Written by Kari Patterson
Teaching multiple ages at once is hard.
This is one of the most common homeschool complaints I hear (usually from myself!). The struggle is real: We’ll have a 14-year age span between the oldest and youngest of our children when our next son is born this fall.
Currently, one son is learning to shave while the other is learning to keep his hands out of his poopy diaper. We also share our home with another homeschooling family, so the total age-range of kids educated on these premises will be 18 years.
I also have (wonderful!) aging parents, including a disabled mom, with whom we spend much of our time (there will be an almost 79-year-old age difference between my dad and my youngest son). Our 11-year-old daughter regularly feeds my mom, cleans her hands and fingernails, brushes her hair, and reads aloud to her.
I mention these dynamics simply because they have shaped my perspective on age segregation, and convinced me that although learning (and living!) with a wide age-range has its challenges, it offers priceless benefits that simply aren’t available in a sea of same-aged students.
While I won’t hit on the how during this article, I want to convince you the work is worth it! A few of the great benefits include:
1. We learn to love those different from us.
For all the valiant efforts made toward tolerance of those different from ourselves, the family provides ample opportunities for honoring others above ourselves.
Consider: Are the most pressing problems in our world the result of not knowing our prepositions? Or are they the result of not knowing how to love, listen to, and accept those different from ourselves?
If young siblings can learn to reasonably reconcile differences or thoughtfully discuss a difficult situation, aren’t they ahead of many adults these days?
2. We’re blessed by friendships outside our birth year.
In terms of friendship, I feel filthy-rich. I have been blessed abundantly with dear friends, and it’s interesting to me that of my 10 closest friends, only one is my age. The rest cover a twenty-five year age range!
When we made the decision to homeschool our own children I was concerned whether they would have close, trusted friends. I am so grateful that they both do … but none of them are my children’s same age. Their dozen or so “besties,” who they ask to play with most often, range from 15 years down to 5 years … not to mention the toddlers trailing along desperately trying to keep up with the fun!
In my experience, a common pitfall is trying to “find” friends by looking for people who are just like us. It seems like a reasonable approach, but it backfires because the richest kind of friendship isn’t based simply on sameness but on serving one another and a greater good.
It’s so much bigger than a shared birth year or merely common interests. Learning to make friends with those who are older, younger, and different enriches beyond measure.
3. Our education is enriched by the skills and perspectives gained through wide interactions.
Age and generation segregation robs us of so much richness. Our schools, workplaces, and even places of worship have become increasingly segregated, and I don’t think we’re better as a result. We need the wisdom of the aged, just as they need the insights and innovations of the young.
But if we never interact, if we don’t value what the other has to offer, how will be both benefit?
According to a study of adults age 60 years and older, less than a quarter had discussed anything “important” with someone age 36 or younger, and if family was excluded the number dropped to 6 percent! I want my children to be learning from, listening to, caring for, and valuing those whose life experiences are vastly different from their own.
If my 13-year-old son can do dishes with a toddler on his hip, patiently teach his sister how to add fractions, and engage in a thoughtful, respectful conversation about American history with a 78-year-old, all in one day, I’d say that’s a good start!
Add chores, a run with his 42-year-old father, and some Charles Dickens, and we’re well on our way to a well-rounded education.
4. We foster healthy ambition more than unhealthy competition.
University of Arizona anthropologist Alice Schlegel studied 186 preindustrial cultures and found that age segregation “is closely correlated to antisocial behavior and to socialization for competitiveness and aggressiveness.”
She also found that older kids who spent time with younger kids tended to be more nurturing, while the younger kids learned concrete lessons about coming stages and how to navigate communities larger than themselves (i.e. the world doesn’t revolve around them).
My personal perspective is that fostering competition among peers, while an effective means of motivating students in the short-term, eventually backfires because it cultivates selfishness rather than true greatness.
Instead, older students can be inspired to greatness by exposure to virtuous, wise, and courageous adults (via literature and life) while also recognizing that they themselves are serving as an example for the little ones looking up to them.
Similarly, younger students are inspired to grow and learn not because they can “beat” their classmates, but because they aspire to the competency of their older siblings and friends.
5. We develop a healthy awareness of our strengths and weaknesses.
One of the challenges faced when schooling siblings of different ages is that at some point a younger sibling will probably surpass an older sibling in some subject or skill, and both will face a dangerous temptation: The older child is tempted to despair and feel like a failure and the younger child is tempted to boast or feel superior.
Although this is a painful scenario, I am convinced it’s one of the most valuable lessons our children can learn. In real life we must all face the reality that others, many of whom are younger or less-experienced, will surpass us.
Our children need to know that their worth and value doesn’t come from “being the best” in any skill or subject. Any identity that depends on comparing our performance to those around us isn’t an identity worth having.
This is a prime opportunity to affirm the value and worth of the struggling child, and to encourage them to work that much harder to gain competency.
Similarly, the over-achieving child must learn modesty and humility or it won’t matter how gifted they are! This is the perfect opportunity for these rare but precious qualities to be encouraged in the younger child.
Chances are, you already know it’s difficult to invest in a wide age-range, but I hope I can convince you afresh that it’s worth it.
We all benefit from being surrounded by those a little ahead, a little behind, and a little different. Home is an outstanding opportunity to take full advantage of these benefits, even if it does require some work.
What benefits have you seen from having multiple ages together?
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