Welcome to the final installment of the Becoming a Homeschool Baker series. After every thing is said and done the only way to know if you’ve been successful is to turn up the heat and bake the dough. There are ways to tell if something went wrong along the way and sometimes you can catch issues before they ruin a dough, but even the most perfectly made dough is imperfect and inedible if it isn’t baked properly. If the heat is too low or too high, if you took it out too early or kept it in too long, if you put it on the top rack or bottom instead of the middle. There are a hundred ways to mess up a baked good between the process of lifting the baking pan off of the counter and pulling it out of the oven at the end.
An experienced baker can bake by smell, able to tell down to almost the second of perfection based on the smells that emit from the oven. Meanwhile, a novice baker follows each direction as closely as possible using every tool possible to check doneness as the time progresses. Some bakers pull out a loaf and know by touch or sound if the bread is ready to cool, others check the level of color that the outside has achieved. For some a success is any finished product that is edible and not charred. For others it has more to do with the complexity of taste and the number of air bubbles baked into the dough.
When it comes to homeschooling the process of baking is integral to the overall output. Love may be your heat source, but loving a child is no simplistic task. To bake a thing we not only need heat but we need heat that stays consistent over a duration. Loving a child as a homeschooling parent means that we have to make decisions that are hard for our children, that are uncomfortable for our children but are nonetheless necessary for them and we have to keep making them. It means recognizing that however we choose to school, philosophically, there will be a place for respectful expectations, guided discipline, and encouraging scaffolding that will need to be in place for some set period of time.
Not only are we responsible for their moral and emotional upbringing but we are also taking on the brunt of their academic instruction and executive functioning training as well. Regardless of how we go about teaching these things, overtly or subtly, via natural consequences or overt discipline, the core of the parenting struggle is there. Our children are growing naturally, the ingredients have been mixed, the dough is rising but how we shape it and how we structure the next part will determine what comes out on the other end.
As homeschooling parents our role is to prepare our children for a world that hasn’t been created yet. To help them strengthen their strengths, find coping mechanisms for their weaknesses, and above all to learn how to learn. When the entire world of knowledge is easily accessible in your pocket at any given time there is less of a worry about creating a generation that has memorized an ancient body of knowledge and more of a worry about creating a population that knows how to access the information they need when they need it. To know how to ask questions, when to question, why we question, who to ask, and how to ask it.
All parents are responsible for instilling a moral compass. For most of us this is rooted firmly in our worldview and belief system. However, homeschooling parents go a step further and choose to take on the monumental task of meeting the educational needs of our children as well. It is a responsibility that we do not take lightly.
We all know that eventually we need to put our dough in the oven and bake it. The heat will turn up. Our tempers will flair. Frustrations will rise. There will be battles of the wills and we will react at times without thinking. Loving our children is calling them out when they do wrong. It is teaching them step by painful step, even when we are struggling with the lesson ourselves. It is being firm and setting boundaries that are healthy ways of teaching in themselves. Loving our children is not just filled with the happy moments full of hugs, cuddles, reading on laps, and dance parties in the kitchen. Loving our children is also doctors appointments, dentist visits, and reminding them to take a shower… again. Loving our children is filled with the mundane moments and the hard moments, the great moments and the awkward ones. This is our fire. The way we react, the way we speak to them, the way we listen and engage on a daily basis. Our oven temperature is based on what we feed it. Deadlines backed up by consequences are one way to feed a fire. So are rhythms and daily rituals, like Tea Time or Morning Baskets. Another way to set an oven is to ask for the Child’s input or through the relationships we build with a child.
How we feed the oven is not as important as keeping it at a consistent and proper temperature for baking for the appropriate amount of time needed for the recipe. Going into the oven doesn’t need to burn the dough. Some breads bake at 475 degrees. They need that high heat to create a crusty exterior and soft interior. We want them like that. But we do not just leave them in the oven for extended periods of time. We go into the kitchen expecting to make a bread that will cook for a short time at a high heat. Other breads are made at 250 degrees and cook slowly for a long period at a low heat. They are delicate breads, like sweet breads, and need delicate conditions. Children are the same. Even within the same family children are different.
A tough love approach with firm consequences and little leeway is exactly what some children need when approaching academics. They need a set schedule with exact times and laid out assignments. They need to know that school occurs between 9am-12pm every day and then it is done but that there are consequences if the work is not done. For some children creating all of these is a sign of love. The parent of this child is meeting that child’s needs. But not every child is like that. Some children do better waking up at 930am and meandering their way to a breakfast at 1015am while staying in PJ’s until 2 as they drink tea and read books or watch documentaries or work on a project that has been in the works for a few weeks. That child may need a parent who is more focused on regular relational conversations and consistent presence rather than the structure that the other child needed. Other children do better with a 830 am wake up that leads immediately to an enrichment class before an afternoon of independent discovery, crafting or writing and nature followed by an evening of math, reading together and games. For this child perhaps there is the need for encouragement, high executive functioning skills and a need for social interactions that include personalized attention at varied intervals.
