine Reilly suggests, “Don’t feel guilty about needing or taking breaks. Having a cup of tea and 10 minutes
down time may well keep everybody’s sanity intact.” As we venture through this period of being called home, may we grow in grace; being reminded day by day that our God is working on us just as he is our children.
10. Be Consistent in Discipline- Many parents feel overwhelmed because they are concerned their children don’t follow the tasks they set. Love your children, teach them the ways of God and discipline them. The Bible clearly links loving your children with teaching them to obey you. Obedience has become a bit of a troublesome word, bringing with it images of overbearing or abusive parents into our minds. However, discipline is actually about setting clear boundaries with clear consequences- both good and bad. Children thrive when these boundaries are clearly stated and consistently applied. Dr John Townsend explains that children with boundaries learn a self of self, self-control and how to have great relationships. Decide what you and your spouse believe to be the right consequences and have a family meeting to explain these. In our family, when setting consequences for bad behaviour, our principles have been that it needs to be immediate and administered privately, with an explanation of the sin and expectation of apology, leading to restored relationships. These negative consequences should in no way tear the child down, rather matter-of-factly discuss the sin that was present with the offer of forgiveness once repentance has been sought.
In this season of our family social distancing in the home, it is easy to feel anxious or overwhelmed. Relatively overnight, we find ourselves trying to work from home, teach our children and remain at home, all without the luxuries of eating out and having a social life. There is also the added stress of a pandemic. Yet in this time, we can take comfort that we serve a God who knows the beginning from the end; who controls all things and will give us wisdom and grace if we ask. Tomorrow is a new day and God’s mercies are new every morning. As we walk day-by-day with Him, may we see this as an opportunity to reevaluate our lives prior to the pandemic and invest in the lives of our husband, children and families that will live on in our lives post-COVID19.
First published at The Gospel Coalition Australia.