“What advice would you give parents to better equip their children for life after homeschool?”
As I am not a homeschool graduate, and don’t yet have any homeschool graduates, I went to Ajax Cochrane, a 2013 homeschool graduate for an answer to this question.
In this answer, I’m going to try to cover as many bases as possible, because everything that you teach or do with your children is going to help them in some way. Yes, I’m seventeen, so that may sound overly “teacherish”, but since I was asked I’m going to answer as best I can, and, being a writer, that will take some time, so please bear with me. Note that I’m mainly directing this towards parents whose children are not planning to go to college but instead plan to graduate and become self-employed or work in the family business. You teens might find this to be interesting reading as well.
Obviously, start your child reading at an early age. Even before they can really talk or make much sense of language, just grab a stack of picture books and read to them while they play. This has the dual reward of familiarizing them with spoken English, and they see you getting enjoyment out of that stack of paper in your hand. Children are going to want to be like their parents, so if they see you enjoying a book, chances are they will be more likely and more willing to learn to read. I can’t offer any advice on how to teach them because I was reading by age three. How I learned, we don’t really know, but Mom and I both think it’s because she would read to me, literally, for hours. The best way, I think, is to have them sit in your lap and then point to each word as you read it. I tried a phonics course and I know that I hated it. I’ve never cared much for rote memorization anyway.
As your children get older and read more, make sure that there is plenty of variety. My brothers and I have different reading interests. When I was younger, I was the one that read all these science and history books filled with a lot of writing and few pictures.. I’d just sit down and read them like they were novels. The boys didn’t care for them as much as I did but instead read them more for school or if they needed to know a fact for a project. Now the tables have turned somewhat, and they are the ones that read all the “fact books” while I read more novels. It’s always a good idea to proofread your students’ novels, for the first year or two. When you come across dirty language or more mature content, go over it with them and make sure that they understand that while those words and scenes are generally put in the books because that’s what happens in the real world, and they are put in to lend a sense of reality to a fictional work, you’d better not ever catch them saying or doing any of those things. Late Victorian-era British literature generally is a good place to start reading because while there is some swearing, there’s generally less innuendo in them than more modern works. In any case, I’d recommend waiting on popular and/or science fiction until they’ve read at least a few of the books listed below. I’ll explain why in just a bit.
Along with the fiction, be sure to intersperse plenty of biographical or human interest works. If your student is interested in sailing or nautical adventures, he might want to read Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast in conjunction with C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series. If they are interested in 1860s America, they might enjoy reading some of Mark Twain’s books such as Tom Sawyer or his Library of Humor while reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. Oftentimes, reading a fictional work alongside a biographical one from the same time period lends color and depth to your understanding of those people and the time they lived in. (Obviously this won’t work with futuristic works such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, or Hunger Games.)
Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, Artemis Fowl, Inkheart– why wait to read these? My reason is simple. Every book that is written builds upon the works that proceeded it, even the most original works. If you live in Western society, you are influenced by Western literature, regardless. Therefore, the more classic literature you read before you read the sci-fi, the better you will appreciate the book , and you will also be able to see how it ties in to other works as well. Sometimes the link is barely discernible, but it’s there none the less. I’m not saying that you have to read every book written before 1960 to be able to enjoy sci-fi, but if you read them first, you miss out on a lot. I know how alluring these books can be, and I will confess that I’ve been pretty bad about it- most of my reading for the past six months has consisted of Lord of the Rings, Eragon, Artemis Fowl, Reckless, and such like titles. The bad part is, what if I had started reading these in fourth or fifth grade? Probably I would have just kept reading and re-reading them and missed out on the whole world that waits on the library shelves.
For me, the best fantasy series to start with is Redwall. It has an excellent storyline, and for younger readers there is a very clear line between good and evil, which is a must-have for a good understanding of fantasy fiction. Mathias is good, he’s a protector, he’s a builder, he is honest, etc. Cluny, on the other hand, is pure evil- ruthless, barbaric, nothing stands between him and victory unless it’s a pile of corpses. This is different from Lord of the Rings, where you have characters like Boromir or Gollum, who sometimes seem bad and then sometimes seem good. This may not seem like a great difference, but the difference between good and evil has to be clearly accentuated. You can’t let young readers get confused, because it could cloud their worldview. I think this is where fantasy becomes a sand trap for so many people- they just read it as so many words, without trying to view the different sides and perspectives. This is also where parental caution comes into play. Some sci-fi is okay. The ones I’ve included below are, on the whole, very well-written and executed. However, (this is assuming that at this point your child is choosing books on his/her own to read or bring home from the library), if they’re bringing home books that very obviously deal with demonic or other shady subject matter, you may want to take a quick browse through those books just to double-check what they’re really reading. You know the books I’m talking about, the ones in the fantasy section with the barely clothed “space madams” and little demon creatures fighting each other. Leastways, that type of fiction isn’t allowed in our house. Final note on this topic: Always keep in mind that fantasy should be strictly for fun reading, what they read after school or on break. Never let it become an obsession. This is one major benefit of reading classics first (and not playing a whole bunch of video games), they get to know that, sorry, but the worlds in the books are not real. Some people actually get to the point where this is all they read, and they actually think they are living in Rohan or Atlantis. Classics generally deal with the real world, and the real world is what you’re going to be living in, so read more of those.
