Building Independence

Did you know that many colleges and universities actively recruit home school graduates? There are several reasons for this phenomenon. Home schooled students consistently score higher on the SAT. Home schooled students also exhibit stronger time management and independent-study skills. In my own home, I work toward building these skills from a very early age. I begin giving personal assignment sheets in kindergarten. Of course, my kindergartener cannot usually read the assignment sheet, but she can follow my finger as I point to each day’s assigned work and read it to her. As a first grader, she can usually tell me which pages to do in math or reading. By the time she is in the third or fourth grade, she is expected to retrieve her assignment sheet and do the subjects she is allowed to do without my help. As a seventh grader, she will do about sixty percent of her work on her own, building to a full ninety percent by the time she graduates. Additionally, my high school student may well have a part-time job or attend dual credit classes at a local community college.

Raising independent learners is one of the great advantages of home schooling. Academically, we are preparing our students to succeed at higher education. Our home schooled graduates are also prepared socially to succeed within society. We laugh at the “S” question because we know that true socialization means interacting with people of all ages, making the classroom situation the more artificial model.

Today, however, I want to challenge parents to consider an area of weakness within our home schooling community. While we are building independence in some areas, I believe we are actually impeding independence in others. In striving to shelter our children from the negative influence of our culture, we have woven a cocoon that is oftentimes too tight. We do not allow our young adults to think for themselves or to learn from experience. We delight in their high test scores and academic achievement, but we continue to rule with iron fists in the home. The very sad consequence of this behavior is that we are witnessing a generation of home schooled graduates who are walking away from their family and often, tragically, from their biblical upbringing. I think there are two core issues that have led to this situation.

First, I believe we are choosing discipline over discipling. Can substituting a “g” for an “e” really make that much difference? It makes a world of difference! It is easy enough to extract a desired behavior from even the most strong-willed child if we discipline him. However, the only means to truly reach their hearts and achieve lifelong behaviors that honor God is to disciple them. And discipling means we must enter their world. Rather than demanding that our children enter our world (discipline), we must be willing to walk beside them in their world, gently giving instruction and helping them to make good choices. This requires, first of all, that we let them make choices!

Take a moment to look at the classical model of education, which teaches the trivium, or three stages of mental development. In the grammar stage (from birth to about age eleven), our children are sponges. They absorb and accumulate facts–phonics rules, math facts, geography facts–and the main thing we require of them is proof that they have memorized those facts. The dialectic, or logic, stage (eleven to fourteen years of age) is the time during which students begin to think and reason logically, to observe cause and effect, and to understand the way different fields of study fit together. Finally, they reach the rhetoric stage (ages fourteen to sixteen), when they can apply the rules of logic to their foundational knowledge, to express in clear, understandable terms what they have learned.

Applying an understanding of the stages of mental development to our child’s emotional and spiritual development will help us to disciple our children, rather than just discipline them. In the grammar stage, we establish the rules of our home—the rules of God’s kingdom—and we pour God’s Word into our children. Psalm 119:11 says, “Thy word have I hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee.” It is during the grammar stage—the memorization stage—that we hide God’s Word in our children’s hearts.

Then the logic stage arrives—or the illogic stage, as some of us might see it. We do not understand why our children begin to push the envelope, challenging our rules and sometimes even our beliefs! We are horrified, and we respond by tightening our disciplinary grip, believing that the answer is to make the cocoon of our beliefs tighter and tighter. We think we are protecting our children, but in fact, we are often suffocating them. How will our children ever reach the rhetoric stage spiritually if we do not allow them to come to their own personal understanding of God’s grace? How will they ever reach that stage if we do not allow them to think for themselves? By no means am I advocating absolute freedom for our middle schoolers–we should closely monitor friendships, activities, and exposure to media. However, teaching our worldview with a “because I said so” attitude gives our middle schoolers nothing solid upon which to stand. We must be willing to sit beside them as they puzzle through things, not demanding a certain answer but praying and waiting in hopeful anticipation for them to reach a solid conclusion. When our child delivers a statement that begins, “I’m not sure I believe … ” rather than reacting with “Of COURSE you do!” we must be willing to say, “Hmmm … Why is that? What thoughts have brought you to that conclusion?” Be thankful that your child is including you in the thought process! Overly-disciplined children will not include you. They will know in their hearts that there is no place for dissension, and they will hide it from you.

The second core issue that I believe is leading to rebellion is simply that we do not trust the process. We do not know when to let go. If we spend the grammar years hiding God’s Word in our children’s hearts, then we must learn to trust that He will bring it to their hearts and minds in relevant moments. Again, I am not suggesting we drop our thirteen-year-old off at the mall to spend the day roaming around, but we must begin to lengthen the tether long before our child reaches adulthood. We must trust that everything we have done to disciple our child will withstand the test. We must build a relationship with our child that will encourage him to bring his experiences to us so that we can help with the examining and processing that occurs during the logic stage.

Have you done a science experiment with your thirteen-year-old? Have you had the delight of watching the light of discovery go on as he develops a hypothesis and then sees that the results substantiate that hypothesis? How much greater will be the delight when you watch your sixteen-year-old grapple with relationships, societal pressures, and faith, and see that his conclusions line up with what you have taught him. Rather than simply proving that he has memorized your beliefs (grammar stage), he has actually tested your beliefs (logic stage) and can express what he believes and why he believes it (rhetoric stage).

Home schooling veterans laugh about the socialization question—no, our children are not pale, little creatures who never venture out into the sunshine but rather stay indoors, hidden from the world. My challenge to you, and to myself (a sinner, of whom I am chief, as Paul says), is to examine whether we might not be doing that very thing in the emotional and spiritual development of our children. As we raise them to be independent learners, we must also raise them to be independent thinkers, independent believers.

My kindergartener has an assignment sheet, but I am right there to show her what it means. By the fourth grade, she will have some subjects that she is allowed to do by herself. As a seventh grader, she will do 60% of her work on her own, and by high school she will do 90% of her work independent of me. I will be there to check her work, to answer questions or help with challenges, and to discuss what she is learning. She may spend some of her day taking community college classes, or working or volunteering part time. Our time together will be spent sharing about what she is learning in the “bigger world.”

My kindergartener has rules, and much of our time is spent learning those rules. By the fourth grade, she will begin applying those rules of behavior as she spends time with friends at church, at the park, or down the street at the neighbor’s house. As a seventh grader, she will be away from me for extended periods of time, and those rules will sustain her and guide her. And in high school, my young adult will encounter greater peer pressure and will have her (our) beliefs and values challenged from many directions. Only by owning those beliefs will she be able to stand against the tide of culture. Only by discipling her heart will I have any hope that she will choose my beliefs over the seductive, “feel good” beliefs of the world. She will never choose iron fists over that. But she might choose my heart, if it is a place she can trust.