It’s getting hygge in here

We are nominally hygge here.

We used to live in Minneapolis where we gained an appreciation for the Danish idea of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-ga). Even though Minnesota in general is more Swedish and Norwegian (and Eric and I both have Norwegian, not Danish, ancestry), the Scandinavian culture in general and weather definitely are conducive to a hygge-centric lifestyle. Hygge is sometimes roughly translated as “cozy”. After a few winters in Minneapolis (and a few before that in Wisconsin), I think that a hygge way of living and being is crucial to survival (physically, mentally, and emotionally) in those cold climates.

When we bought our house there, one of the first things we did was to have a wood-burning stove installed into the fireplace. On the short, dark days of winter, the girls and I would often lie down on a huge pillow in front of the fire and take a late afternoon nap together. When A was in preschool at the time, she and I would sometimes walk through feet of snow to her class. It wasn’t quite up hill both ways and I had toasty warm “mukluks” on my feet, but the temperatures were definitely well below zero on some of those days. And while we also had the option of driving, to drive both ways every day would definitely have felt like winter had defeated us. But had we not had that warm fire, a snack, and a cup of tea to look forward to, we definitely would not have been able to make that walk.

But Hygge doesn’t entirely translate where we live now, in Maryland, just outside where I grew up in DC. It is a bit swampy here, even in the winter. My sister and her family still live in Minneapolis and last winter they installed a hot tub in their backyard, which is a very hygge thing to do. On a recent winter day, she was talking about her kids using the hot tub. It happened to be a boggy day here in Maryland in spite of the calendar and I had to admit to her that while the whole scenario of climbing into a hot tub on a dry, frigid Minnesota day was very appealing, the idea of doing the same here in Maryland was, well, gross.

We are nominally hygge here. This Christmas the older girls wanted to buy presents for everyone in our extended family. It was very generous and thoughtful of them, but we had to help them reign it in a little bit. We all finally settled on them making soy-based candles for family members. We ordered this kit (they contributed a little to the cost) and we spent a few afternoons melting wax, calculating percentages, taking temperature readings, and mixing in the fragrances. They also made and attached little labels to each candle. And the end result were handmade gifts that were super hygge.

In the picture at the beginning of this post is one of the candles that we made together. I’ve been picking up knitting again and a warm drink and something to eat round out my attempt at a hygge picture, which 10yo Ms A called, “very instagramable.” (Clear evidence that she’s been around her older cousins lately.) True hygge is very hard to capture in a picture. In fact, as I settled into my chair to knit by some warm hand-poured scented candle light, a cup of tea, and a bite to eat, as soon as I picked up my phone to take the photo, I sort of disrupted the whole hygge moment. Like most good things in life and any decent “lifestyle” philosophy, being absorbed in the moment or task and being present to the people who are around you is central to “hygge”. For me, my camera can often disrupt that.

And this, too, can become one of the challenges of homeschooling, but it also one of its gifts. We are often challenged to take a step back and to let things take their course, directed by where the children’s interests lie. It’s hard, at time, to not pick up the proverbial camera, to compose the picture, and to overly obsess on whether or not what we are teaching and doing is “right” and best. And, of course, the moment we do, we disrupt those moments of true and genuine learning. But there are moments when we are able to put down the need to evaluate, when we can simply calculate the percentages, pour the candles, read the book, give the gift, ride the bike, play the game. Those are the moments of hygge. And they are lovely.

The “S” Word

The church Christmas play this year was one of the ways in which our kids were able to spend time around kids of different ages
(and their families who often attended rehearsals).

One of the main reservations that parents have about homeschooling is that their children will not have an opportunity to “socialize”. The image that many hold of homeschool kids is that they don’t watch TV or are not otherwise exposed to mainstream culture and, as a result, don’t have the same cultural touchstones that everyone else in their generation shares.  And while this may be true of some homeschool families, it doesn’t have to be true of all. To be clear: just because a family homeschools doesn’t mean they have to move off the grid to a rural corner of the midwest and throw their TVs out the window. In fact, I would recommend against doing this sort of thing. 

Concerns about “socialization” in the context of education reveal a number of assumptions about both socialization and education. 

