Ask a mother who home educates her children, ask which question she encounters most frequently and she will undoubtedly respond, “What about socialization?” In the decade since I began teaching my three daughters at home, this question has remained, even as other questions like, “Is that legal?” and “are you qualified to teach?” have vanished due to the increasing prominence of home instruction. Now, thanks to the experience and literary gifts of home educator and author, Alice Gunther we have not only an eloquent answer to this question, but an inspiring guide on how to help our children find friendship and acceptance outside the domestic church. A Haystack Full of Needles is the book we have been waiting for, the book we may give as a gift to questioning family members, but one we will also keep close as we seek opportunities to help our children develop socially.
Alice, like so many of our family members had concerns about a home educating mother’s ability to meet her children’s need for social interaction. She takes us back to the days when she thought home educators were doing the impossible, to her early attempts at finding companions for herself and her young daughters, to the successful support group she is a the center of on Long Island. She inspires the mother who feels alone in her decision to home educate with her fond anecdotes and down to earth suggestions on how to find other Catholic home educating families, how to build community, how to run a successful social event, and how to support one another in good times and bad:
Home-educating mothers share a unique cultural experience. We understand one another, and a large part of “socialization” should be geared toward nurturing friendship for mothers who choose this narrow, but incredibly rewarding, path.
Haystack is far more engaging than a dry how-to manual, however. Alice, whose childhood involved many trips to family in the Emerald Isle has inherited the legendary Irish facility with language that gives her prose a poetic lilt leading to such picturesque images as:
The truth is homeschooling groups are not founded — they trickle together gradually, like a barrel filling up with rain. Still, there are ways we can help the process along, fastening the hoops around the staves of the barrel, lest we lose a precious drop.
The secret to the success of Alice’s home schooling groups is her heartfelt compassion for the struggles of the home educating mother and her natural generosity in reaching out to meet their needs:
Socialization for homeschoolers is every bit as much about friendship for mothers as it is for the children. Many best friends have been made around the kitchen table.
Haystack includes an impressive array of Alice’s social involvements, nature study groups, Shakespearean plays, creative crafts woven into celebrations of the liturgical year, but the greatest strength of this book lies in the fact that no one in the community is overlooked, not even the special needs child who is shy to become involved in a group activity. Alice has tips for getting these children involved and making them feel loved:
One trick I have is to pull out something especially fun, like a game or interesting little novelty. Not only does this entertain the child who happens to be alone — it also attracts others to be his companions.
She describes the pains she has taken to teach her children the art of making the newcomer to the group feel welcome in her home, and that explains why during some of her Little Flower meetings, her lawn is filled with hundreds of happy participants.
Many people wonder if home educating is possible through high school. Alice admits that though many high school age boys attend school; home education social groups nurture the teenage soul as well.
When I think about home schooled teenagers, the image that presents itself in my mind is that of a rose freshly blooming. Those little children who once played in our house or crafted at our table are fine young men and women now, and they are a joy to behold. How many mothers of teenagers are able to say that they love all their children’s friends? Yet this is what I can say wholeheartedly, and I believe that these vivid roses are even more beautiful when arranged together in a bouquet.
That is why I recommend Haystack for all mothers seeking a sense of community in a fast-paced world in which children fail to savor the sweetness of childhood in their headlong rush to emulate questionable role models. Alice Gunther in her distinctly poetic manner, reminds us of the riches of a childhood fully lived in the loving embrace of the Body of Christ. The advice she offers in Haystack, is valuable even if your children are in school you are seeking ways to find like-minded friends for your family. She explains her balanced view of home educating here,
As I mention this, let me be clear in saying that I do not think families who are not called to home educate are any less faithful or blessed by God. Yet, I do think, for whatever reason, God calls some of us to serve him in this specific way — not a more exalted way — but a different and necessary one.
I agree with my friend Alice that communities like the Immaculate Heart of Mary group which we enjoy on Long Island may just be the seedbed of the New Springtime of Evangelization which our dear Pope John Paul II predicted. One innocent child spending a pleasant afternoon among friends in the garden, one family sharing the joy of the Faith with another, and young families rediscovering Christian community and renewing the Body of Christ.