Assalamo ‘alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh. (apologies, I accidentally posted a draft!)
When my first child was about 3 and I was just preparing to home educate, I read something that stayed with me. It was a Facebook post by an experienced Muslim homeschooler who was asked “how do you do it?”. Her immediate reply was: “You have to not mind being with your children 24/7.”
This sounds a lot more obvious than it is.
Lately, I have been talking about homeschooling with several people I know; Women who have either just taken their child out of school, have decided to start with their little ones or are seriously considering not sending their big kids to secondary school. Each of them is in a very different predicament in terms of the age of her children and the extent of their experience of public school; what they have in common is that they all are entering uncharted territory. Their situations – different as they might be – all remind me of giving birth (and no – not in terms of pain!!!): the decision to take full charge of your child’s education has a certain solemnity to it. You just know that it will forever be intertwined with your experience as a parent. It is thinking about these friends of mine and their families that some reflections started bubbling up to the surface of my conscience.
I myself feel as though I have entered a new stage in my homeschooling journey. I have been so busy hiking up the mountain, that only now I pick up my head and notice the landscape has changed. I realised that, rather than being “resigned” to it, I have embraced the idea that my children will not go to school. I always vouched for home education but, deep inside, I have been somewhat affected by the notion that “school = real life”. I felt that, for me and my kids, homeschooling was just a temporary solution to the absence of a salafi school where we live; I thought I would hold down the fort as best as I could until this phantomatic move to a place where I could find the right institution to “offload the burden”. In the meantime, my eldest is almost through with primary school. Moving is a remote possibility; our homeschool, on the other hand, has been a reality. It has been so for 7 years and by the sole mercy of Allah. It has been, and continues to be, engaging and a little unpredictable. Fluid and changeable. Frustrating and fulfilling. Subject to moods, light-bulb moments, phases of near obsessive interest and a few fads too. It defines our family. It moulds our relationships with one another. It is heart-warmingly good, spectacularly bad and everything in between.
Before I share my two pence worth of reflection and advice about homeschooling, know that – 7 years ago – that “24/7” statement felt like a slap in the face, because the thought of my 3 year old boy being with me 24/7 for the foreseeable future terrified me. Not to mention the guilt aftershock.
So, new or aspiring homeschooling people, gather around! these are more M&Ms than pearls of wisdom, but here you go:
- LITTLE CHILDREN DON’T NEED A CURRICULUM, THEY NEED A LIFE.
A life with you, to be precise. The need to do what they love with the person who is their whole world. And tons of books, to be read to them by the aforementioned, who is also required to slow down and be present. They do not need instruction, but first hand experience. And, that way, they learn. “Learning through play” means exactly that. It doesn’t mean putting up a puppet show to teach a 4 year old to solve equations or write cinquains. Don’t do that. Please.
2. HAVING YOUR CHILDREN WITH YOU 24/7 DOESN’T MEAN THEY MUST BE ON YOUR LAP 24/7.
When people ask me,”So, basically your kids are with you all the time?” In my head I chuckle and answer,”Where else should they be?” (They aren’t by the way, not all the time). School is a perfectly legitimate solution for some families, but when did it become the default place for kids to belong?
Having said so, some sensible boundaries have to be set. My kids are with me all the time, but they are not engaging me all of the time. When I am busy (meaning: late) making dinner, and each of my 3 comes to me simultaneously with a very specific snacks request for the fourth time, I joke with them saying that I am not a tapas bar. Or one of those sushi places with the little plates of food on a conveyor belt. Kids tend to be what, in adults, we call “self-centred”. They expect it to be an “all day breakfast” kind of situation. And it is, except that it would be impossible for a Muslim mother to carry out her other duties efficiently if she went along with it 24/7. Children are quite unlikely to think, “Hmm… I see Mother is looking quite drained after spending all day responding to our physical, educational and emotional needs. She should have a quiet hour a day to deepen her knowledge of the religion without any disturbances or endless requests,” (right???). So, instead of ending up resenting children because they can’t give us a break, it is up to the parent to create that time and guard it, put it in place and make it a routine. These are some ideas:
- Get up before your children. Snatch that hour even if you have to study in your pyjamas to save yourself the time it would take to get dressed.
- Have a bedtime and stick with it. Bedtimes are cherished in this house (and not just because they usually mark the end of my working day). An adequate bedtime must apply also to older children, or at least a time when they are expected to be in their room for the night.
- When a toddler outgrows the need for an afternoon nap, nap-time can evolve into “quiet time.” With the exception of prayer at the masjid or any scheduled activities they might have outside the house, our boys will spend a couple of hours in their room in the afternoon. They may rest, read, play, draw, do homework … anything, as long as it is quiet. They are not locked in, they simply know that is a time we spend doing separate things and whatever is not urgent can wait a little.
