How Generalism and Skill Stacking Can Free Your Homeschool from the Tyranny of Perfection

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When I began my homeschooling journey as mom/teacher almost 2 decades ago, I had grand plans in mind. My head was filled with visions of dominated spelling bees and prima ballerinas. Because with all that time and ability to focus, why not just become the most amazing human beings possible?

To be fair, what I wanted more than anything was holy, happy, healthy children, and our early years were filled with lots of non-focused play and time with family. I believed that children should have a loving and gentle childhood and didn’t do any formal extracurriculars during those precious early years.

But about the time that my oldest turned 7, we started to get the itch to get him involved with something. That seemed like what we were supposed to do and we chose swimming lessons since water safety is important to us. Several years (and a few more kids) later, we were at the pool 5-7 days a week (sometimes 40 plus total hours if there was a tournament) and traveling to compete. He was winning championship races alongside his younger sister who was at one point ranked #1 in the country in her age group. We had fallen into the trap of specialized excellence; a trap not because excellence is bad, but because we were sacrificing everything else (including some of the most important things) in order to narrowly focus on one goal.

The hard truth is… there isn’t as much at the top as you always think there will be, there will always be someone better, and the losses can often overpower the victory in the long run.

So we replayed that scenario multiple times with multiple kids in multiple ways; burning the candle at both ends and blowing through resources so that they might achieve their goals. And then…

We quit. Cold turkey. Because the price wasn’t worth it.

When I recently picked up the book “How to be Better at (Almost) Everything,” I knew within the first couple chapters that this book was going to resonate with me. The author’s ideas about “generalism” and “skill stacking” as habits of the most successful people not only made sense objectively, but were something that I have observed in the lives of my own children and what I think we were inadvertently living.

Because the kids weren’t spending all of their time on one specialized skill, they were free to develop in other areas of their life. It made them happier, healthier, and better equipped to tackle the later challenges in life. Instead of being exceptionally good at just one or two things, they developed a high level of proficiency in many things.

Author, Pat Flynn, would call that a version of “generalism” and “skill stacking.” I wish that I would have had this book to years ago in order to concretely identify the good of our choices instead of harboring an incorrect notion that we were just directionless. That feeling of “we should be doing something special and amazing at all times” can overpower a homeschool parent’s sense of reason… and this book provides some much needed perspective.

I think many homeschoolers instinctively apply Flynn’s principles and that is really the genius of homeschooling; that we have the time to become excellent at certain specialties while still becoming well rounded. But I also think that deliberately applying his principles can help restore some peace of mind and sanity to homeschool parents thinking they are obligated to mold their child into the next Michael Phelps.

In Flynn’s book, he breaks down generalism and “the principles behind getting better at things” as follows:

  1. Skill Stacking > Specialization

  2. Short-Term Specialization

  3. The Rule of 80 Percent

  4. Integration > Isolation

  5. Repetition and Resistance

Just going over that list after reading the book reminds me that we are doing okay by bucking the specialization trend. In fact, we are doing great.

Before I go further, I want to be clear that this is not a homeschooling book and I don’t know if it has occurred to Flynn that it could be. It’s a book for anyone who wants to be better at anything. It’s for those who have health specific goals or business goals… it applies to everything. That makes it perfectly suited to the homeschooler since the homeschooler really is about embracing general excellence in personal education and formation.

This is not about how to be mediocre at everything, but about how to be great at a lot of things!

Flynn writes:

“Simply put, it is better to be better (than most people, at most things) than to be the best at any one thing. Skills in combination are more powerful than individual skills by themselves, even if they aren’t fully developed.”

I know this through my own life experience but it is tougher as parents. When we pulled our wildly talented kids out of swimming, people thought we were nuts; they were angry that we were ruining their chances at scholarships and “throwing away” their talent. Since then, we’ve quit a number of things for similar reasons to the reasons we stepped away from competitive swimming. We had to… because our kids natural abilities inevitably put them on the hyperdrive track of success in many things they tried. And the culture of youth activities is often, frankly, insane and unhealthy.

I confess that it sometimes felt like we were stacking failures. Perhaps if I had been able to read a book like this years ago, I would have been consoled. I would have seen that my children were actually collecting successes, not abandoning them. They were practicing short term specialization, not failing at excellence. And I would have seen more clearly that their hodge podge of experience was not a mess… but an adventure in skill stacking.

As I read through the book, I was excited to make these positive associations with what have been some difficult choices. And I am also excited going forward to apply the principles in a more deliberate way; with less hand-wringing over what we might be missing out on by not being specialized in one thing.

One thing I loved about this book was that although it is written in a funny and casual style, the heart of the message is intelligent and deep. And as the book progresses, there is an almost palpable energy felt from the author that builds toward the end — youthful in the healthiest way — as if he’s just bursting to tell the reader about the discoveries he has made about the most important things in life and love and eternity.