Why have I placed so much emphasis on learning to read and the enjoyment of reading? That’s going to be covered in our next section, Vocabulary and Writing.
Vocabulary & Writing
One of the greatest and most noticeable benefits of reading classics is the effect it will have on your child’s vocabulary. Hardly anyone these days has a good grasp of the English language. Everything these days is “cool”, “sweet”, “groovy”, “horrible”, “sick”. No one uses words any more like “phenomenal”, “unparalleled”, “prodigious”, “beastly”, etc. I’m not saying that every time you speak you have to sound like a Harvard graduate, but there is a multitude of words out there, particularly adjectives, beyond the hundred or so that are constantly repeated in slang and on the television. A short vignette to prove my point: Last week, Granddaddy and I went to Sutherlands to get a load of Windsor blocks, fifty of them. After loading them on the truck, the yard worker tried to count them. He tried two or three times and kept getting off on his count or forgetting which brick he was on. He obviously didn’t know how to count by twos or it would have been easier. (More on the math here in a bit.) Granddaddy counted them and came to a total of fifty. He turned to the worker and said, “Well, I’ve got fifty here. Do you acquiesce?” Blank look from the worker. “Uh… yeah, I guess so?” Obviously he didn’t know what the word meant. “Do you acquiesce, you know, do you agree with my count?” “Oh, yeah, sure.” He was still slightly confused as to why Granddaddy had used acquiesce. Now yes, it wasn’t an important situation, but what if it had been? Would you really want your young adult sitting in a business meeting or on a jury in the future and not know what on earth these people are talking about? Furthermore, aside from having a better understanding of language, it can also prove a valuable asset when writing, whether it’s writing a resume or writing a novel.
Writing, for me, is both a job and a pastime. I write study guides that I sell to a homeschool company, and then I also write on short stories or work on one of the ten or so novels I’ve started and never finished. I took an excellent writing course from The Teaching Company called “Building Great Sentences: Exploring The Writer’s Craft.” Taught by Professor Brooks Landon, it was very informative and a lot of the style he taught has stayed with me. I’d highly recommend it if your child shows an interest in writing. Looking at what I wrote before taking the course, and at what I wrote after, the difference was very obvious. The writing becomes more descriptive, the sentences are longer (one of the challenges is to see how long of a sentence you can write that will still hold the reader’s attention), the stories flow better, and best of all, you make use of all of that vocabulary that you’re learning in your reading and transfer it to your writing. I’ll try to show you the difference here. Maybe before the course, your child’s writing tended to run thus:
“The cat sat on the window ledge, purring contentedly as he enjoyed the warm spring sunshine.”
The course teaches you to go through, analyze the sentence, and then see what you can do to make this sentence more interesting. What color is the cat? Is it a he or a she? Why was he contented? Is the window ledge wood or upholstered? The end result might be something like this:
“The gray and white tom reposed gracefully on the plush velour of the window ledge in the little girl’s bedroom; at intervals he emitted a rumbling purr, an earlier saucer of milk and the luxuriant sunshine combining to make a cat’s heaven- except that he lacked a mouse to chase, which aggravated him not a little.”
Well, that was a rather feeble attempt, but that’s what came off the top of my head. Hopefully I’ve conveyed the idea well enough, though. As you keep practicing this technique, you become more and more descriptive, which always results in a more interesting story. Louis L’Amour, for me, is one of the best authors to read if you want to write descriptively. I know that there is a book by Strunk and White that is supposed to be the definitive guide to writing, but I prefer to just start writing without reading the ways that someone else thinks I ought. This is just my personal opinion, but for me, as long as your grammar is correct (always, always, always refer to the Little, Brown Handbook when in doubt) and your storyline is complete and interesting, pull out the stops and write. One of the best ways to build confidence in your writing is to pass it around for other people to read, or enter it in your county fair. If you do the latter, don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t do as well as you’d hoped, because it will be based on the judge’s opinion. But it’s very rewarding when you do see your writing with the big ribbon on it.
