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The Benefits and Challenges of Community – A Reflection

by Ruth Barber

The older I get, the more I realise how complex we human beings are! Despite being in my 50’s (shhh!) I am still very aware of how much I can sometimes struggle when faced with new people or situations. Despite feeling quite confident much of the time, there is still a part of me that winces internally at the thought of going somewhere new or meeting people I don’t know, whether it is a new friend, or going to a conference where there will be many new faces. And yet the thing I love most is meeting new people and talking to them, especially about home education. What a peculiar paradox!

Sometimes we have to push through our discomfort in order to find what is of lasting value and encouragement. In particular we sometimes need to be patient when looking to find a home-ed community to be a part of.

Building friendship takes time and effort!

When I was a child, a new family moved in across the road. Our parents vaguely knew each other, and I remember well the day that they came for tea. My brother played with their son, and I dutifully played with the daughter who was 3 years younger than me. But we simply did not get on. I thought she was stuck up and I didn’t like her! The feeling was clearly mutual and to top things off, we went to rival local schools. Nevertheless, we soon became firm and fast friends, a friendship that lasted for years until she went away to boarding school. She became one of my dearest friends and we were always up to some hare-brained scheme, nursing injured creatures back to life, climbing trees or selling homemade popcorn for charities (or to get our names in the local paper!).

So, if you go to a group meet-up and find that you don’t immediately click, don’t panic. It sometimes takes time to cultivate friendships, so why not try again?  Perhaps different people will be there on another occasion or maybe you just need to allow some time to get to know people. As I discovered as a child, first impressions are not always correct!

Sometimes we need to keep trying to find what we are looking for. And if all known avenues fail, try stepping out and organising a meet-up of your own. The chances are that if you can’t find what you’re looking for perhaps there are others who feel the same!  Maybe you need to just take a step of faith and see what happens? Don’t despair – it takes time to dig for buried treasure, but it is well worth finding.

Being in community prompts personal growth

Even when we find ‘our tribe,’ being in community isn’t always easy. Sometimes we don’t agree, and this can be stressful to deal with.

I’ve always attempted to be the type of friend that I would like to find; someone that initiates conversations, but isn’t pushy, someone that asks questions and listens rather than simply talking ‘at’ others. But sometimes, difficult conversations can also help us to grow.

Have you ever been talking to someone who you feel is your polar opposite and you struggle to find anything in common? Whilst it is true that this can be a little uncomfortable at the time, it can also provide a valuable learning curve.

Genuine conversation involves both parties asking and listening as well as talking.

If we find ourselves being questioned as to how we do things, or why we see things a certain way, it is a good opportunity to explain clearly why we came to that particular understanding or decision. By thoughtfully articulating our answer, we sometimes confirm to ourselves our reasons why! I’ve often come away from this type of conversation with a clearer understanding of my own feelings. And also knowing that I was the one that most needed to hear my own answer! There is a natural tendency in us all to blame others for our own insecurities instead of facing them and working through them.

We can feel threatened and irate at the time, but this may simply be a sign that there is something about that topic that we ourselves need to grasp more fully. Maybe a decision made instinctively from the heart needs to be more fully processed.

The challenge of holding our frustrations in check and communicating politely is also a good opportunity to extend our own character training. This is when personal growth happens, and it is a good thing! We gain confidence through sharing with others. And we experience personal growth and grow in maturity when we can share and communicate in such a way.

Community benefits parents as well as children

Most of us would do anything to facilitate opportunities for our children! Finding community is beneficial to parents too. We find others that are like minded even if their expression of home ed is different.

Sharing my story can inspire others and by the same token asking others for help can sometimes provide unexpected inspiration. I clearly remember one occasion when I was struggling with my then 10-year-old son’s stubborn behaviour. It caused much frustration and seemed to become a bigger problem each day. Until the day I had a conversation with an older and wiser home educating Mum. She gently reminded me that every character trait can be both a positive and a negative thing. That stopped me in my tracks! I was only seeing the negative in the situation! But stubbornness can actually be a great leadership quality; tenacity is required to stay a particular course no matter what others say. Wisdom is needed to discern when to be ‘stubborn’ and when to give way. This was a game changer for me! My perspective shifted completely, enabling me to see and handle things very differently. If I hadn’t been in community, and had the opportunity to share my frustrations, I would have missed out on receiving some key insight for which I will be forever grateful.

Community is a good place to be, long term!

The real joy of community for me is the reality that, what starts out as something that many search for to fill a need for their children, actually ends up being so much more for the whole family. I know many parents who have discovered friendships that have continued on long beyond the ‘education years’ (though we all know that education is a lifelong process don’t we?) My own twenty-something offspring regularly jaunt up and down the country visiting old home ed friends and going to all manner of events and weekends that they organise. When I think of my own experience at that age, things couldn’t be more different. Even now, I only have a handful of school chums that I’m vaguely connected to on social media. I’m so glad that my children’s experiences are so much richer than mine were!

Community is powerful

When I take a step back and look back over my last 20 years of home education, I think of the many and various families that I’ve met. Time and again I have seen those who are confident sharing their enthusiasm and those lacking in confidence drawing on that strength. I’ve seen many moving from loneliness and isolation to connection and togetherness. Many that felt vulnerable and afraid growing in security and confidence. Those with huge questions and crippling doubts about the future finding timely answers and the support needed to move forward, one small step at a time. Wow!

Community done well really is an extremely powerful and life changing thing!

Ruth Barber started working in a bank before becoming a debt counsellor with the charity CAP in 1998. There she met and married husband Charles and had 6 sons and a daughter who have all been home educated over the last 20 years.  

When not doing admin for and offering support through CHESS (Christian Home Education Support Service) you can find Ruth enjoying the garden, making quilts or playing board games with the family, usually with a cup of Yorkshire tea in hand and a bar of Galaxy at her side!

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