Book Reviews: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

When it comes to kids misbehaving, I think we homeschooling parents see more than the average parent.  We spend more time with our children and take responsibility for more of our families’ lives, so it’s inevitable that we get more parenting practice.

Don’t we all want to be a little more like Atticus in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and a little less like the Wicked Witch of the West?  We hope to be the wise parent who understands her child, who really listens and gently guides the child.

We won’t find advice for this type of parenting in most parenting books.  We do find helpful counsel in the scriptures, most pointedly at the end of D&C 121.  But sometimes it’s nice to get even more specific direction to point us toward our general goals.

I’d like to share some books that are helping me to be a better parent.  These three books all focus on one main idea:  it’s not about whether or not you love your kids.  We assume you love your kids.  It’s about whether or not your kids feel loved.

Gary Chapman’s "The Five Love Languages of Children" is the most famous of these three. This book is part of a series that teaches us how to show our love not in the way we think shows love, but to instead consider what makes the child feel loved.  Chapman describes five love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.  Then he invites us to thoughtfully determine which language is the main conduit for love for each of our children.  Each language has a chapter that teaches how to use it.  For example, for words of affirmation, he shows us how to increase those words, and also shows why negative words (that we might say while disciplining) are extra-damaging to a child who receives love in that way.

In "Shepherding a Child’s Heart", Tedd Tripp teaches us how each child’s behavior comes from his heart.  Behaviors are just symptoms of what’s going on inside.  The wisest thing I learned from this book is that when a child does something “wrong,” it’s a great teaching opportunity.  So at the ward dinner when Johnny races in front of the elderly ladies to get to the front of the food line, that’s my responsibility to notice that Johnny hasn’t learned yet to consider others’ feelings or what might be expected of him in that public situation.  And that’s my window to gently teach him what to do next time.  I don’t agree with Tripp on everything, but this was a valuable insight:  misbehavior is a teaching opportunity, not a sign that the child is bad.

These first two books are a worthy introduction to the third.  Alfie Kohn’s book "Unconditional Parenting" is not for the faint of heart.  Reading anything by Kohn is intimidating because he questions so many things that are normal in our culture.  And he’s so darn convincing, that if you’re anything like me, you’ll start wishing you had done plenty of things differently.

Kohn takes on not just spanking and punishment, but also common parenting strategies like time-outs, catching your child doing something good, positive reinforcement, and even praise.  And he cites plenty of studies to back all this craziness up.  So beware:  don’t read this book expecting kudos for whatever parenting strategies you’re currently using.  Only read this book if you are interested in questioning the status quo and making positive changes.  Don’t get me wrong.  The changes you make will be positive ones, but it will probably entail letting go of engrained habits.

Kohn begins by showing that what we really mean when we say a child is “good” is that the child doesn’t cause too much trouble for us grownups.  Is that really a valuable goal for us to have for our kids--that they won’t cause trouble for people?  What do we really want for our kids long-term?  Do we want passivity and compliance?  Or would we rather have them become thoughtful people who stand up for what’s right?  If what we want is ethical, compassionate, and honorable behavior from our kids, we have to stop using parenting techniques which lead them in the opposite way.

Kohn teaches us how to show unconditional, non-judgmental love to our children.  When kids (or adults, for that matter) feel emotionally safe, they aren’t afraid to tell us if they do something wrong, and they’re more open to our teaching and advice.

I’ve had experiences with kids who refuse to talk to me, answering every question with “I don’t know.”  And I’ve also had experiences with kids being honest and unafraid to tell me about a problem they’re having.  You can guess which experience I prefer.

If you’re worried that unconditional love might be code for “the kids do whatever they want,” don’t be.  Unconditional love simply means that your love and your comfort are constant—whether the child is pleasing you at that moment or not.  When I ponder the way Heavenly Father and Jesus parent me as their child, this unconditional love is what I feel.  They have encouraged and forgiven and helped me even when—especially when—I least deserved it.  I’m forever thankful for the way they treat me, and I hope to learn how to consistently treat my kids the same way.

