My name is Wiida Malan and I am a veteran homeschool mum. Here is my story…
I was a matric maths teacher while expecting my first child. I can still remember how disappointed I was in the attitude the pupils in my class displayed. They had no interest in the things they were learning, no curiosity; they only wanted to know recipes for solutions to possible questions I would ask in the test. These young adults sitting in front of me were to start working or studying at tertiary institutions the next year but they were so immature and didn’t take any responsibility. Nor were they even interested in planning their futures. I vowed then that this child I was carrying would not turn out without direction and purpose.
I stopped working to be a stay-at-home mum a month before my son was born, in January 1995. His sister was born 3 years later.
When my son was 4 years old, a friend of mine started looking into schools for her daughter, who was 2 years older than my son. She was very upset with the conditions at public schools (up to 40 Grade 1’s in one class). It was then that I met a woman at the hairdresser who homeschooled her children. At that time, I didn’t even know that homeschooling was legal, but my friend and I started investigating. I met Martie du Plessis and Leendert van Oostrum, and I was enthralled. This was what I wanted for my children! My husband and parents were very supportive of my decision, but the rest of my family was not so eager.
My son could already read at the age of 3 and – by the time he turned 7 – he was far ahead in maths (at about grade 4 level). There was just no way that I could send him to a school. When his sister was born, I was persuaded to put him into a playgroup. He attended for 3 months but his vocabulary and general knowledge regressed and he was very unhappy and bored. I took him out; that was the last time I let peer pressure influence my decisions. Come what may, I was going to homeschool my children.
So, in 2002, I officially began homeschooling. I started with KONOS, but my son had other plans. We tried this for about two weeks and I was devastated – my son was not interested in anything I was trying to teach him and kept asking when we were going to be finished so that he can go play. In tears, I called Leendert van Oostrum and lamented my failures. He laughed and then said: “Los die kind!” He explained to me that teaching and learning are two very different things and that learning does not necessarily happen when teaching happens. He also suggested that I investigate “unschooling”. I then realised something that has since had a huge impact on the rest of my homeschooling experience. People (and thus children) only learn and remember something if they have a need for and/or an interest in the information they are learning. My son had learned all the things he could do by this age because he wanted to and had an interest in it. And he did it all by himself – even when he learnt to read.
I started educating myself in “unschooling” or – as it is known nowadays – “self-directed learning” or “natural learning”. I devoured books (no internet or Google at the time) on the subject and finally understood that learning is a by-product of living and that I only needed to be a facilitator and not a teacher – quite the mind-shift for an ex-teacher. It was such a liberating feeling and a pivotal point in my homeschooling journey! I realised that a curriculum taught at school was a lot of busy work and that it was someone else’s idea (someone who didn’t know my children’s needs or interests) of what children should learn at a certain age. There is no real science behind this and is mostly a thumb suck.
Don’t think for one moment everything was plain sailing from then on! I had lots of doubts and insecurities. What if my children didn’t learn anything, or they might have to go back to school, or they weren’t on grade level? I had a lot of backlash and raised eyebrows from family and friends. Interesting how people won’t give unsolicited advice on how to decorate your home, but when it comes to raising your children, they are all experts! But I did my research and stood my ground – I only had my children’s best interest at heart and nobody else cared as much about them and their future as I did. The best way to equip yourself against all the negativity is to do research, focus on your goals and ignore the naysayers.
At this time I came to understand the importance of other people to support you. This is very important for your own wellbeing. You need a safe relationship(s) where you can raise your concerns and brag about your little achievements, without ever feeling judged. Every time I felt disillusioned, my best friend comforted me and inspired me to carry on. When I felt that my children were not learning anything, just playing, not interested in the things I wanted them to be interested in – she reminded me of my goals and validated how much they’ve learnt and how far we’ve progressed. When my daughter still couldn’t read at age 11, my friend brought Raymond Moore’s book Better Late Than Early to my attention. When my daughter suddenly started reading chapter books (in English, although we are Afrikaans speaking!) on her own at the age of 12, my friend celebrated with me. We started a group called “MUM’S COFFEE” where we would share our joys and sorrows and never felt inadequate, even though we did not necessarily share philosophies. We still get together today, even though our children are adults.
The biggest issue people, including me, had about unschooling was matriculation and tertiary studies. How can children that taught themselves and followed no curriculum ever, graduate high school and move on to university? Well let me reassure you: it can and will happen. When children become teenagers, they want more structure in their studies. They start thinking about the future and possible career(s) they want to follow. All of a sudden, they have a need and an interest in getting a high school qualification.
