Archive for June, 2009

Posted on June 12th, 2009, by Mary Jo

Are you a single parent who homeschools or would like to? Would you like ideas for helping your single-parent friends? 

Join me today, June 12, for “The Christian Life Today” show on AFR Talk Radio ( and the Sky Angel network at 1:00 p.m. Central. 

Host Jeff Chamblee, single dad John Formsma, and I will be talking about the unique challenges that single parents face. We’ll offer practical strategies and encouragement and suggest ways that friends and the church can minister to single parents. We’ll also take questions from callers. 

Simulcast audio and video will be available at Just click the play button on the video player on the right side of the screen. 

Please share this with the single parents you know, as well as their friends. 

I look forward to sharing how God has blessed my four sons and me during 8 years as a single-parent family.

Mary Jo Tate

Tags: ,

Posted on June 10th, 2009, by Mary Jo

Homeschooling as a Single Parent: How You Can Make It Work

by Mary Jo Tate


Let’s face it: being a single parent intensifies the challenges of homeschooling.

In many two-parent homeschooling families, the dad takes primary responsibility for earning the living and the mom takes primary responsibility for educating the children. The labor is divided and the support is multiplied. Although there are also many two-parent families where both parents contribute to the education and the finances—often through a family business—a single parent is often solely responsible for both. The labor is multiplied and the support is subtracted.

But, the increasing number of single parents choosing to educate their children at home testifies that it can work. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute says his studies show that about two percent of homeschooling families are headed by single parents, but it is his opinion that this figure probably underrepresents the true number.

I have been homeschooling for eight years—four of them as a single mom. The number-one question people ask me (usually with a breathless air of amazement) is “How do you do it all?”

My answer comes in two parts: (1) I don’t, and (2) I redefine it all.

Don’t Be a Lone Ranger

None of us—single or married—can homeschool relying on our own power. But God’s grace is sufficient for us, for His strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t confess that some days I really don’t know how I can make it. There’s just not enough of me to go around. Sometimes I wrestle with exhaustion, discouragement, loneliness, and frustration. I have discovered, though, that the struggle is hardest when I focus on my situation and my inadequacies rather than on the love and providence of God. Turning my eyes to Him helps me remember to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Ephesians 6:10, NKJV).

God has indeed proven faithful: “A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, Is God in His holy habitation” (Psalm 68:5, NKJV). He has provided for all our needs through work I can do at home, help from my parents, supportive friends, and the loving ministry of a godly church.

A support network is helpful for any homeschooler, but particularly crucial for single parents, who lack the help and sounding board of a spouse. Be involved in a local church, and ask folks there to pray for you. Seek out a homeschooling support group in your area. Nurture godly friendships. I frequently consult a few close friends about choices in training and educating my children, and seek advice about business matters from fellow Christian entrepreneurs who share my family-based priorities.

You Have Only Twenty-Four Hours in Each Day

Time is your most precious commodity. You can earn more money, but you can never have more than twenty-four hours in a day, so time management is a critical skill for single-parent homeschoolers.

Just as the three most important factors in real estate are Location, Location, Location, the three most important tasks for single parents are Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize.

Learn to say “no” to the good, in order to say “yes” to the best. Limit outside commitments. Too many extracurricular activities can crash a crowded schedule and steal precious family time. You don’t have to forego such opportunities entirely; just be intentional and very selective.

Routine tasks such as grocery shopping, going to the bank or post office, and medical appointments can consume far too much time if you’re not careful. I’ve noticed that I feel most overwhelmed when I’m on the go too much. Try to consolidate all errands that require leaving the house into one day a week.

The concept of “opportunity cost” revolutionized my thinking about prioritizing. Every choice you make has a potential opportunity cost. Although this may seem counter-intuitive to frugal homeschoolers, spending an extra hour driving to several different stores to save $5.00 on groceries may not necessarily mean you saved $5.00. If by working that hour you could have earned $20.00, you actually lost $15.00 by “saving” $5.00. I reluctantly realized that the time I spent running around to yard sales every Saturday morning would be much better used earning income.

