An interview with Byron and Kristin List

To the parent who suddenly has the extra, added vocation of being the primary educator for his or her child…

Many parents have suddenly become educators, not by choice, but by COVID lockdown. It’s a profession for which we are largely untrained, and we’re trying to do it while also balancing our jobs and our own stress and worry.  And in most cases, it will last at least until June. Many school systems have been up and running with online education for weeks now, whereas others are just beginning the process.

But even where it is functioning well, online learning has thrust many parents into a new vocation, one for which we were not trained and one which we did not choose — that of homeschooling parent. Many a parent has suddenly found himself or herself thinking, “I chose NOT to be a homeschooling parent! How has this happened to me?” Especially the younger a child gets, the more a parent must be physically beside him or her through the work. This is exhausting! And we are untrained. The best summary of how many parents feel came from BJS Productions on Instagram through Christine Caine. How do we think about and live into our sudden extra job?

To explore some of these dynamics, I spoke with Byron and Kristin List. Byron is the Headmaster at Rivendell School in Arlington, VA, a school whose unique educational philosophy gives a helpful perspective on these issues. Kristin has pursued a variety of careers while walking three children through to adulthood and learning to embrace her role of parent-educator. What follows is a combination of the transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity, and other thoughts that Byron previously has shared with the Rivendell community.

Theory: The Parent as Educator

Byron, I wanted to speak to you both because Rivendell is a fairly unique school with a different theory of how parent and school relate and because it’s now been four weeks since we began online learning. For both reasons – philosophy and experience – thank you for taking the time to share some of your thoughts. My wife was homeschooled and then went to a public high school, and I started in the public school system and then moved to a private school later on. We are neither anti-home school nor anti-public school, but we decided to instead join the Rivendell School community as the right match for our family. Can you speak to this distinctive of Rivendell’s approach and how it prepares us to think about this present time? And Kristin, you run parenting classes, the outgrowth of trying to think carefully and reflectively about your own experience, what would you add?

Byron: Well, Rivendell’s philosophy (and, I might add, shared with Lorien Wood in Tysons, a separate school that was birthed with our support some years later) is probably not absolutely unique. I’m not sure much anything in our world is truly unique. But it is rather rare. We are a Christ-centered K-8 school that focuses on the partnership between parents and school. We recognize and celebrate that parents will always be the primary educators of their children, and our school community is a community of families that do that together in covenant with both the school and each other. So, for years we have sought to develop a community of excellence in learning that is a true partnership between parent and school.

Kristin: I’ve worked in a variety of fields over the years, mainly part time: in business doing human resources and finance, then at church covering communications and discipleship, and now in real estate focusing on marketing, client care, and events.  All three of our children went through Rivendell, and I remember distinctly when one of my daughters said, “Mom, you’re a teacher, right?”  And I started to say, “No,” but then I realized, “No, wait…yes, I am. All the time – because I have three daughters.”  We’ve always tried to be pretty intentional about parenting, largely because we really had to unlearn some things from the early years.

Let’s start broadly.  How should parents think about this present time – life with education suddenly done entirely at home but with support from the school?

Byron: I hope we can use this unexpected period as a unique opportunity to start to form a sense of how God has called us to parent in a different way than probably we’ve ever done it before.  Many parents are suddenly meshing two roles that previously were distinct: parent and teacher. But they probably shouldn’t be.  When your first child was in preschool, if I asked you, “Who is teaching your child the most?” you would probably recognize that you were the most important educator in your child’s life. How well a young child is ready for the early years is hugely dependent on things such as how much the parents read with him or her, whether they work on letters and counting, and – largely – whether they take an inquisitive view of the world.  Children learn from parents and each other in a family. But as soon as it becomes “off to school” we somehow shift in our mindset. We forget how much learning occurs that isn’t math, etc., and we stop thinking of ourselves as teacher.  But the truth is, we still are.

