This week, May 6 through May 12, is Teacher Appreciation Week, and I would like to show my deepest gratitude for the very important role all of you are performing. Whether you are the main home teacher, a co-teacher, or a provisional teacher, you need to be acknowledged, honored and thanked. You are sharing an amazing gift with your children/students!
Parenting and teaching children may be two of the hardest jobs ever experienced. It’s not always easy to share knowledge with enthusiasm. It’s not always easy to provide guidance with inspiration. It can be difficult to promote self-confidence when we may not be feeling completely confident in ourselves. It can truly be challenging to instill the love of learning and to offer wisdom while helping to prepare children for living to their fullest potential.
Journeys are never completely easy. We will be challenged with hard times and frustrating moments. However, amid the challenges, we will also experience those shining moments of complete joy and satisfaction. If we approach our teaching skills by developing a quality relationship with our students, then we will be approaching our teaching as a positive, transformative journey for all who are involved.
Not only do we need to honor our role as teachers, we also need to honor our children, for children can be our greatest teachers. They allow us the opportunity for personal growth. Children help us to remember our dutiful role in continuously providing the best and offering the most we can in every learning moment. We need to find that crucial balance between a loving heart and a determined mind. Being the best teacher is not the goal, because we are all humanly imperfect and incapable of such a title. However, if we strive to do the best we can, then we are being the best teacher possible in that moment. This striving is a strong testimony to the Oak Meadow’s educational philosophy of the process vs. the goal.
In all my years of teaching and guiding students, I have discovered that the most important lessons we can instill in our children is the joy of learning, the balance of life, and to never give up just because it’s hard.
I was recently reading through Oak Meadow’s guidebook, The Heart of Learning, written by Oak Meadow’s founder, Lawrence Williams. It offers such amazing insight, inspiration and guidance. If you haven’t read it lately, I highly recommend perusing it. If you don’t own a copy of the revised and updated 40th Anniversary edition, it is available through the Oak Meadow Bookstore.
“Every moment and every event of every man’s life plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them. For such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere, except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.” ~ Thomas Merton
For those who live in the northern hemisphere, the months of January and February bring us to a midpoint of the winter season. We find ourselves experiencing drastic changes in weather, along with different forms of personal attention and focus. It is a time of contraction, in which we turn inwardly and reflect within. Often times, this season can also initiate a sense of tiredness and discouragement. Even our children’s attitudes can begin to disintegrate, and the enthusiasm during the first few months of school starts to wear off.
Since 1986, I have had the great honor and privilege to know and work with Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams. Over the years, I have developed an amazing respect for his boundless wisdom and timeless energy in providing a quality education for homeschool families. I have also collected a plethora of articles written by Lawrence. So, “from the archives”, I have the pleasure of offering his timely article on:
Winter, Contraction and Frustration
Now that we are in a new year, and in the midst of winter, let’s stop for a moment to consider what effect this is having upon our children, the learning process, and us.
The learning process has two phases: expansion and contraction. These same phases are also apparent in the seasons of the year. The season in which we are presently immersed, winter, is the season when the forces of contraction are prevailing.
The predominant effect of the contractive phase is the feeling of being closed in, and the feeling that nothing is moving. In terms of the learning process, we often feel that our children are not making any progress, and we begin to doubt our effectiveness as teachers. Of course, this closed in feeling is much more apparent in the extreme northern latitudes, where the temperature is much colder, and snow covers the ground for most of the year. However, even if we are living further south, we still experience this sensation, although its effect is modified somewhat, and it tends to become a more subtle inner experience, rather than an outer obstacle.
Another effect, which is most fascinating, is that during the contractive phase, things do not appear as they really are. The same thing is occurring in nature. If we didn’t know any better, and just arrived on this planet without an instruction manual (a familiar feeling?), we would look at the barren trees and the frozen ground and would suspect that everything was dead, with no chance of revival. However, since we’ve lived through many winters, we know that things are not as they appear. Underneath the surface of the earth wonderful things are happening and in a few months life will spring forth again, and everything will be green and growing profusely.
So the most important thing to remember while teaching children in the midst of the contraction of winter is that, while it looks as if nothing is happening, it is only because everything is happening under the surface. However bleak it may look, however hopeless your children’s progress may seem, however many times you feel as if you are totally frustrated, just remember that it is not really that way. Within your children, just as within nature, marvelous things are happening at this moment, and in a few months the growth that is occurring will become apparent, as we move into the phase of expansion, when all things become visible.
