Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The problem of burnout

As I wrote yesterday, one of the reasons some homeschoolers quit, or others flirt with quitting and call or text quitting behind their homeschool's back and frequently fantasize about running off to some Caribbean island with quitting, but in the end stay loyal and true to homeschooling though their heart may skip a beat each time someone else mentions quitting, is because of the B-word. Burnout.

But what, exactly, is homeschooling burnout?

In some ways it resembles the dreaded Third Quarter Blues, but it has a couple of distinctive features. For one, it can drag on and on long past third quarter, or fourth quarter, or first quarter next year, get the idea. For another, it may not actually be about homeschooling at all. In fact, a great deal of the time, it's not.

What's that? Homeschooling burnout isn't about homeschooling?

Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that it never is. There are some people out there who disliked school so much as children that attempting to teach their own children, or anybody else's children, or a seminar at work, or a class at church, or anything else involving the words "teach" and "learn" can only be a penitential exercise. But for the vast majority of us, it's not the teaching at home, or even the learning at home, that is the problem most of the time.

What is the problem, more often, are two little things I call "method burnout" and "mom burnout." I'll explain "method burnout" first, as it's a bit more simple.

Method burnout happens when a homeschooling family has either a) committed itself to one way of homeschooling as the best or brightest or holiest or most amazing way of homeschooling, or b) purchased a whole set of curricula that they now feel they must use because not to use it would be to waste money or admit failure or both. Sometimes a) and b) can overlap.

If the method chosen or the books bought work out well for every child in every subject as well as for mom, there is, of course, no problem. And the family should invest heavily in lottery tickets, because the odds of that happening are extremely small. As veteran homeschoolers know, one of the fastest routes to burnout is not that homeschooling has become difficult or frustrating or exhausting, it's that something like "Marilla Dunworthy's Excruciating Guide to Educating your Children for Excellence in Literature, Math, and the Key Principles of Mandarin Chinese" has become difficult and frustrating and exhausting. All except for the one child who seems to be thriving on it--or at least that's what you think he's saying, given that you don't actually speak Mandarin Chinese.

So, one day, the children (all but the oldest, who is happily chanting Chinese proverbs to himself from the tree house he built in the uppermost leaves of the plastic ficus tree in the living room in an impressive display of somebody-or-other's engineering principles) rebel at having to write yet another book report on yet another Ben Jonson play (the report to be rendered in flawless iambic pentameter, as always, of course), and things get a little ugly, and dad comes home to find the children glued to PBS Kids while mom sobs out at the table, "I....can'!" and both dad and mom jump to the immediate conclusion that what mom can't do anymore is...teach the children at home. Because the Dunworthy Method came to them so highly recommended by so many parents who all seemed to have no problems with it whatsoever, so clearly the problem can't be the method...the problem has to be that mom just isn't cut out for this homeschooling stuff.

Or, maybe, mom isn't cut out for Marilla Dunworthy. And maybe those people who recommended it so highly don't use the whole thing, or use a series of clever workbooks loosely based on the Dunworthy method. Or maybe the family who likes it a whole lot actually are Chinese, in which case all they really have to work on are the English and math bits. Maybe there's a much better fit for our hypothetical family, given that there are ways of homeschooling that go from unschooling to "school-in-a-box" curricula, and some that even involve online classes and full-time teacher-consultant help. I have never, for instance, done the "real learning" method of homeschooling, because I need textbooks to keep me accountable and to organize the work in some kind of coherent way. Others who do "real learning" might feel constrained by textbooks, or might use them only as a kind of "spine" to help them find the books and materials they want for their children. The beauty of the homeschooling world is its variety, and I hate to hear of someone experiencing method burnout--but deciding that this whole homeschooling thing is to blame.

The second type of burnout I want to talk about is a little more complicated. Mom burnout can happen for so many different reasons. Lots of moms, for instance, experience some burnout after the birth of a new baby--there's so much to do, and so little sleep, that homeschooling just seems like one more huge daily task. Prolonged family illnesses, extended bad weather, a lack of time for her own pursuits--all of these can lean to mom's burnout.

With all of these things, dad can actually help a lot. He can offer to take over a subject or two, teaching in the evenings or on weekends. He can remind mom to relax and not worry about "falling behind," as she can make her own schedule and can catch up again when life returns to some semblance of normal. And he can make sure that she does get a little time to herself, whether at the mall or in her sewing room. We all need this.

But there's a source of mom burnout I haven't mentioned yet, and it's kind of a big one--and one that can be contentious to discuss: discipline.

