The problem of children of all ages bouncing off the walls – while other children attempt to do their lessons, endless meals are prepared and the adult world of work impinges – has been trying for many people during the lockdown, but this describes normal life for a large home-educating family like our own.
That’s not to say we haven’t been affected. During the epidemic, tutors who teach our older children have been visiting us via Skype, and the sports and trips that took some or all of us out of the house have ceased. Like everyone, we have had to make up for the children’s lack of exercise, and indeed churchgoing, with family activities. Nevertheless, this has not represented an unprecedented challenge: it has been more of an intensification of what we were doing already.
By contrast, some of the horror stories of families under lockdown that have appeared in the press have been revealing. It is not necessarily any discredit to families with children at school that the closure of schools has been difficult to adjust to. Engaging in online classes and completing emailed worksheets, for those children lucky enough to have conscientious teachers and schools, is not “home education” in the normal sense. The situation has shone a harsh light, however, on the gap that can exist between parents and their children: of what the children are learning, compared with what the parents remember from school; of interests and cultural reference points; of attitudes and values.
Another question, which I’d like to ask some of the parents quoted in these articles, is: how well do you know your children? One mother, who confessed to not enjoying her de facto house arrest with her daughter, admitted that what she had taken to be her child’s high spirits and independence was actually a tendency to bolshy non-cooperation. It hadn’t been her problem before.
The two issues, of sharing culture and values with our children and of knowing them, are related. Do you want to spend time with your children? To talk to them, or hear them talk to each other? To play cards with them, or enjoy a film together? Parents won’t know their children if they don’t spend time with them. But our culture and educational system makes this difficult, because too often children do not share their parents’ tastes, interests, or indeed manners. It can be hard to think of things the whole family would enjoy.
Do we want our children to read the classic books we read, to be able to laugh at the same jokes, and be moved by the same plays and films? An understanding of the old folks’ culture and values does not imply that the younger generation will not develop things in their own way, in the light of their own experiences. It is merely the precondition of a minimal degree of cultural continuity, such as is necessary if we are to form a single community across the generations, within a family, let alone a nation.
This is not just a matter of passing on what we have received. It may involve us as parents taking a closer look at what we have received, or should have received, so we can pass it on more effectively, or at all.
One of the nice things about home education is that it stimulates us to maintain and widen our own education. Over the last three months, and partly to make up for the lack of outside activities, we’ve been watching more films than usual (we don’t have a TV). I’ve also been boning up on my Chaucer, and the Second Punic War. I could never quite remember all of the Ten Commandments until I had to teach them to one child after another. I have now even mastered the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Latin pluperfect tense – I draw the line at the Twelve Fruits and the supine, at least for now. These are not solitary attainments: these are all things which I share with my children.
This strangely extended Lent we have all suffered through will always be remembered in the Shaw family for another reason: the birth of a daughter. Having put together the Latin Mass Society’s “Guide to the Sacraments under Lockdown”, I had to take my own advice and arrange a private baptism, as it became evident that baptism in church would not be possible within a month of the birth, and perhaps for far longer. The old Roman Ritual is insistent that parents are to baptise their own children only as a last resort, so after a Skype tutorial with a priest, our daughter was baptised by her older brother.