When Your Child Won’t Cooperate

Share with:

I’ll be honest. There are days I just don’t feel like doing the dishes. I may balk at getting started. I may dread taking the time. But eventually common sense (or the idea of having to do two days’ worth tomorrow!) wins, and I talk myself into doing the responsible thing and getting them done.

Some days our kids are like that. It’s just been a long day, or they are interested in something else right now other than schoolwork, or they dread getting started. (This is a normal scenario on occasion in many homeschool settings. It really isn’t just your kiddo!) But our hope is that eventually they will realize that putting it off now just makes it tougher later, so they buckle down and cooperate.

But what if this is becoming an all-too-frequent battle? You’ve heard the phrase, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” So maybe you are afraid that your child will insist on going academically “thirsty” the rest of his life. What’s a parent to do?

If You’re Removing a Child from a Conventional School

You may have heard the term de-schooling (this is not the same as un-schooling, which is a teaching approach – but some unschooling tips also work for de-schooling1). De-schooling refers to taking a period of time to allow your child to rediscover the wonder of learning. As explained in “Suddenly Homeschooling: The Basics,2

De-schooling is a fancy term for letting go of the old paradigm and realizing that homeschooling doesn’t have to look like school at home. It may take a month or more to adjust to the idea of facilitating your child’s learning, vs schooling him.

It’s okay to let your kids de-school by simply reading, or learning about something they want to learn about, or taking some virtual field trips, or working on a hobby, or cooking with you, or doing a family project.

(Translation: Learning can still happen just in the context of being a family– so enjoy!)”

Remember that this is a transition for your child, too – not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well. His familiar routine—his security—has changed. Be patient with your child, and remember that this is new for him, too. He may not know how to handle the freedom; he may need you to guide him in what to do, and work gradually into more self direction.

De-schooling is also an opportunity for you to rediscover the wonder of your family! When I consult with families, I try to help them get a sense of what their family vision is and what sorts of activities they enjoy, so we can endeavor to find a homeschool approach that’s a good fit for who they are as a family. And when that happens, children are more likely to be willing participants in the learning process.

In this de-schooling process, you may be comfortable with where he is academically, or you may not be sure he has the foundational skills that would be developmentally or age appropriate. You may want to evaluate his current skills (particularly math and language arts, since those are sequential skills). Sometimes a child’s resistance is because something is difficult for him but he doesn’t realize it, and we tend to balk at doing that which is hard or overwhelming, so it manifests as a resistance to do the work.  See more in What Should I Be Teaching My Child?

If You Have Younger Students

Children are generally born curious; they are created to learn. They tend to naturally explore and investigate and learn. But learning and schooling aren’t necessarily the same thing.

In the earlier years, even up into primary school, I won’t usually means I can’t or I’m not ready for this yet. But he doesn’t generally know how to process or communicate that, so it sometimes comes out as I don’t want to! or even I’m going to slide from my chair to the floor in a sobbing mess. (Or maybe that’s his mom.)

So what is age- or developmentally appropriate for a younger child? Some children read at age four, while others jump into phonics around age eight – and both can be in the range of normal! Children mature at different rates and focus on different skills at different seasons, and there are a lot of factors to take into consideration.Most children sort of “level out” around third grade, but before that, hold all those scope-and-sequence checklists very loosely, and think of learning as a continuum, not an age-specific menu. They don’t need scholastic deadlines. They do need lots of outdoor or free play and real-life learning.

Outdoor or Free Play

Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom “discovered that movement through active play, particularly in the outdoors, is absolutely the most beneficial gift we as parents, teachers and caregivers can bestow on our children to ensure healthy bodies, creative minds, academic success, emotional stability, and strong social skills . . . Children should be getting daily movement experiences throughout the day in order to develop strong and healthy musculoskeletal systems. Musculoskeletal and sensory systems lay the groundwork for higher level mental and physical skills as children age. Ideally, kids of all ages should get at least three hours of free play outdoors a day.”4

Real-life Learning

If nobody told you that they had to go to school at age 5, what would you be doing with them?5 What are you doing with them now? Try doing that same thing, but a bit more intentionally. Interact with them naturally—you don’t have to invent lots of artificial learning experiences—you have plenty of “real” ones already! (Don’t believe me? Check out the articles in the notes at the end of this chapter, and be sure to read Durenda Wilson’s book, The Unhurried Homeschooler; it’s a quick read–I read it in the hour my banana bread baked!)

So when your younger student is balking at that new concept you are trying to introduce, first ask yourself if he is ready for this new concept; if not, maybe let it go for now and circle back in a few days or weeks.

Second, is there a play-based or relevant-in-real-life way to introduce it to him? Or maybe try the strewing method6 that one mama uses with her four boys: leaving books or activities lying around the house for the kids to find so they think it’s their idea to try them out!

For Your Older Students

Remember the old adage we mentioned? You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink? That may be so, but I propose that the corollary to that statement is: But you sure can salt his oats!