No, I don't mean mom's discipline; heaven knows I'm not qualified to comment on that! But time and again I've witnessed a family quit homeschooling over their children's discipline issues, and even blame homeschooling for causing the children's discipline issues.

I'm not speaking here of special-needs issues or problems, or the ordinary sort of acting-out that all children will try just to see how much they can get away with. One of the critical tasks of a mother (and father, but stay-at-home moms have a lot of time with this one!) is to teach their children the basic principles of good behavior.

Most of this instruction happens long before a child reaches school age. I used to get complimented on my girls' behavior when they were five or six or so, and I used to smile a little weakly--because I knew I'd spent every waking minute of the past four years constantly working on those things, the "Stay with me, hold my hand, don't play in the store, mind your manners, say 'please' and 'thank you," and the million other little ways we teach children to behave in a somewhat civilized way. And I didn't do a perfect job of it, and there were setbacks and issues, and there were days when I felt like none of it would ever "take." Because, of course, the lessons on how to behave in public were a drop in the bucket compared to the at-home principles, the "Don't fight, pick that up, clean up your toys, come and help me set the table," etc. lessons.

Now, with three lovely and helpful and charming and polite young ladies, daughters who can do their own laundry and take over a dinner recipe at the drop of a hat and who compliment each other on their successes and who are really a joy to be with in every way, I can tell you this: Yes, it was worth it. Back then, though, there were times when I had "discipline burnout," when I thought that really nothing was making a difference, and I ought to just let them do whatever they wanted short of burning the house down if it would get me a few minutes' peace and quiet.

So, I've been there, and I understand what a struggle discipline can be. But when a mom is suffering from discipline burnout and thinks that the reason her children aren't doing their schoolwork is the schoolwork's fault, instead of admitting that the reason they are fingerpainting the cat and not doing math has a lot more to do with underlying behavioral issues that may lay dormant in a "real" classroom but will most definitely not be solved there, it can become awfully tempting to herd her darlings onto the nearest school bus. As I said, the children's discipline issues will not be solved by the school (though some children will learn how to be really sneaky about their bad behavior, as you can probably remember from your own school days). But mom will have six or seven hours in which to remove the Silly Putty (TM) from the garbage disposal and hide all of the matches before her kids return--and that may seem like a perfectly fair trade, at least until the calls from the principal's office and the endless parent-teacher conferences begin to accumulate.

The thing about both method burnout and mom burnout, though, is that in neither case is quitting homeschooling the necessary step, and in some cases, depending on the reasons for the burnout, it may not even solve very much. Let's face it: we moms are going to worry about our children no matter what, and putting our children in school to solve what may not be a homeschooling problem at all isn't going to change any of that.


JMB said...

I'm just tired of reading about moms who complain about homeschooling. Don't do it then. My children have had some less than great teachers, but they survived and each year brings new challenges and new blessings. We've done Catholic parochial, Catholic private and public. Each one has been wonderful in certain ways. Every child is different - what if they like going to school? What if you dislike being home all day teaching math? I like that you call it like it is, but I do think that some homeschoolers come off as a little too ideological and it's off putting - if you are miserable doing it, maybe you shouldn't be doing it.

Deirdre Mundy said...

A tip for avoiding Mom burnout of the 'can't do school because new baby/bad run of viruses/houseguests who won't leave/etc." sort:

If you live in a state (like I do) where all that matters is DAYS OF SCHOOL attended, ignore the traditional school calendar you have stuck in your head.

When times are good, do school every day except Sunday, even if it's only for an hour. Go all summer. Go during advent. Go on Saturdays. You'll build up a nice cushion to tide you over through the inevitable rough spots. In the rough spots, consider unschooling. Last year when I had a newborn, I considered it a school day if we made it through 15 minutes of phonics practice and practiced counting while we did dishes. And then we read. A lot. Good books, fun books, a mix of fiction and folktales and nonfiction.

I got my school days in, and now my very odd children know way to much about the geography and history of new england. (Way too much, because we live in the midwest. But the unschooling thing seemed to tilt New Englandy. And now, thanks to those cursed box car children, even the three year old wants to go dig in a shell pile for indian artifacts....)

Burnout is NOT inevitable. Just think back to your own days in school and how much time was ACTUALLY spent on academics. If you hit that bare minimum, it's OK to leave the kids to cut and paste for a while while you and baby take a nursing nap! You don't have to be perfect. You just have to be as good as what they'd get elsewhere.

Deirdre Mundy said...


