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, or...you 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't...do...this...anymore!" 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.