Once your kids are middle school-ish or above, their I don’t want to can be not only I can’t, but also I’m bored or I’m miserable or I’m never going to use this, so why bother?

Are your expectations realistic and reasonable? Is there another way for your student to learn this material? Do you need to change up your approach or your curriculum?

Let’s be honest. Do you really want to do something for hours a day, every day, just because someone else tells you what to do, how to do it, and when to do it? You probably want to have some choice in what and when and how. And you want it to be relevant to your life, one way or another. If not, it’s simply busywork.

Maybe your teen doesn’t want to learn math, but he does want to start a lawn care business or paint his room or design a video game or be able to figure out if his future paycheck is correct or his investments are wise. If he can see that he will need those math skills – even if he isn’t thrilled about learning them – you have salted his proverbial “oats” and now he’s thirsty! Learning is now relevant.

For our teens, motivation, perseverance, and diligence are often linked to relevance and choices.7 If removing that math course from the equation doesn’t add up for your student’s plan right now (see what I did there?), can you give him a choice in which course he takes? Can you let him choose between online or text or in-person class? Can he decide whether he does it first thing in the morning or late at night? Choices empower our students to take ownership of their learning. You can minimize the power struggle by giving your student as much autonomy as he shows he can handle.

Of course, if the I don’t want to is possibly kid-speak for I can’t, this may be a season to circle back to some foundational skills to remediate or reinforce those before moving forward. For more on that: When Math Doesn’t Add Up for Your Child or The Struggling Middle School Reader.

Be the Parent

Fourteen-year-old Rachel – usually engaged in learning, an overachieving firstborn – stood at the top of the stairs and yelled at her mother, “I hate you! And I hate homeschooling! I hate being cooped up in this house all day with seven kids! When I’m eighteen, I’m out of here, and I’m never doing this to my kids, because you are ruining my life!”

Her mom was able to remove herself from the situation, to not take it personally, and (somehow!) calmly announced to the irate teen,

“I’m so sorry you are not happy right now, but it’s not my job to make you happy. It’s my job to do what God has called me to do with you. If Dad and I didn’t believe one hundred percent that this was God wanted for you, we’d put you back in school in a heartbeat—because it would be so much easier!”

“But we’re accountable to God for how we raise you. If you get married and have kids and choose not to homeschool, that’s between you and your husband and God….but Dad and I will have to answer to God someday for how we raise you, and if we’re making a mistake, we’re making it as honestly as we know…so I love you, and we can talk a bit when you are calmer.”

Her parents didn’t waffle in their decision – because they knew their why. They knew that our why directs our what and our how. They intentionally made the hard call for long-term benefits, because that’s what parents sometimes have to do.

Of course, they made a point of giving her as much ownership, as many choices, as they could and to let her pick materials, scheduling, and more, whenever possible. And when she was eighteen, she didn’t leave. In fact, she stayed till she married at twenty. After sending her parents several thank-you notes. You can read the rest of her story in her guest post, “I Hated Homeschooling.8

(Spoiler: She now has five kids. Guess what she’s done with them from birth? Yep, she homeschools! And she writes homeschool how-to articles and books and curriculum. And her husband works for a national homeschooling organization. God has such a sense of humor.)

Sometimes being the parent isn’t the battle on the stairs. Sometimes it’s reminding the kids of the plan for the day. Or holding them accountable for their assignments or their commitment to a volunteer job or their household tasks.

It also helps to have a plan for the day or the week,9 let them know what that plan is, and be clear about your standards. I’m not advocating dinging a bell to segue from one subject to the next, but kids generally find security in routine, in a plan or pattern or rhythm for the day, and in knowing the expectations. We can’t exactly argue that they’ve missed the mark if we haven’t provided a clear and reasonable target.

Connections Matter

Homeschooling is more than simply “school at home.” It’s not even really an education choice – it’s a lifestyle choice. Homeschooling is just one aspect of home discipleship. The Greek model of education was founded on pursuit of knowledge, but the Hebrew model of education was founded on pursuit of relationship.10 I encourage you to connect with your child, to convey to him that your love for him is not dependent upon how fast he can finish his math work or how many science experiments he does a week.

Another second-generation homeschool mom has gradually grown to appreciate –after becoming a mom herself – the good intentions of her own imperfect parents and the benefits of homeschooling, even though she balked at cooperating in the middle school and even teen years. “The thinking behind my refusing to do school during that time? I’m pretty sure it was mostly stubborn rebellion. Taking a stand against my mom personally and trying to give her as hard a time as possible as our relationship deteriorated.”

But she also introspectively notes, when asked what her mom could have done differently:

     “I think somehow she missed the mark on finding a way to truly connect with me and act towards me in a way that made me feel seen and heard and understood while I was younger…and then that chance passed for us as I started turning into a teenager and developing rebellious habits and attitude so that she had to address all of that junk instead of focusing on building a better connection.

