- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

I have a bad cold today or a very serious allergy attack. In either case, my head feels like a 12-ton anvil, the kind dropped on unwise characters in the old cartoons. My throat is raw and swollen, my nose is running constantly, my ears are ringing, and it hurts to bend my head forward.

So what do sick moms do if they are home-schooling? We can’t exactly call in and let the substitute teacher take over, right?

What I do is retire to the sofa with my warm comforter and some tea. My children are really good at helping each other, and then, when I’m needed to correct something or explain something, they come and tell me. Yesterday, my 16-year-old daughter quizzed my son on a year’s worth of spelling, then worked with him to analyze the root words, prefixes and suffixes and only came to me in the end to show me his work. The work I invested in the older children a few years back allows me to take a day or two of rest now.

If my children still were young, I probably would declare an official sick day and use that time to let them watch educational videos, do some coloring, art projects or other low-energy activities. Taking time for healing is important, and just because we home-school doesn’t mean we have to play hero.

Sick days can be days of memorable experience for you and your children. For instance, you can invite them to stay in their pajamas and bring all their blankets and pillows to the living room with you, like an extended pajama party. This can be a day of reading favorite books together or building forts out of furniture and blankets. Turn off the phone, lock the door and let the world spin without your pushing for a day.

I am surprised by how solicitous and helpful my children are when they see I am sick. They bring me bowls of soup and get me aspirin for my aching head. They fill a bowl with ice water and put a washcloth in it to take down my fever. They tell callers I’m resting, and they shoo away visitors.

My theory is they have seen us do this for them during sickness, and they just want to do the same. It’s good practice for their adult life, and it builds confidence in being able to take the helm every now and then.

Being sick leads naturally into conversations about germs, viruses and the body’s immune system. Children may start asking questions: Why do we get a fever when we are sick? Why do the muscles ache when we have a flu? What makes us throw up? How do painkillers work?

Believe it or not, this is a prime opportunity for teaching. You can explain all about white blood cells fighting the germs and raising the body temperature as a result of their high level of activity. You can explain about lactic acid building up in the muscles, giving that “achy” feeling that characterizes a flu. You can explain about peristalsis and reverse peristalsis, how the stomach empties itself as a way of protecting the body from dangerous substances or simply as a reaction to the onslaught of microbes.

You can have the children look up the particular illness and find out about methods of contagion, best prevention, normal course of treatment, and danger signs indicating complications. There are some good Internet sites for this, such as www.niaid.nih.gov/publications/.

In the library, on PBS, and at some health fairs, you sometimes can find videos on what happens in the body during sickness. The children may enjoy watching these during a “parental sick day.” Your symptoms make an interesting case history for them, to illustrate what they see on the video.

I’m always buying medical books from yard sales or the used-book sale at the library. It’s sometimes helpful to be able to pull out a book on anatomy to show the children what the lungs look like or how they function. Also, we use a lot of homeopathic remedies, so the standard response of anyone in the family to illness is to pull out the books on homeopathy and find the right remedy for the symptoms.

I am lucky that my children are good at giving me a massage. We often give massages to each other, for strained muscles or sore feet or tight shoulders. At these times, I can explain to them the relationship of the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. I describe or show them a picture of the long, bundled muscle fibers and show them how they shorten when the muscle contracts and lengthen when it releases.

We may look at the blood vessels and nerves involved. I describe to them the way the blood conveys oxygen to the muscle through the red blood cells and picks up the debris and waste from the muscles to bring to the kidneys, where the wastes are collected and excreted through the urine.

In various natural ways, the workings of the body can be understood by children, and they get a hands-on biology lesson, even during a supposed “sick day.”

If you are too sick to do anything except lie there and rest, just do that. You can make up for lost school time when you are back to normal. A day or two of rest is usually the best remedy for any minor illness, and your entire home-school schedule will not be destroyed. Give your body the chance to heal, and you’ll recover more quickly than if you push yourself when you’re weak. A relaxed, positive mind is the best conduit for healing thoughts and healing energy. Stressed out, negative, self-accusing thoughts don’t help. So, take it easy, try not to be too irritable, and involve your children in the process.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer who lives in Maryland.

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