They don't mean to drive you crazy; they're just naturally talented

Staying Sane at Holiday Gatherings

by Deborah Markus, from Secular Homeschooling, Issue #9, November/December 2009

This is the time of year that homeschoolers of every stripe experience the joy of extended visits with their extended families. Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas — there's nothing like a big traditional holiday gathering to make a homeschooling parent indulge in innocent fantasies of being an amnesiac only-child orphan.

The fact is, even family members who support your decision to homeschool can push buttons without knowing it or meaning to. And that's a best-case scenario. That's assuming that everyone means well; they just don't get it. Unfortunately, plenty of family members don't get it and don't want to. They just want us to cut it out and act like normal people, already.

My own family has been nothing but lovely when it comes to our homeschooling, and I'm not just saying that because they read this magazine. My friends are not all so lucky, I'm sad to say. A woman in my local group told me that one of her family members has the charming habit of saying, "You know, there's a lot of good reasons we don't homeschool" apropos of nothing at every holiday gathering. Another said that for years, one of her siblings would ask her some version of, "So, are you still homeschooling?"

But of course, the favorite holiday activity among non-homeschoolers is grilling their young homeschooling relatives. I have the feeling that if I designed a child-sized T-shirt with "What do I look like — a marinated chicken?" printed across the front, and took ads out in November issues of homeschooling magazines, I'd make a fortune. The homeschooling parents would be too busy laughing at their relatives' mystified expressions to get upset by the usual nonsense, and the kids could just grin and point to their fronts when the questions started about who our eleventh president was.

But enough dreaming. It's time to face the cold hard facts: 'tis the season to harass homeschoolers. So what do we do about it?

Staying home, all alone (and by "alone," of course I mean in the company of one's immediate family), would be nice. The one upside to this horrible economy is that there's never been a better excuse not to travel. This won't work if you live in the same town as your alleged nearest and dearest, but if they're more than a state or two away, you might just get away with it. You could even make it sound extra-tempting. "Hey, everybody," you could mass-email your extended family. "Why don't we all celebrate at home this year, take some of the money we would have spent on plane tickets, and send each other some really yummy presents instead? Chocolate's on me!" Depending on how large and widespread your family is, you could singlehandedly raise the general public's opinion of homeschoolers, especially if the chocolate in question covers a tasteful selection of liqueurs.

But chances are, you're going to have to either schlep to or host some kind of gathering. (Or both, if you're really lucky.) And no matter how much you smile and try to pretend to be just another parent making just another perfectly ordinary educational choice for your family, some special relation is going to see through your disguise and start grilling and drilling. And then what?

At the risk of sounding as if I'm going off on a tangent: I'm the idiot who is always taken by surprise by bad traffic, rude people, and the world just generally not being the perfect place I feel it ought to be. It hasn't been that perfect place since, well, ever; and I'm certainly not doing everything I could to improve it. And yet every day, many times a day, I'm shocked into inappropriate language about, say, that moron in the car ahead of me who couldn't be bothered to signal for a turn. I'm still just barely at the point of wondering who exactly I think I'm helping by going all apoplectic about this kind of thing.

This is a dumb way to be. I'm expending a lot of energy being this kind of fool. It's trite but true to say that I can't change the fact that I'm surrounded by idiots every time I leave the house for more than four seconds. But I can change how I respond to all these dingbats.

My friend Siobhan, who not only knows pretty much everything but has the gift of being able to offer unwelcome news in a palatable fashion, gave me a great piece of advice that is related to this, at least so far as establishing a useful mindset is concerned. She wasn't talking about road rage, or even me, but I found this advice applicable to many situations.

"When you have a new baby," she said, "it's easy to get angry and overwhelmed by how tired you are all the time. It actually helps a lot to know from the very beginning — and to tell yourself in so many words — that you're not going to be getting enough sleep for at least the next several months or so. That's just the way it is. You're going to be tired. It's a shame, and you'll do what you can to get whatever rest you can, but you're going to want more. And knowing that for a fact can make it easier to deal with. Because the worst part of that exhaustion is the wondering and hoping and arguing with fate you'll do if you don't stop yourself. If you can look at your tiredness as just part of your current situation, it helps you detach from the emotional hold fatigue can have over you."