Multi-tasking is one of my top survival secrets. This strategy works well for parents and children. I start a load of laundry or dust a bookcase when I’m on the phone, and pay bills or file papers during longer teleconferences. I have taught phonics lessons in doctors’ waiting rooms, explained basic business concepts in the emergency room, and discussed history and current events in the check-out line at the grocery store. My boys listen to tapes or watch educational videos while they fold laundry. We redeem time in the car by listening to books on tape or reviewing math facts, spelling, or grammar rules.

Make Homeschooling Work

Be realistic in your expectations, particularly about how much time you can devote to direct instruction of your children. It simply may not be possible for your homeschool to match your highest goals, but you can still make it work. My ideal homeschooling scenario would include hours of daily reading aloud to my children, discussing ideas at great length, intensive one-on-one tutoring, and so on, but the necessity of earning a living simply precludes much of that. I relish building my own eclectic educational program from scratch, but it’s much more practical for me to use at least some prepared curriculum. I’ve learned to come up with a realistic educational plan that we can actually implement rather than wasting time fretting over the gap between theory and practice.

It makes sense to teach children together whenever possible. Skills such as math and phonics have to be taught at individual levels, of course, but most subjects can be taught to multiple ages. We usually begin our school time with the whole family coming together for Bible reading, prayer, Scripture memorization, poetry, and classic literature. Then, the boys split up for independent work and one-on-one instruction from me.

Children of varying ages can all study the same period of history, same topics in science, etc., with independent assignments at varying levels of difficulty. When we studied American history, for example, we were involved in a weekly co-op where the boys did hands-on activities and presented reports. During the week, Forrest (13) read high-school and adult-level history books, Andrew (10) read intermediate-level books, and Andrew also read easier books aloud to Perry (8).

As soon as my children become competent readers, I encourage independent learning. I would prefer a leisurely family-wide read-aloud time for history, for example, but most of the time it’s more practical to have the boys read on their own and use our time together to narrate, answer questions, or discuss what they have read.

Learning to take responsibility for their own education teaches children important skills that will be useful in college and adult life. Independent learning also offers the opportunity for each child to pursue his own special interests. Forrest’s passions are history and business, Andrew is a scientist and mathematician, and Perry is a talented artist. It’s a little early to tell what Thomas (4) will specialize in (demolition work, perhaps?), but he’s spending a lot of time these days drawing with Perry.

You can delegate some instruction to older children. I take responsibility for introducing new concepts in math and phonics, for example, but Andrew helps Perry review phonics flashcards, listens to him practice reading aloud, and instructs him on his map work. Perry helps Thomas learn his letters and numbers, and teaches him how to draw simple figures.

You can also delegate to technological tutors, but be sure to keep in mind the hazards of too much computer or video time. Forrest and Andrew are currently learning how to type with a computer-based instruction program, and we’ll soon be adding computer-based foreign language study. Audiotapes or CDs can be great aids for reviewing math facts, history dates, and so on, and recorded books can supplement live read-aloud time. My boys enjoy listening to Diana Waring’s history tapes and Jim Weiss’s storytelling tapes as they drift off to sleep each night.

Systematize for Success

Another helpful strategy is to establish systems to make things run smoothly. Some families find that a strict time-based schedule works well. A more flexible approach works better for my family, so I plan more in terms of a routine (things usually happen in a predictable sequence) rather than a schedule (things happen at a certain time).

I have found two systems that work well for my family. Our system for homeschooling involves weekly assignment sheets and an inbox/outbox system. I plan specific daily assignments a week at a time, type them up, and print out a list for each child. This helps ensure that the boys know what to do, even if I’m not available. I list all independent lessons, as well as the studies that require my direct instruction or that we’ll do as a family, such as Bible, poetry, and reading aloud. The boys check off each lesson as they complete it. (Our rule for schoolwork and chores: it’s not finished until it’s checked off the list!)

The assignment sheets double as my record-keeping system. Because I type them on the computer, I can make any needed adjustments (sometimes we add or rearrange lessons, and sometimes life intervenes in the best-laid plans), print out a clean copy, and save it in a binder for a permanent record of their work.