The best way to handle the contractive phase is to accept it as an opportunity, not an obstacle. There are many ideal learning experiences available at this time of year. Take advantage of them. Don’t stay indoors, trying to complete academic work with everyone irritable. Go outdoors and look for animal tracks in the snow. Even if you are living in a more temperate climate, and there is no snow, watch for the events that happen in nature only at this time of the year, such as various animal migrations. By cooperating gracefully and joyfully with the opportunities available within this cycle, you will be teaching your children one of the most valuable lessons in life: how to find opportunities within apparent limitations.
In Lawrence William’s book, The Heart of Learning, Chapter 7 offers additional information on “Rhythm and Learning: Expansion and Contraction”. If you haven’t read this chapter recently, it might be a good time to add it to your reading list.
“The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.” – Fra Giovanni
The following article, “Homeschooling and Joy”, was written by Oak Meadow co-founders, Lawrence and Bonnie Williams. It was sent in a newsletter to the Oak Meadow teachers and staff in October 1991. After personally experiencing a joyful occasion with homeschooling families, friends and fellow colleagues at last month’s Oak Meadow Open House, I am reminded of the true value of the message in this archived article. Twenty-six years later, these words of wisdom are definitely worth repeating and sharing with all of you.
One of the best tools a homeschooling parent can use for successful teaching is Joy. Joy is as natural to a child as talking and walking. When there is joy and laughter in the home, children will quite naturally want to enter into learning relationships with their parents. Not only does laughter create an atmosphere of receptivity toward learning, it also triggers the productions of chemicals in the body which have positive health effects.
Joy can be expressed through singing, dancing, funny stories, and poking fun at ourselves. It’s very important not to take ourselves too seriously. Life can be serious enough at times without adding our own weight to it. When we are able to poke fun at our own mistakes and idiosyncrasies, children will be more likely to admit their own mistakes and weaknesses – an important first step in the learning process.
At times, however, the challenges of life seem to be too great, and joy seems out of the question. How can we experience joy in such times?
First, it helps to put the affairs of our lives in perspective. Most of what happens to us is not nearly as serious as we make it out to be. What makes it seem so serious is that it shatters our concepts about how things should be. If we can let go of our expectations and just embrace the experience as it is, we can usually find joy hidden in the very heart of that experience.
Second, we have to remember that joy isn’t something that happens to us – it’s something we create. Visitors to third world countries are often surprised to find children laughing and playing games in the midst of oppressive poverty and hunger. Even in the midst of the most crushing circumstances, joy is always alive within us, but it remains hidden until we make a conscious choice to express it. When we do this, not only do we bring it to those around us, but we experience it ourselves.
As we experience more joy in the homeschooling environment, we will find that we have more energy as well. Researchers have found that laughter actually stimulates the adrenal glands and triggers the chemical production of endorphins in the brain. These endorphins act as tranquilizers, which leave us feeling calmer and less anxious about the events happening around us. So we can see that laughter is not only beneficial for us emotionally, but physically as well.
As Lawrence and Bonnie Williams emphasized in their article, a healthy learning environment should be full of joy. Therefore, as each new day springs forth, we need to keep our hearts open to the gift of joy.
Oak Meadow founders, Bonnie and Lawrence Williams, believe that, in order to manifest a child’s education successfully, certain guidelines must be followed. Here are detailed guidelines for helping in the teaching process:
Clear a physical as well as psychological space: There should exist a particular spot where the student does work. It should be well stocked with supplies: main lesson book, additional paper for first drafts, crayons, pencils, pencil sharpener, erasers, highlighters, folders, notebooks, etc. In addition, it should be organized in some designated way so that order may be restored at the end of the learning period. Most importantly, it should be a pleasant place to be and one that is well lighted, with maybe an appropriate poster on the wall. There should be a comfortable chair with back support; however, chairs that encourage lounging are to be avoided.
A time must be set aside so the student knows not to plan other activities for that period of time. It does not work well to choose the time on a daily basis. The brain needs a rhythm and will come to a focus more easily as the lesson time approaches if it is a consistent time each day.
When a physical as well as psychological space have been cleared for schoolwork, half the battle with the undisciplined mind has been won.
