The most heart-wrenching stories come to me in my email, from teachers.

This is one that really got to me:

Hi Penelope. I homeschooled my kids, and now I work a couple of days a week as a school aide.

We had a super stormy day last week. I was at school and I heard a huge downpour hit the school building. I couldn’t see the rain and all three 5th grade classrooms (with one small window each) had the blinds closed.   

It was almost painful to hear a huge downpour and then miss out on the wonder of watching it come down.  It made me sad that all those kids had to push down those happy feelings too because they had no control over whether they could go look out the window.

Next time, I will go up to the office to look out the window. I have the freedom to do that. Those kids don’t. 

The same is true of homeschooling, in the opposite direction. I like homeschooling because it creates so much unstructured downtime. The most meaningful moments for me are the mundane. They are the times when I am doing life but I am doing it with my kids.

The big, special events are not what make up the fabric of childhood. Those events are like the sequins sewn onto the fabric. But the experience of being somewhere and growing somewhere is what happens on a daily basis. All of that experience comes as part of our routine. And if you don’t have those daily routines there is no fabric to hold the sequins—a childhood with only special events (designated “quality time”) has no larger context.

A few weeks ago my son and I planted magnolia trees. In general my kids have no interest in my obsessive gardening, but they come out to the garden when I call from the yard for help. I took a video of planting together.

We were not fast or efficient, but my son was fun. And I don’t think I could have had that fun if I were pressed for time, trying to stick to a school’s schedule, or conform my life to what the school wants from my family.

Homeschooling is watching rain instead of reading. It’s gardening in the most inefficient way possible but learning still, from the work. Homeschooling is having the guts to leave time wide open because that’s the only way we can be surprised by how it gets filled.

35 replies
  1. Ari
    Ari says:

    I really liked the punch-line on this post.

    It made me muse about “having the guts to leave purpose wide open, because that’s the only way we can be surprised by how it gets filled.”. It took me years to come around to an extreme lassez-faire point of view regarding preparation for the future, and I felt like I had to develop some trust and guts along he way: evolutionary wisdom already has baked appropriate preparation for the future into fun, play, interests, focus, etc.

    People used to ask me how my child would prepare for the future, and I would answer “I like my local culture and society; by living life here, at minimum, she will learn what it is necessary to live here.”

    But now, my answer is, “I’m not concerned with preparing for the future. It’s an inherent trait of human makeup. We’re just here, enjoying our lives.”

  2. Liz Ness
    Liz Ness says:

    Our lives are full of all sorts of things demanding our attention–it’s hard to focus via our own volition. And, that’s were homeschooling prevails: It brings balance.

    Homeschooling let’s one stop and smell the magnolias.

    Love this post, Penelope. =)

  3. Erin
    Erin says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Most days we have one activity we would like to do. But it is usually something like collect yarrow for a tincture or putz around in the garden and not learn a letter of the alphabet. I am constantly amazed by what that one simple task often turns into–it turns into what my daughter needs to learn most at that moment.

  4. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I read a Maria Montessori book when Murphy was only a few months old. It affected me so much.
    She talks about how there is real meaning to every little things kids do. And she goes on to explain.
    It’s ridiculous to say that we are unschooling because Murphy is only 1.5 years old. But when I am really tired I go outside to watch Chris work while I just sit and hope for my head to clear. On Monday he was building a box to bake his bow in. And Murphy was holding a paper cup full of screws. He would attentively watch Chris screw each little golden piece of metal into the old wood with a power tool. Then, as the screw was almost all the way into the wood, Murphy would pull out another screw to give to Chris. Then he would eagerly stretch out his little arm to give his dad another screw.

    And repeat.

    Sometimes I am heartbroken at the thought of not having come across this blog on time. I would have probably been just another parent thinking that it was completely normal to put kids to the sidelines, out of the way.

    Okay, maybe the project didn’t move as fast as it would without a toddler in tow.

    Nothing moves as fast as it would when you throw a toddler in the mix.

    But it was such a pleasure to see him be enthralled and KNOW he was a part of the process. Know that we appreciate and respect him to make him a part of what we do. He learned the speed at which the screw goes in and prepared his little hand to reach for another.

    When Chris would be busy cutting more wood, Murphy would go around collecting the screws that fell on the floor and putting them in the Dora the Explorer paper cup. My heart almost burst.