We keep stackable trays (available at office supply stores) in our school area, on top of a short bookcase holding current school books, binders, dictionaries, etc. Each child has an inbox where I put his assignment sheet and any papers needed for that week’s lessons, such as maps, worksheets, math tests, etc. The boys put their completed work in the top tray, which serves as their outbox and my inbox. After I check their work, I discuss it with them if needed, and then transfer the papers to another stack of trays; the boys can then add those pages to their binders or folders.

To deal with the rest of life besides homeschooling, my other system is a chart with an undated four-week grid for each child, listing all daily household chores and personal responsibilities. (I use a simple Excel spreadsheet, but you could draw a basic grid with a pen and ruler.)  For example, Andrew’s chart includes: make bed before breakfast, brush teeth after breakfast, read Bible, brush teeth after lunch, complete all school assignments, sweep and clean the table after supper, brush teeth before bedtime, clean the litter box or feed cats, put dirty clothes in hamper, put away clean laundry, and drink four glasses of water. These detailed lists, which we tape to the refrigerator, remind each child of what he needs to do, free me from repeating routine instructions, and allow me to see at a glance what has been done.

My children do nearly all of the housework. I use two principles for assigning chores: divide repetitive tasks and assign work to the youngest child capable. Each of the oldest three boys is responsible for cleaning the table and sweeping the kitchen and dining room after a specific meal, which prevents debate about whose turn it is. When emptying the dishwasher, a taller child puts away glasses and plates into high cabinets, and a shorter child puts away items that belong in drawers and low cabinets. The two middle boys do most of the laundry folding, and the oldest three all put away their own clothes, plus another category of laundry: towels, my clothes, and the youngest’s clothes. I usually assign my four-year-old to pick up things from the floor (he’s closest to it!). He doesn’t have a regular sweeping assignment yet, but I often ask him to use his child-sized broom to sweep up little messes. The oldest two mow and weed-eat the yard after the youngest two pick up sticks and move outdoor toys to clear the way.

Balance Work and Family

The necessity of providing for our families financially, as well as training and educating our children, often presents the biggest challenge to single parents. Just as some two-parent families use creative scheduling (such as evening lessons) to maximize children’s time with Dad, single-parent homeschoolers can take advantage of the flexibility of homeschooling to meet their families’ unique needs.

Working from home has always been popular with homeschoolers, and this is a particularly good option for single parents. I work at home as a freelance editor, writer, and writing coach. Typically, I try to concentrate my instructional time with the boys in the mornings and assign them independent lessons, chores, and free time in the afternoons while I work. I also work in the evenings, especially after they go to bed (somehow it’s easier to concentrate when the house is quiet). Because my boys visit their father two weekends a month, I reserve that solo time primarily for concentrated work to free up more of my time when they’re at home. I also try to schedule a break for myself during their absence: lunch with a friend, a movie, or a couple of hours with a good novel.

Including your children in your work, when possible, is also helpful. Andrew does all my photocopying for a penny a page, and Forrest goes with me to entrepreneurial conferences, where he is learning skills that will help him support a family some day. Depending on their ages, children can learn to design or maintain websites, answer calls from customers, pack and ship orders, take inventory, and many other business tasks.

If your work cannot be done at home, perhaps you can rearrange your schedule to maximize your time at home. A family friend who lost his wife to cancer shifted his work schedule as a piano tuner to two ten-to-twelve-hour days a week so that he can be home with his two young sons most days. He hires homeschool graduates to care for his boys and home on his work days, and his mother and sisters help out occasionally as well. Because he is working more efficiently with this concentrated schedule, he is still earning about 75 percent of his previous full-time income.

Find Time for Fun

Finally, don’t neglect to make time for fun as a family. Particularly when you work at home, it is difficult to identify when your “work day” is over. I know just how hard it can be to pull away when deadlines are looming and the electric bill is due, but taking a break is good for you as well as your children, and it can actually make your work time more efficient. My boys know that no matter how busy I am during the week, on Friday night I’m all theirs. “Family Night” is a firm commitment around our home.