First, this way of thinking presupposes that “socialization” is a focal point of most traditional classrooms. This is not always the case. Many classrooms are structured with a teacher more or less standing at the front of the room, showing and demonstrating information and skills. Peer-to-peer interaction often occurs around the “edges” of these lessons and sometimes even in direct conflict with these lessons (think: note-passing, trips to the bathroom to meet friends, and other “covert” interactions with peers, friends, crushes, etc….). Sometimes peer to peer interaction is a distraction from the material. 

The second underlying assumption is that the best or only way to learn how to be social is by interacting with your peer group. But are peers really the best people to teach each other how to be social? Certainly, there are children who are able to teach and model advanced social skills, but in the absence of a larger culture which prioritizes and values healthy and pro-social interaction, peer to peer interaction even in a seemingly highly controlled school setting, can slide into a “Lord of the Flies” scenario. And this is what we found in some of the more traditional school settings near us: a lot of unmonitored peer to peer time and a lack of a larger school culture that prioritized teaching children how to be pro-social. The end result was that our children were in environments that, by default, were anti-social.

We have had to change and expand the way in which we think about socialization in our homeschooling environment. And to be clear: we probably would not be homeschooling if we didn’t live in a relatively population dense area where social interaction is an almost unavoidable aspect of day to day life. By circumstance (not at all by any sort of carefully laid plans on our part), our children regularly interact with family, friends, and neighbors of varying ages and backgrounds. They have church friends, basketball (and other sports) friends, neighborhood friends, and family all nearby. Plus, they have each other and us, their parents. They regularly interact with the same people IRL that adults have to interact with in their day-to-day lives out in the “world” when they are buying things or running errands with me or their dad. The older nine-year-old interacts with different people in (safe and parentally monitored) on-line environments. 

And, yes, they do sometimes watch TV or otherwise engage in popular, mainstream culture and, yes, balancing all of this is one of our main concerns and challenges as parents who homeschool. But what we have found is that finding this balance has felt much more attainable with our kids spending most of their time in homeschool rather than in a traditional school. 

Teachers that every student should have

A lot of conversations over “groaning” boards like this one, which features, amongst other items, cheese from Cowgirl Creamery.

This holiday season, I was chatting with some long-time family friends including a third-grader. I asked her the standard questions about school and what she had been doing lately. She described a power point slide that she had made about animal adaptation as her mother listened. I asked her what adaptation she learned about and she described how penguins have white bellies so that they look like glints of sunlight to underwater predators when they swim along the surface of the ocean.

I had to admit that I had never considered this impressive adaptation before and thanked her for sharing. Her mother looked at me and exclaimed, “Thank you so much for giving this demonstration of excellent mothering! I feel like I don’t do a very good job of asking her about school.”

Later on, I realized that I wasn’t actually practicing good mothering in that conversation; I was fully in “teacher mode”. I happen to be both teacher and mother to my children and while both often look similar and there are large swaths of territory in which these two roles overlap, they aren’t exactly the same. It is the teachers’ job to ask children about what they are learning, to find the topics that interest students, to not just “feed” children information but help them to evaluate their learning, to practice “metacognition” and to give them positive feedback when they are learning in order to create a positive feedback loop founded on social interaction.

Part of our job as parents is to make sure that our children have teachers (and other adults in their lives) who help guide them in this way: to help them think about learning.

In the absence of teachers who practice this, these responsibilities fall on parents’ shoulders. It is a lot to have parents do, especially around the “edges” of an already long school day. In our rather limited interaction with more traditional schooling here in Montgomery County, our children have not have any teachers who encouraged this sort of metacognition. As a result, much of our already limited time with our children was spent checking in with them in this way. This is just one of the many reasons we homeschool now. These conversations happen much more easily and naturally now and they are around topics towards which our children are naturally inclined. Much more of our energy goes towards not just learning what someone else has decided they should learn, but on how they can learn what they are truly and genuinely interested in. The return on investment has been well worth it.

Gift Giving

Many of our thoughts and conversations around here — with both the kids and between Eric and I — are about gifts, receiving and giving them. There are various lists being written and secret emails and whispering and furtive shuffling of packages into hiding places. They aren’t quite brown paper packages tied up with string, but they could be.

