Homeschooling the Strong-Willed Child

When our firstborn, Robert, was seven years old he still wouldn’t read. I say wouldn’t instead of couldn’t because I knew he had mastered all the component skills of reading. He learned the letters of the alphabet when he was two, and their sounds by age three. At four he could sound out many simple words, and by five he got most of the sight words on our flash cards. But that was as far as he would go. When I asked him to read even one line from a book, he dug his heels in and that was that.

I tried every strategy I could think of, including buttering him up. Each morning I made sure to feed him a good breakfast and took time for snuggles and giggles as we eased into our day. Then I got out his very favorite books – the ones he’d asked me to read aloud over and over again. With music in my voice I gently but firmly told him it was time to do our lessons. And my child completely shut down. Reading books used to be our favorite part of the day; now, it was a bitter chore. Pretty soon, school became something we both dreaded. It’s time to admit the obvious, I thought. I’ve got myself a plain, old power struggle on my hands.

This conflict produced a moment I remember as being about the closest I ever came to giving up on homeschooling. The church we attended at that time had a lesson they called a ‘children’s sermon’ every Sunday during the worship service. A female staff member called all the children down front and gathered them around her, Maria Von Trapp-style, on the steps that lead to the pulpit. To kick off her lesson that day, she held up a card with a word written on it. I don’t remember the word now, but it was a fairly simple one most school-age children could read.

Even though Robert was only seven, he was as tall as most nine-year-olds. He looked to be one of the oldest kids up there so, of course, the woman called on him to read the word on the card. Right on cue, he shut down. As our son glared at his shoes, Rob and I shifted uncomfortably in our pew, feeling sorry for him and worried, too. Have we really made the right decision to homeschool? Should we get him in public school before he gets any further behind? Is he already too far behind to be placed with his age group? Later that afternoon, we discussed these questions at length, finally deciding to persevere at least until the end of the school year.

The next morning, I ordered yet another, even more elaborate phonics system than the previous one we’d used. This set involved hundreds of consonant and vowel combinations on little magnets and included a series of workbooks and an organizing tray with dozens of compartments. The system was so complicated I couldn’t even figure out how to use it myself, much less help Robert understand it. Now, not only was he behind grade level, but we also had a good bit of money invested in this effort. The pressure was on, and I felt like I was failing miserably.

While Robert and I did school (and cried and argued) every day, my almost-four-year-old daughter bopped happily along, hosting tea parties for her dolls. In the afternoons, when I released Robert from our mutual toil over his phonics lessons, Mary Morris would bring me a ‘tory book’ and we would snuggle and read together. It always infuriated her brother when I made him look at the words while I read, but she tolerated anything as long as we were doing it together. She just loved the whole, cuddly experience, and I did too.

Finally, we made it to the end of the school year, when I felt I could legitimately take a break from torturing Robert and myself for a couple of months. Mary Morris still wanted to read together every day, but he and I were both relieved to spend several weeks completely phonics-free. Fortunately, we were still able to connect in other areas besides school work. I was so ready to just enjoy my funny, logical, inquisitive boy for a while, and I’m pretty sure he was glad to trade in that stressed-out teacher and get his mom back.

A few weeks into the summer the kids got bored one day and resorted to playing ‘school’ together. (This is the weird sort of thing kids do when they don’t have video games.) Robert took charge as usual, clearly savoring his new role as teacher. Mary Morris just loved it any time her big brother paid attention to her, so she settled right in to play her part as the pupil. I knew she’d been absorbing words and letters for months, but as I listened to them play that day I realized she was connecting the letters on the page into words. A few minutes later, she switched from the school books to story books and didn’t miss a beat. I was floored. While I’d been shedding blood, sweat, and tears over lessons with my firstborn every day, my four-year-old had basically learned to read without even trying.

We all congratulated Mary Morris on this big accomplishment, of course, but I wondered how Robert might be feeling about his little sister officially reaching the reading milestone first. Apparently, he gave it some thought. A few days later I found him stretched across his bed with a book from Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series. These little paperbacks came highly recommended by other moms of reluctant readers, so I had been picking them up at garage sales and used bookstores for several months. They were real, ‘chapter’ books, so I was surprised to find him intently poring over its pages.

“Whatcha doing, buddy?” I asked.

“Reading.”

“Oh, really?” I was pretty sure this was an exaggeration, if not outright pretense.

“Yep. I can read. A lot better than Mary can.”

Trying not to sound dubious, I asked him to read a little bit of the story to me and, lo and behold, it was true. He was reading too.

It had taken me completely letting off the pressure, plus a big dose of that firstborn competitiveness, but when Robert finally decided it was time to read, he took off like a shot. Within a month, he was reading on a third grade level, and he kept progressing without another hitch. I continued to read aloud to the kids almost every day, but we never studied phonics again. By the time he was nine, his reading comprehension tested at the high school level.

This reading impasse was an important first inkling of a very big truth, and the message that still prompts me to write about homeschooling today. Despite what everyone says, choosing the right curriculum is far less important than plugging into our kids’ true needs and tending to their hearts as we teach them.

Robert’s refusal to read made a lot more sense when I figured out that he is largely an auditory learner. As I read aloud to him, a whole other world came alive inside his mind. Forcing him to follow my finger with his eyes on the page infuriated him because it completely messed up that imaginative, auditory process. It felt really unfair that I had turned his Technicolor mind-movie into a chore.

I also discovered that he was a classic strong-willed child. The more I tried to force an issue, the more he dug in his heels. It didn’t matter who disapproved of his timetable or whether it was ahead of or behind other kids’ milestones; if he sensed I was anxious for him to accomplish some new task to try to prove himself (or my parenting) to others, it was over. Until he decided to learn something, there was almost no making him do it. Once he had the freedom to choose to do it, however, there was often no stopping him.

Fortunately, along with his strong will, Robert also had a growing relationship with Christ. God’s Spirit lived inside him, and this spiritual reality offered me a very practical luxury, to the degree that I was willing to trust and respect it. In order to support (and benefit from) his developing moral compass, though, we had to back off and let him make his own choices. Sometimes he did what we asked, and it helped our family, and built our trust. Sometimes he chose not to obey, which hurt our relationship, brought conflict to our home, and carried other consequences. But even those negative effects were important feedback in his spiritual development.

As rocky as those years were at times, there were also many blessings that came with having a strong-willed child. First, I was forced early on to release my need to prove myself to others by having a perfectly compliant child. Another blessing of his dominant personality was that it meant he was less susceptible to peer pressure. Then there was his persistence – when this kid discovered martial arts, he didn’t stop until he’d earned two black belts. He was also a self-starter, who acted on his convictions. When he was thirteen he read a book written by an atheist, who had rejected the faith. It moved him so deeply, he didn’t even hesitate. He just told me where he was going and headed down our street, knocking on doors and sharing the Gospel with the neighbors. Today our bold boy is grown, married, and preparing for the ministry. I’ll confess, though, that I take particular delight in knowing his seminary professors will soon have to prove every single point they make, just like I once did!

It’s probably hard for you Moms trying to teach a strong-willed child every day to see the benefits right now, but take heart. The One who created our children is shaping them at a level we can’t reach. He designed their zealous, force-of-nature personalities to reveal His glory and fill a specific role in His Kingdom. As much as we would like to, none of us can predict what that role will be. Shepherding them requires faith, not in our parenting, nor in our kids’ abilities, nor in the right curriculum, but in a sovereign, good Father. The privilege of watching His purposes unfold is so much better than having little puppet-children who jump whenever we tell them to. Every day we have the honor of a front row seat for the unique, unexpected story He is writing in their lives.

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