My children and I decided Cambridge AS level qualification was the best way to get university entrance. My son went straight into AS levels, except for maths that he had to work through the IGCSE level. He finally wrote 6 AS-level subjects and was accepted at all three universities we applied to. He is currently studying Computer Engineering at the University of Pretoria. My daughter started with a formal curriculum (Cambridge IGCSE, only three subjects – Maths, Biology and Chemistry), for the first time ever, at the age of 15. This was the first time that she did formal maths and the transition from unschooling to formal schooling went smoothly. This child that only started to read at the age of 12 went on to write 6 subjects on AS-level, passed with flying colours and is currently studying B.Sc. Genetics at the University of Pretoria.
People ask me what I would have done differently. I can honestly say that the only thing I would change is that I would worry less. The hardest thing about unschooling is to trust that your child will learn. As my friend always said – they will learn it when they need to learn it! That is so true, you must just believe in yourself and in your children!
Here are answers to some of the questions I received over the years:
Did you ever register with the Department of Education?
No. I did not think that it was in my children’s best interest to register. I did join the Pestalozzi Trust and stayed a member until my children were accepted to university. If somebody asked me if I was registered to do homeschooling, I answered affirmatively that I was a member of Pestalozzi Trust.
How do I decide on a curriculum and when (what age) must I start with a curriculum?
You are the expert on your children and not the curriculum provider. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to buy a boxed curriculum. Get to know your children’s interests and needs. How do you do this? Read, read, read and read some more to your children. Read anything and everything to them: stories, biographies, history, science, biology etc. Discuss what you’ve read, act it out, watch videos on YouTube or movies about the topic, let them make up their own stories. Listen carefully when they tell someone else about what you’ve read.
Go on many excursions: to the botanical gardens, museums, factories, home industries, the veterinarian, dad’s workplace, the science fair, the zoo, the airport, train station etc. Do many activities like art, making music, pottery, dancing, gymnastics, ball sports, horse-riding, coding classes etc. Many teachers/coaches will let you attend a free class before you commit to something. If you have to commit, discuss this with your child and commit to at least a specific number of lessons or months. If they really do not enjoy the activity, stop. Remember, you are the facilitator (not the teacher), so you must seek and create opportunities so that they can experience things. Not everything has to cost money: many a thing you can do at home or in co-op with other homeschooling families. You will soon know what interests them and what not.
If it scares you to go without any formal schooling, try going eclectic, meaning that you choose subjects and topics they are interested in and you can even get textbooks or worksheets on the topics. Many homeschoolers start with a boxed curriculum but very soon they chuck it and move on to eclectic-schooling or unschooling. There is no specific age you have to start with a curriculum unless you want to achieve a specific goal or certification.
What do children need to learn in the primary school years?
I wrote down goals that I wanted my children to achieve in their primary years. There were very few academic goals, but here they are:
• Language as a communication tool. The more languages they can speak and understand, the better;
• To read – but as I said, my daughter only started reading properly at the age of 12;
• To write and/or type. Cursive writing is not important at all. Now that my children are students at university, I realized that typing is a very important skill;
• Basic maths i.e. counting, adding, subtracting, multiplication and division. Fractions (the ones we use like ½; ⅓; ¼; 1/10) and decimals (money). Reading time. They must be able to recognise and identify shapes and understand measurement – grams, kilograms, litres, centimetre, millimetre, kilometre etc. As a maths teacher myself, I didn’t follow a math curriculum but I do understand that many people will find this frightening. Use a textbook or even the internet as a guideline and make it fun, play lots of games. Forget about grades and go according to your child’s pace. Everybody CAN do primary school math, please don’t spoil it for your child!
• I think it is also important to have computer skills; and
• How to do research, where to find information and how to distinguish between reliable sources and misleading or fake sources
None of the above has to be achieved at a certain age; it’s fine if they start reading at the age of 5 or 12!
What about socialisation?
First of all, how do you define well-socialised people?
If people ask me about socialisation, I ask them what they mean by socialisation and they usually don’t really know.
The way I see it, socialisation consists of two separate concepts:
Social skills – this is usually called good manners and are things like how to behave in public, how to treat other people, how to answer the telephone, how to dress appropriately, respect for life and living things etc. It should be taught at home by the parents or competent adults and not by peers who lack the appropriate skills and it is definitely not the job of a teacher.
