Balancing Academics with the Rest of Life


This is a question from 2007. It came from Kendra the Amazing of Preschoolers and Peace. She wanted me to do an online interview. I agreed and never got back to her. I'm really bad like that. I do apologize, Kendra, but I'd like to answer this particular question now, if I may.

How do you think moms can better maintain a balance between academic excellence and the nurturing of relationships with their children?  Are they mutually exclusive?

This has been very much on my mind in the past few weeks. When Patrick left suddenly for Florida, we had four days to prepare. Usually, I use high school to get my kids ready for school away from home in college. Academically, we do things like learning to write research papers, taking notes from a lecture, managing time, integrating book work with lecture work. They take classes at the community college and I'm right there at their elbows to ease them into it and teach as we go. And, usually, they have completed what I consider to be an academically rich curriculum before they leave. Also, I have learned that 13 to 14-year-old boys are very very hard to motivate. That school year is not so productive. After Michael, I learned not to freak out about it. They catch up when they figure out that they need it. No big deal.

Except when they figure out they need it four days before shipping off to what's supposed to be the "best school in Florida."


I can't tell you the sleep I missed worrying that our program was not going to fly under these conditions.

Our academic program has always been literature intensive. It's also delight-driven within limits. That is, my kids get choices about what to study within a certain parameter. Every once in awhile, I look at something known for its rigor (like The Well Trained Mind in its entirety or Tapestry of Grace or Robinson) and I think about how much I want that kind of excellence. I love school. I'm a total library person. I would have taken any one of those curricula as a child and absolutely loved it. But it doesn't suit my household.

Remember the priority thing? I'm one parent. There is another. He is brilliant. But he's not the bookish sort. He brings the rest of the world into our home. He orchestrates opportunities to pursue athletic excellence. He drives the late shift home from dance. He works late at night and so he likes to hang out and have a big pajama party on our bed in the morning, keeping everyone from the designated chores and school for the hour. He doesn't hesitate to whisk someone away on an airplane for some adventure, regardless of the lessons planned. And sometimes I {silently} question his wisdom.


I definitely worried about it when Patrick left. Hold that thought.

The other area of balance in our house is that of home management and child care. While, I definitely don't delegate it all out while I sit idly by, I definitely do enlist their help while I work alongside them. I don't think it can all get done any other way. While Patrick may have slacked about school when he was 14, he wasn't given the opportunity to give up kitchen duties and he wasn't allowed to be anything but kind to his younger siblings. His cooperation was to crucial to the family mission. He cooked. He cleaned. He gardened. He loved on babies and he might have even braided blond curls on occasion. Hold that thought.

I ordered [insert name of highly structured, very planned, rigorous curriculum] just before I left for Florida to visit Patrick after he'd been in school for about a month. Someone had been throwing up all week. Laundry and disinfecting were in high gear but academics were taking a backseat. In hindsight, I think the anxiety of going to Paddy's "perfect school" and meeting all his teachers and hearing how hard he was having to work to keep up made me grasp for the most intense, well laid out, well credentialed curriculum I could find. I wasn't going to get into the position ever again. When I got home, I was going to make sure we were all about reaching the maximum intellectual heights.


I found Patrick happy and well. Every coach, dorm supervisor, and trainer we talked to commented on how extraordinarily well he could handle the stuff of life. They told us how he is a leader among peers, a natural big brother type. When given three hour's notice before flying internationally, he can get his ducks in a row. His shirts are clean and his belts match his shoes. He knows where his equipment is and he knows how to get it all from Point A to Point B. He manages his money just fine; he gives himself and everyone else haircuts; he organized the bus to Church (and routinely brings a bunch of non-Catholics with him). He's homesick and it's obvious, but he has set about making the most of the real life opportunities in front of him.

Then we went to the school. Every single teacher sought us out to comment on how beautifully he's doing. I looked at the curriculum and saw holes all over the place (much to my chagrin). It's a beautiful building and they are good, well meaning people doing the best they can with a really odd situation. If he were home, frankly, it would be a better designed, better tailored program. But he's not home.

And he left home well prepared in the important places.

He knows where home is and he knows he's supported.

So, all the rowdy mornings, all those "daddy trips," all the baby love, the cooking and laundry--all of it has mattered just as much as academics. We had those things covered so well that it didn't matter that he had four days to prepare to leave.


And the academics? Apparently they were good enough to succeed. His geometry teacher wishes he were better at timed tests. I guess they can work on that.

I came home to that rigorous curriculum. I tried my level best to make it work. It doesn't in my house. The housekeeping suffered as I spent hours with my head in the Teacher's Manual and my kids spent too much time at the table. I used way too much ink printing worksheets. I was a crazed taskmaster, trying desperately to keep even one child from falling behind, since we're all supposed to be in the same place. It wasn't pretty. My first hint that it wasn't going to work was when I couldn't fit it into the CM Organizer. The one created by Simply Charlotte Mason? This new plan was anything but simple. Sure, it came with instructions to winnow to fit, but by the time I read it all to know where I wanted to winnow and then winnowed some more to make it appropriate for Catholic children, then added the stories of the heroes of the Church, it was all too complicated for me.


Serendipity works in my house. It's books that inspire us; it's relationships between the people reading the books and the people in the books. There is an emphasis on writing--my children seem to write before they walk. Baskets of books, art supplies in abundance, time to think and to write.  It's who we are. Yes, if there is a lack of balance, it's because we lean towards relationships. The academics happen and they flourish in an atsmosphere of relationships. Maybe that atmosphere makes up for what might be lacking in intellectual rigor. I'm good with that. I really am.

 ~reposted, with new pictures, from the archives of Autumn 2010.