Homeschool is Not a Vending Machine: why I don’t use curriculum, books, and memory work to grow my children’s virtue

Virtue building in homeschool?
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“My daughter is really struggling with lying; can you recommend good fiction books I can have her read to fix that?” “My son struggles with self-control; do you know a good unit study that could help?” “This read-aloud/poem/memory work/curriculum is really great at forming virtue in your children.”

These are the types of comments and questions I see frequently in the homeschool world. And while I understand that most parents ask these questions or make these comments out of a genuine, godly desire to disciple their children more faithfully, something about this approach to the topic of “virtue formation” or “character development” always makes me cringe.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that I do not homeschool to make my children into virtuous humans. I do not choose novels for them to read as a round-about-way way to work on their sinful tendencies. Much as I love our poetry memory work, I do not believe those poems will have a sanctifying effect on my children. The use of any of these in an attempt to manipulate or mold our children’s character serves neither their souls nor their education.

Before I go on to clarify what I do not mean by these perhaps slightly shocking statements, allow me to share my primary area of concern.

Christian parents, rightly, want their children to choose the good and eschew the evil. We want them to believe what is true, love what is good, and admire what is beautiful. We have certain priorities for the types of humans we hope leave our homes one day.

But it’s when we get our end-goals and our source of hope out of whack that things go awry.

If the end goal for our educational choices is inculcating virtue, we run the risk of raising very moral heathens. Morality and virtue apart from the Triune God is emptiness. Obedience without love for Christ is death.

virtuous heathens

If we decide to homeschool in order to save our children, our hope is in the wrong thing. Only the Holy Spirit can change our children’s hearts. Only the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Homeschool (like Christian parenting in general) is not a vending machine. You don’t push the right buttons (the right character-based curriculum, the ideal read-aloud, the perfect collection of memory work) and get the right result (nice, Christian kid).

When our homeschool, our curriculum choices, or our family standards (all good things, I might add) become our idols, we have placed our hope in things that will always ultimately disappoint us.

Does it matter, then?

Lest I be misunderstood, let me be clear:

Of course it matters what we read, what we memorize, and how we spend our time.

Of course education is a process of nurturing the formation of the mind and imagination, of encouraging humility and praise as we behold the works of God.

Of course the things we behold regularly will affect the way we think.

1 Corinthians 15:33 says clearly, “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits.’” I think this applies just as much to the things we read and how we spend our time as it does to our literal friends.

We are commanded to think on certain things instead of others: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

We are also clearly entrusted with a serious calling from God Himself to disciple our children by word and example. (Deuteronomy 6)

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But we must never be deceived into thinking our hope lies in doing this whole parenting thing the “right” way.

Homeschooling is not going to save our children. Poetry will not save our children. Read aloud time will not save our children.

Only Jesus can do that.

We can get a little irritated by that in our pride, right? Like, wait, doesn’t God appreciate all the sacrifices I’m making for my children? All the hours I spent researching curriculum and customizing this epic morning time experience?

But aren’t we really saying something like “God owes me” in that moment?

Instead, we must humble our hearts before the Lord. He is the Potter; we (and our children) are the clay.

And isn’t that actually a hopeful thing?

What if you didn’t pick the perfect curriculum, after all? What if you didn’t perfectly curate the book list? What if you screw up and yell at your kids?

If you have a vending-machine mentality, I guess you’d better just hope that you’ve pushed more “right” buttons than “wrong” ones.

What could be more terrifying for the Christian parent?

But what if it’s not a vending machine? What if you and your children can rest in the arms of a God who “cannot deny Himself,” who sent His Son to die for His people while we were still sinners?

What if how your children ultimately turn out is not about the words you read and recite in your homeschool but about the Word made flesh?

Virtue can’t be our ultimate end

Raising good (or even exceptionally virtuous) kids can’t be the ultimate goal in our homeschool. Even the pagan philosophers and historians could encourage good moral character, after all.

Instead, pray with and for your kids, that they would love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Pray that the love of Christ would dwell richly in their heart through faith. Put your hope in the Holy Spirit’s work.

Step away from the vending machine and your frantic attempts to save your kids.

God’s already taken care of it.

Homeschool is Not a Vending Machine

Photo by Mihai Lazăr on Unsplash

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13 thoughts on “Homeschool is Not a Vending Machine: why I don’t use curriculum, books, and memory work to grow my children’s virtue”

  1. Thank you, Amy. How quickly my pride moves me in the wrong direction and the overwhelming sense of failure threatens to paralyze me. I needed this word, to which my mind and the Spirit shout “Amen!”

  2. I have been struggling mightily with “cultivating wisdom and virtue” as the goal of a Christian classical education. You have taken the words right out of my mouth! We ought to pursue Christ and seek his kingdom first. Our wisdom and virtue as mothers will follow. And we pray, pray, pray for the Lord to move in our children’s lives – that they would know, love and glorify Him.

    1. Yes, I can relate to this struggle. And it can be so difficult to articulate clearly, since obviously we are called to “think on these things.” (Phil 4:8) Perhaps the most important element is the mindset shift as to Who or What is the instrument of change. Because if we place that anywhere but Jesus, we’re going to be disappointed.

  3. Wow. This is smacks of so much truth. You have given me something to think about through this process of ahifting everything from curriculum to how we interact with out children. Morality does not equal Godly and homeschooling does not guarantee relationship with Christ.

    Wonderful word.

  4. Yes, and thank you.

    I have noted the fear and weight on moms’ shoulders in some of the Facebook Groups I’m a part of.

    I appreciate you entering into a discussion about this.

    May we all trust in God and rest in Him, even as we go about the significant task of parenting .

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