The customs, behaviors, and traditions around gifts and gift giving are likely fertile ground for anthropologists attempting to learn and quantify the values of a given culture. One community that we recently observed (I’m not actually an anthropologist, I just play one on this blog) had the charming tradition of setting up a small gift shop in which children could buy Christmas gifts for their parents. The gift items were donated and then the money earned was then put back into the community.

This ritual seemed charming, but upon further observation, it became obvious that it was unsubstantial and conveyed few values or meaning beyond those of commerce. For example: some of the donated goods were home-made “slime.” The organizers expressed that they were aware that no parent actually wants slime (or in some cases MORE slime) in their homes, but still made this item available for children to buy as gifts ostensibly for their parents or other care-givers.

Organizers rejected donations (such as art kits or projects) that a child would in some way “make” or at least “put together” for their parents. The reason given was that this would require too much supervision of the children, who were 5 to 12 years old.

Our decision to homeschool our children is based on countless factors. We consider “Education” is not just the transmission of academic subject areas but also of values, of living thoughtfully in a community. We want our children to know that gift giving is not just about spending money but also about showing care and thinking about the recipient. We found that in some of the more traditional educational settings we observed were not conveying the same values that we held. Sometimes, as above, they were even working against us, teaching them the opposite of what we wanted them to learn and how we wanted them to interact with and think about the world. This time of year, the dark and cold of consumer culture seems to grow with the longer nights. I find myself drawn to the warmth of the counter-culture of family and food and friends and togetherness. In these dark days, I’m grateful that homeschooling give us all of those.

Delegating is teaching

Yesterday was the First Sunday of Advent (Happy Liturgical New Year!). Eric retrieved our advent wreath candle holder from the basement along with the purple and pink candles and various advent season books. We were anticipating blessing our wreath and saying the first night’s prayers, but our dining room table was a disaster: covered from end to end with the flotsam and jetsam that accumulates after a long holiday weekend. While the kids played downstairs, I walked by the table a number of times and had to fight the urge to pick up an item bound for the trash anyway or to remove dishes left by one of the kids or replace a book or toy into the appropriate shelf or bin.

As parents, I think it’s easy to just do everything ourselves: to cook and clean, to put things away, to do all the daily work of a household. For me anyway, nine times out of ten it’s just easier to “do it myself”. Or at least it seems easier, in the moment, to do it myself. How many times has one of the kids come into the kitchen and asked me “is there anything I can do to help?” And I’ve quickly, thoughtlessly replied, “no” as I chop carrots or pour broth or stir the contents of a pot, all tasks simple enough that a child could do it. (Answer: many.) Perhaps I’m loathe to admit that many of the “tasks” that make up my day which, in turn, make up my life’s work are things that a child could do. More likely, most of the time, it feels easier to complete each task by myself in the solitude of the kitchen rather than having to explain, to teach, to make sure they are being safe, to delegate. This attitude isn’t doing any of us any favors, least of all me.

Six yo Z often recalls (in fact she just did tonight) the time when she asked a few times if she could help making dinner. Later on, I admitted to her that I regretted turning down her help. I could have used it.

And so I passed by our dining room table multiple times last evening, resisting the temptation to just take care of everything. I waited until the family was together in the kitchen and asked everyone to clear their things and help clear the table for the wreath. They were happy to do it. There was no grumbling and I barely had to explain anything to them. For the wreath, for the candles, for this special first night of the new liturgical year, they were more than willing and able to pitch in.

It was a particularly beautiful evening, a particularly peaceful start to the new year.

Opening up to tech…

19 month old M tries to make this screen time (watching a BBC French program) more socially interactive by reaching out towards his big sister.

For a very long time, I thought of technology as something that I had to “keep out” of my home and house and away from my children. I took the idea that children should be allowed no more than two hours of screen time a day very seriously, by basically not allowing them any screen time. I considered myself well versed in the dangers of screen time on children’s brain development.

Eric, in the meantime, has always been fairly pro-technology. I remember him telling my sister, who has two older boys, “don’t worry too much about them playing video games. There’s a lot of bonding that goes on during those times.” I silently scoffed. “No. My children will play outside. And run around and play make believe using sticks and pinecones and only what nature gives them,” I thought to myself. “My children will be elves.”

Well, my children are not elves. They enjoy time outside. But we don’t exactly live on a nature preserve. (In fact, we live along a very busy state highway, which means that time outside near our home can actually be incredibly stressful and harmful to their health and brain development in myriad other ways.)