Although the book is written for a broad audience (including the 18K followers he has on his YouTube fitness channel!), I wasn’t surprised to find out later that it was written during his conversion to Catholicism. His joy of philosophy and references to St. Thomas Aquinas… those were tip-offs… but I guess the undercurrent of joy was the real telltale sign.

One of the best parts of the book is his discussion on the Freedom of Excellence where he turns the subject of self-discipline from “you can’t have the doughnut” into LOOK WHAT YOU CAN HAVE! He injects youth and delight into a subject most people ignore as the killjoy of life.

He also really hammers home in a fun way a fundamental principle of my healing journey: It’s the little choices which make the difference over the long haul. And the short term sacrifice produces the most incredible dividends. If we can’t be the best in the world at one thing, we can still be the very best version of who God made us to be. That journey doesn’t have to be dull. And it doesn’t have to look at all like the world expects it to look.

**One final note for all the homeschooling moms like me who love to pass all their self-improvement books on to their kids: Flynn does include a quote at the beginning of chapter 2 which includes an F-bomb… and a couple other references which are not young kid friendly. So if you’re kids are precocious enough to read self-improvement books at a young age (mine have been), then take note.

Flotsam, Jetsam, and Homeschool Consolations

kids playing ball.jpg

Several years ago, we were trying to figure out how to fit in as homeschoolers in a vibrant, school-based parish with a DRE and pastor who weren't super supportive of homeschooling. We had previously enjoyed years of support and encouragement but our pastor was forced into retirement (he desired to serve longer) and the administration turned over to people who did not share his approach to shepherding. 

For years, our parish had been a place of joy, consolation, and respite. Suddenly, we were outsiders. 

There was rarely an open hostility but the passive aggressive punch that confronted us constantly became more than we were willing to absorb. This is not the way home should be and not the way children should be raised in the faith. We eventually left. But I haven't forgotten those difficult days and the important of encouragement and consolations that come when we most need them. 

If you need that kind of consolation today, I have a story for you...

I was in the parish office turning in some paperwork for the CYO team I was coaching and ran into the new DRE of our parish. It was not an encounter I wanted to have, especially since we had recently informed her that we would be exercising our right to opt out of her sacramental program for our Confirmandi. 

We said our hellos and she said she was praying for my family. That was much appreciated, especially because she was a religious sister! But she looked quite distressed and I got the idea from her countenance that perhaps she was praying for us specifically because we were bad eggs who needed urgent Divine intervention.

Our interactions in the past hadn't been exactly joyful. The general formula went like this:

Sister: Asks me if I got an email about upcoming events.
Me: Pleasantly acknowledges receipt of email and politely declines.
Sister: Bursts into tears and walks away

So I was already accustomed to constantly feeling like a thorn in the sides of... well... all the spiritual leaders of my home parish. Not a great feeling. But this, one of our final interactions, has stuck with me over time. It really did sting. And it really did contribute to our departure from our happy parish home of a decade. 

Immediately following her promise of prayers, she looked like she was going to cry, shook her head mournfully and said...

 "The homeschooling situation is so sad. They are going to be so behind." 

I was struck dumb because she was so obviously talking about my family. In spite of the fact that I was standing inches from her. In spite of the fact that there really was nothing sad at all about our "situation" nor with the healthy and happy homeschooling community which had flourished in our parish up to that point. In spite of the fact that my family had never been anything but kind to her and my children were obviously well-formed and flourishing. 

But she really didn't see us.
She didn't ask me what I thought.
She didn't ask me what I love, what I pursue, what I dream about...
What my family loved about our homeschooling life.

She spoke at me, not with me. 

I was a problem child and she had to figure out what to do with me... and I was not invited to the discussion. She was consumed with her own sad drama. And that is sad. And extremely difficult to engage fruitfully. 

Part of me wanted to stand up and fight the ignorance. I was completely fine with dying on that hill. But I chose silence at the time. Eventually, my family also chose to silently leave. And while homeschooling itself didn't get any easier, we were free from an institutional pressure to view our life as deeply flawed and "sad."

That's a lie straight from the mind of the enemy of God and I'm sorry that Sister fell for it. But I won't live by it. 

Shortly after that encounter, I read a book by Father George Rutler called Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive. It is not a book about homeschooling and I was certainly not expecting a homeschooling consolation from it; and yet there it was, right in the forward.

I don't suppose I'll ever be in a position to use the phrase "flotsam of their own infecundity" with any angst-filled educator, but it is awfully satisfying to hear Father Rutler use it!

Any homeschoolers need an arm to lean on today? A word from someone who knows why you do what you do?

Fr. Rutler offers you his. Enjoy! 