When did you EVER finish the book in school???? Textbooks aren't MEANT to be finished! And, as my husband loves to point out, he learned more from watching PBS documentaries (Nature, Nova, Mutual of Omaha's Wildlife kingdom) than he did in all of elementary school science....

Red Cardigan said...

JMB, that's a pretty harsh comment. What if you were telling me about some issue you were having with one of your child's teachers, and I shrugged and said, "So send him to a different school, then!"? Not everything is all or nothing.

Besides, while it must be nice to have so many schooling options, there are plenty of one-income families who can't afford Catholic or private schools, and where the available public schools (let alone those Catholic or private ones) will be a danger to their children's faith. If yours are not, rejoice! I've seen far too many kids from good Catholic families leave the Church altogether sometime after age 13, when they announce that they aren't going to Mass anymore.

We're all trying to do the best we can with what we have. Does that mean never griping a bit about the day-to-day work of it all? Well, we're not in Heaven yet...

Charlotte said...

Here's the thing - what if your kid does have big-time behavioral issues? How are you supposed to homeschool at the same time as you are dealing with big-time behavior problems? Supermom might be able to turn a child's behavior around *and* effectively homeschool at the same time, but most moms aren't supermom. Most parents aren't like you, Erin - not everyone has the foresight or ability or where-with-all to train their kids up from birth to age 6 like you did. While it probably didn't feel ideal to you all those early years where you were constantly harping/training your children to be obedient and well-behaved, it certainly seems that when you arrived at the point to begin homeschooling your girls, you were in an ideal situation.

I disagree that behavior issues at home are automatic behavior issues at school. Actually, I believe that some children absolutely need to learn how to respond to an outside entity authority other than the parents to understand what authority and discipline really mean. I can use myself as an example: My mother was a piano teacher. Other students did well under her instruction, but not me. Fighting and arguing all the way. So we agreed to call it quits, whereupon I immediately took up violin at school and became an overnight virtuoso under the tutelage of a school instructor who just somehow knew how to work with me.

I recognize that the above story does nothing to solve the problem of my having been a behavior/attitude problem for my own mother - obviously, learning to take direction and discipline from your parents is probably more important than doing the same with a school teacher. But I maintain that doing it for at least one of them is a help (large help or small help) in learning how to do it with the other.

Quite frankly, I think I would give up homeschooling for a time if my kid was a behavior nightmare. I mean, what's more important - learning to read and write or how to behave and respect your elders? If sending my kid to a regular school would allow me to clear my head and come up with a strategy and plan to address the unacceptable behavior - while at the same time the child was at least achieving an adequate level of learning at a school - that's the route I would take, even if only temporarily.

Of course, that's contingent upon the parent actually being committed to changing the child's behavior and not totally giving up. I suppose there are people who do that.

JMB said...

I certainly didn't mean to call you out on homeschooling. It appears to me that this is your calling and that you truly enjoy it. My issue is that there is just so much complaining about homeschooling from homeschoolers on the blogosphere that as a non homeschooler, I have to question why mothers put themselves through this self imposed torture if they hate it so much. That's it. I enjoy doing lots of things - and those things I don't complain about. I love doing laundry and I truly enjoy cleaning my house and entertaining. If I wanted to teach my children academics at home I would do it joyfully.

Red Cardigan said...

Charlotte, I probably don't disagree with you as much as you might think, but let me dive in to this one step at a time.

You write, "...not everyone has the foresight or ability or where-with-all to train their kids up from birth to age 6 like you did." While I don't doubt it, the problem is that I'm talking about basic parenting 101, the kind of thing people should have a little idea about before they get married and start a family. It used to be that we'd learn these things at home and from our own families, both near and extended. But now, as we enter second or third-generation day care kids becoming parents themselves, people really have started to lose the notion that we are supposed to be teaching, training, rearing, raising, etc. our children from birth to not just age six, but to adulthood. Our culture tends to think of those as tasks to outsource to low-paid workers, which I find rather sad.

Behavior issues at home might not be behavior issues at school, but what I meant was more along the lines you discuss in your experiences. You learned to obey *some* authority, but not parental authority. Parents who expect well-behaved children to come home from school may very well be disappointed, as the children use their good behavior in school and revert to their problem child status the minute they get home.

And that's where the "discipline burnout" thing comes in: if a homeschooling mom is simply tired of having to discipline her kids--sending them to "real" school isn't going to change her duty in that regard; she'll just have a few hours of peace each day punctuated by cat-painting and adventures with matches in the morning and evening hours and on weekends.