This is true about pretty much any situation that, right or wrong, you have to live with. As Marcus Aurelius put is so beautifully, "You can break your heart, but men will still go on as they always have."

Accepting that idea doesn't mean that you're condoning unacceptable behavior. It means that you're recognizing the world as it is.

That said, I still think it's a good idea also to accept the fact that all the Stoic philosophy in the world isn't going to keep you from hitting your limit now and then. Getting back to being driven crazy at holiday gatherings by your own family: If at all possible, have someone safe to vent to. Ideally, this should be your spouse or partner. It could be a friend you can reach by phone, or a sympathetic (and discreet) relative.

It should not be your children, even if they're the ones who are fielding some of the worst stupidity. Step in and play defense when necessary, but don't make the kids your confidants when it comes to your anger and frustration. They need to hear as much as you can manage to cough up along the lines of "Aunt Serena loves you and wants the best for you. She just doesn't understand homeschooling. Nobody's perfect, and everybody has things they don't understand. We have to be patient and try to teach her that this is what works for us and we're happy."

In the early years especially, it can be hard not to act on the urge to show your family that homeschooling is brilliant and amazing, as are you and your homeschooled offspring. Tammy, another wise friend, told me how long it took her to be able, as she put it, to "put the parental pride on the back burner. I used to have everything set up for whenever we had the family over," she continued — and she wasn't talking about a holiday meal or festive decorations. She meant all the tangible examples of her fantastic children's fantastic work that she could get her hands on. "I had to prove that homeschooling worked," she said. "'Read this to Grandma, honey!'"

It's hard not to fall into that kind of behavior when family members really are confused and concerned, rather than malicious jerks who are deliberately trying to make you miserable. (There are enough of those floating around — don't go looking for them, or creating them out of ignorant but innocent questions.) One thing to keep in mind is that the ones who are genuinely well-meaning but just don't know anything about homeschooling will learn soon enough from playing with your children and talking to you. They may still worry about what your children's futures will be like because of the path you've chosen, but think about it: if they're close enough to really care, they'd do that even if the kids were in school. They'd just have other specifics to work with. It's hard, but try not to take it to heart.

The wonderful fantasy writer Terry Pratchett likes to make the point in his novels that people may create stories, but stories turn around and shape people right back. Whenever possible, use this to your advantage. Decide that the story of your sister or aunt or cousin or grandmother is that of someone who loves her or his family dearly and always worries even when there's no need to, because that's what love is. Tell this person this story with a straight face. Either it's true — and no matter how obnoxious the person may seem to be, it's just possible that they really care and are lousy at expressing it — or they'll be so flattered by this portrait that they'll try to live up to it.

That's assuming a certain amount of goodwill. If someone is dead set against homeschooling, you're grappling with a prejudice — and all the academic accomplishments and social skills you wave in front of them won't change their feelings. Someone who'd rather listen to what the media says about those weirdo homeschoolers than look at the home educators right in front of him isn't going to be swayed by a little thing like empirical evidence. Accepting that will save you a lot of work and heartbreak. As my friend Tammy put it, "I kept trying to give reasonable answers to unreasonable questions. Of course it didn't work." Instead, be as civil as you can (for your own sake), and keep your distance.

Speaking of stories and keeping distance: sometimes you can save a little much-needed sanity by thinking of what's going on around you as a story you'll be reporting on later. (And you might. What are homeschooling loops and support groups for? Your fellow homeschoolers love to hear this kind of dirt.) Mentally describe the people in front of you as if you were Raymond Chandler at the scene of the crime. ("As soon as my aunt the schoolteacher found out that my six-year-old wasn't reading yet, she was all over me like a bum on a bologna sandwich.")

