Keeping my nerve on a road less travelled

When I first thought about home education, my son was 9 months old. I had met only one family, with a toddler and 2 children under 10. I knew no home educated teenagers or adults. Before this family loaned me their John Holt books “How Children Learn”, “How Children Fail”, “The Underachieving School” and their Education Otherwise (UK) newsletters, I hadn’t thought about the concept of children continuing to learn at home within the family, just as they learn to sit, crawl, walk and talk. Because I was born in Brisbane, I had a vague notion about the Australian “Schools of the Air” where children on remote farms maintained radio contact with a teacher and worked somewhat independently on their studies. We moved to Ireland when I was 6 and my parents’ idea was “the more education, the better” and for them, education=schooling.
I have to credit La Leche League and the concept of “mothering through breastfeeding” with giving me enough courage for each day’s challenges. My mother breastfed all 6 of us and I’m the eldest. There was never any formula in our house. I remember one brother having a bottle of diluted blackcurrant as an older child and that same lad, 21 months old when his “baby” status was displaced by another, asking for a soother. My mother got him one and it was soon discarded. No drama, no fuss.
La Leche League also hosts an annual conference, which has become an unmissable highlight in our year. There are often talks relating to education as part of the programme. Some of the most encouraging talks have been from parents who are home educating, telling their stories, being honest about what worked and what mistakes they made on the journey of accompanying their child’s learning. The conference bookstall has been a source of much take-home inspiration: Agnes Leistico’s books: “I Learn Better by Teaching Myself”, “Still Teaching Ourselves”, and Mary Griffith’s “Homeschooling Handbook”
We were weaned early, though. I first met a breastfed toddler when I was 16. I was highly impressed that when I took this child, aged 18 months, to the corner shop he asked for “babu” – his word for apple – and ignored the rows of chocolates and sweets. His mother loaned me her La Leche League book “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” 3 years later, when I was having my first baby. There was so much love and wisdom and many powerful, gentle examples in that book. It’s still a book I return to, and recommend highly to anyone seeking reassurance in following her/his heart in parenting.
So wobbly days, questioning myself days, wondering if this unusual path is really right for us? Dara Molloy from the Aisling Árainn network on Inis Mór, organised an “Alternatives in Education” day in Clonmacnoise in the summer of 1988 and from that, a list of home educators in Ireland grew and a newsletter “Sa Bhaile” (Irish for “At Home”). It gave a vital link to other people in Ireland whose children were learning at home and was a crucial channel of support and inspiration.
It’s funny how our ideas can grow and develop. I thought all my children would get a college degree. Eddie thought they would all do the Leaving Certificate (exam taken at around 18 years of age, on which access to college is largely based). So far, with 3 adults, we’ve both been wrong! The eldest did a few Fáilte Ireland courses in bar skills and hotel management after he sat the Leaving Certificate exams. The next did Leaving Certificate and 2 years of acting courses. The third is in third year of college (studying for a degree in music) without having attended any school or sitting the Leaving Certificate. He gained entry to college by studying piano at home and then attending a one year course, aged 16, in a local college and achieving a FETAC (Further Ed. and Training Awards Council) Level 5 in Music and doing well in the college entrance exam and audition.
I am amazed now at my daring, really. There have been times when I did the soul-searching: “Is this really the best path?”
“Am I cutting off some possibilities from their futures?”
When Darragh, now 27, was home from his travels, I had one of those moments and enough humility to ask him:
“Did I do ok? Did I give you enough? Do you regret the home educating?”
His reply was one of those “real Mother’s Day” gifts:
“Mam,” he grinned, reassuringly, “I LIVE in Hawaii!”



I love how our experience of educating at home means that learning is never confined to a set time or workbook or subject or curriculum.

Last night, as our youngest, Eamonn, aged 6, was snuggling at bedtime he was excited about the story he wants to write.

“What will you call it?” I asked.

“I’m thinking” he replied.

He got his brother’s clipboard, an A4 sized sheet and drew lines on it for the words. He’s not quite reading yet so asked me to spell each word and wrote 3 sentences before realising that maybe he could dictate and I would write for him.  He read back each sentence before composing the next one. He wants me to keep it secret until it’s finished but I can tell you it’s about a hobbit called Nora.

It reminded me of his eldest brother Darragh, now 27, then aged 6, returning to Dublin from a visit to my parents in north county Wexford, coming back by the last train, making our way through the streets on a bus, writing sums (4+6=10) on the fogged-up bus windows. When we got back to our home in Harold’s Cross, he asked to do a page of sums so I scrabbled around for a page of a workbook we’d been sent by his Grandma TC, a 4th grade teacher in Chicago, who wanted to support his learning as much as she could. I remember my feeing of disbelief… a child would ASK to do sums, at ten o’clock on a Sunday night? No-one told me children were this curious, this motivated, this fired up to learn, with no outside nudging or pleading or bribing or rewarding.

We filled the A4 sheet with words and Eamonn needed to think about his hero’s friend’s name so decided to sleep on it.

He moved the page and pencil to the end of the bed, arranged his Turtle and Blue Bear and snuggled up, yawning.

“Oh, I’ll call it ‘Lord of the Rings 2’ “, he said.