On this episode of Homeschool Impossible, we answer one of homeschooling’s frequently asked questions: How do you teach older kids with a baby in the house?
Stay tuned. The answer will surprise you.
Most of us know what it is like to get up on a homeschool Monday with our to-do list, only to find that the baby has shredded it – both literally and figuratively.
Ah, I remember it fondly. This is because I no longer have to deal with it.
Baby Number Five was especially adept at preventing me from homeschooling Former Babies Number One, Two, Three, and Four.
At six months she provoked me to write this entry in her baby book:
By far my busiest baby. Worries me. Caught her with a night light bulb in her mouth. Plays in the toilet. Tears wall paper. A real destroyer. Latest death defying habit: perching on window sills and leaning on screens. We have to keep the windows half closed.
That wasn’t the half of it. This Houdini looked upon all forms of restraint as a challenge. No crib or playpen could hold her. You may imagine how precious was nap time indeed. As soon as that downy head hit the pillow, there was no time to lose. Older kids were under strict orders to sit down, open books, and turn their brains up to eleven.
There would be no learning whatsoever once the baby was up. Or so it seemed back then.
I now know that homeschoolers with tots in the house may deal with interruptions all the time but that does not mean they are not learning. This comes home to me every time I go to church and see an eight year old taking a three year old sibling to the bathroom or quieting a fussy baby in the vestibule. These are life skills that many people don’t have and some are willing to pay money for. I never fail to marvel at it. As the youngest of a large family, I did not acquire those hands-on skills in childhood but had to learn them experimentally on my own children. Ask them how ideal that was. No don’t.
I am not the only one who appreciates what babies can teach kids. Professional educators are getting on board with it.
Get this: they are bringing babies into classrooms. The program is called Roots of Empathy.
“The Roots of Empathy program is delivered to elementary school children who are coached to recognize and connect with the vulnerability and humanity of a baby who visits their classroom throughout the school year with their parent(s), along with a trained Roots of Empathy Instructor using a specialized curriculum. The experiential learning with the neighbourhood parent and infant is biologically embedded in the student’s brains as they observe this secure attachment relationship. Through guided observation the children label the baby’s feelings and intentions, learning the affective aspect of empathy (emotion) and the cognitive aspect of empathy (perspective-taking). In Roots of Empathy, emotional literacy develops as children begin to identify and label the baby’s feelings, reflect on and understand their own feelings, then bridge to understand the feelings of others.”
Yes, they are deliberately interrupting school with babies. On purpose. Why are educators and psychologists importing an experience that homeschoolers have naturally?
They have noticed that segregating kids with just their own age group all day long year in and year out can have dire social consequences, like aggression and bullying, whereas interacting with a baby makes them gentler people. Some have been so bold as to state that if kids can read and write but are sociopaths, education has failed.
This is Palestrina to my ears.
Is that not one of the main reasons we signed up for homeschooling? So that our kids turn out to be not sociopaths?
Research shows that the Roots of Empathy program is succeeding. See for yourself. Check out the video. Kids’ faces are alive with joy whenever the baby laughs. When she cries they comfort her. They watch her developments. They get attached to her. They look on her as their own.
You have to love the idea that it is a baby who is going to teach these kids what a book never could, to protect the weak and serve the helpless – not to mention, to enjoy the baby.
Realize that kids the same age are also getting classroom visits from Planned Parenthood, which is telling them to feel the opposite way about babies, thereby to cultivate their future customer base. Nor are they the only ones sending negative dehumanizing messages about babies.
In a world that is overwhelmed with anti-baby messages, the fact that somebody is inviting an actual flesh and blood child and his or her own mother into a public school classroom seems refreshingly normal. What is this, 1972? Granted, it is an artificial response to an artificial social construct. But still! It points to the real answer – a family.
Babies in the house not only teach kids life skills but social skills, like how to share, how to wait for Mom’s attention, and how to put up with someone who is often messy and dirty and getting into their stuff.
But babies are not just about diaper changing and feeding and getting pureed carrot stains off workbooks. They are fun. Back in that busiest homeschool season of my life when it seemed like nothing was getting done, I remember how happy the current baby made the other kids. Even in the worst moments of winter cabin fever, when taking somebody else’s pencil was enough to provoke a brawl, the kids would stop quarreling and unite in mutual love and admiration and service of the baby. When the baby was sad they played with her or him or sang songs. They stood on their heads if that’s what it took.
You know what else? None of our kids were ever jealous of the baby. Plenty of our babies were jealous of the next oldest child but it never went the other way. Even the aforementioned boss baby grew into a doting toddler when her baby sister was born as another entry in her baby book attests:
Loves the baby. Constantly kisses her and says, “I love you, baby.” One day she told me, “The baby smiled at me when I walked by.” I said, “Of course she did. She loves you. Who wouldn’t smile at you? You’re so sweet.” She took me by surprise and frowned at the compliment and scolded, “You’d better love the baby!”
I am told that the only thing that is more effective than a baby at teaching unselfishness and compassion is a sibling with a disability.
Long ago I interviewed a family whose disabled daughter was a blessing to her whole family and beyond. She brought out the best in her siblings and in everyone who met her. Roots of Empathy could up their game by bringing in a child like this who could easily have been deemed unfit to be born. That person is just as precious and could have even more to offer than a cute healthy baby has. Imagine the bullying that would prevent.
Empathy is not an easy thing to teach. Due to Original Sin, it does not come naturally. Me-first comes naturally. So, homeschoolers who are dealing with crazy interrupting tots, take comfort.
Books may be on hold but learning has not stopped. In fact, what your older kids are learning from baby brother or sister may make them happier, gentler, and easier to teach.
As we close this episode of Homeschool Impossible, my wish for you is that when you no longer have babies in the house, your youngest kids have the benefit of nieces and nephews to delight them and teach them life skills, like how to share, how to wait for Mom’s attention, and how to put up with someone who is messy and dirty and getting into their stuff. Perhaps they will even show some empathy to you.
This article first appeared as part of the Homeschool Impossible series in The Latin Mass Magazine Christmas 2021.