If you have a child who has serious, serious behavioral issues such that he is a threat to the family, then regular school alone isn't going to help. At that point the child, and probably the whole family, need extensive therapy and counseling. But those situations can arise in families regardless of their chosen method of schooling.

One final thing: I've never said, nor do I believe, that everyone should homeschool. I do believe that given the dysfunctional and destructive effects the popular culture can have on our children, and the inability of parents to mitigate these dysfunctional and destructive effects when children are in regular school, homeschooling is a preferable option for the serious Christian whenever it is a good possibility and a good fit for the family. But there are some people out there whom I would *never* counsel to homeschool, because the good effect of keeping the dysfunctional and destructive culture at a distance for as long as possible are outweighed by the bad effects that the family's unique situation will cause to the children being taught at home.

LarryD said...

Erin - this is OT, so I apologize...were you affected by those tornadoes today?

Red Cardigan said...

Not here, Larry! They were south of us. Thank goodness--though I know the people south of us would have preferred not to have them, either...

Looks like we're in for an interesting season. Usually tornadoes are more associated with our spring weather.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

There isn't much to worry about. The only early fall tornadoes are the ones that are the product of a hurricane or tropical storm. Hurricane season doesn't end until Nov. 30th.

scotch meg said...


Thanks for stating that school won't cure behavior problems.

Case in point: bright kid gets bored in school and learns to do minimal work (occupies self with daydreaming and staring out the window). For completely unrelated reasons, family starts homeschooling. Kid is in 7th grade and bad habits are pretty ingrained; kid has trouble concentrating and doesn't thrive at home (flunks math, basically). By 9th grade, mom and kid are agreed - back to school for high school. In school, kid again does well in subjects kid likes, poorly in other subjects (especially math), works as much as necessary to get grades that won't cause parents to ground kid forever. It's hard to complain about A's and B's with occasional C even if kid can do better. Upshot: kid doesn't want to go to college, joins Marine Corps, is trained in foreign language. Drill sergeant is mom's best friend (kid works hard and irons own uniform). Kid now sees point of college... when he gets out.

My oldest kid never homeschooled and is a product of the Catholic elementary and the public high school, with predictable (lack of) belief and (immoral) behavior. I love her and pray for her. My second kid is described above. My other kids have done well at home, including one who went from writhing on the floor at the mere mention of math to taking calculus next year in 10th grade.

One thing I do find a little disconcerting about this series of posts is the constant reference to "teaching" in regard to homeschooling. I am not an unschooler and I do buy curriculum materials as well as rounding up and creating my own. I also do teach a high school English class - although even that I would tend to call leading a discussion rather than teaching a class. But most of what I do is organizational, especially now that I no longer have a first or second grader. The kids do 90% of the teaching (learning) themselves... I wonder how much of burnout comes from trying to replicate school at home, especially teaching in the sense of listening-based learning (I speak, you listen, you learn) as opposed to self-directed learning (you read, you write or work problems or do experiments, you come to me if you get stuck).

Barbara C. said...

I keep my kids involved in one outside activity each. Besides giving them the opportunity to socialize, I do feel it is important that they be able to take direction from others besides me. And they usually are well-behaved, and enjoy interacting with their coaches more than their peers.

However, I wonder how well-behaved they would stay after six or seven hours in school. The temperament of my oldest especially can be very trying, and I am constantly having to discern with her the difference between curriculum that isn't working, her temperament issues, and when she just needs more discipline.

I recently read two really great homeschooling books: Mary Hood's "The Joyful Homeschooler" and "A Mom Just Like You" by Vickie Farris. Between the two, they gave a very good priority list for homeschooling moms.
1. Mom needs to keep up on her relationship with God on a daily basis and lean on him. (Helps avoid mom burnout.)
2. The most important job is the moral development and disciplining of the children.
3. The academics will start to fall into place after steps one and two and are really just icing on the cake.

Red Cardigan said...

Scotch Meg, your perspective is very valuable and helpful here! I think that there's a big difference between trying to *start* homeschooling in the midst of serious unresolved discipline issues, and thinking that regular school will solve those issues. Rarely is that true; I went to parochial schools myself, and I can't tell you how many students (Catholic and non-Catholic) were sent to the Catholic school by parents at the end of their ropes because, "they'll straighten him/her out!" It never ended well.

I also agree that at this point my job is planning, organizing, and serving as an on-call educational consultant. The "teaching" part happened when my children were very young, and needed my constant presence to work through the process of learning to read, write, and do basic calculations--but our "official" school days back then were perhaps two hours at most, and lots of times considerably less than that.

Barbara, those books sound great--thanks for the recommendations!