The following story from Penny Tuggle is from our May-June 2013 issue of Home Education Magazine:
When our little boy was five, he came into the kitchen and asked, “Mama, what are we having for dinner tonight unfortunately?” I blanched, paused, and then burst out laughing. The evolution of my reaction to this question over the last few years serves as a metaphor for the way Anthony’s presence has changed our family for the better.
In 2008 my husband and I were just starting to enjoy the freedom that comes with having moved past the little kid stage. Our children Asher, Abigail, and Emma were 10, 8, and 6. We felt like we had a good handle on the homeschooling life: our children were advanced academically and we had a peaceful, quiet home. Then during National Adoption month, we both became convinced that things were a bit too peaceful, a little too homogenous. We decided that we needed to seriously pursue foster care and perhaps adoption to shake things up a bit. What started out as a family “project” ended up pushing us farther along the homeschooling continuum towards unschooling.
We contacted an adoption agency, and after six months of training and waiting, we welcomed our first foster child. My husband was out of town at the time, and I was handed a little boy wearing grubby pajamas and bringing no more than a sippy cup. We were told that he would be staying about four days, which I thought would be a great trial run to see if I really could handle having a series of small children living with us. Four years later, Anthony is a full-fledged Tuggle, and he has been the impetus for my ranting, reframing, and finally relaxing as a homeschool mother.
Young children require a lot of time and energy. Foster children are more time-intensive, even when they are healthy and need no physical or mental interventions. When Anthony was our foster son, we had to attend ongoing training. Our family was visited at least three times a month by social workers. We took Anthony to visit his birth parents twice a week, and the girls and I waited at the visitation center for him. Although I knew these meetings were necessary, I couldn’t believe how much homeschooling time they were sucking up. We tried to do math at the visitation center, but we got distracted and ended up reading novels to each other. Studying in the car was not an option because we had to use the drive there to prepare Anthony for his visit, and we used the drive back to comfort him. Between having the normal day-to-day care of a preschooler again, our obligations to the county, and my constant fatigue that has always necessitated a mid-day nap, I was not able to homeschool at the times I wanted. I was in constant rant mode.
This loss of control almost made me lose my mind. It also didn’t help that Anthony and I were experiencing a personality clash. In retrospect (and to my friends as it was happening), my little boy was just being his adorable self. He really was a fish out of water in our cerebral, language-intense household. I was accustomed to my other kids speaking in paragraphs and using adverbs correctly by the age of two. Anthony didn’t have a chance. Part of my ranting stemmed from my thinking that he was a master at pushing my prescriptive grammar buttons. If he put “unfortunately” in a sentence about the dinner I cooked, I’d take it personally and answer, “Tonight we’re having a big plate of go to your room.”
It became evident that we had to embrace a new vision of what homeschooling would look like for our family. Fortunately, I have never been very curriculum driven. Put me in a school store or a homeschool swap and I’m looking for the fun stuff. I like us to finish a math book in a timely fashion, but I accepted that real life learning must be our priority for a little while at least. My big kids learned how to change diapers and give baths and make simple meals. They learned to share their living space, food, and parents. Their eyes were opened to the fact that not all children have parents who can take care of them. They learned how to be hospitable to the social workers that came to our home and to be gracious to their foster brother’s relatives. I was feeling pretty good about what they were learning.
I still tried to grab academic time whenever I could, and I tried to include Anthony. However, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with a small child who didn’t want to read for hours and who only wanted to talk about training to be a cage fighter. Out of desperation, I assigned Asher, Abigail, and Emma activities to do with the baby while I rotated them through their schoolwork. I figured this would be more “life learning” time for them. My plan backfired. First of all, the activities always ran out before the Latin did, which left us feeling rushed and unsatisfied. Second, having the older children do school-type things with their brother emphasized their differences even more, and they got really frustrated with him. They thought that all four year olds were able to follow directions, speak clearly, give a straight answer, and know things they’ve been told once or twice. And to tell the truth, at that point, so did I.
Fortunately, both of my best friends homeschooled their highly kinesthetic sons. They assured me that Anthony was just like their boys were at four. In repeated conversations with these ladies I realized that maybe a kid who could ride a bike without training wheels at two wasn’t able to sit still for a board book. I realized that his body always had to be on the move, which made it hard for him to concentrate. He was unable to pronounce a lot of words because his eyes were always roving, making it impossible to focus on the way our mouths were moving. For years he was oblivious to the fact that anyone else was talking and was always shocked when we told him that talking out of turn was rude. He couldn’t follow simple directions because he would be off and running to do the first thing we asked and then have to guess about the second thing.
I had to do a good deal of damage control by then. It was a momentous task to reframe our view of the little guy: Anthony wasn’t academically slow at all, just really physically quick! I had to incorporate more physical activity into his routine, and I had to back off on the little amount of seatwork he was doing. If I wanted to get his attention, I would break out my Zumba moves or whip out a lightsaber. I had to train the big kids to compliment their little brother on how strong and brave and fast he is. I started to notice what a charming boy he is (as my friends kept telling me), and that he really had been working hard to fit in with his strange new family.
At this point, if he had asked what we were unfortunately having for dinner, I would have been proud of him for attempting to use an adverb and would have pointed this out to his siblings. A small part of me was still trying to frame everything academically, but mostly I was figuring out that he really valued being a Tuggle, which included approximating our speech.
In the process of studying Anthony, I began to notice that the kids had been developing all kinds of neat non-academic skills of their own. Asher is an organizer of online HeroScape tournaments, and he writes his own games. Abigail creates comics, sings while playing piano, writes novels, and draws. Emma fills the house with the smell of cookies baking and the sound of the sewing machine humming. I decided that if I could allow Anthony to relax into who he was made to be, I could do the same for the other three.
We still do academics, but we know that they aren’t really the most important thing about our family. The most important thing about our family, is, well, family—the new “shaken up” version. When I hear Anthony say, “Mama, what are we having for dinner tonight unfortunately?” I give him a big hug and don’t really register anything beyond “Mama.”
This article appeared in the May-June 2013 issue of Home Education Magazine