Fires, Buckets, and Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Gaps
Homeschooling parents often have trouble keeping their focus on the broader aims of education rather than the minutia of daily lessons. There is a well-known quote by William Butler Yeats that is used often in homeschooling circles for encouragement: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I certainly agree that the overarching goal is the fire, but should we really stop digging, shoveling, and filling up pails too? Some parents put a great deal of emphasis on “delight-led learning” (aka, lighting the fire), but can you really get away with that alone?  Other moms are all about finishing every page of every book in a packaged curriculum. Let’s face it--we moms all have individual propensities which tend to foster our leaning too far one way or the other.  So here’s a few ideas that might help free you, or rein you in, and allow you to balance these two important aspects of education--fire building and filling the pails.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Gaps

As a homeschooling mom I sometimes had mild panic attacks that I was leaving huge gaps in my child’s learning. Then I began teaching world history at a small private school. My tenth grade students came into my class with vast, I mean truly vast, differences in what they had studied, or perhaps better said, studied and remembered. But as we progressed through the material, two things became apparent. First, they all were capable of processing the material at hand. No lapse in their education made it hard to comprehend what our high school level book covered. Second--and most interestingly--those who were readers, from historical fiction and biographies to novels, seemed better able to articulate what was going on and how historical events might be affecting families and society.  The readers were also the ones who could handle written discussion questions best, hands down.

There are basically only two subjects that are incrementally built from the ground up and which one cannot learn without going back and picking it up from the beginning: math and grammar, with math being, obviously, the far more extensive in content and density. You can’t teach someone about a noun clause unless they have learned nouns. You can’t teach algebra unless they have learned arithmetic. But the humanities and even science do not have such tightly built and essential foundations. These subjects are fire-starters for sure. Here is where you can forego a textbook in the early years if you want to, or use a thin one that doesn’t take much time. Launch out into unit studies or create your own. Hit the library regularly and let your child read whatever he wants. Encourage rabbit trails, curiosity, and questions. These are the lasting embers that glow deeply and long.

So Be Wary of Merely Filling the Pail

So be wary of merely filling the pail. Be aware if that’s your tendency, especially when your children are in the elementary grades, and try to lean a bit in the other direction. Later on, as layers of understanding and discovery have built up in your student’s mind, facts begin to stick better and longer because they have something more substantial to stick to, and general foundations in history and science become more important--though still with those vast differences from student to student. So don’t worry. A child who has been encouraged to go after the world and find out what it’s made of, a student who has been encouraged to research, who has been discussing topics of interest with his family, who has been reading, can come into a high school class and totally get it. Encourage your child to approach a subject with questions. Encourage your child to think.

Drawbacks to Merely Kindling the Fire

But there are drawbacks to a total “kindle the fire” approach as well. Allowing your child to only study what appears inherently interesting to him would be a disaster. First of all, he would never learn the incredible lesson that something that sounds completely boring at first can turn into one’s favorite subject--or at the very least have some interesting aspects. Besides, children don’t know what they are going to like yet. That’s part of the whole idea of education, isn’t it? They may think they know, but they don’t. That’s part of what real education is: opening the door to new ideas and topics and, if necessary, shoving them through it.

The Struggle Muscle

Secondly, essential to any definition of maturity is learning to do things whether you want to or not. This internal growth is also known as building up the “struggle muscle.” We empower our kids when we help them develop this psychological strength. In fact, no one can be truly free without it. If you really want to exercise but are unable to force yourself to do it, are you free? Children desperately need to do things they don’t naturally want to do, or they become addicted to feel-good activities only. Some of the most rewarding things in life are hard--we all know that fact. Children must exercise that muscle of making themselves do difficult or undesirable things in order to strengthen their ability to persevere. Will power enables personal freedom. Get them addicted to the high of a finished project, the feeling of accomplishment after tackling their least favorite math assignment, piano piece, English essay, or book. There’s a good feeling that comes from having worked hard even when the results are mediocre, or even a flop. This is the addiction that leads to endurance and deep satisfaction. As James puts it, “...and let endurance have its perfect result that you might be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

So, stoke those flames but fill some pails too. Don’t fret over gaps in their knowledge. Encourage rabbit trails, but make them do things they don’t want to do. And most of all, relax and enjoy them! They grow up way too fast.
Laurie White is an author, teacher, and mom to three kids who were homeschooled k-12. She writes books and other supplemental materials for homeschoolers including her popular and award-winning King Alfred’s English which combines history and English in a highly entertaining format for grades 7 and above. For more info and access to Laurie's free downloads go to