In 2016 my friend Tanya Crossman published her book Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. Tanya worked with Third Culture Kids in Beijing for over a decade before writing her book, and I greatly value her insight into the hearts of TCKs today.
I’m passionate about homeschooling my four TCKs, so as soon as I received my copy of her book, I skipped straight to the home school section. Here is what I found:
“The majority of homeschool families I know do an excellent job. Unfortunately, I have also mentored and interviewed TCKs who had less effective, and less pleasant homeschool experiences. Those who shared negative experiences always referred to at least one of two key issues: working alone, and lack of social interaction.”
As a parent I want to be aware of these two important issues. I spoke about them at a conference earlier this year, and though not everyone in our online community home schools (or even has children), I think these issues are pertinent enough to warrant discussion here. Youth workers, sending agencies, and others who care about the well-being of TCKs may also be interested in how to help parents approach these concerns.
1. Working Alone
When we talk about working alone, we mean that neither parent is teaching the child, and also that no outside tutor or teacher has been engaged either. This could include single parent homes or situations where both parents work full time outside the home. On a practical level, the child has no teacher.
It’s unrealistic to expect a child to teach himself or herself completely, even in high school. (In my opinion, it’s especially important for high school students to have educational and emotional guidance from adults.) Every child needs a teacher, a tutor, a mentor, a guide. And while it’s valuable to learn how to teach oneself through books and videos, and while we do want our children to become life-long learners, students generally need someone of whom they can ask questions.
This is something to be aware of even with curricula designed for homeschooled students, curricula that are marketed to “teach the student.” Our students still need someone to ask questions of when they get stuck. Even university students have this type of help: professors have “office hours” or other times set aside to answer questions and dialogue with their students.
If a parent cannot be available to help with school work, remember that there are still many other options:
- Classes can be taken online, with online teachers who can teach and answer their questions. Some homeschool curricula are designed completely for online work. Others provide email support for textbook work.
- Tutors can be hired, either from the local or international community.
- Teaching times can be swapped with other home school parents in the area.
- Some families hire a tutor or teacher from their passport country to come live with them.
- Even when a parent is the main teacher, we must be diligent about setting boundaries around school time and not letting ministry obligations crowd out our kids’ study time on a regular basis. This guideline goes especially for older students, who need larger amounts of uninterrupted study time to complete their high school course requirements. At times there will of course be exceptions to this. It’s simply something to be aware of.
In any case, the message is the same: children should not be expected to teach themselves entirely. Neither we nor our children need to be world class scholars; that’s not the point of education. And we don’t have to teach everything ourselves. We do, however, owe our children some care and attention to their school work. Otherwise they may become discouraged with their lack of understanding or progress. They may also become lonely, which leads us to the second issue.
When we talk about isolation, we mean not having enough friends or sufficient social interaction. Homeschooling is by nature less social than local, international, and boarding school options. At the same time, we remember that social needs vary from child to child. Some children need more social time than others. Other children are overwhelmed by too much social interaction.
But all children need friends, and teenagers, especially, need friends. The number of teenage TCKs in a community can tend to shrink as families with older children make the decision to move away (for many varied and valid reasons), while families with teenagers don’t typically move to the field.
In addition, we as parents have social needs. The work of home education can be grueling. We need others to help us, to give us encouragement, to suggest fresh ideas, and simply to be friends. For parents and children both, community can be difficult to find on the field. This is especially true when families are geographically isolated.
Here are a few ideas for combating social isolation:
- Sometimes there are local coops or support groups we can join.
- Sometimes it’s as simple as planning more times for our kids to hang out with their friends, or for families to spend time with other families.
- If you live far from other homeschooling families, this may even entail traveling an hour or more once a month.
- Online community can be helpful. Moms could join a Velvet Ashes community group. Your children could Skype friends in your home country or other international kids your family has met through the years.
- Depending on their age, kids can text and message friends who live both far and near. This avenue of communication has become important to our family in the last year or so. It involves more technology than our kids may have used when they were younger, but we remember that it’s for the vital purpose of human connection.
- Some families even move from rural areas to urban areas when their children reach the middle school or high school years.
Homeschooling families in general need a lot of support, but these workarounds are especially important if parents are homeschooling not by choice but out of financial, geographical, or other necessity.
I’ve found personally that when our family started seeking out more consistent community (through a coop in our case), my teaching, my confidence, and my peace of mind all improved, and my children’s social lives improved. It turns out that they needed friends as badly as I did.
And we were in a “good” situation, where I had sufficient time to home school, I felt equipped to home school, and I wanted to home school. We still needed more support than we had been receiving. It’s been about two years since we joined our home school community, and it’s been key in helping our entire family thrive and be able to stay on the field happily.
It’s probably going to take some sacrifices to meet these two needs. But we must remember that sacrifices are ALWAYS made; we just have to decide what things we are going to sacrifice. Are we going to sacrifice our children’s needs in favor of the ministry’s needs, or are we going to try to find a healthier balance for the whole family?
Most families I know care about these issues and work hard to ensure their children are thriving both academically and socially. So this discussion is not a judgment but rather a reminder to all of us to continue to be aware of the issues our children face and to keep finding ways for them to thrive in cross-cultural life.
How have you handled the issues of isolation and studying alone? Any advice to give homeschooling families?
My new book Hats: Reflections on Life as a Wife, Mother, Homeschool Teacher, Missionary, and More has a section on homeschooling, so if you want to dig more deeply into these topics, you can grab an electronic or paperback version at Amazon.