Stress and anxiety are not status symbols

I think a lot about how much unnecessary misery our culture creates by mandating how families spend every moment of their day. With the technology that is now easily available in developed countries, there’s no reason more of our workforce should not be able to work from home (or from a sailboat, or from a coffee shop). There’s no reason we should have millions of people sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, spewing horrible toxins into the air we breathe, just so a middle manager can pretend to babysit them all day. There’s no reason that a new mother should be putting her weeks-old infant in a day care center and pumping milk in a maintenance closet. (And politicians think the solution to all of her problems is to help her pay for the day care.)

If you look at the way our country lives now, where ordinary people are so filled with rage they become social media trolls in their private time, where kids want to do real physical harm to their peers, etc., how much of that derives from how mentally unhealthy folks’ daily lives have become? How much of that could be eliminated by allowing people to have more home-centered lives? To be able to get out and do things they love for a little chunk of their day, every day? To not be carrying around this oppressive sense that their days are being eaten away by a million meaningless endeavors? Even our children carry the anxiety of purposelessness around with them.

I’ve met a lot of people who are downright snobbish about being overworked. This is particularly true of women who need to feel good about putting their career before raising a family, as if it is even necessary for those to be antithetical in this day and age. I get depressed on their behalf every time I talk to them. I wish people would stop pretending stress is some bogus status symbol and start advocating for better, healthier, more productive ways of living for everyone – especially for children. Our society desperately needs to stop eroding family units, and as with most things, there is a technological solution for this problem.

One of the best things about being a homeschooling family is that there is no arbitrary school day schedule. You don’t have to wake your child up at 6 a.m. (which everyone agrees isn’t good for developing brains) to get ready; shove a cereal bar down their throat so they can make it until their next scheduled feeding time; hurry through morning traffic so you can sit in a car line (which only exists because schools are now common targets for violence and predators); all so they can sit at a desk and try to pay attention when they’d much rather be sleeping (as they should be). And so you can go to an office and do the exact same thing.

With homeschooling, you can cover within a few hours much of the content that is covered in a traditional school in the course of an entire week. That’s the power of having a 1:1 student-teacher ratio and not having most of the week taken up by administrative affairs, discipline, and just generally wasting time. It’s a simple change that eliminates a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety for both parents and children.

In place of all that, you can substitute things that bring your family joy. This morning, our daughter had her hunter-jumper horseback riding lessons. We drove out to the stables, let her practice, gave the pony a bath together, and returned him to his pasture. We drove back into town and picked up Dad for lunch.

For lunch, everyone wanted a cheeseburger. We live on the ocean in Florida, so we went to Whaam Burger on Flagler Beach. They have the most incredible burgers I have ever tasted, and I grew up in Los Angeles with In-N-Out. We ate our lunch on the boardwalk watching the ocean.

Elise had put on a bathing suit under her clothes so she could play in the surf for half an hour after lunch. This is our version of recess.

We stood in the surf and talked through work issues while she was swimming and chasing sandpipers. It was a gorgeous summer day. Since the traditional school year has started, there were almost no tourists around. Then we showered off all the sand, came home, then Elise hit the books and we went back to work.

We try to use our break times to get out into nature as much as possible. We often go on long hikes or walks in the morning to start the day. (You really can’t do this in the evening in Florida, unless you love the company of mosquitoes.) In fact, one of the reasons we chose to move to Palm Coast was the town has 135 miles of hiking, biking, and walking trails. If you are relatively fit, you don’t even need a car to live here. You can go everywhere in town on a bicycle. You can even take bicycle paths along the A1A to other towns, and from those towns to other towns. (Between that, the pristine beaches, and AT&T Fiber’s ultra high speed Internet, I have no idea why every tech entrepreneur in the country isn’t moving here. But I guess I should keep that to myself if I want it to last.)

This also means our daughter has the opportunity to talk to a lot of people and experience a lot of things she would be missing if she went to a traditional school. She meets people from Portugal, Italy, the Caribbean, and Mexico while out around town. She also gets to see first-hand how we earn a living and navigate the business world. I like to call this a modern apprenticeship.

It seems the biggest obstacle to this way of life being available to all or most families in the US are these archaic notions of how adults should be able to get their own work done.

As much as policymakers and other observers love to debate the seemingly intractable issues that come with having a mental health crisis in this country, it’s amazing no one ever talks about simply encouraging businesses to enable the vast majority of Americans to change their lifestyles and thereby change their kids’ lifestyles. Be around the people they love. Be genuinely social and interact with people in the real world instead of having fake fights online. Be less sedentary.

