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6 Survival Strategies for Tutoring Your Siblings - Mary Donellan

6 Survival Strategies for Tutoring Your Siblings


Has tutoring your younger sibling become a bumpy ride? Mary Donellan offers six simple strategies to keep calm and have fun as you help teach your sibling.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoy tutoring my siblings.

After all, what’s not to love? They’re unfailingly eager, cooperative, and they stand in respectful awe at my breadth of knowledge and intellectual splendor. Oh, Mary . . . how DO you do it? We finish our lessons in record time and leave the room glowing with our familial harmony.

All right . . . you’ve got me. While I do love my siblings, sometimes our tutoring sessions are more like an hour spent stumbling through the Desert of Dissatisfaction and Disgruntlement than anything else.

But in spite of this, I still believe tutoring my siblings has been worth every one of those uncomfortable moments. After all, homeschooling families are blessed with many extra opportunities to bond together in charity and fun. Sibling tutoring is just one of these happy chances (although sometimes it might be disguised by total reluctance).

There’s a shimmering array of possible subjects for tutoring. I’ve had my revolving share of math, Latin, catechism, grammar and spelling duties, with an occasional scientific twist for good measure. They all have their own joys . . . and profound sufferings. *Wink*

After a good long while of experience, though, I’ve compiled a list of my top six survival strategies for tutoring siblings at home, for the days when things are just not running smoothly between you and your younger partner. Hopefully, these strategies will help you to stay sane, to remain kind, and to genuinely bond with your sibling during the tutoring hour.

1 . Make it lighthearted

Objectively speaking, listening to your older sibling explain fractional quotients, or the anatomy of intestines, or correct your pronunciation of “cognovimus,” is only going to be so much fun.

Add this to the fact that the little sibling has already been studying for eternity that day and is probably feeling brain-dead, and you’ve got a flawless recipe for what we call un-fun.

Therefore, it’s your solemn duty as a tutoring sibling to keep things light! Fun! Jovial!

Now, this doesn’t mean you need to come up with a feeble joke every other sentence. Your frustrated understudy would only injure you with his weapon of mass destruction (i.e., Star Wars pencil). Rather, the desired degree of lightheartedness resides more in your attitude than anywhere else.

While you might rather be doing anything other than teaching this math lesson you learned 8.78 years ago, you can’t forget that education is a gift, as is your sibling. It’s a privilege to help him or her learn!

So try to make things fun for your sibling. Not only will it build your relationship, but it will also help your dear mother out (tremendously) if your sibling emerges from these tutoring sessions without feeling completely enraged or discouraged.

Make an effort to read aloud materials in an excited, or at least genuinely interested, manner. If the textbook says something painfully obvious to both you and your sibling, don’t be afraid to roll your eyes or snort. (Truth: It really bonds siblings if you both feel you’re at least a little smarter than the textbook. Only don’t let it go to your heads.)

Lastly, don’t be afraid to employ your famous British accent if your sibling’s eyes are starting to glaze over.

Learning should be fun, after all.

2 . Admit your mistakes (and don’t rub in your knowledge)

Don’t delude yourself. Every once in a while, you are going to make a mistake while tutoring, and your sibling is going to snigger. It’s Part of Life. My advice is to embrace it and move on. Love being humble, and you’ll enjoy tutoring your siblings.

In fact, if it turns out not only that you were wrong, but that your sibling was right (oh yes, that happens, too), congratulate him! Tell him he’s smart (because, really, he is), and that even people your age misread math problems from time to time (because, really, we do).

In all honesty, there sadly aren’t enough older siblings who do this nowadays, and it’s up to us homeschoolers to reset the standard of genuine sibling kindness.

And while we’re on this subject, let’s acknowledge that while we might technically know more than our siblings currently do (or at least, in this particular field of study), there’s no call to rub it in.

Or, rather, to do or say things that they’ll perceive as rubbing it in. (Yes, you know what I mean.) We try to explain something with perfect innocence of intention (phrases beginning with “You see…” are particularly to blame), but they take savage insult. Avoiding these situations requires finesse, but take courage; you’ll get there.