Kristin: This time can be helpful but hard. Two things come to mind. First, we should see this time as an opportunity, not just something to get through. These weeks can give us ability to see how our children learn, what gets them excited, and what causes consternation. Second, give a lot of grace to yourself and to your child – there are not enough hours to do it all, we know. So, work in partnership with your child. Don’t just tell, but figure it out with your child.

I’m a pastor, and we struggle endlessly with the fact that many parents basically hand their child to the student ministries staff and effectively say “You deal with the faith side.”  We find ourselves thinking, “We can’t do in a few hours a week what you’re not doing 24×7.”  It strikes me that a school is, if you think broadly, in the same situation. You can’t inculcate from 9-3, or 8-3 or whatever, what a family is undoing the other 16 or 17 hours of the day.  Closed schools and social distancing really reset us – if unintentionally – to a different level of connection between parents and their children’s education.  Let’s acknowledge right up front that it’s hard, and we’ll come back to that.  But how might this be a better relationship between parent, school, and child?

Byron: It is amazing how the patterns of only a month ago have flipped completely around. Only four weeks back, an engaged parent might check in with a child’s teacher to say, “How is my child doing educationally?”  Now it’s suddenly the reverse – the teacher is calling the parent to say, “How is she doing?”

Kristin: That could be one of the gifts of this time, that we see what has always been true, that parents ARE the primary educators of their children – spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally – whether we want it or not. Learning to listen to our children could be a healthy thing that comes out of this. We will have to learn to pay attention to their (and our own) emotions – emotions that are strong and different from what we’re used to – and we need to give them the safety and freedom to articulate them.  Because this time is longer, we have to face it.  We’re either going to crash and burn or fix it.

Practice: What Do We Do?

I hear from many families that this sudden homeschooling experiment hasn’t gone particularly well so far.  Some of that, of course, is that parents love to gripe and commiserate just like everyone else. But it probably also shows something real – parents who are untrained at this and stressed themselves are trying to teach children who are stressed, and all of it while we’re all off our rhythms. What would you say to parents who feel they’ve crashed and burned so far?

Kristin: Most importantly, own your own confusion and the ways you’ve caused problems.  It is always helpful for parents to be able to apologize. The reason I teach parenting seminars is, as I said, because we had to become self-aware about parenting and fix the mistakes of the early years. I’m now at the point where there’s a lot to look back on, but I’m still learning now, just in a different stage.  There was a Time magazine article just in the last couple of weeks about people in their 20’s and 30’s now back at home and feeling they’re acting like teenagers again.  I realize that I’m tempted to act like the parent of a teenager again, and neither of those phenomena are good. We’re now holding family meetings every few days with our adult children who are home with us, working on collaborative problem solving as we all learn how to live together again.

Byron: I’d only add that resets are free and unlimited. Don’t ruin your relationship with your child because you had to be their teacher. But also be careful not to cave in to tears and strong emotion in order to keep your child happy, and keep in mind that doing hard things is a necessary part of development that frequently leads to wonderful growth. Work to be a teacher who keeps the end goal of “keeping my child learning” in mind, and who is unwaveringly kind and firm. When you blow it – and you will – circle back twice, not once. It may be true that we apologize and move on, but a double check will do you a world of good.

What mistakes do you see that we’re all going to be making as we try to do this?

Byron: We will all blunder through the first part of this. When we shifted to online education in literally a weekend, the number emails I got from parents was amazing.  Muddle through the blundering beginning. But then start to grow in your ability to work with your child. You’ve learned how to do your current job well, and you can learn how to do this one well. The first goal is good communication. That means separating the material and emotional response. In teaching, you try to explain something and then you gauge the student’s response. You often have to hit pause and come back at it a different way later. Teachers do that all day long. Parents haven’t practiced that, so they often don’t have those muscles because helping with a student’s homework is different than teaching the lesson. But as an educator, here’s the potential beauty of this: I LOVE that the parent finally sees it. Now you finally see what the teachers have been trying to tell you about your child! I would hope that this can lead to a greater partnership – a dual ownership of our children’s education. Because now both teacher and parent really get it.