I've heard this next tip described variously as "not rising to the bait," "refusing to engage," and "the bean-dip maneuver." A member of the family tells you, in front of several suddenly avid relatives, that your homeschooled children won't make any friends or be able to go to college. Everyone waits for your response. Which is something along the lines of, "Hey, is there any bean dip?"

(I thought initially that this might not work in bean dip-less households. However, it could be a great relief to be able to answer your own question with "No? I'll just run out and buy some/whip up a nice big batch/spend several hours Googling the perfect bean dip recipe/go out and plant some beans.")

And speaking of refusing to allow the conversation to be dictated by meanies: Try arming yourself in advance with a supply of conversation starters (or enders, depending on which conversation we're talking about). These work best if you can get them out on the table before the unwanted topic has been officially introduced. Which means that you can either babble like a brook for the length of the holiday, or watch for that particular gleam in the eye of the worst offender and jump in with some chatter before he or she does more than take a breath.

Ask everyone, especially the younger members of the family, questions about the holiday that provoked — er, prompted — this gathering. What does it mean to you? What's your favorite thing about it? Why do we do this particular activity or eat that particular food? If you don't know, what would you guess?

Keep asking questions that invite long, meandering answers. Pretend to yourself that you're a hostage negotiator who has to keep everyone talking so that nobody gets hurt. (This may not be much of a stretch. Okay, it may not be a stretch at all.) Remember that as much as your relatives may adore torturing you, everyone loves talking about themselves best of all. Inquire minutely into hobbies, favorite TV shows, and recently released movies. Retell the story of the monkey's paw (go read the story by that name right now if you haven't already) and ask if anyone can think of a wish that couldn't somehow go wrong. Ask all the kids what they'd wish for if they could have three wishes. What if they could only have two? What if they could have four, but only if they could agree on them as a group?

If you're lucky enough to have a very young baby, go into heavy attachment parenting mode. Develop all the modesty of a heroine of a Dickens novel and refuse to nurse, feed, change, or rock said baby to sleep in the middle of a group. Talk to your baby incessantly and insanely. If you don't have one of your own handy, borrow someone else's if possible. "Baby fix!" you should cry as your brother opens his mouth to tell you the latest homeschooling horror story he heard on his favorite TV "news" or reality show. "I need a baby fix! Who's got my baby fix? Where's the baby? There's the baby! Who's the cutest baby in the known universe? You are! Look at the cutest wittle baby in the woooorld! I've got the cutest baby in the world! Right here! Yes, I do!" Hey, your relatives already think you're crazy. You might as well have a good time with it, and dodge some unwanted conversations at the same time. That's multitasking.

If you're feeling just a bit fed up, this next one is a favorite of mine. (Hey, I said my family was nice about the homeschooling thing — that doesn't mean the rest of the world is.) Suck the wind right out of your harasser's sails. One of the most effective things you can do to the worst offenders (and this should be strictly reserved for those) is agree with them. "Oh, I know," you say, calm and smiling, in response to a statement that homeschooling is a direct road to failure. "Isn't it awful?"

One homeschooling friend of mine who has ideas about medicine that are in direct opposition to those of her siblings, uses this whenever her brother tries to give her a hard time about her healthcare practices. "Yes, I took the kids to the witch doctor last week," she'll tell him cheerfully. She has the warmest heart in the world, and takes a purely innocent delight in the fact that she can kill the unwanted conversation by being perfectly nice. "He can't say anything else or draw me into an argument, because I'm agreeing with him," she told me cheerfully.

Another homeschooling friend gave me an idea from her experiences with her stepmother. "She's not happy about our choice," she told me. "But it's actually fine. When I told her we'd be homeschooling, she said, 'I'm going to tell you this once, and I'm never going to bring it up again. I don't agree with what you're doing at all. I think it's a really bad idea.' And that was it," she finished. "She kept her promise. We just don't discuss it."