God Is Faithful

If God has called you to homeschool your children, He will provide the strength, patience, grace, resources, and time to do it. Let your family and your life be a testimony of God’s faithfulness.

Even with all the systems and routines I’ve described, things don’t always go exactly as I’ve planned. But through God’s grace, my children are growing, learning, and flourishing . . . right here at home with me. I wouldn’t want it any other way.


Mary Jo Tate educates her four sons at home in Mississippi, where she has a home business as a writer, editor, and book coach ( Her home study course on powerful strategies for balancing family life and home business is available at

This article first appeared in the September/October 2005 issue of Homeschooling Today. For permission to reprint it, please contact Mary Jo through 

Tags: , ,

Posted on June 9th, 2009, by Mary Jo

Looking after Widows and Orphans: How You Can Help Single-Parent Families

by Mary Jo Tate


Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27, NIV).

I never expected to be a single mother. When my husband left me for another woman nearly four years ago, I was shocked, angry, and scared. I was embarrassed to be divorced; for a while I felt as though I wore a scarlet D emblazoned on my dress. Our four sons were bewildered, and their world was turned upside down. I was deeply committed to remaining at home with my children and continuing to homeschool them, yet I wondered how I could support us all financially.

But God has proven faithful. “A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, Is God in His holy habitation” (Psalm 68:5, NKJV). He has provided for all our needs through work I can do at home, help from my parents, and the loving ministry of a godly church.

One way that “God sets the solitary in families” (Psalm 68:6, NKJV) is through the ministry of fellow believers, particularly the local church. My pastor, Tim Fortner, explains our church’s commitment to single-parent families this way:

We take seriously the covenantal implications of caring for all the members of the church in a family context. The whole congregation takes vows to help with the children—not only to be an example but also to meet particular needs of modeling, encouragement, and financial support. The need is expanded when the father is not there. Galatians 6:10 tells us, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (NASB).

Ministry to “widows” may be broadened to include those who are single through divorce or desertion. In addition, military deployment of a spouse temporarily brings many of the challenges of single parenthood. The church’s obligation to “orphans” includes any children in homes without both parents present, for whatever reason.

Sadly, in our fallen world, single-parent families abound. They live in the house around the corner, stand next to you in line at the grocery store, and occupy the adjacent pew at church. What are some specific, practical ways that believers can follow the biblical injunction to “look after” these parents and their children?

Prayer, Encouragement, and Counsel

Parenting, always a demanding job, becomes doubly challenging when tackled alone. Praying faithfully for single-parent families is one of the most important ways you can minister to them. Letting these families know you are upholding them in prayer multiplies the blessing. Single parents often feel overwhelmed and discouraged, so make sure to praise the positive things in their lives and encourage them not to grow weary in doing well. Their children need encouragement too. One man in our church sent my boys a treasured note praising the way they honor God by their behavior in church and by their helpfulness to me. Such support inspires them to continue to grow spiritually.

Without a spouse to help make decisions about childrearing, finances, and so on, single parents particularly need godly, wise counsel. A newly-single mother whose husband previously handled all the family finances may need instruction in planning a budget and being a good steward of her resources, or assistance in finding ways to earn income—preferably from home. I frequently consult a few close friends about choices in training and educating my children and seek advice about business matters from fellow Christian entrepreneurs who share my family-based priorities.


Many single parents need financial assistance, especially during the immediate transition after a death or divorce. Life insurance or child support and alimony—if they exist at all—often fall far short of meeting a family’s basic needs. Single-parent families, especially those headed by single mothers, often rank among the country’s poorest. Our church’s deacons’ fund has provided monetary aid to my family several times. In addition, individual church members have sent us cash and gift cards, sometimes routing these blessings through the church office to remain anonymous. God’s providential care has clearly orchestrated the timing of such help. During seasons of comparative bounty, financial gifts rarely arrive. However, when we need them most, assistance miraculously appears—even when I have told no one about our situation.