Focus: If a student is having difficulty with focusing attention or understanding, the home teacher should sit beside the student and act as the “grounding agent” to bring the student to a point of focus. Ungrounded students must slowly be drawn into their lessons. For example, in grade 4 (and higher), a new sense of independence is encouraged in the coursework. However, this does not mean the student does everything independently. At the beginning of a new lesson, the home teacher should ask the student to read a paragraph, then ask the student to share the main idea of the paragraph. Highlight the word or words which are the main idea. Proceed to the next paragraph repeating the process. At the end of each page, the student should read back all the material that has been highlighted. Then putting paper or books aside, the home teacher should ask the student what was just read.
It may be slow and tedious at first, but as the brain stretches, the student will pick up speed. Always emphasize quality understanding over quantity of work done. Perhaps the student only does a fraction of the assignments while learning how to focus and organize the brainwork, which is fine. Accept this and praise the student for the fine progress. The only requirement is that you witness sincere progress.
How long each day should a home teacher focus with a student? At least one hour a day should be set aside for this kind of focused attention. The home teacher should not be in and out, but rather seated with the student for the whole hour without interruptions. Perhaps the home teacher may cover social studies and language arts three days a week and science two days a week in this manner for half an hour each day; and math for half an hour every day. Then the student should be left alone for another hour every day to do the assignment that can reasonably be done independently. This time should be eventually lengthened to three hours a day for a total amount of time spent on school work, with two of the hours being independent learning. More than that would be discouraging for the student who needs lots of time for physical activities.
When learning is difficult and a student is asked to spend more than three hours struggling through without help, it leads to burn out and the student shuts down altogether. Balance is very important. After each hour, the student should get up and do something physical. If the student has low blood sugar, offer at least one snack during the three hour period. The most important consideration is the rhythm of the schedule. The student should not be allowed to get up and go outside and get involved and forget the schoolwork. It should be more like a fifteen minute recess with an expectation that the work will be continued until the work for the day is completed, even if it is short of the assignment in the curriculum. (If enrolled in the school, Oak Meadow teachers are always willing to work with a student who needs a reduced load.)
Caring: Children need to feel that somebody cares about their work each day. The home teacher should read over the work and discuss it with the student. Praise and celebration for victories won are very important for all students, but especially the unfocused student. They need constant reminders that they are progressing and doing well. It is important to remind students where they have come from and how much they are accomplishing.
Accept your student with the present abilities: Do not present material the student is not ready for. Pressure creates negative stress and causes the mind to shut down. Begin with a review of material the student already knows, to get the mind moving and flowing. Then present the new material.
Remedial Students: If your student needs remedial work, choose one thing at a time to work on. For example, when working with reading comprehension and writing, do not be concerned about grammar initially. Then when the student is comfortable with the daily process, add grammar. Work with one grammar rule at a time. Start with each sentence beginning with a capital letter and ending with a punctuation mark. Proceed to capitalization rules, then punctuation, expanding sentences with adjectives and adverbs, then conjunctions, etc. If a student is a poor speller, present five words a week from the Dolch list. Also provide many ways to learn these words. Focus is the key to success.
Physical Activity: Emphasize the importance of daily physical activities to help the integration process. The martial arts are a wonderful tool for integration, as are walking and dance. Studies indicate that academic performance improves with daily vigorous physical activity. Discourage TV watching during the day.
Learning Styles: Become aware of your student’s learning style. Some people learn auditorily, others visually, and some are bodily kinesthetic learners. The best teachers use all three modes of teaching.
If your student is a visual learner, drawing pictures or diagrams will help to remember information. If your student learns best through hearing the information explained, share an hour each day with your student and explain the material being covered. Make up songs and jingles to remember key points. Some students learn best by teaching it to somebody else. Be a willing student and let your student teach you the material. Skits are great for learning.
Purchase a lap-size white board with marker (fruit flavored without the toxic fumes) so your student can draw, diagram, write jingles, and teach. Use it daily and you will be amazed at its effectiveness as a teaching tool.
I hope these guidelines will be helpful in making your home schooling adventure a very successful one. Wishing you all the best for an exciting year of learning!
“Once your intention is clear, you can relax and enjoy the dance, because you and your child are operating within a clear, protected space that you have created. The dance is what we have called process. Intention sets the tension and boundaries for the field; process fills the form with life. Both are necessary to create the dance that we call education.” Lawrence Williams
As many Oak Meadow students move forward into the new school year, they begin their educational journey with the good intention of being productive and achieving objectives and goals. Intention can also play a significant role in “living education”, which is clearly defined in the following article, written by one of Oak Meadow’s original class teachers, Becky Lowe.