There are as many ways to homeschool as there are homeschoolers. Not every style, or every idea or every neat project will work with every kid, every time. Not every recipe works for every kitchen either. Sometimes we have seasons that flop. Don’t give up. Sometimes you have to work on a recipe a few times before you get it right. Sometimes you get an amazing recipe the very first time. That doesn’t mean that you have to stop experimenting. Take the parts that work, the things you’ve learned from that success and apply it to your next experiment. Did you knead it just right, but had the oven too low? Were you putting just the right amount of challenge but not enough structure? Was the structure good, the challenge good and the atmosphere good but you used the wrong flour and a different curriculum would work better?
Oftentimes though, we won’t even know if a recipe was a failure until it is brought out to be eaten. Whether that’s reading in front of a family member or being asked ridiculous questions at the supermarket, or being thrust into an awkward situation at a youth group. Eventually our children will be tested by the world in some way and we will know if we have succeeded. It could be that moment at a public playground when your child befriends another child without you there beside them. It could be a state required standardized test, that you did not teach to. Perhaps you are standing in a store and a recognizable song from your studies comes on and in a moment of recognition your child joyfully recalls the name and composer. Perhaps it’s an unwelcome encounter online that your child did not deal with appropriately. A missed pop culture reference or a caught one?
The world is a fickle place and while many homeschoolers gauge these kinds of successes or failures differently, they are nonetheless our “aha” moments that help us to assess our own success thus far. I will never forget the moment I realized that I had never taught my four children the months of the year. They could tell you the difference between Tchaikovsky and Mozart after a few bars of music or immediately call out a Van Gogh or Picasso but not even my 6th grader could name all 12 months in a row. A year has passed and we are still working on that one. Not every loaf that we put in is going to be great, but many of them are going to be delicious.
I used this analogy of baking with homeschooling because when it comes down to creating a homeschool recipe, the truth is that often we want the process to feel like Betty Crocker or Pillsbury but the outcome to taste like Martha Stewart, Alton Brown or Gordon Ramsey. We mix and match and read and pull and hope that the outcomes will work out but most of us aren’t really following a recipe at all. Deep down we understand how the elements of this all work together but we aren’t taking the time to play with the process either.
It all feels too big. “I don’t want to ruin my children’s future” is something that I’ve said to my husband more than once and yet I know when a thing isn’t working anymore. I know when things need to be changed. I’m also willing to make these changes and move forward in a new direction even if I don’t really know exactly where I’m going, because at this point I know what makes good bread. I’ve experimented and I worked with the dough. I’ve tried different recipes, took what didn’t work vs. what did and now I can face the materials at hand and create my own recipes. I know what love languages my children have and how those aspects play into our household dynamics. I know the children’s personalities and my own and how that plays into the academic dynamic. I know when I need to lay on the tough love and when I need to lay on the encouragement.
But learning how this all works together has required years of working with the dough. Years of flops. Years with un-risen dough or tough loaves. Years that were too sweet or too salty. Years where the dough was burnt on the outside and undercooked on the inside or perfect on the inside but slimy on the outside. There have been seasons when our math has been horrific but our writing has progressed. When our relationships were all that we could focus on. There were seasons where we only schooled via field trip and project creation and it was perfect and others where the same approach left us drained and cranky. Some seasons have had us with set timed schedules that made us feel burdened and others where the children have begged to do “real school.”
I used to think that I was always changing things because I wasn’t good at structure or follow through but I’ve come to learn that many times we were using what was right for that dough, for that season of life- but no bread lasts forever. There is a reason that it is called daily bread. Bread or really baking, is something that you need to be working on regularly. We need to be learning from our mistakes, changing what doesn’t work and growing as our children grow. Your favorite, tried and true recipe for early elementary school will need some tweaks, at the least, when they get to middle school.
Children don’t stay still, and neither can we. We can’t leave that uncooked dough out to get stuck in a rise/knead cycle forever. That is such a waste of food and hard work. It will go bad. Eventually you need to put the heat on it and let it bake. And then you need to enjoy it. Enjoy the fruit of that labor. Enjoy the hard work that it took to teach your child to read. Let your child enjoy that work too. Let them have days where all they do is lounge and read an intriguing book that sucks them in. Turning off the oven doesn’t mean that you stop loving your child, it just means that you’ve changed how you approach them in that moment. You have a different goal now so you will approach it differently. Your love is still there, always ready when needed, warming the atmosphere and preparing it for the next project.
Bake your dough, and Eat it Too. Life is too short to only worry the bits that brown too much. And if the entire loaf is inedible, start back at the beginning and work on the atmosphere again. What went wrong? Why? You can’t just jump into kneading and hope to have a perfect loaf. You can’t just throw ingredients together and expect it to turn out well. With the process comes progress and progress eventually becomes perfect. You can’t skip the process if you plan on Becoming a Master Homeschool Baker.