    It reminds me of being a child with both my brothers and building the tiny house that my family and I lived in Mexico. Yeah sure, it was tiny and it was pretty bare bones. But we would tell everyone who would listen that we helped build it. We felt so proud. We felt ownership. That’s when my 3 year old brother discovered that he could collect lost nails in the sand if he attached a magnet to a stick and hover it over the sand. He was the nail collector to make sure no one poked their feet. Everyone had a job that fit with the attention span and the physical abilities. We were always together and we didn’t know, but we were getting quite the education.

    And seeing the story repeat itself made me cry.

    Or maybe it’s hormones from being pregnant. Who knows.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Best video! Yefet is adorable, I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear that, but he is. Magnolia trees are my personal favorite, they are so beautiful. The streets in our neighborhood are lined with them and it creates this picturesque view when they flower.

    • karelys davis
      karelys davis says:

      Since reading this post I’ve been playing “Gardenias” by Mandy Moore on repeat. In my head.
      I know, not the same flower but somehow I confused them.

      I find it odd that Penelope likes to Garden. I would never imagine someone like her enjoying that.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I, too, am surprised that I like to garden. But I approach it just like I would a startup. I have learned an incredible amount about gardening. I read three or four books a week on the topic.

        Also, the garden started out as a small, manageable thing and has grown to about an acre and is huge and I’ve had to hire people to help me manage it.

        And, finally, I am always planning and changing and improving, which is one of the reasons the garden is huge.

        Sometimes I think the garden is a standing for a startup. I mean, I have a company, but it is not nearly as fast-moving and unruly as my earlier startups. The garden is fast moving and unruly though.


        • mh
          mh says:

          Heh! I can see that. Fast moving and unruly! From one mother of boys to another, Penelope, I can relate.

  6. Thi
    Thi says:

    Yes magnolia trees! My granddad has one down in LA. The magnolia blossoms are so fragrant and sweet smelling that ants crawl in try to eat the nectar.

  7. Jennifer Higgins
    Jennifer Higgins says:

    This is a reminder that I need over and over again. It’s not that I don’t value the down time, but the opportunities for special things seem to be everywhere! Thank you for helping me check back in with myself.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      It’s pretty crazy isn’t it?

      I am a fan of minimalism. Two years ago we decided to declutter our house. It was evident right away that decluttering our schedule had to become a priority too.

      One of the hardest parts for me it’s to declutter my feed of stimulus/reading material. There is so much opportunity to escape to social media and read when I feel overwhelmed. But then my mind gets tired.

      It’s so easy to take everyone up on their offers.

      Then you end up exhausted.

      It’s a lot harder to make a time space sanctuary to let things unfold on their own. Like having a chunk of time where you don’t have to run around like a headless chicken and plant trees or … I don’t know…whatever.

  8. Kevin Finch
    Kevin Finch says:

    Love this post. When you see so many other families running around from one event to another, it’s sometimes difficult to stifle the thought that your child is missing out on something by having these long stretches of time. Whether it’s family or friends, I’m constantly asked, “What is your child signed up for this summer?” or “What is your child doing in the Fall?” as if their lives should be filled with organized activities. When I’m able to relax and embrace them, I absolutely cherish the “wide open” spaces of time. And, I realize, it’s in the unorganized time that I learn so much about my two daughters.

  9. susan
    susan says:

    Well said, Penelope. I’ve been homeschooling my kids since birth and now they’re 17, 15 and 14. Since the day we started “formally” homeschooling (and I use that term loosely) when my oldest turned 6, we’ve started our school day with what we call “Coffee Talk” (the kids went through a phase where they drank coffee too but now it’s just me, but the “Coffee Talk” name persists).

    During Coffee Talk we go over the day’s plans, the plans for the days coming up, the dinner menu, what errands need to be done, who needs what supplies, etc. Basically we talk about our family’s life and get everyone on the same page to start the day.

    Of course we are known to take a wildly divergent path when someone asks a question that leads somewhere else and before you know it we’re several hours into a discussion we never set out to have, but is educational none the less.

