By Andy Elvis
I cannot say that I have a direct input into the education of our children. As a working father the time I spend away from the home means that teaching formal subject matter is impractical. You see, I am time challenged, and when I have the available time during the week, the children have already finished their school day. In actual fact the last thing that they want to hear is me banging on about geography after dinner – believe me I’ve tried! Sedimentation and Continental Drift might be very exciting subject matter, but they’re not likely to stimulate anyone’s interest at 7.00 o’clock.
Now before everybody writes me off as being a failure at homeschooling, I do have other uses, other than as a wallet and a taxi. These are manifested as less formal influences on our children’s education. My role is first and foremost to be support for my long suffering wife, on whose shoulders the daily rigours of education fall and who is chiefly responsible for dragging our children up.
In addition to being the backstop (or principal of the school!) my position is more subtle and could best be described as education by example, even down to showing how not to do something. Yes, even I make mistakes, hard though it is to believe. So what are these education-by-stealth methods I hear you ask? Without resorting to some esoteric, psycho-babble explanation, the key ingredients would be involvement, interaction and fun.
Some years ago I was laid up from work with a broken leg, all my own fault I might add. During this enforced holiday I became interested in cooking and it is a hobby which I still like to indulge. Whilst I do not aspire to become a cordon bleu chef, there are practical educational and life skills that can be taught to children. When I was a child, long, long ago, my mother’s principle aims with her sons were that we could look after ourselves, meaning that we could cook, sew, wash and iron clothes. These are all still important life skills whatever level of education our children strive to obtain.
My observations have been that children, even from a young age, want to help in the kitchen, and they are all capable of being ‘sous-chefs’. There is no reason why a 3 year old cannot stand on a chair and chop mushrooms with a dinner knife. This time together in the kitchen allows the children to talk and ask questions about what we are doing and why we are doing certain things. Cooking involves measuring computation, nutrition, co-ordination, organization and, importantly, patience. A good measure of fun will ensure that rather than having to press-gang children to help in the kitchen, there is a willing source of volunteers. Youngsters in particular also quickly work out that there are more tangible benefits to helping in the kitchen, like leftover cake mixture. As the children grow older they can be tasked with preparing meals for the whole family on a regular basis, taking the load off equally time challenged mothers.
The example I have just given could just as easily be applied to shopping, where our younger children view a trip to do the weekly shopping as a treat, especially if they are allowed to push the trolley. This is not a ready made recipe for disaster, as a child behind a loaded trolley can be easily guided from the front by a patient parent, in this case father. You will also be amazed at how quickly a supermarket aisle empties when other shoppers can only see a trolley being pushed by a pair of hands and feet.
As a family we have been fortunate to have assisted with a number of fund-raising dinners for our parish, in particular the annual St. Patrick’s Day Dinner. This involves serving meals to over 150 ravenous pensioner diners, requiring teamwork and a large dose of good humour. By putting an effort into showing my older children how to do things, they can now work largely unsupervised, allowing me to assume the position of the “Fat Controller”, this being to point a lot, while they get on with the job at hand.
These are just a couple of examples of how we have involved our children in what would seem fairly mundane activities, but they also show the kind of opportunities that present themselves to not only become more involved with our children, but to reinforce and add another dimension to their education.
I am also fortunate to have shared interests with my children, although these are not always the same interests with every child. In these cases we are all learning together, although I have found that the children do learn at a faster rate than I do. Singing is an example that comes to mind, where rather than just being “Dad’s Taxi” and ferrying said loved ones to and from our Local Church every Tuesday night, I share the same experiences as they do. Like all of us there are times when I could think of reasons to skip Choir Practice, particularly after a rough day at work, but I have a commitment not only to the Choir but also to my children, which they understand and acknowledge. This shared love of music has led several of the children to want to have music lessons, whether singing or with a musical instrument, and whether this will lead them to pursue a career in music has not been the issue. It is all about letting them explore their capabilities and interests within the resources that we have available.
There was a period in my life, not so long ago, where every Saturday morning would be spent at a local Swimming School, in the “Baby Class”. To the uninitiated, these involved getting into my swimming togs and standing waist-high in water, supporting various children and encouraging them to float, blow bubbles and put their heads into the water. It also meant learning the tunes to be sung whilst doing said actions, tunes which will remain with me to the grave. This may not sound like fun and to be honest there were times when having a root canal may have been preferable, but the joy on Sophie’s and Gemma-Rose’s faces made it all worth while. Watching their water confidence now puts all the encouragement and frustration into perspective.
As the children get older they develop their own interests and hobbies, and it is equally exciting to see these develop. Sure there are always going to be times when one of the children has ambition above their ability, but my role is support and trying to share some of my own experiences with them. My son Callum has developed an interest in mountain bikes, and this has involved the usual pile of unassembled bike parts and strewn tools in the garage as he gained an insight into mechanics. I have been able to help him with these projects and we have reached the stage where he knows more about bikes than I do, which is the natural order. It doesn’t mean however that I am now surplus to requirement as we can still discuss and plan what he wants to do in this area, such as being his ‘pit crew’ at bike races. Callum’s interest in bikes has also inspired the other children to want to ride, with the opportunity to teach them how to ride properly, bike maintenance, road safety and get some exercise. As the children gain confidence and the necessary skills they can then be trusted to ride unsupervised.
In my former own profession I was regularly involved in graphic design, artwork and publishing, skills which I have been able to utilise in preparing newsletters such as, well Keeping In Touch. What started out as idle curiosity on behalf of two of our children, Imogen and Callum, in how to construct a publication resulted in them volunteering to design and publish their own newsletters, such as “Black Jacks” (St. John Ambulance Cadets – Southern Highlands). This entails planning articles, researching or creating subject material, writing copy and layout, as well as achieving deadlines. These skills will hopefully stand them in good stead when they have to take their place in the workforce.
I don’t profess to be an expert at everything and my children know this. But this is surely the point about homeschooling, where we can all learn and hopefully enjoy the experience. My ego can accept that my children will surpass me in probably all endeavours, and that I may have to play second fiddle to their greater ability. I can also accept that I may have to break some stereo-typical, gender boundaries to be involved in extra-curricular activities, shopping not being the most ‘manly’ of pursuits. But I want to be involved in their development at whatever level, and if that means sacrificing some of my leisure time investing in their pursuits rather than my own, then I can live with that.