Homeschooling as a single parent:

How you can make it work

12/03/2012  |  By Mary Jo Tate

Let’s face it: being a single parent intensifies the challenges of homeschooling.

In many two-parent homeschooling families, the dad takes primary responsibility for earning the living and the mom takes primary responsibility for educating the children. The labor is divided and the support is multiplied. Although there are also many two-parent families where both parents contribute to the education and the finances — often through a family business — a single parent is usually solely responsible for both. The labor is multiplied and the support is subtracted.

But the increasing number of single parents choosing to educate their children at home testifies that it can work. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute says his studies show that about two percent of homeschooling families are headed by single parents, but it is his opinion that this figure probably underrepresents the true number.

I have been homeschooling for eight years — four of them as a single mom. The number-one question people ask me (usually with a breathless air of amazement) is “How do you do it all?”

My answer comes in two parts: One, I don’t, and two, I redefine it all.

Don’t Be a Lone Ranger

None of us — single or married — can homeschool relying on our own power. But God’s grace is sufficient for us, for His strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

A support network is helpful for any homeschooler, but particularly crucial for single parents, who lack the help and sounding board of a spouse. Be involved in a local church, and ask folks there to pray for you. Seek out a homeschooling support group in your area. Nurture godly friendships. I frequently consult a few close friends about choices in training and educating my children and seek advice about business matters from fellow Christian entrepreneurs who share my family-based priorities.

You Have Only 24 Hours in Each Day

Time is your most precious commodity. You can earn more money, but you can never have more than 24 hours in a day, so time management is a critical skill for single-parent homeschoolers.

Just as the three most important factors in real estate are location, location, location, the three most important tasks for single parents are prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.

Learn to say “no” to the good, in order to say “yes” to the best. Limit outside commitments. Too many extracurricular activities can crash a crowded schedule and steal precious family time. You don’t have to forego such opportunities entirely; just be intentional and very selective.

Routine tasks such as grocery shopping, going to the bank or post office, and medical appointments can consume far too much time if you’re not careful. I’ve noticed that I feel most overwhelmed when I’m on the go too much. Try to consolidate all errands that require leaving the house into one day a week.

The concept of “opportunity cost” revolutionized my thinking about prioritizing. Every choice you make has a potential opportunity cost. Although this may seem counter-intuitive to frugal homeschoolers, spending an extra hour driving to several different stores to save $5.00 on groceries may not necessarily mean you saved $5.00. If by working that hour you could have earned $20.00, you actually lost $15.00 by “saving” $5.00. I reluctantly realized that the time I spent running around to yard sales every Saturday morning would be much better used earning income.

Multi-tasking is one of my top survival secrets. This strategy works well for both parents and children. I start a load of laundry or dust a bookcase when I’m on the phone and pay bills or file papers during teleconferences. I have taught phonics lessons in doctors’ waiting rooms, explained basic business concepts in the emergency room, and discussed history and current events in the check-out line at the grocery store. My boys listen to tapes or watch educational videos while they fold laundry. We redeem time in the car by listening to books on tape or reviewing math facts, spelling, or grammar rules.

Make Homeschooling Work

Be realistic in your expectations, particularly about how much time you can devote to direct instruction of your children. It simply may not be possible for your homeschool to match your highest goals, but you can still make it work. My ideal homeschooling scenario would include hours of daily reading aloud to my children, discussing ideas at great length, intensive one-on-one tutoring, and so on, but the necessity of earning a living simply precludes much of that. I relish building my own eclectic educational program from scratch, but it’s much more practical for me to use at least some prepared curriculum. I’ve learned to come up with a realistic educational plan that we can actually implement rather than wasting time fretting over the gap between theory and practice.

It makes sense to teach children together whenever possible. Skills such as math and phonics have to be taught at individual levels, of course, but most subjects can be taught to multiple ages. We usually begin our school time with the whole family coming together for Bible reading, prayer, Scripture memorization, poetry, and classic literature. Then the boys split up for independent work and one-on-one instruction from me.

Children of varying ages can all study the same period of history, same topics in science, etc., with independent assignments at varying levels of difficulty. When we studied American history, for example, we were involved in a weekly co-op where the boys did hands-on activities and presented reports. During the week, Forrest (13) read high-school and adult-level history books, Andrew (10) read intermediate-level books, and Andrew also read easier books aloud to Perry (8).

As soon as my children become competent readers, I encourage independent learning. I would prefer a leisurely family-wide read-aloud time for history, for example, but most of the time it’s more practical to have the boys read on their own and use our time together to narrate, answer questions or discuss what they have read.

Learning to take responsibility for their own education teaches children important skills that will be useful in college and adult life. Independent learning also offers the opportunity for each child to pursue his own special interests. Forrest’s passions are history and business, Andrew is a scientist and mathematician, and Perry is a talented artist. It’s a little early to tell what Thomas (4) will specialize in (demolition work, perhaps?), but he’s spending a lot of time these days drawing with Perry.

You can delegate some instruction to older children. I take responsibility for introducing new concepts in math and phonics, for example, but Andrew helps Perry review phonics flashcards, listens to him practice reading aloud, and instructs him on his map work. Perry helps Thomas learn his letters and numbers and teaches him how to draw simple figures.

You can also delegate to technological tutors, but be sure to keep in mind the hazards of too much computer or video time. Forrest and Andrew are currently learning how to type with a computer-based instruction program, and we’ll soon be adding computer-based foreign language study. Audiotapes or CDs can be great aids for reviewing math facts, history dates, and so on, and recorded books can supplement live read-aloud time. My boys enjoy listening to Diana Waring’s history tapes and Jim Weiss’s storytelling tapes as they drift off to sleep each night.

Find Time for Fun

Finally, don’t neglect to make time for fun as a family. Particularly when you work at home, it is difficult to identify when your “work day” is over. I know just how hard it can be to pull away when deadlines are looming and the electric bill is due, but taking a break is good for you as well as your children, and it can actually make your work time more efficient. My boys know that no matter how busy I am during the week, on Friday night I’m all theirs.

Mary Jo Tate educates her four sons at home in Mississippi, where she has a home business as a writer, editor, and book coach ( Her home study course on powerful strategies for balancing family life and home business is available at article first appeared in the September/October 2005 issue of Homeschooling Today and again in 2012 in Apologia World. For permission to reprint it, please contact Mary Jo through
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