Let’s get more practical.  How would you advise overloaded parents who are barely making it, now try to do their job and also oversee the education of little ones who may need a lot of hand holding?

Byron: Let’s just begin by recognizing that this is really hard. It’s one of the main reasons people send their kids to school and choose not to homeschool – it takes so much patience, time, energy –  And little kids, even children up to 5th and 6th grade, often need their parents to be somewhere nearby to redirect them or help them understand. So, parents should “take small bites” by breaking things down to 10-20 minute work times. Then take a break, get your child to move around or eat a snack. If your child hits a wall, stop. We know that our brains really don’t do much learning when they’re stressed, anxious, or fearful, and our children are no different! So, if a day is going to be productive for parent and child, it’s important to build into the day rhythms of work and rest/play that will benefit both the child and the parent.

If a family is fortunate enough to have both parents in the household, what role should each parent have in getting this done? How should this work get divided up? It feels like we could quickly devolve to 1950s stereotypes in this situation.

Kristin: It does need to be talked through up front. When things are thrust upon us, we usually just start. So, if you haven’t, take the common advice and set up a schedule and a plan.  Routines can really help, so get a plan to do it in bite-size chunks. Dad takes this part, mom this part, etc. Work with things you’re each excited about. This doesn’t have to take over your whole day. If we get a plan and a structure, then we’re more disciplined, and for a younger child, the work only takes two hours and then we can get on, so it doesn’t seem to be taking over our entire life. Older children will have more work, of course, but they will also be more self-sufficient.

Byron: Also, be aware of your own schedule. So many people fall into the trap of thinking that our productivity is entirely dependent on access to us via Zoom. I’ve caught myself slipping into this so easily. To feel productive, I’m doing email/phone/zoom, and my “workday” now extends from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM. It’s easy to make ourselves available way too much, to work or look at messages when we never would have before. What that can do to a family is fracture us, sending us in different directions, isolated within the same house. So, set and preserve sacred times as a family. Of course, we’ll also have to diversify, to divide up the work. I would recommend that children see both parents available at certain times. Now they are watching more than ever, and how you interact together and enjoy each other together will be a lesson for their relationships through life.  You may teach them more relationally in this time of stress than you ever would have in times of ease.

If we haven’t been, how do we talk to our children about the stresses of this time?

Byron: While I imagine many parents have already had this conversation with their child, here are a few thoughts to consider. I’ve written about this to our community, so I can give a slightly more structured answer.

First, answer the question your child is asking. At the time when our little ones were asking where a baby came from it made sense to say, “From Mommy’s tummy.” You don’t, however, try to sneak that clichéd answer in with a teen. So, begin by responding to the question your child is asking by giving an age-appropriate answer. Then be careful not to go too far with your answer. When your child begins to look like you’ve given him or her enough and starts to tune out, that’s a good signal that you’re beginning to go too far. See if you can dig a bit deeper into not just what your child is asking, but why your child is really asking the question. Sometimes, “Why do I have to do math?” or “Why has our home become so structured and you’ve had to become my teacher?” is really about their fears and frustrations, or maybe just about being listened to and feeling like they have your attention and your love.

Second, humbly say “I don’t know” when you really don’t know. Now that my children are young adults, I rarely get away with “dad-splaining,” and with Coronavirus it’s quite evident that the experts really do not know all of the answers. There is mystery built into Creation, and we do our kids a favor by helping them learn at an early age that we cannot know everything and must trust God to hold all things together.

Third, keep the conversation going. Assume that your child’s questions were answered “for now.” Most people need a bit of time to process how they feel and what they are thinking. So, plan to revisit their questions in a day or two, assuming that they have been processing, and watching, and continuing to feel things. More than likely, they will have more to say on the subject because if they were thinking about Coronavirus before, they have probably continued to do so.

If you would, say a little more about what that looks like.