Intention is the inner impetus that adds strength to our ideas and causes them to be born in reality. We have all experienced having a strong intention about something. There are many times in my life, as I’m sure there are in yours, when I have so much to accomplish that I know it will never get done unless I create so much inner organization that I know exactly what I need to do the next day without having to spend the first hour of the day figuring it out. That inner organization is intention.
At Oak Meadow we speak often of engaging in the process, and you might think that process is at odds with intention. But think about it. Whenever you set up a process to engage in with your child, you probably have some kind of goal. Perhaps you plan to discuss the concept of the number three with your kindergartener, to work on multiplication tables with your third grader, or to make a salt and flour map with your fourth grader. You hope to approach it in a relaxed and enjoyable way, focusing on the process together instead of being so fixed on your goal that the process is no fun. That inner goal you hold is your intention.
As home teachers it is critical that we have a strong intention about our children’s work. Some children are extremely motivated to do their schoolwork and create all kinds of wonderful projects on their own. Most children need a fair bit of support, especially if they have previously been in a large classroom of any kind, or a program that was very structured.
The Oak Meadow curriculum supplies a focus for your work with your child. It would be extremely helpful for both you and your child if you could take the time each week to read ahead and get a sense of where the curriculum is going for that week. Make a list of supplies you will need. Make a list of subjects that will be covered so that when you go to the library you can check out relevant books. Purchase any supplies you don’t have, such as tag board or food coloring. Beyond these physical preparations, however, it is necessary to prepare yourself inwardly.
Each night, take about fifteen minutes to clarify your intention for the next day’s schooling. Will you be studying word families? How do you plan to go about that? Will your fourth grader be studying state history this week? How can you help support your child with your own intention? A fourth grader usually needs less direct involvement than a first grader does, but nevertheless, each child needs daily support to set aside the focused time required to complete the day’s assignments.
What appointments or errands or household jobs need to be done the next day? How can you schedule those and a focused learning time with your child without having to double up and wash dishes while your kindergartener works? If you can be completely available to your children for even a short period of time each day, without doing some other task at the same time, it will make a big difference in your schooling.
Some time ago my daughter was reading out loud to me, and as I sat on the couch next to her, I noticed three baskets of laundry sitting in front of me. Of course, being a normal mother in her laundry-person role, I began folding towels. She said, “Mom, could you please just sit and listen to me? If you really have to do that, I guess it would be alright with me but I want you to listen to me.” I said, “When I fold laundry while you read, does it make you feel I’m not really listening to you because I’m also busy with something else?” “Yes,” she said. So I just listened, and it was wonderful. I got to not only enjoy the story she was reading, but to admire the way she’s growing in the fluidity of her reading, to hear her stumble and correct herself over new or difficult words, and to feel excited about the progress she’s making in reading. We felt happy and close to each other afterward, and her reading time became something special, rather than something she just happened to be doing while I was folding laundry. I became an active participant in her reading through my focused listening.
Having intention actually energizes the process you are engaged in with your child. It is not goal oriented in the sense of a goal in the future you would like to achieve. It is something we participate in actively in order to create the space for whatever we are holding an intention about. Perhaps you have seen an ad in the newspaper about an interesting play you would like to take your family to. You intend to go to this play. How will you help that come about? You will act. First, you’ll probably check your calendar to see what dates would suit you, and then you’ll call the theater to check on availability of seats and exact show times. Then you purchase the tickets. Then you’ll mark the date down in your calendar, and when the tickets arrive you’ll tuck them away in a safe place. When the day comes, you get everyone dressed and ready to go, take your tickets and go have a wonderful time at the play. All of this happened because of your original intention! If you just sort of dreamily imagined how enjoyable this play might be, but don’t make the effort to bring it to fruition, you’ll never get there.
This month I’d like you to consider how you can use intention to more actively support your family’s learning processes. Take time to clarify your intentions for the next day’s work, taking into account the age, personality, interest, and academic level of your children. Having this kind of intention does not tie you down into doing specific processes, but it provides a kind of framework within which to work. If a particular approach falls flat, that’s okay. Because you have an inner overview, you can move into another approach that could accomplish the same thing.
Whenever a group of people are united in their intention and move forward together, manifestation is the natural outcome. By working together with your children, step by step, day by day, you will manifest the greatness that is within your children and yourself, and you will create new opportunities of growth for your family. – Lawrence and Bonnie Williams
Autumn is near and soon we will enter into the month of September. Many of your children have begun (or will soon begin) their Oak Meadow coursework. As you begin to guide your children in the next step of their educational journey, it is important to take a moment to reflect upon what it is you, as the home teachers, are providing for them. At the most basic level, you are helping your children with the learning process in the areas of language arts, mathematics, social studies and science, as well as in the creative arts. As we all know, offering these subjects as learning tools are very important. However, if you wish to make the most of this school year, you will need to recognize that you are doing more than just helping your children become knowledgeable in these areas. At a deeper level, you are enabling them to express their inner potential. The academic and artistic subjects are just the focal points you will use in the process.
