One morning a short while ago, I woke up before the rest of the family and started making myself breakfast. Roused from the smell of coffee, my five-year-old daughter Dominica wandered downstairs in her slippers and Dora-The-Explorer Christmas pajamas, and observed me cooking. Perhaps expecting something more in the way of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, she looked at me cracking eggs, and asked me what I was making. I told her I was making an “egg white omelet.”
She had never heard of such a thing, so she asked me what that was. So I told her, “It’s an omelet made from only the white part of the egg.” Dominica paused for a moment, quizzically pondered this idea in her head, then scrunched her nose, looked up at me and asked: “You mean, you’re only going to eat the shell?” From her point of view, she didn’t say something funny—I said something funny. It’s one of those moments as a home schooling father that you realize that it’s your child’s interpretation of life that keeps things interesting.
Last fall, I spent about forty or fifty hours assembling my oldest three children’s home school lesson plans. I was really proud of how it all turned out. I had assembled copies of original source readings, made sure they had access to the proper classical pieces for their music lessons, and so forth. I really spent a lot of time on the lesson plans, but in the weeks to come, I became over-reliant on the fact that I had done the initial lesson plan work.
I quickly realized that home schooling does not simply consist of putting together some lesson plans and having the children do the assignments. It consists of analyzing their interpretations of what they are learning. A remembrance from my past illustrates this point.
When I attended Christendom College, I asked one of the professors how he endured reading thirty term papers written on the same topic. He answered that all the papers interested him, not necessarily based on the topic, but how the student interpreted the topic. He said: “I’m not necessarily reading term papers with the hope that the student will uncover some new aspect of Homer. Instead, I want to know what John Clark thinks about The Odyssey.” Frankly, I was flattered that he cared what I thought about it.
That brief conversation provides an academic backdrop to the father’s role in home schooling.
This year, my fifteen-year-old son is reading The Odyssey, and I understand what the teacher meant. The access to literature, or theology, or economics, provides an insight into the student himself, and it’s a fascinating insight. I want to know what my children think about The Odyssey. I want to know what interests them.
All we need to do as fathers is to talk to our children about what they are learning, and what they think about it. This process doesn’t have to be very formal. That’s one of the great things about home schooling—the lack of formality. I can have serious, intellectual discussions with my children about economics or theology or science while wearing Tweety Bird slippers. (Once I step out the door, it’s hard to be taken seriously with that choice of footwear.)
Some of the best conversations I have with my children occur in the car. Instead of fumbling for something decent to listen to on the radio (and since it’s not yet baseball season, there isn’t anything worth listening to), we strike up a conversation about something my son or daughter is reading, or learning, or doing.
If you do want to make it more formal, do this: take your children to a meal once a week. Go out for a pancake breakfast with your son or daughter before work one day, and ask him about the subjects he is studying. Take your oldest children to dinner and have them bring their history books. Strike up a conversation about history. Ask them what they thought about the historical decisions of leaders. “Do you think that George Washington made a good decision?” “What do you think that St. Augustine was trying to teach us by writing his Confessions?”
I ask my children questions like this all the time: “What’s your favorite saint book this year?” “Why do you think Mark Twain wrote that?” “Based on the book, what can you guess about the background of the author?” “What problems are you having with math?” “What new piece are you learning to play on violin?” “Were you scared/excited/surprised when you shot that free throw/fielded that ground ball/caught that pass?”
You might surprise your children if you ask them questions like this. Your children observe you going to work every day and doing something, in their eyes, mysterious and pretty important. By conversing with them about academics, you’re showing them that what they’re doing is pretty important, too.
As my children get older, I have to admit: I’m learning a lot from them. Last week, my oldest son taught me something about the Summa. My daughter taught me something about St. Catherine Labouré. The other day, one of my children told me why the sky was blue. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I never really knew why. I was the child who apparently never asked. As a father, it’s very rewarding to learn their viewpoints.
I’m even learning from Dominica, who, on the literary side, is an expert on a certain “Dr. Seuss,” and prides herself on her encyclopedic knowledge of zoo animals.
I just might have her wait a little while on the cooking.