A lot of it is recognizing that their questions are not just cognitive. Help them express their emotions by identifying and expressing your own emotions. Early in our parenting years, Kristin and I realized that our kids seemed to have two general emotions and two ways of expressing it: hungry, angry or needy (expressed in screaming or crying), or connected, content and happy (expressed in joy). As our children mature, they and their parents discover a multitude of additional emotions that they often have trouble wrapping their minds around. Who knew, for example, that a six-year-old could experience a feeling of melancholy? But some do. Your kids may be experiencing sadness or disconnectedness or disappointment or “the blues” in ways they’ve never experienced these feelings before. It is essential, then, that parents act as an “external brain” and assist their child by helping the child learn to put words and vocabulary to their feelings. But note, parents, that it must start with you. If you take time explain to your child your own emotions of disappointment, feeling overwhelmed, feeling cooped-up or on-edge (it really does help to name those emotions), your child will begin to feel empowered and safe to name his or her emotions.

Finally, tell the deepest truth. There is the surface truth that this virus is dangerous, that we must practice social isolation, and that thousands, perhaps millions of people may die from it (a truth, perhaps, reserved for those with older children). But there are a few deeper truths at work in this strange season of social distancing. One is this: Jesus, the Savior, is our only solid and certain hope. We don’t place the hope for our souls in governments or executive orders; we don’t put our eternal hope in the scientific community to rescue us with a vaccine; and we don’t, not for a moment, presume that somehow we, in our human fortitude, can somehow “band together and overcome.” Another of the deepest truths we can tell our child is to remind him that God loves him with an unfailing love and that God is faithful forever. Our lives will then need to testify to that truth we speak, if we have any hope that our children might really begin to believe it. As we follow in the way of Jesus, we will be changed from the people we would otherwise be: from self-centered to reaching out to others, from hoarding to generously giving, from being oriented toward our own comforts and needs to looking out for the needs of those around us. If we’ve been transformed by Jesus’ love, now is a great time to share that “deepest truth” with our children and with those around us who are in need.

Finishing Well

Someday, whenever we come back out of this, it will be VERY tempting for parents to just throw down in exhaustion and detach. It strikes me that would be a lost opportunity, but I can feel how we will want to. What might it look like to come out of this stronger as parents?

Kristin: First, pace yourself. The initial rush is now past, and we have to settle in and have a long view. If we get to the end and then just hand our children back to a school and detach again, then we haven’t gotten any growth out of this time. What a loss! We need to learn during this time so that when our children go back to school, we’re more engaged, more able to care for our child’s academic learning. We should aim for a healthy balance now so at the end we are empowered, not done.

Byron: More broadly, thinking about this time, I wrote in my journal, “If I go through this and don’t come out a deeper man of prayer, I’ve probably wasted the time.” By saying it, I named it. Educationally, we want to do the same thing – name it. Let’s say, “I want to grow as a parent-educator.” At the end of this period, I would love parents to have the capacity to notice how their child learns AND how they teach – that parents would be more aware of our children’s and own emotions and skills AND what we’re are teaching them, intentionally or accidentally. When we name these things and pay attention, we can come out the other end and say, “Even though that was a rough time, I like the person I was growing into.” And if we like who we were becoming, then we won’t want to lose that just because we’ve got soccer practice again.  This is an incredible opportunity to do some introspection and pay attention to who we are. We can do that, but we only will if we will schedule ourselves well and take advantage of it.

Kristin: One of wonderful things about Christianity is that we believe that God can use this for his glory and our good. That means these months are not wasted; they are not just to be “gotten through.”  Crying out to God because the load feels too much is a great thing – and in the midst of that, this can be a growth-filled time.  This role of parent-teacher is a new skill, one most parents have barely used before, maybe one they hope they will never use again.  Yes, this time is hard, but don’t give up what you are suddenly seeing and doing in your child’s life.  This is the role that you have always had; now you just see it more clearly.

An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

Meet Rev. Dr. Bill Fullilove