Social interaction – this depends on your personality. Some people are natural extroverts and love big gatherings and lots of friends, whereas some don’t like crowds and prefer only a few friends. You can’t and shouldn’t change a child’s personality. To explain this in more detail, here is an anecdote from my childhood:
My parents, my two siblings, and I went on holiday caravanning. As soon as we arrived at the caravan park, my brother organised all the other campers to help us set up the tent. By that evening he was on a first-name basis with almost everybody and had already organised a volleyball match for the next day. For the next three weeks, he had daily activities with various people. My sister (who is an introvert) did not join in at all and kept to herself, for the most part, reading. I only plucked up the courage after two weeks to befriend just one person. We were all raised by the same parents and attended the same schools. It basically came down to our different personalities and we are still the same today.
Hence, for socialising your kids: teach them manners and create opportunities where they can practice it. Attend homeschooling activities like ice-skating, birthday parties, sports clubs, church activities, drama club etc. If you can’t find clubs or activities that your kids find interesting, start your own. Get involved in community projects or start one, organise visits to grandparents or old age homes. My two children are chalk and cheese: my son is introverted whereas my daughter is more social. He didn’t like groups but she thrived in them. Therefore, I chose activities that suited their personalities and interests. He did gymnastics, karate, pottery, music lessons, drama, choir, robotics etc., and she did dance lessons, tennis, art, drama, choir, modelling, and so on. Both of them can converse with people much older or younger than themselves, and they are confident people with good self-esteem.
Is it important that children socialise daily with other children of the same age?
No. Nowhere else in society are people grouped by age except at school. It is more important to get along with people of different ages, social standing, culture, and especially with people that don’t necessarily think like you!
Is a strict daily routine important?
I myself hate routine and get very easily bored doing the same thing over and over. Consequently, in our family, there was no specific routine. When the kids had extramural activities, we planned our days around it and that was the closest I ever came to routine. For me, the “school” must fit into our lives and not vice versa. When the children became teenagers and started with a formal curriculum, I taught them how to schedule their work so that they can reach the goals they’ve set for themselves. They usually worked about 3 – 4 hours a day for 5 days a week. During exam times, time spent studying increased but they still followed the same principle. All of this was self-regulated and I never forced them to do their work. Interesting enough, they still follow this way of planning with their studies at university (my daughter is far better at it than my son).
What did you do if you experienced resistance from your children?
I can’t really remember that I experienced any resistance concerning learning. Since they investigated what interested them, I never had problems getting them to learn or do something for me. Maybe I’m a master manipulator! When they were teenagers, they’d set their own goals and it was their own responsibility to achieve said goals.
What did you do if you couldn’t help the children with their schoolwork?
I found help. Nobody is an expert in everything. Remember you are the facilitator, not the teacher. In their final matric year, I had tutors that helped with the difficult subjects. We also found wonderful resources on the internet and YouTube – Google is your friend!!
Is discipline important? Any tips for disciplining methods?
Discipline is a very personal matter and it goes hand in hand with your parenting style and philosophy of life. What one person thinks is good discipline is not good enough for the next person, and too strict for another. I recognised my children as autonomous human beings, meaning I treated them exactly the same as I would treat another adult. The only difference between them and adults was the experience they had. This was not always easy, but I had very good results from this approach. If there happened to be an issue, I stepped back and thought about how I would handle it if the transgression was committed by an adult. Someone once asked my daughter what the rules in our house entailed. She answered that we don’t have any rules in our house! But I actually had only one rule: you must treat other people and their belongings the way you want them to treat you and your things. This philosophy didn’t always go down well with some people. For example, I got a lot of flak from a mum because my son did not want to share his Lego (he was very fastidious about the handling thereof) until I explained that I will never expect her to share her watch or her car with me. It was his property and he had the right to decide whether he wanted to share it with anyone. I did explain to him that if he didn’t want to share, friends would not like to play with him, his answer: “They can share other things, not the Lego!”
How did you handle people that think you’re doing your children a disservice by homeschooling them and think school is a better option?
I asked them what they base their opinion on. I also asked how many research papers and books they have read about homeschooling. Then I bombarded them with all the research I have done. I listed all the positive things about homeschooling and all the negative things about regular school. I emphasise my children and their well-being as my responsibility and no one else’s. They don’t have a say in how to raise my children. I do think that people’s perspectives have changed during the pandemic. I clearly saw that homeschooling benefited my children during the pandemic, as they had no problem working online from home, on their own without the guidance of a lecturer.
Well, I hope I have answered most of your questions and that I inspired you to enjoy your children and your homeschooling!
When things get tough, rely on supporting relationships and keep in mind WHY you are doing this!