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What My Children Taught Me
by Helen Hegener, co-publisher of Home Education Magazine

For most people homeschooling is primarily all about parents teaching their children the skills they need to get along in life. Parents buy the learning tools, create the learning spaces, encourage an atmosphere and attitudes conducive to learning, and the kids dutifully learn stuff. Parents take classes on how to do these things better, they flock to conferences to listen to authors and experts extol the virtues of various approaches, and they buy magazines like this one to encourage their efforts along the homeschool pathway.

These things are all good, of course. These things have contributed to the growth of homeschooling over the past twenty-some years. And yes, of course, there are other definitions of homeschooling. For some, homeschooling is defined as children apprenticing to their parents in much the same way an aspiring artist or machinist would apprentice himself to a master at the trade. But however one explains or defines homeschooling, it generally involves the parents being the source of learning and the children being the recipients.

Maybe for most families it works that way, but in ours, the equation was turned upsidedown many years ago. They may dispute my notion, but I'm pretty certain that I've learned much more from my kids than they ever learned from me. I'm so sure of it that I've put quite a lot of thought into the idea, and I've come to the conclusion that on some levels it has to do with learning the value of learning. Allow me to explain.

I don't think kids really value learning per se all that much. And why should they? They've been doing it nonstop since they were born, but still we're constantly reminding them to do it, advising them about how important it is, how useful it will be in their lives when they're all grown up, and constantly coming up with new and improved ways to get them to do it. We buy their toys with an eye toward how "educational" they'll be. We take them places where they'll learn things like science, history, or geography. When they ask us simply how to spell a word we seize the opportunity to turn the answer into a quest for knowledge: "How do you think it's spelled" Sound it out slowly? Think about the root word?

Yes, I was guilty of all that early on. It took me a few years to learn the error of my ways, and for that I believe I owe my oldest two sons an apology. You guys were the guinea pigs, so to speak, the ones I learned how to handle learning with. By the time the last three kids came along I'd smartened up enough to relax and trust that learning was always happening, with or without my help, and the learning that happened without my assistance was much more likely to be useful and relevant.

I learned the value of learning, and I think it's a lesson my kids will need to learn for themselves. Like so many things in life, it's not something you can just tell someone else and expect it to have any meaning , it really needs to be experienced, to have a context all its own.

Eventually we reached a point where learning was just accepted as something that happened, sort of like the fortune-cookie philosophy about life being what happens while you're making other plans. Learning is certainly what happens while you're living life. For better or worse, we learn every day, wherever we are, whatever we're doing, whoever we're with. We learn good things, useful things, handy things - and we learn bad things, destructive things, things we might someday wish we hadn't learned. Life's like that.

On the whole, though, learning serves us quite well, and we're constantly arranging and rearranging our learning so it's more useful to us. Something draws our attention and we ask questions or find books to read or take classes until we've learned enough to satisfy ourselves. Something else seems interesting so we team up with others and share and hone our skills and put our knowledge to work, thereby learning more and more in ever-widening circles. We find ourselves with a need to learn something and we set about doing so just as we set about feeding ourselves when we're hungry. It's just what people do. My kids taught me that. But they also taught me so much more.

They taught me that life makes us all learners, and that while some of us learn easily, others learn with more difficulty. They taught me that it's okay to skip knowing something. They taught me that there will never, ever be enough time to learn everything I'd like to learn, to do everything I'd like to do, and that's how it should be. They taught me to view them - and indeed, everyone I meet, as individuals, and not to fall into the trap of sticking people with convenient labels based on my personal experiences. They taught me to acknowledge that everyone has their own experiences which make them unique in the world, and try as I might I'll never know all there is to know about anyone except myself. My kids taught me that it's a mistake to sacrifice your life to work or even to lofty ideals. Work and worthwhile causes come and go, but the people in our lives are what are most important.

My kids taught me to listen with an open heart, and to see without making judgments. They taught me patience, and perseverance, and persistence, but they also taught me to know when to quit. They taught me that love does not bring conditions with it, but just is, and they made me a much better person than I'd have ever been without them.

Thanks kids, for homeschooling me.

Copyright 2004 Helen Hegener

Copied by permission of the author, from the January-February 2004 issue of Home Education Magazine.

Mark and Helen Hegener are the parents of five always-unschooled kids: John (32, married, two daughters), Jim (30, married, two daughters), Jody Ellen (27), Christopher (27), and Michael (21). The Hegener family lives in both Alaska and Washington state, dividing their time between the two, and they enjoy fishing, sailing, gardening, and frequent travels, among many other pursuits. Since 1984 they've published the award-winning Home Education Magazine for homeschooling families, and over the years they have edited and published many books on homeschooling and alternative education.

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