- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

A mother was reading to her son in the crowded waiting room of a medical office. The 5-year-old was raptly following the twists and turns of the story. He didn’t squirm, despite a fairly long period of reading. At one point, he whispered into his mom’s ear, and she produced a small tin of hard candies from which he chose one, and then he settled back down to listen again.

Some of the other patients remarked on his behavior and interest in the book. “Well, we’re home-schoolers,” the mom mentioned. I learned that she is home-schooling her three children and that her sister, who lives nearby, is home-schooling two. The extended family of students, all in the elementary school age group, works as a group on various learning projects. Two other families in the community also are home-schooling.

She introduced her son, who looked me straight in the eye; said “hello”; gave me his name, quite comfortably; and also spelled it to avoid confusion. I introduced my 15-year-old son, who was studying his English textbook, and he greeted the mother and her son equally affably.

Her son offered my son a candy, which was accepted with thanks. We chatted, as home-schoolers almost always do, about curricula and materials, and her son joined in a couple of times.

“We’re starting to learn Spanish,” he informed me matter-of-factly. I was impressed; he’s 5 and interested in learning foreign languages? He told me about his trip to Brazil last year. He listened as his mom and I discussed materials and methods.

After she was called into the consultation room, I thought about the behavior of the two boys. Both were quiet, absorbed and focused in a situation where many children would have been fretful or irritated. They were mindful of others’ needs, keeping their voices low so others would not be disturbed and willingly getting up when an elderly woman came in and had no place to sit. They were able to converse with adults and add information they felt would be of interest.

How many 5- and 15-year-old boys would behave with such awareness of the needs of those around and such focus on their own work? Is it coincidental?

I remember how my son learned to read. We had learned the letters and their sounds some time before, and I had done the typical “sounding it out” thing. Drawing from my own educational experience, I thought it would take several years for my first-grade-age son to build up word recognition, become familiar with grammar and punctuation, and develop a sight vocabulary before he would be able to read complicated material.

My son loved cars and rockets and mechanical things. We were studying space exploration, and I had a sixth-grade science textbook open, my son on my lap, as I read to him and explained the pictures. Without warning, he began pointing to the words in one paragraph, sounding them out, and proceeded to read every word in the paragraph out loud.

I was stunned. Of course, some pronunciation was a bit off, and he didn’t know some vocabulary, but he had read a sixth-grade science text as his first attempt at reading. A few months later, an educational tester found it surprising that a boy his age could read and recognize words such as “mustache.”

Remembering this mom reading to her son, as I used to read to mine, I thought, “Maybe the connection of parental love and new information stimulates something, allowing the brain to process information at a far higher level of efficiency.” Maybe the missing ingredient in education isn’t more labs or computers or teachers with official credentials — but rather the experience of parent-child interaction focused on learning.

I would love to see some researchers tackle the question, “Does parental interaction change learning outcomes?” Then maybe they can study, “Does parental attention produce better-adjusted children?” Of course, then home-schooling probably would be relabeled something like “designer education” or “boutique studies.”

What no research study can ever show, however, is the incredible sweetness and satisfaction of having a great relationship with your children, seeing them grow daily into their own interests and being co-explorers in discovering vast new areas of knowledge. After all, how can you quantify “a good life”?

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

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