We Are A 'Relaxed Homeschooling' Family -- And It Works For Us

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Ariel Skelley/Getty

Some of you are going to think I’m a terrible person. Some of you might be appalled. Some of you may be envious, and think, “Damn, why didn’t I get to learn that way?”

I’ve heard all of it, from people of all walks of life: from teachers, from my mother, from strangers. That’s what happens when you practice relaxed homeschooling. A lot of the time, people just don’t get it.

“Relaxed homeschooling” means that my children learn what they learn when they want to learn it. Other than certain subjects they won’t pursue on their own (math for all of them; reading for my six-year-old, sometimes writing for everyone), they’re free to decide what they learn. In other words, when my kids read, they read what they choose. My oldest reads everything from Macbeth (with extensive footnotes and easier translations, but he can quote it) to scientific treatises on Bigfoot meant for adults to Rick Riordan novels. My middle son prefers science; he reads salamander identification guides; he reads books on how to make LEGO animals; he reads Dogman and Narwhal and Jelly. Sometimes they read far above their age level — and understand it. Sometimes my eight-year-old decides he wants to read a picture book (he picked out We’re All Wonders the other day). As long as they read, it counts. Because of this, they read longer and deeper than they would if I picked the books for them.

And yes, I ask them what the books are about. Yes, they sometimes write about them.

As far as science and social studies — we live in a house full of fossils, and we follow their interests. They’re into birds right now. We learned all about flight. We learned about types of wings. We learned about how flight evolved, how birds are related to dinosaurs, and made feeders to set up in the yard. Now they do scientific surveys of the birds that come to the feeders and identify them. My eight-year-old is obsessed with amphibians; he can pick up a toad and tell you the species. When it comes to social studies, my oldest obsessively reads about mythology (he once correctly identified, on a china plate, Mithras, a minor Roman god — I think. I had to ask him). We go to battlefields. We listen to podcasts. We watch YouTube documentaries on Polynesian exploration and Rapanui (i.e. the real name for Easter Island).

Whatever they’re interested in, we pursue. This is relaxed homeschooling.

Sometimes I lecture them in the car, on everything from the AIDS crisis to the cultural significance of Elvis. Sometimes we read literature aloud. We’re in the middle of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. We’ve read parts of the Aenid, parts of The Odyssey, and random picture books they chose. I read them passages of Craig Child’s books on the desert, just because they were pretty. They loved it.

Relaxed homeschooling gives kids a lot of credit.

It assumes that children are smart enough to have real interests beyond Angry Birds (and yes, my kids love Angry Birds). It assumes that, given the chance, they will pursue those interests. Relaxed homeschooling means that when they pursue those interests, they talk to adults who listen to them, ask smart questions, and research things together that neither of them know.

Yes, I have to make them do math. You can only take relaxed homeschooling so far. They need to know it. My oldest is a little behind grade level, but he’s learning. My youngest is above grade level. Lovely. We don’t really care. Sometimes, when they write, their letters are sloppy (my oldest has dysgraphia, and ironically, he’s also the most enthusiastic writer) — but they’re pointed where they need to go. We don’t stress, generally, about what they “should” know. We stress that they learn.

Eventually, of course, they’ll need to study more specific things, and we’ll do that. We work on basic chemistry already. They’ll learn geometry. But they might do it tomorrow, or they might do it when they’re 17. Relaxed homeschooling truly means relaxing. If my kids don’t “finish” what they need to know for college until age 19, they don’t start college until they’re 19. No. Big. Deal. If they want to go, they’ll be motivated to learn what they need to. We trust them.

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Yes, we occasionally encounter gaps. I thought kids would just naturally memorize the months of the year in order. Turns out … not. So we filled that in. We realized we had to practice writing the date and practice some punctuation stuff. I’m shrugging. They learned it. Why worry that you have to teach your eight-year-old the months of the year in order, something he’ll pick up quickly, when he can identify toad species? You just teach it and move onto more toads.

Yes, we put a lot of trust in our kids and their abilities. But they all have ADHD. They wouldn’t do well in a traditional classroom with desks and worksheets. They’re much happier this way: no outbursts, no IEPs, no meetings with teachers. We don’t have to fight for accommodations. A traditional classroom might work well for other kids, including other kids with ADHD, but it isn’t best for our family.

They can sleep on their own time: sometimes until 5:30 a.m., and sometimes until 9 a.m. We can go on field trips whenever we want. We learn about whatever we find there. The kids often decide where to go. That includes the beach, the mountains, or John Laurens’ grave site (they’re sort of obsessed with Hamilton). Relaxed homeschooling gives them the chance to make their own decisions. It gives us the chance to trust them.

So yeah, we might sound like unconventional hippies when math means learning the difference between quarts and gallons using kitchen utensils. But hey, they liked pouring water. They also liked dissecting a pig heart once. We follow their lead. That’s what relaxed homeschooling means — we follow where the kids take us. It’s sometimes a wild ride. They learn deeply , and they retain what they learn. They talk about it. They enjoy it. They stay curious about the world around them.

That’s what I want for my kids. If they can stay curious, if they can preserve that love of learning, the rest will fall into place. I believe that. My husband believes that, and he’s a teacher. In the meantime, it’s toads and mythology.

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