What do I mean by “expressing one’s inner potential”? I am referring to how we take what is inside – what is not visible – and express it outside of ourselves, so that the whole world can see it. The process of transforming the inner into the outer is called manifestation. Oak Meadow believes that in order to manifest our children’s education successfully, certain steps must be followed. We need to have clear intention with our process and our goals. We need to clear time and space for focused learning. We need to give attention to the process. We also need to assess our progress daily and make adjustments.
For those of you who are in your first year working with Oak Meadow’s K-3 coursework, you have been provided with the book, The Heart of Learning, written by Oak Meadow’s founder, Lawrence Williams. If you have not yet begun reading this wealth of information, I highly encourage you to start now. For those of you have read it in previous years, I recommend that you reread it, particularly chapter 8 (“Working with Creative Tension”), chapter 10 (“Focus, Process, and Relationship”), and chapter 12 (“Creating Boundaries and Clear Communication”).
Rhythm is also an essential part of the learning process. We each have our own unique rhythm; however, this unique rhythm is but a minor embellishment upon the major common rhythms that we all share as human beings. The major common rhythms are a result of many factors that originate from within our bodies, such as our heartbeats or sleeping patterns, as well as from our external environment, such as the day/night rhythm and the seasons. If we are to be effective teachers, we must understand these rhythms and know how to use them in the learning process. Oak Meadow’s former Social Media Coordinator, Amanda Witman, posted a lovely article on “Rhythms, Routines and Rituals” in Oak Meadow’s blog. If you have not yet read this selection, you might like to add this to your beginning-of-the-new-year readings.
by June M. Schulte When we began homeschooling in 1982, our eldest was just over seven years old, the legal age for school in Vermont. Although we were doing a lot with our children – reading aloud, making crafts, singing, dancing and so on – we weren’t quite sure which things might count as education and what was needed that we didn’t even know about. The day we received word from the State that we were okay to homeschool, our five children were ages 7¼, 5¾, 4, 2, and 10 days old. John Holt spoke to homeschoolers nearby that week, and we were encouraged by his words about the natural way children learn by doing.
We had searched for a good curriculum to use, and felt the one which best matched our view was offered by Oak Meadow School. Based on exchanges with cofounders Bonnie and Lawrence Williams, our eldest was placed in second grade and our daughter in first. We also bought the kindergarten curriculum to guide the younger children and, in truth, to reassure us in case our eldest had missed something important. We felt ready and excited. Execution of the curriculum was another story altogether. Our fifth child was a newborn and a robust 10lb-er; however, he also startled very easily and had rapid respirations for his first two weeks. In years to come, we would discover he had attention inconsistencies, but in those first months of homeschooling, it translated into needing to keep the household relatively quiet (in Winter) so the baby wasn’t over-stimulated. Also, as a nursing mother, I had a series of breast infections not easily quelled with antibiotics, as we eventually discovered there were two germs involved, not one. It was a challenge!
By the time we were sending our first quarter report and samples to Oak Meadow, I was quite concerned, as it seemed to me we had failed miserably. I felt that the most academic thing we had done all season was make a leaf mobile! We had also written a poem about the season, read aloud, sung songs (things that can be done with a babe in arms), and played a lot. But there were few lessons of any kind. At least I had kept a journal of what learning I noticed, and sent it along. I braced myself for the response from Oak Meadow. What came was a beautifully encouraging letter from Bonnie Williams herself, highlighting the many learning opportunities she found evident in my journal. Being a mother of four, she had read between the lines. She noted that my older children had learned that babies come first, to make their own sandwiches, and to help one another. She assured me that there would yet be plenty of time to accomplish the paperwork in the curriculum and recommended we simply stay with it.
We did, and I am so grateful for that. Bonnie was right. By the end of the year, we had completed the lessons in the curriculum, and our State Certified Teacher (who later opened a Waldorf school) confirmed it, giving me the greatest sense of accomplishment and peace!
