They Make It Sound So Easy! The Complexities of Homeschooling Overseas

by Diane Lilleberg, Educational Consultant

The Complexities of Homeschooling Overseas

The following article points out some differences between home schooling in home countries and overseas. Our hope is that it will help families in ministry as well as home-country peers better understand some of the additional challenges faced in overseas ministry settings.

“They make it sound so easy, I don’t feel comfortable debriefing how hard it has been,” a mother on furlough said to me.

Given the unusual challenges of raising children outside of your home culture, the advice offered by home-country peers can make home schooling sound easier than it is for you, as this mother experienced. This can be discouraging and can make you especially susceptible to that distressful yet common parental conclusion, “It must be me; I’m doing something wrong,” or “It must be my children; there is something wrong with them.” Isolation can be efficient fuel for guilt trips, especially when it is difficult to describe why it seems more difficult for you.

To assist in communicating with friends who want to help, I’d like to share some home-schooling questions and challenges I hear about or read about as I consult with families. In so doing, I hope to suggest some factors an overseas ministry setting can add to those challenges.

Given this is a complicated and perhaps even controversial topic for some, I’d prefer to sit down for a comfortable chat to share insights and answer each other’s questions. Unfortunately, ink options don’t include a coffee aroma, so I’ll leave the preferred beverage to you and invite your input to this “conversation” via email.

What is the biggest difference between home schooling long term overseas vs. in my home country?

While I expect most parents would contribute “time” as the top contender, I think the biggest difference is the same as the biggest challenge, and often not considered at all — the need to acculturate your children to your home culture without cultural examples. To be a little philosophical for our discussion, education can be defined as acculturation, a process by which a culture of a particular society is instilled in children from a young age onward.

Education prepares children to belong to and contribute to a society while becoming capable of meeting personal and family needs as adults. Education passes on knowledge considered important to a shared heritage, it teaches skills necessary to meet both personal and social needs, it provides practice for skills related to how individuals are expected to contribute and belong in socially acceptable ways, and it reinforces valued attitudes and beliefs tied to cultural identity.

Given that your ministry setting doesn’t easily illustrate or model these mostly social aspects of your cultural heritage, the additional challenge becomes more obvious.

Why are my friends less concerned about socialization than I am?

We need to discuss a broader definition of social skills because socialization is most often understood to be peer relationships only. Any parent who home schools needs to be willing to invest effort to make sure children have access to friendship opportunities. Most peer relationships for children in overseas settings, though, include the predictable reality of long periods of absence. In addition to staggered furloughs and other circumstances that separate friends, children have difficulty predicting the changes that can occur during those separations.

All children are impacted by friends or the lack of them, but children who live overseas are much more likely to find friendship a very fragile business. Whenever the friendship “pool” is significantly reduced for any number of reasons (including homeschooling in isolation), it becomes even more fragile.

What about “socialization” other than friendships?

Just what skills are included under the social skills umbrella is difficult for many to define despite the popularity of the issue in articles that address homeschooling.

Substituting the term “belonging” for the term “socialization” can help broaden an understanding of socialization beyond friendships. From your experience with other cultures, you realize it is difficult to learn how to belong without understanding how the culture works in more than one setting.

The skills that are generically expected by a culture can be difficult to learn when interaction is essentially limited to family. While friends are only part of it, relating to friends makes a contribution to broader social exposure because it includes interacting with other family systems, allowing children to question and find reasons when they bump into differences.

The skills that help you belong effectively include learning the following:

While these skills may seem more practical than academic, they are of utmost importance nonetheless. A theme repeated consistently in adult employment and training literature is that skills related to belonging successfully to groups and contributing effectively to a shared purpose are far more valuable to employers than academic or technical training.

While social aspects of acculturation will need to be thought through and addressed by any parent educating children at home, acculturation to your home country or learning how to belong as you move between cultures is far more complicated for children growing up overseas.

If my kids are comfortable here, will they be “geeks” there? Help! Where’s the balance?

Identity is an important and complicated component of belonging that can be heavily influenced by culture. While it may sound oversimplified, identity is basically forming some clear picture of how you are alike and how you are different from others, both as an individual and as one who belongs.

Identity tied to a specific culture can be complicated or even rejected if you have had limited exposure to where you might potentially fit into it. Education, then, provides an important role in helping children develop an identity within your home culture. Group experience and relationships with cultural peers make a very significant contribution to that education.

Why does the commitment of home-country peers to homeschool seem so much stronger than mine?

If your children are to be educated and a school is not available, you don’t have a choice other than to be committed to homeschooling. And therein lies much of the difference. In home countries, parents often choose homeschooling as a ministry focus. Most home-schooling literature advises parents to make it their only ministry or at least their ministry of priority.

Overseas, you not only have a different ministry focus but one that makes unusual demands that are difficult or even impossible to ignore. This should not suggest you are any less committed to your children and their education. In order to give each child what is needed, you often feel like you are failing those who are investing in your overseas ministry, no matter what you tell yourself to the contrary.

This pull in two directions can be resolved to some extent by knowing that your location or other ministry circumstances make homeschooling a necessity. But so is meeting the basic needs of your family.

Overseas ministry settings demand more time to simply live and to fulfill your responsibility as a spouse, parent, and member of the community. It is understandable to feel conflict when ministry demands compete for time with ministry opportunities outside of family.

I have other factors to consider in choosing education options overseas. How do I explain this to my home-country friends?

There are many cultural and ministry factors that parents in home countries need to understand as they comment on your choices. The educational option families choose in most ministry settings is not a simple, personal, parenting preference that doesn’t impact others. Your schooling decision and your regard for others who choose differently can communicate a powerful message to your children, as well as to those among whom you live and with whom you serve.

