Avoid these 10 pitfalls, and distance learning will go more smoothly

If you've tried to homeschool your child during the pandemic, this is probably a familiar feeling.
If you've tried to homeschool your child during the pandemic, this is probably a pose you've struck at least once.

Whenever I’m on Zoom with a group of working-momma friends these days, these two questions inevitably make their rounds.

“Are you homeschooling?” and “How’s that working out?”

In mid-March, just after schools began to shut down, the general feeling was that homeschooling would be tough, but doable. Many of us were impressed by how well our kids were taking the transition; and some kids even enjoyed the idea of a furlough.

By mid-April, though, our collective optimism had faded. The consensus seemed to be: We’re getting through it, and that’s a win.

Now another month has passed.

Last night, during my virtual book club meeting, a question about homeschool was posed to a friend who happens to have a 4-year-old son and a full-time job.

“It’s fine,” my friend said. “I stopped caring.”

As we all laughed and nodded our approval, someone asked about how her work was going.

“Oh,” she said, “I stopped caring about that, too.”

If you are a working mom or dad trying to homeschool a child under 12 during the Covid-19 pandemic, WE SEE YOU. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. AND THIS MOMENT DOES NOT DEFINE YOU.

Part of a note written by a charter school principal.
Part of a note written by a charter school principal.

The wise principal of one charter middle school sent out a note to her students’ parents months ago, saying: “My advice for any parents wanting to homeschool during the shut down — don’t.” Her rationale was that adding stress to an already stressful time would be a net negative for families.

But, of course, that was before they closed schools for the year. Now, most of us have no choice but to participate in the homeschool paradigm. Our schools mandate it. Still, there are ways to make things easier on yourself, and there are ways to make them harder.

Here are ten things that do the latter.

1. They expect too much of their kids.

A normal school day is padded with downtime. Remember, if I’m a third-grader, I may spend 45 minutes of my day in math, but that doesn’t mean I’m doing math for 45 minutes. A lot of that time is poking my neighbor with my pencil and watching the teacher as she navigates my more high-maintenance peers. If you’re asking a high schooler to do more than three hours of actual school work in a typical day, you’re asking a lot, ParentShift co-authors Ty and Linda Hatfield say. If you’re asking that of a third-grader, you’re way out of line.

2. They expect too much of themselves.

You are not a teacher; don’t try to play one during the pandemic. Do your best to guide your kids, help them settle on a routine, and offer support as necessary. Then make sure your plan includes the line: “Things won’t go as planned.” Because they won’t. And that’s okay. Especially now, as the pandemic stretches on, you need to give yourself a break, and to give your kids a break, too. And your spouse. And, well, everyone, frankly. Every one of us is going through this together, and we all deserve a break.

3. They prioritize their children’s teachers and grades over their actual children.

If you’re truly focused on what’s right and reasonable for your child, you may discover it doesn’t match up to what is right for the school. Always side with the child. No, little Mikey’s teacher may not like that he didn’t turn in his math quiz on time, or did a wholly half-assed job on his spelling, or just flat out didn’t do the history project. But, as the Hatfields say, neither your kid’s teacher nor his school have your child’s best interest at heart. That’s your job. Please remember: We can’t control our kids, but we can influence them. And our greatest influence comes from the quality of our relationship with them. What we call “relationship problems” occur whenever a child perceives that at least one of her emotional needs is not being met. We address this much more in ParentShift’s Chapters 3 and 12, but for now, just remember: In ten years, the schoolwork your child did during the pandemic won’t matter; what will matter is the relationship she shared with you during that time.

In ten years, the schoolwork your child did during the pandemic won’t matter; what will matter is the relationship she shared with you during that time.

4. They forget that learning can be fun.

What if you told your child he could do her homework in the bathtub or on the trampoline or in your parked car? What if you told him he could practice writing his ABCs in shaving cream on a cookie sheet? What if you told him that her 20 minutes of reading could be spent reading the toy catalogue as far as you were concerned? What if you asked your child, “How can we make schoolwork more fun this week?” Thinking outside the box, the Hatfields say, can smooth over a lot of rough edges in the day.

5. They use punishments and rewards to motivate their kids.

Taking away screen time in response to unfinished assignments, or offering special treats for high marks just pushes us deeper into the extrinsic-motivation gutter that we’re all trying to avoid. If we want our kids to be self-motivated, it means allowing them the space to motivate themselves. Will they always self-motivate on your timetable? Nope. But giving in to the temptation to scold, punish, threaten or offer rewards in exchange for finished work — that's just making your life harder, and messier.

6. They project their childhood baggage onto their kids.

If your parents put any pressure on you to perform in school as a child, you likely will have a lot of trouble just “letting go” or, as my friend put it, “not caring.” You may experience every low mark your child receives as a small fissure in your own self-esteem. This is understandable, but it’s not fair. Best to stop the cycle. Experience your feelings quietly, and with compassion, without saddling your child with your baggage.

7. They try to hash things out when they’re actively annoyed with their children.

Listen, I speak from experience on this one. My daughter and I have had ongoing issues over chores in our house. It seems it’s the one thing we can’t agree on for too terribly long. Now, whenever a chore system starts to fall apart, I get triggered — and every cell in my body demands me to race into her room and “have it out.” THIS IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA. It leads to bad feelings and prolongs a real resolution. (And, frankly, it’s my own baggage that’s triggering me.) However, when I put a date on the calendar to discuss chores, and then we talk about it casually, neither of us angry or defensive, we reach resolutions much more quickly. Plus, all that annoyance turns to compassion when I realize: She really is doing the best she can.

8. They lack mutually agreed-upon routines or plans of action.

Creating a routine or schedule is so important for younger kids, who love to know what’s coming. But many of us forget to create the routine by way of “mutual agreement” — that is, a win-win solution with 100% buy-in from your child. There are a couple different ways to reach mutual agreements. One is an “informal win-win” (which you can reach in just a minute or two), and the other is a “formal roundtable” (which requires a sit-down discussion and is necessary for more persistent or complex issues.) I can’t get into details about them here, but I’ll be sure to discuss them more in future posts. (You also can find step-by-step instructions for how to make mutual agreements in ParentShift’s Chapter 11.)

9. They step in when it’s none of their dang business.

A child-owned challenge is “an age-appropriate problem that a child can manage on her own and that has no tangible effect on the parent.” Your 5-year-old gets in an argument with her best friend? That’s a child-owned challenge. Your 13-year-old complains of boredom? Child-owned challenge. Your child gets a bad grade in school? Child-owned challenge. The point here is that, on some level, our children’s schoolwork is a challenge faced by our children, not us. And the consequences they face for not doing it will be natural. (Natural consequences: Outcomes that naturally follow a child’s choice or behavior, without the interference of a parent.) This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t guide them, or show them good study habits, or try to set them up for success. Not at all. But we also need to know when to back off.

10. They forget self-care.

Self-care doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. But whatever it means to you, do it. Do it as much as you can. And if “self-care” is a phrase you’ve yet to each your child, now is a great time to explain that the more stressed you feel, the more self-care you need. This can feel selfish sometimes, and unnecessary; it’s neither. When you role model what it looks like to take care of yourself, you do your child the hugest favor.

ON A RELATED NOTE: Be sure to check out Ty and Linda speaking on a Facebook panel hosted by Paula Kettula about parenting in a time of crisis. They're great!