Our children are now ages 41½ , 40, 38, 36, and 34. They all made the Dean’s List their first semester of college, graduated, and have been gainfully employed since. They are not social misfits. In fact, our eldest is a company manager, 5th-degree black belt and international TaekwonDo referee, dad, and co-owner of a horse farm with his spouse. Our daughter graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.S. in Mathematics and is a partner in a worldwide firm, a mom, and owner of a large house in Maine. Our third child has a Ph.D. and is a wildlife biologist who headed up shorebird recovery in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the BP oil spill; he is a dad, town selectman, marathon runner, and 3rd-degree black belt who teaches TaekwonDo. Our fourth child has a degree in Computer Science, works in customer support, and founded a non-profit focused on sustainability that grows food for food shelves. Our youngest has a degree in Networking and Website Development and makes websites for a good living; he is a dad, records local bands to get their music out to the public, and owns a house with his spouse.
Moreover, they are happy. They care about the world, the nation, and their local communities. They play with their children and are good friends. The many fears we had in those early days (and along the way) have been allayed. Our six grandchildren, currently age 10 years to 10 months, are intelligent, funny, sweet people.
I wish I could have known at the outset how it would be now. But, really, we just had to take it one day (sometimes one hour!) at a time. I’d say keeping a journal was the most important work I contributed, because it not only recorded the moments for which there was no paperwork, but it helped me notice and appreciate their slow and wonderful flourishing. On the tough days (and there were many), it was sanity-producing to read back over the last month’s journal and know for sure that we were making progress. It was what I drew from to create our end of year reports.
Note to former self: If a child is loved deeply, is given good resources, great art materials, lots of trips to libraries, field trips when possible, hands-on exploration, and heaps of fun, they cannot help but thrive. The curriculum itself is secondary. There is no way we can give a child all the knowledge they will need in life. So we need to teach them, largely by example and conversation, to mull and articulate, to explore, discover, invent, and create; give them the tools for doing their own research, creating their own art, writing their stories, and living as caring citizens. Give your heart to it and don’t second-guess yourself too much. If something isn’t right, trust that you’ll recognise that. Turn a deaf ear to naysayers and listen to other homeschoolers who share your philosophy. Have a small group of homeschoolers you can get together with or at least some homeschooling pen pals (for you as well as the children). You are all going to be just fine.
June Schulte completed her college degree as an off-campus student while homeschooling her children. She applied for and was granted the maximum three semesters of Life Learning credits from Goddard College (known for its progressive approach), earning a B.A. in Home Education and Religious Studies. She then completed a three year Diocesan Study Program as well as some seminary studies. A lifelong contemplative, June also completed the two year Shalem Spiritual Guidance Program, and for 20 years has been meeting with people who are seeking spiritual guidance. Guidance seems to be most of what homeschooling was about for June, and she feels that her children taught her more than she taught them. June and her husband, Bill, have been married 42 years so far, and are the delighted Grammie and Grandad of four granddaughters and two grandsons. As the Irish saying goes, “Children are the Rainbow of Life; Grandchildren are the Pot of Gold!”
Recently, my Oak Meadow colleagues and I have received inquiries from home teachers regarding their child’s desire for perfectionism and the many frustrations that accompany this need. Working with children who display perfectionist tendencies can be quite challenging, so it is a valuable issue to address.
A perfectionist is someone who sets a standard of perfection and refuses to accept anything less. Unfortunately, in an imperfect world, the perfectionist’s view can be an individual’s worst enemy, especially for a child.
The tendency for perfectionism can often be observed during a child’s school lessons. For example, a child may start writing out a lesson or drawing a picture, then repeatedly tear up the papers, only to begin again and again. A child with perfection tendencies may also easily cry or become quite frustrated if a simple mistake is made.
Perfectionism in children usually arises because there is more focus on the form of the lesson or task, rather than on the process of the activity. This is one of the reasons why Oak Meadow continuously emphasizes focusing on the process vs. focusing on the final form (or goal).
Most children go through perfectionist phases, so it is important that we, as home teachers and parents, do not overreact to the minor cycles of perfectionism. Oak Meadow cofounder, Lawrence Williams, believes that what often remedies these phases is to give our children “extra doses of recognition and appreciation for the work that they do.” He also feels that this pattern of interaction is an extremely important part of our children’s development.
When my children would show tendencies towards perfectionism, I not only looked at their individual needs and developmental cycles, but I also observed my own cyclic process. Did I find myself criticizing my own imperfections? Perhaps I said or did something that made me feel inadequate, or perhaps I felt guilty for being an imperfect mother or home teacher.
