Your New Skills are Worth the Effort, Mama

More than two years ago, I’d read The Brave Learner, a how-to homeschool book by Julie Bogart. It expanded my ideas of the ways people learn. For example, Bogart suggests that a child learning to ride a bicycle counts equally toward their development as a more traditional “school” task. I knew this on a deeper level, but Bogart’s book gave me permission to experiment, officially.

If the brain is engaged in new ways, forming new pathways, it doesn’t matter how those pathways are instigated: physical or holding a pencil. (I am still working to drop my deference to traditional, seated work as ideal.) From this lens I understood that my children learned constantly – they never stopped! But also, so did I.

I quit looking at homeschool as a cumulative, linear series of lessons.

Ours is living our lives together, adding hobbies and books and adventuring, subtracting the things that no longer fit well, like most of our workbooks.

With all of our new mental space, we found room for ideas. I won’t lie: many came from YouTube. We made all the kinds of slime and all of the types of (safe, no-kill) animal traps that suburban living allows. We dabbled in literal basket weaving (not underwater). We listened to books and podcasts while throwing clay around in the backyard, while embroidering doodle patterns onto denim, while dissecting a fat frog with June bugs in his stomach.

This was different for two reasons. First, we did these things together, rather than me being in the teacher role and directing. Second, I would never have come up with these ideas. Slime, maybe one or two types. I’d have dissected stuff later, in the name of science, not for fun.

I relaxed my personal obligations and the amount of direction I forced on my kids. This first foray into unschool-y life wasn’t for me. I still had to live a while with this format before I branched into my own interests. It helped when my kids were old enough to self-direct for larger swaths of time and I was getting more/enough sleep.

Homeschooled for a few years of my own childhood, I knew how to pursue the next thing, how each passion needs loads of dedicated time. And I had a long list of things I wanted to learn. But I didn’t give myself much grace in the way of time, expense or materials. If I wanted to sew something, I downloaded a free pattern and bought exactly enough fabric, no more. If my daughter wanted to sew a stuffy, I bought three types of fabric and extra stuffing. If my husband built a shelf, he got extra boards and screws in case he made a mistake.

How could anyone respect my learning experience when I didn’t?

The first thing I tried was small: I kept the subscription my kids weren’t using because I liked the daily doodling classes. It seemed weird to spend $5/month on something for just me.

But by the time I picked up macrame, a year later, I felt okay spending money to hone my craft. It started out cheaply enough, a one-time $50 investment in a book and initial materials. I loved it. I screwed up and fixed ten different plant holders before giving everyone I knew a macrame hanger for Christmas 2019. Every room in my house, including both kids’ rooms, have hanging plants now.

Ready for a new challenge last year, before the cost of wood quadrupled, I bought many two-by-fours (including extras!) and taught myself to follow the building instructions to make a slatted bench. I’d shopped around for patterns I liked, and this one wasn’t a beginner level, then I cobbled two together, using math, to elongate it. Honestly, the skills required curved far outside my comfort zone. I began.

The bench I made turned out wonky, not all the top boards are aligned, though their spacing is flawless. Though I filled the wood holes, stained and painted meticulously, the filled has erupted through the finish this year. Still, I feel pretty proud when people sit on something I made as though it’s just a regular piece of furniture. I gained a surfeit of confidence from this project. Knowing I could attack something foreign and learn the skills required along the way gave me a more discerning eye about what comes next.

I am fearless in the kitchen. I want to turn that gaze on everything else. So I need to practice.

I’ve cobbled designs together to craft a double-length macrame hanger for our two-story entry, mixing patterns and my own intuition to build something new. When I work now, my materials and process get a wide berth. I offer the same respect, and extra materials for practice, to my husband and kids.

Ultimately I hope we will all approach our chosen outlets fearlessly, with only a moderate regard to the outcome. It really is the effort that counts.

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