Math & Science
Breath in, breath out, deep breaths, you’re in a happy place, you’re- oh, crumbs, I guess I should get it over with. (One thing I forgot to mention in Reading/Vocabulary- after reading a lot of British lit, you’ll sometimes find yourself talking like one.) I didn’t grasp math very well after Geometry. I do fine with addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, percents, basic graphing, some geometry if it’s triangles or circles. I can even work some simple equations if I have a textbook handy and it’s just a matter of plugging in the numbers. But after about halfway through Algebra II, I got hopelessly lost. Again, the Teaching Company has some wonderful math courses if you’re wanting to do higher math- I don’t care much for their history or religious courses, but the math is very thorough. However, the question I’ve always asked is, do you really need the higher math? The operations I listed before work just fine in everyday life, and a lot of them you don’t even really use. I have neither plans nor pretensions to being a physicist or a nuclear scientist, so even the formulas that I did learn, I’ve already forgotten because I just don’t use them. Unless you are seriously considering taking a science or engineering course, I would say that your time would be better spent taking an accounting or business math course, something that you’d enjoy that would also be worthwhile. After Algebra I and Geometry, the rest of it really made no sense.
I have always liked Natural History, birds, lizards, where do they live, what do they eat, etc. But when it comes to Biology and Chemistry, I am, again, hopelessly lost. Classification I got fairly well, the food chain was a breeze. Mendelian genetics were hazy but slightly understandable. But when it came to the inner workings of a cell and the reproduction phases, I have completely forgotten them. Prophases, metaphases, prokaryotic, cytoplasm- I have no idea what any of those mean now, they’re just random phrases that I remember. Chemistry was even worse. To quote Mark Twain, “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”
The best science education you can possibly get is the one that you take every time you set foot out your door. Take your kids camping, take them fishing, let them get acquainted with and covered in nature. Or if the outdoors is definitely more of a “guy” hangout area in your house, (I speak from experience), you and the girls can just read a book on the subject if the outdoors contains too many bugs, animals, and fresh air for your taste. (My sister and Mom are both avid indoorswomen.) There’s actually a lot to be learned just from watching animals, and in most states it’s legal to keep certain wildlife as pets for observation for certain periods. Of course, check your local laws before doing so. Or, if you have the yard space and the time, raising chickens or turkeys can be a fun hobby as well as a source of income from the eggs and meat.
History has always been one of my favorite subjects, particularly American military history. In my experience, the best education you can give yourself is to read on a wide variety of topics from various authors, even from different viewpoints. In the Civil War, of course you’ll read the Northern side because they won and they wrote the books. But don’t overlook books written from a Southern perspective. Apparently everyone has forgotten that we were not the invader, but the invaded. In World War II, read books by both pro-Roosevelt and anti-Roosevelt authors. He was a good president, true, but was he really that unaware of the Pearl Harbour attack? Was it a surprise or a calculated move to boost the economy? By reading in this manner, you’ll acquaint yourself with more than just the facts handed out in the textbooks. There are many excellent historical magazines out there as well, my brothers read every copy of Military History and American Heritage they can get their hands on. If you have access to a computer, look up your topic in Wikipedia. While not always accurate, there will generally be some little facts you never knew existed. Visit museums, and any time you find someone older than you with a story they are willing to share, open your ears and shut your mouth. What better way to learn American History than from the people who made it? Be friendly- I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a reenactment, or car show, or even just out somewhere and commented on an old car or piece of machinery, and people just start talking. They’ll tell you how they came by it, who they got it from, what they were doing at the time, and a whole host of details. And while you’re at it, don’t forget that you are also in the middle of our history. I have a whole desk drawer that I keep full of newspaper articles from different national events like Hurricane Sandy, Benghazi, elections, the government shutdown, and other items of interest. Pay attention to the news broadcasters- what are they really saying? Surprise, but the media is just as biased as everyone else, and a lot of times they are like the elves in Eragon- they tell the truth, but not all of it, or they tell it in such a way that it comes across with a totally different meaning than it originally had. Just a word of caution there.
If there was an emergency, and you had to leave the care of your home and maybe a couple of children in your teenager’s care so you could go to the hospital or somebody’s home, would he or she be able to run the home alone without you guiding them? There are many skills that they need to have, but I’ll only touch on the main ones here. For easier reference, I’m going to divide the skills into four sections- Siblings, Inside the House, Outside the House, and Personal Finances.