Let’s face it. We all have the desire to sometimes be perfect. We find ourselves wanting to please others, to do everything right, to make the perfect choice, etc. We especially want to be ideal parents. We also know that, no matter how well we try to hide these feelings, our children still have the ability to pick up on them and may even start expressing some of the same feelings.
There was no doubt in my mind that, unless I stopped demanding this need for perfection in myself, my children would also grow up with the same tendencies. Not surprisingly, these perfectionist tendencies can result in a lack of self confidence.
To help our children through their perfectionist phases, we need to allow our children, as well as ourselves, to be imperfect. It may require more energy, more love, and more patience. However, embracing imperfection is a crucial step in human development.
Author and founder of “Healthy Mother Earth Foundation” Robin Lim once wrote: Imperfection is God’s gift. It makes us compassionate as well as deserving of compassion. It allows us to take risks, to fail and succeed, to learn and grow, to ask questions. It honors our differences, our individual styles.
Now, go right on ahead! With another seasonal change at our doorsteps, making its own perfectly imperfect way into the world, take a leap into the wonderful world of imperfection. Ask a silly question, take a risk, experiment with new ideas, laugh at your own idiosyncrasies, and make all kinds of wonderful mistakes!
The following is Part 3 ofDeveloping Self-Esteem: Challenge Them, written by Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams.
Respect and appreciation provide the underlying support that a child needs, but challenges provide the fulcrum through which self-esteem is developed. Challenges enable a child to develop inner strength, which is an essential component of self-esteem. By facing and conquering small challenges, children develop the inner strength to face and conquer larger challenges and, ultimately, to conquer the challenges that face us all as human beings. Without challenges in life, children never have the opportunity to invoke the inner fire that is the true source of self-esteem. However, presenting children with challenges is something that must be approached intelligently and with caution, for it can easily become distorted and become a detriment rather than a benefit. The following guidelines may be helpful:
Provide Appropriate Challenges– Although something is gained just by the struggle itself, if children are constantly faced with challenges that are beyond their capacity, they inevitably fail, and this tends to diminish, rather than increase, self-esteem. The real benefit of a challenge lies in the opportunity it provides for the child to dig deeper and bring forth more inner strength, enough to overcome the obstacle and succeed. Thus, we must provide experiences that are difficult enough to offer a challenge, but not so difficult that failure is inevitable. As children grow in strength and expertise, look for new challenges that are up to their new capacity. Admittedly, this is an art, but it is one that becomes easier with practice.
Talk About It – Children are very open to the idea of applying themselves to a challenge to help them increase their inner strength, but you have to present it to them in a way that is relevant to their stage of unfoldment. For some children, you may put it in imaginary terms, and relate it to a particular fairy tale they enjoy (“Remember how the prince had to lift the heavy stones to build the wall? Well, this is just like that…”). For older children, you can begin to talk in symbolic terms (“Remember the story I used to tell you when you were little about the prince fighting the dragon? Well, whenever we struggle to do something that is difficult, it’s just like fighting a dragon inside us. If we give up, the dragon wins, and we become weaker. If we complete the job, we win, and we become stronger and more skillful at fighting the dragons inside…”). Don’t make it a lecture, but just a heart-to-heart talk between friends. Gradually, these talks can become real in-depth discussions of some pretty extraordinary things.
Teach Basic Strategies – For certain kinds of tasks, children may have the will to do it, but they just don’t know how. When this happens, they sometimes will say, “I can’t do it” when what they really mean is “I don’t know how to do it”. However, teaching strategies means more than just explaining how to do the job. Often, particularly if the job seems overwhelming, it means showing them how to break the job down in smaller tasks that are less intimidating. Once again, you can use analogies to make it more relevant to them (“Sometimes, if the dragon is real big, you can’t kill it all at once; you have to tie up one leg, then another, then another…”). Learning strategies that can be applied to many different kinds of tasks is very important, for they can apply this knowledge in many ways for the rest of their lives.
Provide Encouragement and Support– Every challenge requires children to struggle somewhat, and nothing helps in this process more than receiving encouragement from those you love and respect. The extent of the support that you offer can vary widely, depending upon the age of the children and their capabilities. For younger children, you probably will need to actually do it with them, then withdraw your participation gradually and in a non-confrontive manner (“Oh! I just remembered something in the kitchen! You keep going and I’ll be right back!”). However, when you do this, make sure that you do come back, or they will get distracted and gradually begin to distrust what you say. For older children, you may have to help them get started, and then check in from time to time to see how they’re progressing. When you do, always provide encouragement on their progress.