The chattering class loves the perceived enormity of cultural problems and the talking points they use to convince Americans that enriching them to guide some pointless piece of legislation through Washington will be the panacea everyone needs. Changing gun laws, for example, is not going to cure the problem that there are a lot of kids in the US now that want to hurt their peers. On some level, everyone knows that the real problem is the hate and toxicity that has come to characterize schools. The fact that social media has taken bullying from being chased away from the bus stop to being hectored 24/7, with the cumulative effect being that kids want to destroy themselves or others. The fact that girls are starting to objectify themselves from the moment they can read, to the point that women in their 20s are now the largest demographic getting Botox injections and capped teeth. We’ve created one epic destructive environment for both adults and children, and it seems so pervasive and ubiquitous that the problems it creates seem inescapable except to the most densely partisan people in our country.

The philosopher Aristotle thought the success of the polis traced back to the home. Homes are the cells of social organisms. The fundamental building blocks of life. If our country wants to fix its myriad problems, it needs to start by fixing Americans’ homes.

Building a Homeschooling Science Curriculum

For classical homeschoolers, locating high-quality education materials in languages, history, and literature is easy. I have agonized over what history series to use for an academic year because there are so many excellent alternatives and I passionately want them all.

But for mathematics and science… not so much. I think there are several reasons for this: (1) Parents with liberal arts backgrounds tend to emphasize other subjects over math and science because that’s their comfort zone. (2) Traditional schools do not become deeply invested in science until students are in late middle school, or even high school, age. This means there is no economic incentive for publishers to produce high-quality content in these subjects for younger children. (3) People in STEM-oriented pursuits tend not to go into education. There’s a lot more money to be made working for a tech company or Wall Street than in writing textbooks.

(Though the latter would not be a bad idea for STEM companies to invest in. Imagine if the folks at Google created a rigorous K-12 homeschooling / afterschooling program with all the bells and whistles their own technology platforms could provide. They could offer a certificate for having passed through it that would trump diplomas and they would have unparalleled intelligence into the pipeline of available talent. What a brilliant way to train future engineers… the next generation of Google. But I digress.)

Since we are a STEM-oriented household, this was very disappointing for us when we started homeschooling. Our daughter has grown up immersed in science-related hobbies. When it came time to sorting out her academic year, I had to go all the way up to 8th/9th grade materials to find any content whatsoever that our seven-year-old daughter would not find facile and tedious. She helped me build a massive telescope when she was five, so growing a seed in a sandwich bag was not exactly her idea of a fun science project.

While she is a gifted child intellectually, I don’t think this is an extraordinary problem. Most children in the United States can handle much more than what education standards prescribe these days. Kids are getting a better education on YouTube than in traditional classrooms because there are resources on YouTube that do not treat them like idiots (as the Common Core crowd does).

So what do you do when traditional options bite? For us, the answer has mostly been make a lot of trips to the library and build a science lab off of Amazon. While we have built an enormous home library, I have long given up trying to buy everything we want to read. There is just too, too much.

We pick some general topics to organize the academic year around. This year, for example, we are studying ecology, botany, and water and marine life. From there, we divide up our weeks into more specific subjects. One week, we will study relationships among animals in ecosystems. Another week, we will study pollution. And so on.

Once we have the topic, we treat the topic as one giant research project and scavenger hunt. We go to the library and check out as many books as possible on that topic and request more from other libraries if necessary. Everyone in our household has a library card and can check out up to 20 books. It is not uncommon for us to go to the library and come home with 40 books on ocean currents and oil spills or whatever we are studying that week. Then we read and discuss and write about several books a day.

I prioritize two kinds of science books: (1) books that have ideas about science projects or experiments, and (2) books that integrate math and technology into their discussions. You would be amazed at how many children’s / young adult nonfiction books there are with experiments on specific topics. We found an entire book devoted to experiments involving erosion. It was geektastic.

From there, we search out other resources that fit our topic. If we are studying oil spills, we would go to YouTube and Curiosity Stream for videos. We look for news articles online about current events. Ten years after an environmental disaster, what is life like in the region?

So how do you get the resources you need to do lab work with a child? Thanks to Amazon and Google, homeschoolers have a lot more resources than they did decades ago.

(Some of these resources add up in cost, but you are still spending nowhere near what private schools charge for tuition. This is my preferred metric on spending, and one of the big reasons we choose to homeschool. Tally up private school tuition for K-12 cumulatively and then consider what kind of garage science lab you can build with that money instead. If science brings your child great joy, this is a serious consideration.)

Amazon has a page for Carolina Biological Supply Company, which has a lot of the tools you need to build a biology lab. I have ordered a lot of stuff from this company, and it is wonderful. You can seriously order frogs and fetal pigs to dissect off of Amazon now. (Except for weeks afterward, my husband would tease me whenever an Amazon box landed on our doorstep. “Before I open this, are there going to be any dead animals in here?”)

Another awesome resource is the Home Science Tools website. They have lab kits for all ages and a tab with projects and experiments to try.

