On Orthonomics a guest post about Orthodox homeschooling generated the following comment by “l”:
One problem that parents encounter is that in families where there are both older and very young children, the toddlers and infants often require many hours a day of the parents’ care and leave little time left over to work with the older ones.
I think the comment reflects misconceptions both about homeschooling and large families.
When people learn that I have six children they often say, “Wow, I could never do that.” I respond that I didn’t have them all at once.
Below is a somewhat idealized picture of life as parents of a large number of children:
Let’s imagine a couple whose first baby is called Noa. A first baby takes up your whole world. Noa’s parents, Tal and Talia, examine every bowel movement with a microscope, count minutes between feedings, and agonize over which toys are most educational. This is not (only) because they are silly, doting new parents, but because they genuinely have a lot to learn about babies. There’s no shortcut for this learning and decision-making process, which continues, more or less, as Noa goes through every new stage of development.
Then little Noah comes along. Noah’s sleep patterns, temperament and bowel movements are completely different from Noa’s, but Tal and Talia already have knowledge and experience. Noa, however, is an active toddler and needs even more attention than Noah. While Noah’s needs can be met by holding and feeding, Noa needs someone to talk to her, read to her, take her outside, prepare her meals and clean up after her, and watch that she doesn’t climb up the bookcase. And Noa hugs Noah too hard when she thinks no one is looking. So while Tal and Talia thought taking care of one newborn was a fulltime job, taking care of both children together feels like it require superhuman powers.
[So parents with two small children might assume that adding a few older children to the mix would make a productive activity like homeschooling pretty much impossible.]
But this is only the beginning of the story. Tal and Talia adjust to having two children. Talia recovers from the birth, Noah begins to follow some sort of schedule, and Noa grows in her understanding and self-control. Sure, there are crises of all kinds such as illness, a family wedding, and a house move, but Tal and Talia get to know their kids, they learn shortcuts for household chores, and they gain confidence.
By the time little Roni comes along (a girl), things get harder before they get easier. But experience helps, and stages that a four, five or six-year-old undergoes tend to be less draining that baby/toddler issues. Every birth has its challenges, and very fussy babies can throw a wrench into family life. Still, this stage passes. Over the years Tal and Talia begin to work out their parenting style and things fall into a groove.
When the fourth child Ido is born, Tal and Talia are experienced enough to be able to make quick decisions concerning the baby. They instinctively pick him up when he cries and change diapers with one hand. When Noa was born, she interacted only with Tal and Talia. But Ido enjoys watching the older children, who can even keep an eye on him for a short time (unless the spacing is very close–I’m assuming a spacing of two to four years after the second child).
Around that time, Talia, who manages the day-to-day running of the household, decides to become much more efficient. She reads up on housekeeping subjects, consults with friends, and makes the required changes. Tal and Talia reevaluate their priorities in terms of time and money–regarding extracurricular activities, housekeeping, schooling, and food and clothing expenses. They make difficult choices, just like every other family.
At some point the balance in the family shifts when Noa can run errands on foot, help with household chores, and share in the care of the younger children. The younger children are growing too–they dress and feed themselves, and manage their belongings. Even if the children are closely spaced, the older children still get to the point where they don’t require so much physical care.
When Noa becomes a teen Tal and Talia have another baby named Amit. The couple can go out for the evening, taking the baby with them and leaving the four older children at home. They have teen issues, but because they are a close family and have been sensitive to their children’s needs all along, they handle them relatively well.
Having a large family is physically and psychologically demanding. Tal and Talia are not as available for social activities. Their lifestyle is different from that of their friends with one or two children. But they do make time for each other and for the activities that are important to them, taking into account their children’s needs. They prepare for the day when their children will be grown.
In a large family, children do not get constant undivided attention. This doesn’t mean that they are neglected. There are two levels of parental care: availability, the level depending on the age and needs of the child, and one-on-one interaction, which occurs less frequently. In a large family some of the children’s needs for interaction are met by the other siblings. And a large chunk of time involves most of the family spending time together, playing or working.
I’ll let my homeschooling readers correct me if I’m wrong, but homeschooling also does not require continuous one-on-one teaching. Most Israeli homeschoolers practice “unschooling.” They don’t follow a set curriculum, but let the child set the pace. They rely on a child’s natural curiosity, providing learning materials when a child expresses interest in a particular subject. But even parents who choose a curriculum-based approach don’t sit with the child for hours on end. They might explain a concept to the child and have him work it out on his own. When a child misses school, how long does it take to make up the material? Two hours at most, and the parent does not need to sit with the child for all that time. Homeschooling is about much more, though, than curriculum, and I can think of many benefits of homeschooling for large families.