Photograph by fstop123 / Getty Images
Photograph by fstop123 / Getty Images

Forget homeschooling during the pandemic. Teach life skills instead.

OK, so you’re not actually a teacher. You still have plenty to teach your children.

Looking for new ways to educate and entertain your kids? Visit NatGeo@Home for all kinds of resources—including quizzes, science experiments, lesson plans, and fun activities to do as a family.

The parodies of homeschooling schedules during quarantine started almost immediately. The originals—which were color coded and earnest, and included time for homework, chores, and music lessons—were altered to read "Frozen II all-day," or "Cry in the bathroom."

The high hopes from parents about homeschooling their children had been replaced by the harsh reality that being a teacher is, well, hard. And it requires a degree of preparation and focus that many parents simply don’t have right now.

Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says the sudden widespread attempts at “homeschooling” have largely misunderstood the concept. “Trying to replicate school at home when you’re not trained and you don’t have the materials, that’s like mission impossible,” he says.

Most kids aren’t self-regulated enough to work for a sustained period of time without constant supervision, says Willingham, who specializes in cognition and learning among children and young adults. That’s not possible for parents who are trying to balance work and childcare.

“This is not homeschooling,” he said. “It’s an emergency measure.”

So how do we keep teaching our kids even though we’ve figured out that we’re obviously not teachers? The answer might be surprising.

Expand the notion of learning

The truth is, children are born learning; it’s a survival skill that comes naturally to them, said Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs and chief science officer of the Bezos Family Foundation. “If families can use this as a chance to engage their kids in genuine learning, that could be transformational for kids’ development,” she says.

But genuine learning can go beyond core educational topics. Of course, Willingham says we shouldn’t not encourage our kids to do schoolwork. But he does think we need to relax our academic expectations, and—more importantly—expand our notion of learning.

Instead of trying to force academics, “think about what you are set up to do: what you know a lot about, and maybe what the child’s teachers couldn’t do,” he says. In other words, consider using this time to teach life skills.

Teach what you know best

So maybe you aren’t an expert on algebra or physics. But you still have skills to teach your children, especially when they likely have more time on their hands. Parents nationwide are embracing this idea.

In Connecticut, a father and his 13-year-old son, Henri, are rebuilding a 1972 MGB car engine. The work is super mechanical, precise, and sometimes frustrating—and it’s teaching him patience and attention to detail, says Patti Woods-LaVoie, Henri’s mom.

“It’s really heartwarming,” she says. “And it’s something that’s completely theirs.” She was taken by surprise when her son recently chose auto mechanics for an elective class at his high school next fall. It’s a decision she doesn’t think he would have made before the quarantine.

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In Austin, Christine Foust Dawe is teaching her two young boys how to prepare a garden bed, add compost, plant seeds, and repot transplants. “I think the quarantine is changing my parenting, which, in turn, is changing my kids,” she said. “And maybe our relationship will be better because of this intense, intentional time.”

Parents are teaching everyday chores too: sewing, for example, or basic cooking. Liz Moorhead, a mother of four boys from outside Philadelphia, had always been lax about getting her kids to fold laundry, wash dishes, and make their own beds.

“Between rushing to school and rushing to soccer, it’s just been easier for me to do it all,” she said. “Now there’s nowhere to rush to, so we have more time to sit and tediously fold the same pair of pants four times until they figure it out.”

Follow their interests

If they’re resistant to taking an interest in what you’re doing, don’t despair. Your child’s own interests are enough of a jumping-off point for teaching life skills.

“Studies show that people with a sense of purpose are the most likely to thrive, especially when times are tough,” Galinksy says. “Furthering your child’s interest builds on that purpose.” If a child learns one thing they care about in a day, she adds, that’s enough.

For instance, Galinsky’s son loved music—now he has a doctorate in ethnomusicology. Her grandson loves video games. “People might think, ‘Yuck, video games,’” she says. “But the skills he’s learning from the games he plays are fantastic. He’s learning to pay attention, think flexibly, and develop problem-solving strategies. These life skills will serve him well in whatever he does in the future.”

The trick is to support your child’s interests, even if they don’t interest you.

So if your kid loves video games, play with them, Galinsky said. Read a graphic novel on Minecraft. If they’re interested in knights and superheroes, read books on the subject. Draw them on construction paper, or in sidewalk chalk outside. Talk about what it means to be a hero.

The hardships so many are facing now can’t be discounted. This approach might not be possible for those confronting job losses and illness, or for those who aren’t able to be home with their children.

But if families are able to use this as a chance to engage their kids in learning, that really is a gift, Galinsky says. “I think this is a time that children are always going to remember, a time of forever memories,” she adds. “So what are the memories we want our children to have?”