3 . Look out for distress signals

This is particularly important if your sibling is still pretty young. Hunger, thirst, twitching limbs, deep sighs of overwhelming depression, slitted eyes revealing murderous frustration with the new concept . . . be on the lookout for these and other common distress signals.

If you spy one such signal, you might want to try brightly exclaiming, “Hey, I’m starving! Do you want a snack? I think a snack would do us both exceptional good!” Or, “How about some water!”; or, “How about a short break!” or, “How about tearing up napkins and bashing our heads against the table!” (Well, maybe not the last one . . .)

It helps more often than not. If your sibling snaps a curt refusal in your direction, be patient. I privately believe that 90% of these distress signals are due to hunger. (After all, food resolves a lot of issues.) But when food can’t solve everything, an understanding sibling can at least diffuse the situation.

Don’t sharply order them to straighten up and act with charity towards their Long-Suffering Tutor. Rather, show them the charity they might be currently lacking, and tactfully try to find a solution to their emotional distress.

We were once their age, after all, and we had to do these same frustrating homework problems.

4 . Don’t be the parent

If things really aren’t going well, and you’re being callously treated with contempt and sarcasm (or something along those lines), it’s wisest to remind yourself you’re not the parent. (I’ve learned this from personal experience.)

While it’s perfectly licit to calmly ask your sibling to be nice to you as you help him or her to learn, don’t let your frustration take you down the path of what my family has termed “surplus parenting.”

It never works. Sure as sunlight, it will only send your sibling racing down to the Halls of Justice (wherever your mother or father happen to be) and spilling out a list of your wrongdoings. It will tire everyone out and won’t solve anything.

Instead, if your sibling’s mood is growing progressively sourer due to frustration, tiredness, hunger, or any other possible reason, and you feel you can’t bear it any longer, quietly remove yourself and calmly ask your parent to step in.

That’s what parents are for, after all. Your mother will appreciate this mature act and will be able to correct whatever needs correcting . . . without having to help you stop hyperventilating as well.

5 . Use a little creativity

Has your sibling hit a roadblock? Quickly move on to problems you know he can tackle and make him feel instantly smarter.

Is the math concept a foggy mystery to him, removed from the comprehension of mortals? Sketch out a picture, use yourself and your sibling for living models, or draw humorous parallels to your favorite movies.

A little creativity and spontaneity can go a long way towards engaging your sibling and helping him or her to understand a concept that otherwise would seem dry and incomprehensible.

Or, in other words, turn your desk lamp into the sun and a pencil jar into a planet, and you’ve got an astronomy lesson.

One of my personal favorite methods is when my sister and I rename everyone in her math problems to monikers we like much better; or, if it’s just a bare algebraic letter, we turn the letter into a funny name. One thousand thirty-two minus Wilma is . . .

6 . Be grateful

At the end of the day, the most essential step towards a rewarding tutoring experience is to be grateful for your siblings, and for the blessing of your homeschooling environment that allows you to spend this time with them.

As a homeschool graduate, I am genuinely thankful for the time I’ve gotten to spend with my siblings one-on-one, and for all the laughs and fun memories that have come along the way (in spite of those occasional bouts of frustration and pencil pokes). I hope you too can learn how to be grateful for the opportunity to enrich your relationship with your siblings—even if it means showing them how to do long division or helping them memorize the Pater Noster.

Also, be grateful for the trust your parents have placed in you to help your brothers and sisters learn the things you have learned. This trust isn’t something that should be taken for granted. Tutoring your siblings will show you how to patiently teach others, which will prove to be an essential character quality, no matter your vocation in life.

Despite the friction all siblings experience from time to time, these relationships are priceless and, if formed with patience and charity, will last a lifetime. So don’t let school subjects become an obstacle to that; rather, do your best to make them part of your road to a life of friendship, fun-poking camaraderie, and love with your sibling.

Just be sure to avoid the point of your brother’s Star Wars pencil, and you’ll do fine.

About Mary Donellan

Mary Donellan
Mary Donellan is a mercifully blessed homeschool graduate who lives among gorgeous Southern foothills and winding country roads. She spends her hours humming in the laundry room, cherishing her loved ones, reading voraciously, soaking in music, and adoring her Lord at Latin Mass.

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