We have recently undergone a number of technology upgrades around here: spear-headed, of course, by my husband. Making decisions about large purchases, and especially “tech” large purchases (if the opportunity presented itself, I’d probably buy a cow without batting an eyelash) gives me hives. Fortunately, I think it has the opposite effect on Eric. And, well, it turns out that I don’t hate all the tech upgrades. The girls and I have bonded over a few games, snuggled up on the couch together with the iPad, trying to solve puzzles and escape rooms. We chat and talk through the whole thing and also try to learn how to work together as a group.

We have had multiple conversations about the costs and benefits of technology and one theme that continues to emerge is the ways in which technology can serve to isolate individuals but that it can actually bring people together and be a social activity. We don’t have a “system” that we follow for amount of time on technology or in front of screens. Rather, we attempt to have on-going conversations and to “train ourselves” to listen to both the internal and the external cues that tell us we’ve had enough of interacting with the world in one way, time to do something else.

On that note… I’m hearing an external cue.

My rural elementary education

I grew up in rural Minnesota, about 10 miles outside of the ‘big’ town where I eventually attended junior and senior high school. My parents rented an old farm house surrounded by empty barns and concrete feed lots long-since retired from use. My nearest neighbors lived more than 2 miles away. Balancing this physical isolation was the limitless opportunities for free play in groves of trees or open, monoculture fields of corn or soybeans. While homeschooling our children now, I think back upon my elementary school days at the small local school with 9 kids in my class and around 50-60 total in 3 classrooms for grades 1-6. Because it was so small, we all had recess together and play was always with kids older and younger. Class time was structured and taught by strict teachers that did not suffer fools. Given where we lived, most of us had a lot of time alone but I never felt isolated. It was a nice balance. This came crashing down when it was time for the move to the big town. Only after being in much larger classrooms and getting kinda lost in the shuffle, do I remember hating the fact that I lived so far away and dreading summer break when I would be missing out (on what, I don’t know). I think a big part of what changed (but I didn’t realize at the time) was the lack of interactions with kids of different ages. I was happiest in the smallest of settings socializing with kids of all ages. That was the most fun for me, and I think I learned a lot, both academically and socially. Fast-forward to today, and I think the idea of presenting opportunities to our kids to play and interact with people of all ages is a pillar of our educational philosophy. I really believe that something is lost in the vast ‘monoculture’ classrooms and schools today where it’s easier than ever to become isolated and your interactions with students of different ages is scarce.

Homeschool FAQs: How else do you teach math?

We like Borenson’s Hands-on Equations for 9yoA. And she seems to enjoy it too. While we encourage her to do one page a day of work from this set, it doesn’t always work out that way. But she has been able to do basic algebra using this system and has been moving into working with negative numbers. There’s a certain elegance to the system and it’s a nice way to visualize how to balance an equation and solve for a single variable. From time to time, Eric and I insert our own explanations here and there to point out, for example, “order of operations” and to help her learn some math “vocabulary” but this system can be very self directed and it’s fairly intuitive. We highly recommend it for both kids learning algebraic concepts for the first time and even adults who don’t feel like they nailed it on the first go around.

Homeschool FAQs: How do you teach math?

Math is everywhere and homeschooling is a family affair. This is an example of a worksheet that the kids’ grandmother came up with for 6yoZ to complete. It serves the dual purpose of allowing my mother to live out being a teacher whilst giving Z some more “traditional” schooling and a feeling of accomplishment. Z loves the individual attention. And I suspect my mom loves giving it. Not shown: an impromptu lesson on adding double digit numbers.

Context is everything… or, at least, it’s something

A picture is worth a thousand words.

If we lived elsewhere, we might not homeschool. But we live where we do: Montgomery County, Maryland. The picture is from a brand new (very expensive) public library that recently opened. The section of the library in the photo (beginning at the carpet pattern change) was supposedly made and designed for children. We live in a county in which decisions are made and money is spent in such a way that the “artwork” above is the end result. Next to the children’s section. Of a public space. As one of the members of the book group I sometimes attend recently summarized: “This art work draws you in while it simultaneously rejects you.” Which is an apt metaphor for this county as a whole.