Homeschooling is an option that needs careful review, not just once, but as children and circumstances change and as you become more fluent in the culture and understand what your choices communicate.

For any number of reasons, an appropriate option for children at one time may not be appropriate permanently. Your children are not the only ones moving through life stages. Other children they interact with develop and change, too, often with pressures and interests that might not match your cultural values.

Whenever evaluating educational options for your children, it can be helpful to intentionally consider which choices will give them the widest range of options for their future, whether in further education or careers. Some choices may seem easier now but could limit their future options or affect their cultural “belonging” as adults.

How commonly does homeschooling add tension to relationships?

Adding additional requirements to a relationship often adds tension. The amount of tension varies considerably with personalities. It is also affected by the level of comfort and skill a parent has with teaching or a student has with performing academic tasks.

Adding academics to the typical expectations of children in family life can turn your day into one long confrontation, especially if children are not academically inclined or if other children in the community don’t have similar demands on their free time. “Suffering” is always easier with company, and motivation is very affected by sharing.

When relationships seem to be excessively confrontational, I encourage parents to clearly separate parenting and teaching roles in a creatively noticeable way. It can promote communication about school when you are in your parent role again and help provide appropriate boundaries for you, too.

However successful you may be schooling one child, it is not a guarantee for the others. It is not unusual to find a parent and a child at odds when schooling is added to the relationship.

In addition to existing challenges, a child’s response and cooperation can change with time in ways that may come as a surprise but should be expected. As children mature and search for independence, they begin to push away. It is a necessary process that is as normal as it is painful. If parents are the only ones around, the pushes tend to be more directed and more difficult on key relationships. This can happen to anyone who is home schooling, but is much more likely for those who are isolated, especially when children feel a vacuum because important peer relationships are significantly absent.

Because of these factors, parents often find themselves reevaluating options open to them as children get older. Whether or not you make a change, that reevaluation, including open dialogue with your children in the decision or problem-solving process, can be very healthy and helpful for all concerned.

Aren’t my unreasonable expectations contributing to the difficulty?

It can be very hard to determine how to adjust expectations without other families or an experienced teacher around to help you figure out how much to expect, whether in day-to-day life or academics.

While expectations that are too high can frustrate everyone, some parents struggle with the personal family setting, finding it difficult to avoid adjusting demands too often. All children have small struggles that deserve empathy, but in a less personal setting this wouldn’t mean revising what is expected of them. It is wise to balance empathy with an understanding that consistent expectations make an important contribution to a child’s sense of security and capability.

Given other demands on me, how concerned do I need to be about accountability?

Staying accountable to the responsibility of educating children can be a struggle for anyone in any setting. Some parents consider the flexible schedule of homeschooling an advantage, but advantages can carry a cost. If you alter your schedule frequently (even if you nervously call those unplanned events “field trips” or catch up is done in a hurry later), children may not learn to be accountable on a regular basis. As a rule of thumb field trips are planned events that are related to what you are studying and have objectives and expectations students know about beforehand.

It is sometimes helpful to decide ahead of time how to meet unexpected distractions to be sure children understand what they are to do during them. If interruptions are unavoidable, use any learning opportunity you can find and get back to business as soon as the distraction resolves. The key is having some formal expectations that do not allow regular interruptions to reek havoc on continuity and work habits.

Some parents find an accountability partner helpful. Either a formal achievement test or an informal test by a teacher with experience in the child’s grade level can help determine if there is an area the curriculum doesn’t cover adequately and whether your expectations are age-appropriate.

What about student accountability. Does it mean homework or tests?

It can include homework and tests, certainly, but student accountability, in a broader definition, might be called “Developing a Work Ethic.” Early articles supporting homeschooling often idealized the life-style of previous generations when there was more protection from community influence. That attitude can run contrary to the integration that families in ministry settings want to encourage.

Also, in times past, doing “the chores” helped develop a child’s sense of contribution and purpose. School expectations provide a modern substitute for such chores. They usually change as children grow, intentionally turning over to them more and more personal responsibility. Removing attention after an appropriate time and requiring assignments to be finished can be more difficult for the teaching parent than for the student. Keeping “hands off” and allowing them to suffer the consequence is difficult when children are operating right under your nose!

Children benefit from a strong sense of capability before adolescence changes their scoring grid and they begin evaluating themselves as adults. While we want to allow children a lot of freedom to be children, they must also learn to persist at what isn’t fun and to accept an appropriate level of personal and social responsibility. Complaining is painfully normal, but a regular, uncompromising expectation to work, regardless of how they feel, helps children develop a secure and capable independence.

Given the transition your children will face as young adults, the need to intentionally develop independence is also heightened. Less proximity to family and less experience in the culture contribute to extra challenges in adjusting to your home country. This highlights the need to invest in furlough time to help your children adapt and have experiences that can be built on to prepare them for independent adjustments later.

As the coffee cools…

While it is important to interact with others who use a similar educational option, remember to evaluate advice carefully in light of the stronger influence your isolation might add to it. Even sound advice and helpful insight will need “translation,” not only according to each child’s unique needs and challenges, but also according to place, time, cultural appropriateness, and family-ministry values and stages.

Remember, too, that while your setting complicates, it also carries enormous potential. Involving your children in your family ministry as part of their schooling can help them learn how to belong and contribute as members of your overseas community.

I hope this discussion will help you more effectively describe your unique challenges and needs and serve as a useful tool in communicating with home-country friends who want to support and encourage you as you educate your children in demanding ministry settings.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.