Taking care of the siblings should be relatively straightforward. Assuming that they have assigned schoolwork, your teenager- let’s refer to him as John- should be able to read you planner and know at what time each child should be doing a certain subject. John will also be advanced enough in his own studies that he can grade his siblings’ work and help them if they get stuck, while at the same time keeping up with his own schoolwork, which may be simply reading some good literature while keeping an eye on the children. One idea that always helps tremendously and keeps discipline while you’re away is what I call “reverse accountability”. While Mom is away, whatever John says goes. This is absolutely necessary, especially if there are either very small children or stubborn adolescents. If John tells his sibling to stop doing something, that sibling needs to know to stop right then. John will not be harsh to his siblings, because he knows that if he is, they will tell Mom when she returns. John should also know basic first aid, the Heimlich maneuver, and CPR. The Red Cross in our area has a class that you can attend at the library to become a Red Cross certified babysitter. This might be a good idea to cover the basics, and in case CPS comes by, you can show them that your children are being left with a person who is capable of watching them.
Inside the House
Along with watching the children and keeping them on task, John also has to keep everything moving in the house. This “everything” includes making sure laundry keeps moving from washer to dryer to drawers, cooking and cleaning up after lunch, making sure that the bathrooms stay clean, and that the kids shower, dress, and get their beds made, etc. John should be familiar with the workings of any appliance that you use regularly. With the washing machine, for example, what cycle do I use for towels? Which cycle if it’s nice shirts? Am I going to wash new blue jeans on hot or cold?
Another area that is common but just as important is safe appliance use and emergency procedures. Where are the GFI outlets in the house and how do I know when they are tripped and how to reset them? If one of the appliances shorts, where is the main breaker located? If a waterline bursts, where is the water cutoff? What should I do and who should I call if the grinder pump goes out? It’s doubtful that any of these will actually ever happen in your home, but showing your teenager now, at you house, is going to give them knowledge they can immediately apply whenever they buy their own house or rent an apartment. Plan ahead for some basic scenarios and go over them together. If a fire breaks out in the living room, what’s the fastest way to an exit? When the children get through playing, if they want to leave their toys out overnight to play with in the morning, that’s fine, but teach them to leave a clear path from bedrooms to the front and back doors. The last thing you would ever want in an emergency is someone not getting out in time because they tripped on a toy trying to get out.
Outside the House
First, let’s start with outside the house as in your yard. Most teens should know not only how to run the weedeater, lawnmower, tiller, snowblower (if you get that much snow) and other gas or electric powered yard tools, but also some basic maintenance- how to mix 2-cycle gas, how to take off and sharpen the mower blade, how to replace or clean a spark plug or air filter and check and change the oil if necessary. Again, know where your GFIs and the main breaker are. Another important factor on our property, especially if you are constantly building sheds and parking spaces or landscaping is a working knowledge of where all your underground water, electrical, natural gas, and sewage lines are. Hitting any of these could be a messy end to a perfect project. If you didn’t put in the lines yourself or have no idea, have the city or county come out and mark them, then line them up with reference points so you know the general area that they run through. If you work in landscaping or construction, or if you have a camper, teach them how to back down on and hook up a trailer, how much to tighten the sway bar and where the pins go on a weight-distributing hitch. Let them help if you have tools that need cleaning or a shed that needs organizing. My Dad is a painter, so it’s pretty common for Bear or me to help him clean a machine or rework it with salvaged parts. Dad has also shown us where all the tools and materials are in the work trailer and other storage areas, in the event that he forgot a tool, or if something’s happened at the job and he needs a totally different type of paint or roller. He can call ahead, and we can get the tools or supplies out of the trailer and put them by the front gate for him to pick up, which saves him the time he would otherwise lose turning in, parking, going down the hill to the trailer, finding the tool, coming back up to the truck, and pulling out. This is an especially good idea if you are planning to have your teens work with you in a family business, because when they start working with you they will know what tools you use most often and where everything is. If you’re working close to home and you forgot something, they can drive to the house and get it so that you can keep working.
As far as driving goes- well, I’m still pretty new to it myself. The choice of when they get to drive and what type of vehicle they will drive is entirely up to you. In Arkansas, a learner’s permit is valid for six months, after which the applicant can choose either to take the driver’s test for a license or renew the permit for another six months. Even if he/she knows how to drive at the end of six months, I’d suggest renewing it for the other six so that he/she has the benefit of more driving hours, plus you have a final six months free of first-time driver insurance rates. Make sure that you go over all of the fine print on the permit with your student so they know exactly what to bring to the State Troopers and what information they need to take to the Revenue Office. Neither of these bureaus appreciate a delay in the proceedings because you forgot your birth certificate or your vehicle registration, or because you brought the troopers the papers you were supposed to bring to the revenue and vice-versa. Make sure that your child knows that while the driving examiners can be brusque and rather intimidating, they can’t really hurt you. When I went to take my test, one girl got nervous and instead of putting the car in reverse to back out of a parking space, she put it in drive and ran into the curb. That did not go over well with the examiner, I can assure you.
