Enrolling in the School of Life

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

One parent reflects on homeschooling her kid for 3 years leading up to PSLE

We've just surfaced for air after a gruelling 2016 - an epic year on all fronts for our family.

We had a baby (our fifth), stuck through another year of homeschooling our two older children and experienced first-hand what it felt to be rookie PSLE parents - who had the singular goal of making it through the presumably high-stakes national exam in one piece.

We lived to tell the tale.

Looking back, we realised that the learning curve in our inaugural Primary School Leaving Examination year was monumental - and I don't just mean the arduous straining of mental muscles over mathematical conundrums called "problem sums".

Instead, the harder adjustment we had to make was coming to terms with the fact that my daughter's formative years of childhood were coming to an end and the day of reckoning was near.

At the end of Primary 3, my daughter asked to be homeschooled... Tired and worn out from a hyper-competitive school environment, she had lost the joy of learning and made up her mind that a home education would give her some breathing space to learn at her own pace. After weighing her decision, along with our personal conviction that education was not another rat race, we supported her.

Whether we liked it or not, the PSLE would offer a societal measure of what we have reaped in relation to what we have sown in her first 12 years of life. We were also aware that transitioning her into teenhood would commence the inevitable and bittersweet journey of letting go.

It was a sobering thought.

Over the past year or so, our developing tween had put us through a practical crash course in relearning how to communicate.

We learnt to be familiar with this thing called hormones, manage erratic mood swings, wisely choose the right battles and respect her increasing need for space and friendships. We also learnt to listen more intently. Surprisingly, we also talked a lot. Giving counsel and encouragement where needed was the hallmark of days when complacency and discouragement set in.

With the impending exam fast approaching, we also decided to be unalarmed by the avalanche of assessment books and practice papers that looked bent on taking over our lives. Education had to be more than just that.

Our educational journey in the primary school years with our firstborn was diverse, to say the least. At the end of Primary 3, my daughter voiced a heartfelt proposition that turned our whole notion of conventional schooling (together with our lofty expectations) topsy-turvy. She asked to be homeschooled.

After a few rounds of heart-to-heart talks, we realised our daughter was extremely serious about it. Tired and worn from a hyper-competitive school environment, she had lost the joy of learning and made up her mind that a home education would give her some breathing space to learn at her own pace. After weighing her decision, along with our personal conviction that education was not another rat race, we supported her.

As a homeschooling family for the past three years and counting, we have enjoyed the flexibility and the most valuable commodity of all - time with one another.

We were not bound by punishing schedules, yet moved along and enjoyed learning at our own pace. We had the privilege of unwinding and pursuing our interests in an unhurried way. We could bypass what we felt was not crucial and reinforce where it was essential.

Because we had time and took ownership of what we learnt and how we learnt it, we had the option to dive deep in our faith, and in our conversations and relationships with one another. Put simply, we had time to do life as a family together.

The homeschooling years with Big Daughter were not without struggle, but we managed somehow to infuse learning with life and put life back into learning.

There was nothing stopping us from exploring the world right where it was. We spent a fair number of afternoons doing maths while measuring and converting ingredients for our favourite cake recipes. We could soak up the hot humidity digging up creepy-crawlies while gardening.

We could linger in museums, parks and open spaces and tinkle extra-long at the piano when inspiration hit. Most importantly, learning took on meaning when it was embedded in real life. That enabled us to plough the ground deep on character and values.

We never regretted setting in place routines where the children contribute and undertake age-appropriate chores around the house. They now take to doing a load of laundry, folding fresh clothes, clearing the trash, babysitting and mopping the floor as part of their routine.

In doing so, we hope we are giving them sufficient skills to be responsible and to learn to take care of themselves as well as others.

In the past few years, our life did not merely revolve around one big exam. Rather, the big exam was life itself - and we learnt to move in synergy with it.

At the end of last year, my daughter announced that after three years at home, she would like to go to secondary school. As you might have guessed by now, we talked and gave her our blessings. Seasons come and seasons go.

As I write this, Big D has just spent three weeks enjoying secondary school life - much happier and excited than she was before. Like the hungry caterpillar wriggling out of its cocoon, it was a great privilege to witness my tween's metamorphosis and appetite for life.

She has made new friends and adjusted to the long school hours and multiple subjects, reserving enough energy in the evenings to rattle off the exciting highlights of her day. Being the eldest of five has stood her in good stead; she is now the newly appointed "head of management" in her class.

For now, Big D appears to have found her footing and we are happy that we allowed her some room to find herself.

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, And The Hidden Power Of Character, says it well: "What matters most in a child's development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence."

It is these qualities that will help our children walk through the mountains and valleys in the school of life. And so, the big exam called "life" continues. Never cower before fear, do not be afraid to take risks, be quick to listen, grow through different seasons - and always, always look forward.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Enrolling in the School of Life'. Print Edition | Subscribe