    Without a doubt this Coffee Talk ritual is what keeps us grounded and connected and still in love with homeschooling after all these years. There have been days where all we’ve done for school is Coffee Talk, and in a subversive kind of way that thrills me. We accomplished family life that day, and that’s what I’m in this whole homeschooling adventure for in the first place.

    So very true, the mundane is also the very best part.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      OMG if there’s something I’ve romanticized about parenthood is the idea that one day we’ll be doing Coffee Talk with our children!

      That was my experience growing up. My dad was a fan of blabbering on while the sun was coming up and there was a steaming mug of coffee sitting on the edge of the “pool” he built us (it was more like an overground pool made of bricks and cement. It was a pain to clean it but it was so much fun to play in!).

      I hope I don’t get disappointed in this aspect and that life really gives me that. I’d die happy :)

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Very nice post & video.
    One of the best decisions you’ve ever made is to homeschool. As hard as it was initially and will continue to be at certain times, the long-term benefits will be worth it for everyone in your family. But you already have discovered that.
    I will take exception to the use of the term “quality time” in this post. My understanding of quality time doesn’t mean merely to set aside certain time slots for giving undivided attention to yourself or someone else. It means giving undivided attention to yourself or someone else as it is needed or presents itself. It’s not something that can be planned – at least when it comes to engagement with other people. It’s more an opportunity that needs to be recognized and seized upon when it’s present. I don’t consider pre-planned big, special events as necessarily quality time. However, they may turn out to be quality time. I think of quality time more as something that’s discerned while it’s happening or in retrospection.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Mark W.

      I agree. We recognize quality time best in hindsight.

      What I like about homeschooling is we have more “shots on goal”. Since we have more opportunities and time together, our family builds more of those great connections. We have more time, so we have more quality time. I came down this morning and heard the kids giggling, just making up some boy-type game.

      Homeschool is a gift I am giving my family.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        +1. And I really like the “shots on goal” analogy. I’m rooting for the NY Rangers in the Stanley Cup who happen to be the underdogs. :)

  11. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    My problem with homeschooling/private schools/even moving out of a city to go to a suburban school is this.
    If it isn’t good enough for your kid, why in the world is it good enough for someone else’s kid? If schools aren’t good enough for your kid to attend, fight to make them better. It’s inherently unfair that certain people can homeschool/private school/etc., when the majority of people can not. Make your local school one you would be happy to send your kids to.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Hi Andrea, interesting comment! I’m just curious if you, yourself have any children? If so, are they school-aged?

      I can appreciate your feelings about the unfairness of life, but I’m just curious how it is fair for our homeschooled children to be forced into a traditional education when it is clearly better for them to be with their parents doing self-directed learning?

      If I was able to magically force the neighborhood school to not start academics until Jr. High, and have kids only be in school for 2 hours a day with the rest of the day at home free to pursue their own interests I would be happy to send them!

      Unfortunately, most other people would not be happy with that because they need the school to be a daycare for their children so they can work. I don’t need school to be a daycare for my kids. I’m sorry if this seems unfair, but I don’t think it would be fair for my kids to be in traditional school either. I’m just a mom trying to do what’s best for my family, and for us that’s homeschooling; I would never return to a traditional education model after having seen the benefits of homeschool first-hand. I hope you can understand that.

      • Splashman
        Splashman says:

        Excellent response, YMKAS. Andrea’s goal seems to be the same as communism’s goal: to force everyone down to the same level of misery.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Ya I’m not sure about her intentions, kind of why I was wanting to see where she was coming from because I wanted to make the following points.

          I would like to point out to people that think everyone should put their kids in public school to improve the system that child sacrifice went away when the Ancient Babylonians fell (I think)… but you still see it hardwired in some people who call for child sacrifice in the name of schools, like the gods will magically bless the crops(schools) or something if I give my kids as an offering by sending them.

          I thought we had evolved past this practice thousands of years ago… But I will say this, I will never sacrifice my children … if I want to sacrifice something, I’ll sacrifice myself so I’m the one who suffers… but not my kids. Let’s stop using children as sacrificial lambs and do what’s best for them.

          What’s best is being with their parents. What’s proven is self-directed learning. What’s needed is more learning through play. Schools take kids away from parents for 8 hours, schools use scope and sequence and cram for testing, schools take away free play time so that kids are only left with a small portion of the day to play.

          No, the sacrifice is too great. We’ll just keep on unschooling.