Material Gifts

You can also help by sharing material things, both new and used. Several families regularly hand down their children’s clothing to my boys, and when my youngest child outgrows the clothes, we pass them along to others. One lady blessed me with three beautiful new outfits. Another time a $100 gift card to a department store arrived in the mail—with instructions to use it for myself, not my children—shortly before an entrepreneurs’ conference where I was scheduled to speak. The gift was more than enough for the new suit I needed, and it served as a precious reminder of God’s faithfulness in clothing not only the lilies of the field, but also His children (Matthew 6:28-30).

One year a family in our church gave us a brand-new train table for the boys to use with their wooden train set, saving me the time and expense of Christmas shopping as well. Another friend thoughtfully asked me for a list of my children’s favorite Christmas candy so that she could provide that part of our holiday. Our pastor taught me how to build a fire in our wood stove, and several families have given us firewood. One man in our church clearly has a mindset for ministry. When the electric company cut down a tree in his yard and offered to haul it away, he chose to keep it until he found a family who needed the firewood—ours.


The gift of your time can be a tremendous blessing. After a year of commuting twice weekly from a town an hour away, I decided to move closer to our church. Several ladies helped me pack my kitchen, and others helped me clean the new house before we moved in. On moving day, church members helped load, move, and unload our belongings; at all times throughout the day, there were at least ten men helping with the move, while two ladies alternated caring for my children in their homes. When my parents gave us a swingset kit for Christmas, several men volunteered their time in the evenings to build it. At one point a doctor, a banker, an accountant, and an engineer were all working together in our backyard. And they took the extra time to let my boys help.

Over a period of several months, one dear lady from the church came to our house for two to three hours one afternoon every week so that I could go to the grocery store and run other errands without four boys in tow. When she had to take a break due to back trouble, another lady—whom I barely knew at the time—offered to take her place. These women became my friends and blessed me immeasurably, but they also ministered to my children by reading to them, playing games with them, bringing treats, and showing them God’s love. We were likewise blessed when a summer youth worker who wanted to teach the young people in our church to serve others encouraged the older teens to provide free babysitting.


Another opportunity for ministry is including single-parent families in special events or outings and holiday celebrations, which can be particularly difficult during the transition to singleness. Keep in mind, too, that some single parents may be alone for the holidays when their children are visiting the other parent; that can be a particularly lonely time when joining another family’s celebration would be welcome.

My boys and I remember with pleasure a Fourth of July cookout with several other families. The children enjoyed shelter-building and corn-shucking contests, and the men and boys competed in tree-chopping and shooting matches. (The men taught my boys how to shoot and my oldest how to swing an axe.) Having fun with these other families was so refreshing, and this was a great opportunity for my sons to learn manly skills.


One of the greatest ways to serve is to mentor children from single-parent families. Daughters of single fathers will benefit from training in womanly arts and biblical femininity, and sons of single mothers need godly men to show them the true meaning of manhood. Although ongoing mentoring relationships prove especially helpful, short-term projects can also be a blessing. An engineer from our church took my mathematically-inclined nine-year-old son to help him survey the church parking lot. He taught Andrew about the surveying instruments and reported enthusiastically about Andrew’s skill as a rod man. A writer and photographer plans to take my twelve-year-old on a photo shoot for a magazine article. This same son has also enjoyed sailing with our pastor, who knows that Forrest receives far more than seamanship skills from the time they spend together.

Ask and Offer

If you are a single parent, don’t be afraid or too proud to ask for the help you need. Others are blessed by ministering to you. If you want to help single parents, however, don’t wait for them to ask. Volunteer your assistance, or ask what they need. Be sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I have been amazed at the multitude of creative ways in which people have ministered to my family, and especially at God’s providence in meeting our needs at just the right time.

I would love to hear creative ways that you have helped or been helped by others, as well as further suggestions for blessing single parents. Contact me through my blog at


Mary Jo Tate is thankful that God has blessed her with a loving church and with work by which she can support her family while remaining at home. She is a freelance writer, editor, and book coach; you can contact her through her website at for information about her services.

This article first appeared in the winter 2004 issue of Family Reformation magazine. For permission to reprint it, please contact Mary Jo through

Tags: ,