The kinds of relationships that we can develop with our kids when we show them the same respect we would like to receive gives us much more influence with them than we will have if we rely on rewards and punishments.  With the latter, we essentially teach them that they should always please us. But if we keep our eyes on our long-term goals for our kids, we can be less judgmental and less discouraging toward them, which will help our kids come to us when they need help and be open to our (hopefully inspired) guidance. And won’t we be better able to bring up our children in light and truth when we can teach and guide them instead of just bossing them around?

Instead of conversations that let them know only that we’re displeased, we can have conversations that help them think about how their actions affect other people, help them see what they could do differently next time, or help them learn how to repent.  This kind of heart-to-heart can happen only when the child feels emotionally safe, and only if we’re looking past the behavior into the child’s true essence.  Kohn repeatedly reminds us that behind the most destructive thing done and the most unkind word said is a vulnerable child.

Gary Chapman’s and Tedd Tripp’s books can easily be called inspiring, while to say that  Alfie Kohn is provocative is an immense understatement.  Still, we homeschoolers are investing so much time in our kids that we have an extra incentive to build good relationships and make that time positive, happy, and Spirit-filled.  And for those goals, all three of these authors have constructive ideas which are helping at least this mom become a better parent.

The Successful Homeschool Family Handbook

Raymond and Dorothy Moore's The Successful Homeschool Family Handbook has a subtitle: A Creative and Stress-Free Approach to Homeschooling. It's a fairly accurate title—I would say Less-Stress since nothing important is ever stress-free for me--but this is one of those homeschooling books that I can happily re-read, over and over.

Often called the grandparents of homeschooling, the Moores researched and became champions of homeschooling 50 years ago, long before HSLDA, ABeka, or homeschooling blogs came on the scene. Their research and the educational method they subsequently promoted seem almost revolutionary on the face. Yet their logic is sound, and their homeschooling method truly is low-stress, low-cost, and high-success.

I was a teenager when I read my first book by the Moores: Better Late Than Early. (It’s true: I was an odd child who was interested in educational theories even then. Plus, I disliked school intensely and was thrilled to find experts who felt the same way.) The subject of that book was their research on when children should begin their formal educations. The Moores found that, contrary to popular opinion, children do best when formal (sit-down, study by book or lecture) education is delayed until at least age 8-10 or even 12, especially for boys. Academically and socially, in behavior and maturity, the children with late starts on "book learning" did best.

The reason these kids did so well academically is that after 8-12 years of happy exploration in the world, their knowledge base was so wide and their confidence in themselves so high, that formal academics seemed very easy to them. Academically, the delayed children breezed past the kids who began formal study in preschool or kindergarten.

My mom was a piano teacher and she taught me the same principle when I was a child by making me wait until I was 8 to start lessons. Speaking generally and not specifically, of course, it doesn’t matter if you start learning piano at 5 years old or at 8 years old--by 10 years old you will probably have equal ability. The difference lies in the attitude toward the piano at age 10. The early-starter has had to work so hard at it for so long that piano practice might have become a chore instead of a joy. The late-starter has had a much easier time learning to read music and placing his fingers on the right keys at the right time. He quickly moves through the primer level and immediately advances to playing more satisfying "real songs," so he is rewarded with enjoyment and achievement when he sits down to play.

They have the same ability at age 10, but their attitudes are far different. Which one, do you think, will be more advanced in their piano studies at age 15? I believe their attitudes at age 10 will determine their enthusiasm and desire to practice in the future. And in the end, there’s a good chance that the late-starter will not only enjoy the piano more than the early-starter, but will also play with more skill. There are certainly exceptional children who started playing the piano early and go on to great things, but for my mom at least, they were the exceptions rather than the rule. What my mother found to be true with her piano students often holds true for academic subjects also (learning languages is one big exception).

I have used some of the Moores' late-starting method with my children, which really ties in with John Holt's unschooling while the kids are young. My three older kids are anecdotal evidence that waiting works: they sped through the traditional college preparatory subjects in just a few years and were ready for college at 16. (Incidentally, we found that 16 year olds starting college is not necessarily a good thing, but that’s a story for another time.) More important than speeding through academics though, is that the Moores gave us a satisfying way to homeschool, focusing on the big priorities and preparing kids for life, not just for college.

So what is the Moore Method?

Up until kids are at least 8-12 years old, the parent should. . .