          • mh
            mh says:

            YesMyKidsAre Socialized,

            I think it IS about sacrificing the kids. That’s the same word I came up with.

            And whether the schools are merely boring for my kids, or truly dreadful places with predators, it doesn’t matter. Sending my kids to school is a waste of their time and potential. If I needed full time warehousing for my children so badly, perhaps I would be able to overlook the maleducation that goes on in compulsory schools. But… as it is, I don’t need the full time child care. And if I did, I would make other arrangements.

            We live in an age of innovation and creativity and customization. Why settle for less for my kids’ education?

            I don’t understand how Andrea got assigned to be the Fairness Police, and I’d be interested in reading the job description.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Sacrificing my kids to the doldrums of listless compulsory school doesn’t sound all that appealing.

      I think it’s a better idea to let families make their own educational choices.

      Don’t you think choice is better, Andrea?

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I like choice. :) Forcing me to do something I don’t want to do won’t end well for anyone… life has been so much more meaningful lately knowing that I am doing things because I want to, not because someone is forcing me to or because of some supposed reward for doing the right thing. Life is good… choices are good.

        Couldn’t reply to the other post about fairness police… but I totally agree with you, isn’t it the most fair to have as many options available, kids aren’t cogs in a machine. :)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Andrea, I’m a huge supporter of public school. But I support it as a social service for parents who cannot handle their kids at home all day.

      School is a great babysitting service. I’m happy to continue to use it for families in need. I just don’t want to keep pretending that school is about educating kids.


      • jill britz
        jill britz says:

        oh, my goodness, yes.

        this morning the toddler led me outside, like every day. i left the big kids inside to do their thing: math on the computer, working out the melody to the “back to the future” theme.

        the toddler took me down along the river where our fire pit is, the 5-year-old trailed along. the pit had sticks in it; we went back for matches. fire started, i laid back in the grass, toddler playing on top of me, 5 lighting matches to see if leaves burn.

        if that’s not valuable education, i just can’t see what is.

      • Amy K.
        Amy K. says:

        So, if school were to become a social service, would income be the primary criteria for accessing it? Most social services are based on income, of course–SNAP, state-run healthcare, WIC.

        I can certainly see the logic in that… but public schools in the US are already so segregated, it’s hard to imagine all the middle/upper-middle suburban parents agreeing to their schools just closing, or staying open for the benefit of poor kids from neighboring communities.

    • Amy K.
      Amy K. says:


      I did just what you describe, for many years. We sent our kids to our neighborhood public school while most of our neighbors opted for private, parochial, transfer, charter or moving (I wish I knew some nearby homeschoolers but I don’t).

      I rolled up my sleeves, big time. Served 2 years as PTA president. Got grants, started arts programs, increased fundraising. It was hard work but very rewarding.

      My kids always had great teachers and some great years. But in 4th grade my older son was bullied a lot. The principal and teachers tried so many things. My wonderful community of parent-friends tried to help. But it wasn’t enough. There was just a toxic dynamic towards my son, from kids (and maybe their families) who didn’t care about learning. And no amount of PTA volunteering could make that better.

      So, we’re trying homeschooling, which is new and exciting and kind of scary. But one worry that is not on my long list is that by doing so I am not giving back to the community. Because I already did that.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Hey Amy, have you tried looking for groups through yahoo, meetup, or through this online registry?

        If there is really nothing, maybe you could form your own group. Having the experience of being PTA president would come in handy.

        • Amy K.
          Amy K. says:

          Thanks for the suggestion.

          I know *of* a few people and a few groups, and I’m sure we’ll get more connected now that school is over and we’re homeschooling in earnest. But they all seem to be a few towns over. I have to cast a wide geographical net because it’s just not that common. As for forming my own group–no thanks! I did the leadership thing already and I’m looking forward to focusing on my own children :)

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      It’s not good enough for other kids. But the schools cannot be fixed since communities do not have the control to override governmental restrictions and requirements. Some have realized it and some are still naive.

      You are advocating “going down with the ship.”

  12. karenloe
    karenloe says:

    My kids have gotten much older somehow, 17 and 13, and I have felt such a renewed urge to get serious and all organized and stuff.
    Luckily, we always know when it’s time to put the books and materials away and enjoy the rain!

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