Give Them a Chance to Struggle– Often, parents want to protect their children from all uncomfortable experiences. Although one can appreciate the compassion behind such sentiments, rescuing children from all uncomfortable experiences serves to weaken them, rather than strengthen them. Of course, this must be tempered according to children’s stage of unfoldment. Younger children develop inner strength by struggling to control their bodies and develop their coordination, and this is best accomplished within the confines of a protected, nurturing environment rather than exposure to the “real world”. Exposing your children to harsh outer experiences doesn’t develop inner strength, it only forces them to develop superficial outer defenses to protect themselves. However, as children grow older, they need to gradually replace the protection of the parents with their own individual awareness. Ultimately, self-esteem arises when we get in touch with our own inner fire, for this gives us a sense of confidence in our own capabilities and our own inner worth as human beings. A sensitive environment and a loving, supportive family can open the door to self-esteem, but only through confronting and overcoming our own weaknesses as individuals do we contact the inner fire that makes us whole, and that gives us a sense of self-esteem that is based upon a knowledge of our worth and our capacities as human beings.
The following is Part 2 of Developing Self-Esteem: Appreciate Them, written by Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams.
One of the most powerful techniques for building positive self-esteem in children is to let them know how much you appreciate them. Appreciation lets them know that you see them clearly, and that you like what you see. It also gives them the message that they are of value, and knowing that others value you is a great esteem builder. However, as with the quality of respect, we may agree in principle that children need to be appreciated, but how do we do this?
Honor Their Uniqueness – This sounds wonderful, but this often causes many parents problems, simply because the traits that make children unique are often traits that make them difficult to live with. For example, a child who is very active may keep a house in a constant state of turmoil. Nevertheless, a dynamic will is a wonderful quality to have, and if you try to eliminate that quality from the child you will be extinguishing what makes him or her unique. Thus, instead of trying to eliminate a quality that you find disagreeable, let them know that you appreciate that quality, then help them find constructive channels for its expression.
Look For the Good and Acknowledge It – Positive reinforcement is a very powerful motivator. When your children do something good, let them know that you recognize what they did and how much you appreciate it. This not only raises their self-esteem, but it also encourages them to do more of the same in the future. However, it’s important that your acknowledgement be genuine and heartfelt, and not just spoken from concept. Of course, this means you have to be watching for the good that they do, rather than just noticing the bad, but you will find that paying attention to the good that is in them not only makes you appreciate them more, but also improves your outlook on other aspects of life as well. The basic principle here is this: Whatever you focus upon increases. Thus, if you focus upon the weaknesses or problems that children have, they will increase. If you focus upon their strengths or virtues, they will increase. I once taught a little girl who was in first grade, and I was always impressed by the concern that she showed for the other children. If anyone was hurt, she was the first to offer help. We had a wonderful relationship and learned a lot together, but I noticed that she would often be depressed when she first came to school in the morning. One day I met her mother and realized that she had a very different view of her daughter than I did. In her eyes, her daughter was sloppy and obstinate. She failed to notice all the finer qualities in her daughter, but chose to focus upon something that was unimportant by comparison. True, the girl wasn’t meticulous, but that was only because she had such a big heart, she couldn’t be bothered with seemingly unimportant details! However, by ignoring all of the beauty in her daughter and focusing upon that one trait, her mother had caused her to become obstinate, simply in order to defend herself. And, to my amazement, when the girl was around her mother, she became sloppy and obstinate, and her finer qualities were almost obscured. By looking for the good in her daughter, that mother could have been enjoying a wonderful relationship instead of spending her days fighting an obstinate child.
Don’t Compare Them With Others – As I mentioned earlier, every child is unique, and deserves to be treated as an individual. By comparing one child with another, you give the message there is one “right” way to be, and if they don’t happen to be that way, they have no recourse but to feel that they are failures. There is no “right” way to be, any more than there is one “right “ color in the rainbow. Each color, just as each child, is equally important and “right”, and by each color affirming its uniqueness and being fully what it is, we have the entire spectrum of color, which makes the world a much more interesting place to live. Can you say red is a better color than blue, or that green is a better color than yellow? Of course not. Colors are simply different from each other, not better or worse. In the same way, children (or adults) are not better or worse than each other, they are just different, and these differences are something to be appreciated and celebrated, because they are what makes us individuals.
Stay tuned for next week’s Part 3 – Challenge Them!