  • Read, sing, and play with your children.
  • Identify their interests and help them find real books and experiences to explore those interests. Give them real tools (kitchen, shop, yard or desk), encyclopedias, and magazines.
  • Have them help around the house: "Start your children to work when they start to walk. Add freedom as they accept responsibility."
  • Give them opportunities to serve others.
  • Basically, give your kids an interesting and enriching environment.

When the children are older, there are three parts to the Moore Formula: study, work, and service.

  1. Study. 30-180 minutes per day, using as few boring workbooks or school methods as possible. (Think of all the lovely ideas out there from wonders like Charlotte Mason and Maria Montessori). The thing to note here is that the amount of time spent on “school work” is quite short--three hours maximum, and that only for the oldest teenagers.
  2. Work. 30-180 minutes per day. Kids spend at least as long as study time on household chores and running their own businesses. The novelty here is the large amount of time spent on real work, and the emphasis on kids running their own businesses or helping in a family business.
  3. Service. Times will vary--serving at home, in the neighborhood, and in the community. We don’t often see an emphasis on service outside of the church, but the Moores place it front and center, as a major part of the curriculum.

The Successful Homeschool Family Handbook gives a good introduction and explanation of the Moore Method, plus it includes lots of real-life stories from families who have used it. I enjoy reading about other families’ experiences with the study/work/service tripod. They offer lots of food for thought, and they demonstrate the advantages children gain by working and serving throughout their school day. This is an extremely valuable book, and I count it at the top of my homeschooling book list, right next to John Holt's books.

Since I have such a high opinion of both the Moores and John Holt, let me add a side note about the differences between the two methods. The small disparities between the Moore Method and unschooling don't arise until children are older. While the Moores suggest 8-12 as appropriate ages to begin small amounts of formal study, John Holt would say to delay that formal study until (more accurately, unless. . . ) the child requests it. The Moores would have you make certain that your children incorporate work and service into their schedules. And Holt would say that kids will incorporate work and service into their schedules on their own, as they see you modeling those things. Both methods completely agree that most traditional school methods like textbooks, lectures, and tests, are rarely helpful and often harmful.

Because the Moores and John Holt were the first homeschooling advocates, back when homeschoolers were hiding their kids in the daytime, it’s worth our time to see why they thought homeschooling surpassed traditional schooling. They didn’t say to take kids out of school to keep them away from drugs or sex or non-Christian lifestyles, even though those might be appropriate reasons. In the beginning of modern homeschooling, the choice was about educational methods and the very definition of education. So I’ll follow the pattern set for me by the first homeschooler I ever met, and I recommend these authors to everyone interested in homeschooling. I hope they’ll be as much help to you as they have been to me!

Beating the Cabin Fever Blues...

This winter has been cold and snowy. Very different from last year. My kids have been stuck inside since Christmas due to either below zero temperatures or lots of snow. With a house full of boys, cabin fever sets in quick!


A few days ago I grabbed off the bookshelf “The Kids Winter Handbook” by Jane Drake and Ann Love. It is a great resource for fun winter ideas, both inside and out. It has science experiments, craft projects, things to do in the snow and ice, family activities, games and kitchen projects to do.   Everything you need to beat the “I’m bored and I don’t know what to do” blues.

The pictures are of my boys making snow goggles. Just the thing for their hike through the back yard with the dogs! Here are some other books to try:

“The Kids Winter Fun Book: Homespun Adventures for Family Fun”  by  Claire Gillman and Sam Martin


“12 Snow Days of Winter” (For Chilly Days Indoors, Perfect for Beginner Readers)

And to get you started right away here’s an ebook you can download today!

“25 Winter Craft Ideas: Easy Indoor Crafts for Kids” by Monica Van Zandt

Book Review: Learning All the Time

Finally:  An educator who truly loves children.  John Holt was one of the original modern-day homeschooling standard-bearers.  At the beginning of his career in the 1950s, he taught in selective private schools, but as he learned more and more about how children actually learn, he began trying to refashion schools to better meet kids’ needs.  Eventually, he decided that schools were un-reformable, especially because the “compulsory” in “compulsory schooling” made any real change impossible.  So he became one of the first experts to recommend that children leave school completely, and in fact, the word he coined—unschooling—initially meant simply keeping your kids out of school.  Holt was in the process of writing Learning All the Time when he died in 1985. His editors finished the book with the help of his notes and some magazine articles he had written previously. I love the title! The phrase "learning all the time" epitomizes Holt's writing and theories.  Holt’s central point is determining how people actually acquire knowledge and the real meaning of “education,” NOT on how to get kids to do what we adults want them to do.