     So, I think the key to a successful homeschool relationship with your child is to absolutely make sure that you are building that emotional and personal connection way before and throughout the actual schoolwork process. I just feel like we never hit that connection properly and the rest fell apart from there…”

Thankfully, she and her mom are now working on restoring the lost years.

Life is messy. Homeschooling isn’t the answer to all your family’s problems.11 Folks, it doesn’t matter if your kids can solve quadratic equations – if they can hardly wait to get out of your house, and then don’t ever want to talk to you again. Build connections. I wasn’t a very joyful mom for quite a few years, but eventually realized I had allowed God’s enemy to rob me of my joy. So I had to be purposeful about building connections with my kids, about “tying love-strings” from my heart to theirs.12

I encourage you to be intentional.

Maybe It’s Not Those Things….

Does your student know what the agenda is for the day, and what “finished for today” looks like? Would you be motivated to work diligently if it felt as though every time you finished something, someone just gave you another assignment? There’s not much incentive to get finished, is there? Our kids’ days can feel daunting – or even unending.

So it was important to me that my kids see the lesson plan, that they know what the expectation was for the day, to help me evaluate if it was reasonable, and that there was an ending point each day for my demands on their attention.

While I was writing this chapter [for my friend’s book; see endnotes] (on a deadline, of course), I time-chunked some blocks of time to hunker down and hammer it out. This is how my “sit down and work on your assignment” time worked out….

  • I did two loads of laundry.
  • I updated the photo gallery on my website.
  • I made a batch of cookies.
  • I checked work e-mails.
  • I made travel arrangements for an upcoming speaking engagement.

If there were a tactful way to put a “shaking my head” emoji into a book chapter, this is where it would go!

Maybe it was my highly distractible brain kicking in, or maybe it was just too much to handle in one (or five) sittings, and I needed to break it up, accomplish some other tasks that were on my mind, or let my brain process in between paragraphs.

(It’s possible that this is how our kids are as soon as we ask them to sit still and work on something for what feels like ages to them. Our kids are people. And sometimes that dawdling kiddo isn’t being rebellious or lazy or slow. Sometimes he’s just distracted, or he’s on overload and needs a brain break.)

So… I “salted my own oats” with the knowledge that I’d feel good when I’d gotten my thoughts organized on paper. I made sure it was a task that I was mature enough in my abilities to handle. I gave myself choices in how and when I wrote. I internalized a plan and expectations. I made it relevant to my passion for encouraging homeschoolers. And I drew on my connection to Nina – my friend – and thus aspired to honor and respect her by getting this to her for her book in a timely manner.

And the now-thirsty proverbial horse drank the water.


On the challenging days, remember Paul’s words:

“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” 

                                                                                    1 Corinthians 15:58 (NKJV)

And it doesn’t hurt to print this one out – nice and big – for the refrigerator door, where the kids can see it……

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”  (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)

As I type, I’m praying for you who are now reading this. May you find strength, patience, provision, wisdom, direction, and joy in the Lord who has called you to home discipleship of your precious children.


(This article was published in parts in Help! I Just Pulled My Kids Out of School! by Nina Marie. Used with permission.)


  1. Rachel Ramey, “Unschooling—What Inspires Learning?” Titus 2 Homemaker, https://titus2homemaker.com/unschooling-what-inspires-learning /
  2. Vicki Bentley, Suddenly Homeschooling: The Basics,” Everyday Homemaking,  https://everydayhomemaking.com/SuddenlyHomeschooling-TheBasics
  3. Bentley, “Is My Child Ready to Read?”  https://everydayhomemaking.com/is-my-child-ready-to-read
  4. Ginny Yurich, “Play is the Main Occupation of Children,” 1000 Hours Outside, https://www.1000hoursoutside.com/blog/play-is-the-main-occupation-of-children-interview-with-angela-hanscom
  5. Bentley, “What to Do with Your Young Learner,” https://everydayhomemaking.com/what-to-do-with-your-young-learner/
  6. Rebekah McBride, “What is Strewing?”  https://nodeskrequired.com/what-is-strewing/
  7. Bentley, “Making the Most of the Middle School Years,” https://everydayhomemaking.com/making-the-most-of-the-middle-school-years/
  8. Rachel Ramey, “I Hated Homeschooling,” Everyday Homemaking, https://everydayhomemaking.com/i-hated-homeschooling/
  9. Bentley, “Suddenly Homeschooling: The Basics” https://everydayhomemaking.com/SuddenlyHomeschooling-TheBasics
  10. Robin Sampson, The Heart of Wisdom Teaching Approach, Heart of Wisdom Publishing, 2005
  11. Bentley, “Life is Messy,” https://everydayhomemaking.com/life-is-still-messy/
  12. Bentley, “Jump-start to Joyful Motherhood,” Alliance Recordings, https://www.alliancerecordings.com/detail.cfm?context=Recordings&SpeakerID=27&RID=2174



Share with:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.