You could proactively try to make such a bargain with some of your more egregious clan members. When they haul out the usual litany, listen in silence. Then say, "I know you disagree with our decision. I'm not going to change your mind, and you're not going to change mine. So let's talk about something else." Repeating this as necessary is not only a comparatively soothing way out of a potential argument (you know your lines, now just keep repeating them); it can also do some good so far as bringing around other skeptical relatives. They still may not agree with you on the homeschooling question, but you're coming across as the one who doesn't want to ruin a family gathering with arguments.

Speaking of sticking to the script: really relentless relatives can occasionally be exhausted into blessed silence by an equally relentless, faultlessly civil answering phrase. "I appreciate your concern, Uncle Marvin. We'll let you know if we need any help" is a good one for reasons mentioned above — you're verbally assigning this person a benevolence that he may not really feel but will be reluctant to lose the credit for having. Repeating your phrase of choice over and over and over and over no matter how many times the same person says the same stupid thing can be very effective. If you're really lucky, one of your other relatives will get sick of listening to your broken record, realize that you're not going to give way, and tell Uncle Marvin to let it go, already.

Jon, a homeschooler in my local group, gave me an idea for dealing with hopeless cases. This is assuming that absolutely nothing else has worked up to this point and clearly nothing is going to. You've had it up to here, and you've Zenned until you just can't Zen one minute more.

This only works if you already have a reputation for being a hothead (like Jon, and me, and — well, you know who you are). Wait until your attacker (if there's another way of putting it, you shouldn't be hauling this one out) finishes talking, and look at him for a minute. Just look. That moment of silence is important. Then, in a voice ringing with sincerity, say, "It's me. Remember? This is me we're talking about. Are you absolutely sure you want to get into this?"

You can't fake this one, so don't bring it up unless you can back it up. And don't bring it up even then unless what you're hanging on to really is the last straw.

This is all assuming that you, the parent, are the one fielding the worst of it. If your relatives start in with the annual child grilling (and by "if," of course I mean "when"), you can intervene if you're there to catch it. "Oh, I told them they could have a break from 'school,'" you can say. "Sorry, but I don't want them to waste precious family time answering academic questions. Anyway, I'm sure we all already know what year Napoleon crowned himself emperor." (With luck, this will prompt family members concerned at the thought of anyone checking their own fund of knowledge to hastily introduce a new topic of conversation.)

"Oh, are we playing 'Trivial Pursuit' now? Where's the board?" you can ask gaily. "I don't see it. Come on, kids, let's look for something fun to play."

Here's something you might like to teach your kids to say, in case you're not there to cut the nastiness off at the pass. "I'm sorry," he or she can say when the pop quiz starts. "My parents don't like me to answer that kind of question. They say that education is about learning, not showing off."

Without being the slightest bit rude, this answer puts the questioner on the spot. It will embarrass the unembarrassable. I don't know why, unless it's because it seems to imply that the grownup in question has been trying to lure innocent young children into unacceptable behavior. But it tends to stun even the worst offenders into silence. You can use it yourself if your child is giving you that deer-in-the-headlights look.

And now for a little well-earned good news: According to my experienced homeschooling friend Kathleen, who never fails to have sound advice on hand no matter how weird my questions are, this sort of family nonsense tends to ease up as time goes by. Your oldest child hitting the age of ten seems to be the magic year. By then, your family has had time to get used to the idea of homeschooling. Obviously you really mean it, you're not going to stop, and this isn't just some whim. And it doesn't seem quite so odd any more. Everyone has had the chance to see that your kids are fine (and that, conversely, the schooled kids of the family are not perfect).

So don't despair, or demand that your poor spouse go along with elaborate plans to fake your own death in order to get out of attending the next holiday gathering. There may just be a light at the end of the tunnel.

In the meantime, do your best to focus on your real family during the holidays — your children, your partner or spouse, the beloved relatives that keep you going, the friends who are as close as any family could be.

And, of course, stock up early on migraine medication, chocolate, and anything else you can think of that won't set a bad example for the kids (sadly, drugs and alcohol are out) but will help you survive the next holiday gathering with a minimum of screaming.

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