Learning All the Time isn’t my absolute favorite of Holt's books, but it’s a nice introduction for new homeschoolers, and it’s also full of inspiration for parents who admire his ideas but feel nervous about taking a leap into "unschooling."  How Children Fail, How Children Learn, Teach Your Own, and especially the powerful Escape From Childhood explain Holt's evolution of ideas more clearly if you want to learn more about his educational methods.

Learning All the Time focuses on young children. Chapter topics include reading and writing, numbers, children's natural research methods, music, parental example, and helping children explore. As in his other books, Holt includes lots of personal stories and examples from children he knows. These stories help to model his ideas so we can see what they look like in practice.

John Holt never had children of his own. Some parents use this fact as a reason (or an excuse?) to dismiss his ideas as impractical. I feel exactly the opposite way. Holt actually had a clearer perspective on children because he saw them from "the outside."  His outside perspective on his friends' children and his nieces and nephews was clearer and less tainted than if those children went home with him every night. Even though many of the children in his stories were his friends, he didn't have any stake in rationalizing or defending his own behavior towards them as a parent would.

He had a sharp eye for his own, and others', hypocrisy. And he was never afraid to learn from his mistakes. You've got to love his openness and vulnerability, even if it makes you question some of the habits you might have developed.  Personally, I appreciated the questions he raised.  They led me into firmer commitments to positive things:  to homeschooling itself, to meeting children’s true needs, and to learning for myself instead of just accepting what other educators said.

As an example of Holt's willingness to question established parenting and teaching habits, one of my favorite sections in this book is in the chapter called, "What Parents Can Do." Holt gives seven reasons why parents should NOT correct all their children's mistakes.  (I know this idea will probably be a shock to anyone who isn’t already familiar with Holt, but hold on a minute and see if any of his reasons ring true to you):

1. Correcting is rude.

2. Correcting does not recognize the child's intellectual accomplishments.

3. Correcting does not help a child learn better.

4. It is "better for a child to figure out something on his own than to be told." (He gives specific reasons why this is so.)

5. Correcting hurts people's feelings.

6. Children learn better when they aren't "worrying about learning."

7. Children do not want to be always told what to do.

See what I mean? Holt's ideas of how to treat children seem radical because they are so different from our culture's ideas of how to treat children. Yet when you read his writing, like this section on not correcting children, you have to admit that he's right. Correcting people is rude, we all learn faster when we are safe emotionally, and none of us like to be told what to do all the time.  But is there any other way to teach children?? This was, after all, the way most of us adults were taught, both at home and at school.

So just keep reading the book, because Holt showed better ways to facilitate kids’ learning that aren’t manipulative or rude.  He showed how to develop a learning environment, how to foster kids’ (and your own) curiosity, and how to smooth the way for creativity to flourish.

Not to be overly-dramatic, but for me, John Holt was one of those important people with beautiful feet “that bringeth good tidings” and “publisheth peace.”  He questioned the status quo of “making” kids perform certain tasks and looked for better teaching methods; by doing so, he transformed me, my kids, my family, my homeschool, and even helped me recognize ways the Lord teaches me.  He prompted me to freshly consider and open myself up to ways of teaching and learning that unlocked a new—and better--world.  For me, reading my first book by Holt was a partitioning time for my educational life:  before I met John Holt, and after I met John Holt.  He’s really that good!

As he said, “We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions—if they have any—and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

If you haven't yet read as many of his books as you can possibly get hold of, please do it. Put on your shoes and head to the library!  John Holt will change your life and your relationship with your kids in so many happy ways. Even if you don’t become a rabid unschooler, just exposing yourself to his unconventional attitude and incorporating a few of his ideas will change the way you view your kids and make your homeschooling more joyful and abundant.