"While I have spent a lot of time in schools, the lives of people themselves are the best schools. When a friend asked me to coax his daughter, who had announced after her first day of kindergarten that she did not want to go back, I replied that the girls seemed to have sensed something quite right. With some rhetorical excess I said she should abandon kindergarten altogether, for it was my experience that school interrupted my education. It locks you in with your peers. That is a mistake. One's social circle should avoid one's equals. As a child I found children unexceptional and preferred the company of adults. I got to know lots of people who are dead now whom I never would have known had I waited a few years. So I have a collective memory, and oral tradition, that goes back to the eighteenth century, having spoken with people who knew people who knew people who knew people who lived then. The only real university is the universe and that is why an expression like New York University missed the point that the city is the university.

I exercised the child's father by suggesting that, instead of school, children should spend time in restaurant kitchens and shops and garages of all kinds, learning from people who actually make the world work. One day spent roaming through a real classical church building would be the equivalent of one academic term in any of our schools, and a little time spent inconspicuously in a police station would be more informative than many hours spent on social science. Formal lessons would only be required for accuracy in spelling and proficiency in public speaking, for which most public speakers in our culture are not models; and in exchange for performing some menial services, a child could learn the violin, harp, and piano from musicians in one of the better hotels or from performers in the public subways. I urged my friend to keep his child out of kindergarten because kindergarten will only lead to first grade and then the grim sequence of grade after grade begins and takes its inexorable toll on the mind born fertile but gradually numbed by the pedants who impose on the captive child the flotsam of their own infecundity."

Homeschooling Through Chronic Illness (when mom is sick)

I have a secret about my homeschool and it's finally time to tell it. Okay, I have a few secrets...

I don't know much more about how to successfully homeschool today than I did at the beginning almost 20 years ago. I don't really go to homeschool conferences. I don't belong to a co-op. I know a lot about homeschooling and I've read all the books and purchased all the programs... but my days... they've been uncertain and long. And I've spent more than a few of them battling chronic illness.

I guess that's not the most flattering picture to paint of myself but... that's not the secret that I came here to tell anyway.  

This post is really about the secret that I discovered while slogging uphill for this dream and for my family. It's about the real gift beyond the details of these days and what I want to be able to pass on to every homeschool mom I know...

Truly successful homeschooling is never about how much material we can stuff into a kids' brain, it's about lighting a fire in their very souls. And there is no one best way to do that. It is much more about trusting the process than about planning for perfection. Success isn't for the perfect, it's for the persistent.

I clearly remember the time I kicked an American Doll horse in anger and broke my toe. That's often what my version of "persistence" looks like...

Fail, wail, move on, stop kicking toys.

That toe has never healed completely and that's frustrating but it makes for a great story that the kids love to tell. And in a strange rubber-meets-the-road-on-Calvary kind of way that usually only homeschooling moms can understand, I think I can call that a success.

The family is made to nurture body, mind, and soul. We were created to do this. We don't really look like a school. We often look like a first class mess. But that is the gift... 

That God allows us to become nothing so that the flame of His Love might rise and become a blaze in the heart of the family. 

One of the best lessons I ever learned about homeschooling was from a local mom who faced a life-threatening illness and was sick for an extended period of time. She told me that she spent many days resting in a hammock on their enclosed patio while the kids pressed on, more or less, with their homeschooling. Her kids told me how they used to pretend to work or study and they laughed and teased each other about what they really did when they were supposed to be working. She told me (with a smile) that she never doubted their decision to continue homeschooling even when she wasn't able to do a thing. Because it wasn't about her. She knew their decision was right and she trusted that God had a plan for her illness. 

Her kids are all grown now - successful, happy, smart, faithful, and all good friends - and I've never forgotten what she told me. She successfully homeschooled imperfectly from a hammock. And joy grew out of that. 

When I went through my own early years of chronic pain, illness, and fatigue, I didn't call her. I didn't really know what was wrong with me and I thought I was just a loser homeschooler. I didn't think that anyone was as lousy at this as I was and I imposed a kind of isolation on myself, determined to figure it out on my own.

But I wish I would have called her. I wish I would have let her see the tears. 

Six years ago, God allowed me to set down my cross of illness for a time. Since then, I have been on a journey of healing; not just my body, but also my battered mind and soul. And while I have never doubted for a moment that homeschooling was a worthwhile journey and blessed by God, I have never stopped doubting my own role in that beautiful dream.

Why did He make these beautiful children and then give them this wildly inadequate mother? 

It's all about the secret:

The mess is part of the gift. It is the stripping down of ego until we can see nothing but the grace of God. 

That is the secret, the gift of chronic illness. That through all the pain and struggle, we are presented with the reality that we, in ourselves, are small.... and that it is God who stands in the gap and enables us to rise. Thanks be to God.

John 12:24–25
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.