The American Academy of Mechanical Engineers has a wonderful series on How to Homeschool Engineering Students. That is part one and here is part two. There is also Teach Engineering K-12. We have a subscription to Kiwi Co.’s Tinker Crate series, which has been wonderful at E’s age. She has developed quite a love of engineering. (You will get some strange looks when your child starts going off on an adult about hydraulics, however. I suppose that is a measure of success.) And of course, there is Mindstorms.

For young coders, this a great YouTube channel, Coding Tech. We have started our daughter on a BitsBox subscription and (independently) coding some elementary games. (When your parents develop software for a living, computer science is an everyday subject in your house….)

Here is a list of 100 chemistry experiments for kids of all ages from The Homeschool Scientist.

Some universities have put together STEM-related content for home education. See Hofstra’s Center for STEM Research, MIT’s OpenCourseware, and Open Learning at Harvard.

We invested in a Curiosity Stream subscription and have not been disappointed. They have so many documentaries on so many subjects that you cannot find anywhere else. That app is a homeschooler’s dream.

I am okay with science education being more like drinking from an open fire hydrant than “be sure to underline keywords and answer the questions at the end of the chapter.” That is where passion and creativity and bona fide expertise come from. That is how you build a lifelong learner instead of someone who treats education as a means to an end. That is why we choose to homeschool in the first place.

Modeling Being a Lifelong Learner for Your Children

In chatting with other parents, I often feel like we are the only household on Earth for whom “screen time” is not a major source of conflict. This is incredibly ironic, too, because we work in the tech industry. “No, we do not arbitrarily restrict our daughter’s access to devices,” I explain. My interlocutors clutch their pearls. “Experts say that if you do not have a rule about only thirty minutes of screen time a day, you are a very bad parent,” they respond.

Every time someone brings up the issue of screen time – how their child is “addicted” to video games or social media – all I can think about are those anti-drug public service announcement commercials they would run during kids’ programming in the 1980s. The father finds his son’s drug stash and storms into his bedroom to confront him about it. “Where did you learn how to do this?” he shouts. “I learned it from watching you,” his son replies.

“My kids don’t play outside.” When was the last time your family went hiking together?

“My kids don’t read.” When was the last time you curled up with Pride and Prejudice and some Earl Grey?

“My kid is a junior and still undecided.” They grew up in a household where no one had passions or hobbies, but sure, they might spontaneously identify a vocation when they are twenty years old.

Why does anyone expect their kids to crave something they don’t want to do themselves? Childhood is about constructing an aesthetic, and you are not going to micromanage your child into an aesthetic. If your kid sees you sacked out on the couch after work pounding chardonnay and watching vapid television shows, congratulations, that’s your household’s aesthetic. If you want your kids to be better than that, you have have to be better than that.

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One of the things I love about homeschooling is that it provides us with endless opportunities to model being a lifelong learner and to form a nexus in our own lives with what our daughter is studying. Here’s an example for you.

For our history curriculum, we use Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series. We are now on the second volume with our seven-year-old daughter, which covers the Middle Ages. We were reading through the history of Australia, New Zealand, and the Polynesian Islands. While no one knows how the aborigines arrived in Australia, the Maori people arrived in New Zealand during the time period corresponding to the Middle Ages in Europe.

Coloring pages from Story of the World history series. I like that this series is not entirely euro-centric (like what we were raised with in school).

Naturally, we covered the legends of Maui in discussing New Zealand. E loved this, thanks mostly to the Disney movie Moana. We compared how Maui was represented in the movie (the Polynesian version of The Rock) versus how he is represented in Polynesian legends (a prankster child).

Disney did not get everything wrong, however. The central conflict of the story – that Moana’s people were historically gifted wayfinders, but for inexplicable reasons, they stopped exploring, is part of the real archaeological record of these cultures.

The story of Polynesian wayfinders is extraordinary. They essentially used Stone Age technology to craft massive canoes from giant trees and wove coconut hair into durable material for sails. And those vessels were mighty enough to cross the Pacific Ocean. They’d load all their pigs and chickens into the boats and skip from island to island. And then they mysteriously stopped for a long period. Then they mysteriously started back up again. No one knows what was responsible for the hiatus. (These wayfinding traditions are still a major part of life in the region.) The green rock Moana carries around is also accurate to the region.

Our discussion of Polynesian wayfinding was so engaging that I ended up buying a book on it myself, On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands Before European Contact. Our daughter’s homeschool assignment thus became my leisure reading. I have the sense we will be talking about the history of the Pacific Islands a lot more in the future.

We are also studying ecology for science this year, and we found ways to connect our history lessons to our ecology lessons. (This happens a lot more than one would think. I have come to imagine the timeline of the world as different empires fighting to control their respective biomes, because those resources are the wealth of nations in its most basic form.) While studying about Australia and New Zealand, we learned about coral reefs, how they impact life on islands, artificial reefs, and conservation. We are in the process of building a model of a reef. When we make it back down to the Florida Keys, E will have an entirely new context for our snorkeling adventures.