If you opt to buy your teen a car or truck instead of letting them drive the family car, you may want to work out a payment agreement similar to what my parents have done. They cover my insurance until I’m on my own, and I make a payment every month on the truck, which can either be cash or I can work for Dad and he just counts it off toward the truck. If your teen has a “clunker” that could use some repairs, maybe pay him in parts or a mechanic visit in place of money.
When you go to get the insurance, take the new driver with you, both so that the agent can see who they will be insuring, and to show your teen the paperwork and the amount of money that goes into getting insured. Many companies offer discounts if you’ve taken a driver’s ed course or make good grades, which help a lot because the insurance just about doubles when you add one inexperienced driver to the plan. Consider yourself forewarned.
This, again, is entirely between you and your teen, but if he or she doesn’t already have a checking account, the day you get the permit or driver’s license is also a good day to go the bank and open an account, because you will already have all of the papers the bank is going to need- birth certificate, social security card, a driver’s license number, or health insurance card, depending on your bank’s ID guidelines. My account is just a basic debit account, no checks. Any withdrawals that are made are made through my debit card, which is definitely smaller and easier to carry than a large checkbook.
Show your teen how to balance their bank account and how to read a bank statement. There are two very helpful things you can teach them to keep their balance straight and avoid an overdraw or a bounced check. First, every time a transaction is made, write it down. If you are in Walmart, even if there is a line behind you, go ahead and enter the amount in your book, because chances are you’ll put the receipt in your back pocket intending to write it down when you get home, and then forget about it and wash the receipt with your laundry. Secondly, anytime you purchase online, make sure that the site is secure before you enter your card number. And try to refrain from ordering off your phone- for some reason, both of the times Mom’s account was hacked happened right after she ordered off her phone, even though it was from a trusted site. Most banks will call you for conformation if they see a suspicious transaction, but if they don’t catch it and you know for certain that you never bought anything from that company before, don’t be afraid to talk to the bank manager. Sometimes they can contest the transaction and get your money back for you. Also, setting up a PayPal account for online use might be more secure than entering your debit card number in a hundred different sites.
Along with debit comes the issue of credit. I strongly advise against credit for two reasons, the first being that it can lead to careless spending. The mindset of “I don’t have the money for this now but I’ll somehow have it plus interest by the end of the month” is fiscally damaging and could lead to greater problems down the road. The second problem is paying for a thoughtless spending spree that ballooned after interest rates were applied. Debit is a much safer and much healthier route to go. I can only buy what I have the money for, so I need to be careful as to how much I spend. This is how the real world works, and by teaching your teens to use debit or cash in place or credit, you’ve done them and you a huge favor.
One last thing that can help them be prepared for managing their finances on their own is exposing them to the gloriously confusing world of taxes. Again, if it’s a family business/LLC, you may want to have the younger children sort out the receipts by year while the older children add up the total amount you paid to each of your suppliers. With all of the new healthcare provisions and employment restrictions, talk with them about the differences between employees vs. subcontractors and why or why not they would want to hire one or the other in their own future business. If you and your spouse are discussing workman’s comp and insurance, let the kids listen so they can understand just how much it takes to keep a business afloat these days. If you have an accountant that you’ve gone to for years, take them with you when you go to file taxes so they can both meet your agent and become slightly familiar with the proceedings.
Hopefully, this compendium has been useful to you in some way, if slightly lengthy. Homeschooling is definitely the best method there is for educating your children, and if in any way I have made your work easier, then I am satisfied. If it weren’t for my Mom and Grandma to correct my math and grammar, and my Dad and Granddaddy to teach me how to work and use tools, I really don’t know where I would be today. Probably sitting in a public school classroom waiting for the bell to ring, I suppose. As it is, I am now a published author with my work both on Knowledge Box Central’s website and in a book published by the 4H Foundation. When I’m not writing on study guides, I’m working with Dad in his painting business or doing day jobs for other contractors he knows. With one year to go until I turn eighteen, I plan to try to have some of my own books and guides to publish on Amazon or Create- Space. With a good, solidly grounded education, there are no limits as to what you can do- and the best part is, you don’t have to wear a cap and gown to be able to!
Special thanks to guest blogger Ajax Cochrane, a homeschool graduate, published author, talented musician, avid reader, and admirer of classic trucks. He blogs about life after homeschool at 21st Century Renaissance Man.