By the mercy of Allah, this can allow for part time work from home, online study, exercise and any job that is best done without kids around. It provides much needed rest if one is unwell/pregnant/fasting or simply in need to pull herself together if it has been a hard day. Creating these pockets of time help us being more available at all other times, to give every ounce of us when our kids are around (which is most of the time anyway) and achieve some of our personal goals.
3. EXPOSING OUR CHILDREN TO MASSIVE FITAN FOR THE SAKE OF THEIR SOCIAL LIFE IS AGAINST THEIR BEST INTEREST.
We wouldn’t give our children a tub of ice-cream at every meal time instead of proper food just because they like it. Nobody could accuse us of starving them if we did, or argue that ice-cream is not food. Yet we don’t let them have that for every meal. Similarly, we cannot cave on this: If we consider the school environment available to our children to be a highly toxic one, one that could tarnish their morals and attack their deen, then we cannot overlook this just so that they can hang out with a bunch of people their age. This is ice-cream for dinner, just with even more harmful and far reaching consequences. The aspect of socialisation for homeschooled kids is like broccoli: wholesome and as appetising as you make it! Few things make us happier than giving our children what they desire and – especially as they grow into teenagers – their need for their peers is real. But we also know that what we desire is not always what is good for us. Moreover, Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “A man is upon the religion of his close friend, so let each of you look to who he takes as close friend.” This couldn’t be more relevant in the case of older children and teenagers, for whom Ummi is no longer the whole world! This is not to demonise school in general, nor to point the finger. It might be that a family genuinely does not have a choice, and surely all Muslim kids have available to them the guidance Allah and the teachings of His Messenger (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), whether they are homeschooled or go to school. Having said so, parents who send their Muslim children to school uniquely out of fear that they would not be able to provide an adequate academic or social experience otherwise, should re-assess their priorities and give themselves a chance in this sense. And never underestimate what we are up against, in terms of desires, as we strive to give our children a good upbringing.
4. WE DO NOT HOMESCHOOL BECAUSE WE ARE AFRAID OF THE WORLD.
Homeschooled kids don’t live under rocks. The fact that we don’t just throw them out there in any environment and in any kind of company does not mean we want to keep them within our 4 walls. Where there are homeschooling families, there will – in sha’ Allah – be activities for your child to participate in with other kids. If something is not available, you can start it. Either way, your control over what kind of influences your children are exposed to will be far greater than in mainstream education. Beneficial companionship and friendship can and should be facilitated for our children and school is not necessarily the answer to this (in fact, for a Muslim in a non-Muslim land, it is hardly ever so).
5. HOMESCHOOLING OLDER CHILDREN MEANS TO BE THE MANAGER OF THEIR EDUCATION MORE THAN THEIR TEACHER.
You will not always have to sit and feel the sandpaper alphabet with them. As they grow, there seems to be less teaching and more organising. I sometimes feel like I am my 10 year-old’s secretary: Filling the calendar, setting the alarms on my phone for each activity (with one hour to spare – in case I completely forgot there was something and I need to give people lunch before it), remind them of any change of plans, liaise with other parents to plan activities, arrange meetings, outings, invitations, check that homework for other teachers is done, keeping an eye out on the local homeschooling community to see what is going on, etc. My 10 year old’s column in our family calendar is by far the busiest! Which brings me to my next point:
6. YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT ALL BY YOURSELF.
Usually a child would have two parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, older cousins, family friends: each of these people has something he or she could bring to the education of your children, some talents and abilities your children might be able to learn from. Then there are other homeschooling parents that may want to set up clubs about something that they are good at and/or that interests their children. There are homeschooling co-ops, tutors, online courses… There are countless ways out there to get help in teaching our children, if one can be proactive and a bit creative.
7. IF YOU FEEL LIKE NO OTHER OPTION IS GOOD ENOUGH, YOU WILL MAKE IT WORK – BY ALLAH’S HELP.
Being Muslim is not the easiest thing in the world nowadays. Our Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) told us that Islam started as something strange and, towards the end of times, it will again be seen as something strange; that to hold on to it will be like holding on to hot coals… yet we wouldn’t consider any other way, because – alhamdulillah -we know that it is the Truth and nothing compares to it (may Allah keep us firm upon it). The status of homeschooling is nowhere as absolute as that, of course, but the point here is: If we feel strongly enough about it, we will seek the means to achieve it – even if it is not the easiest or most convenient option. Rectifying our intentions and seeking the help of Allah are the first and most crucial of those means, and with the help of Allah nothing is impossible.
It is by the help of Allah that not only am I no longer scared of being with my children 24/7, but I am grateful not to have to give a school such a large chunk of their time – their childhood: a precious time that passes quickly, as does our life.