One thing I’m learning over the course of this experiment in chaotic living is that high expectations are bad for the world-weary soul. Strenuous efforts are okay if you’re getting a little too comfortable in your life and you need the extra challenge. If, on the other hand, your life is posing more challenges than you’re currently equipped to handle, they lead to inevitable (but unnecessary) unhappiness.

Let’s take homeschooling, as an example.

Back in March when I was sitting in the comfort of an apartment with window units enough to satiate all of my conditioned air needs, back when I had a canary yellow desk and an ergonomic desk chair, when I had a kitchen for preparing a meal or throwing together a snack, I had BIG PLANS for Fain’s education this year.

I had spreadsheets – several of them – outlining an ambitious course of study that would propel Fain to Harvard by April. (Kidding. Kind of.) I read through the 8th grade Common Core standards and studied how Finnish schools develop their curriculum to make it more effective and more meaningful. In short, I had my shit together, and I was confident that my high expectations would be easily met because why wouldn’t they be?

Now, back to today.

Today, there’s no conditioned air and no furniture. There’s no pot of beans stewing on the stovetop.

Today, we’re experiencing life without convenience and without much comfort, and that does something to your brain.

Me not so smart anymore. Me just wanna make it through another day without yelling at me friend and family.

Okay. It’s not so bad as all that, but I can tell you that we’re not where I’d imagined we’d be when I wrote up those reams of lesson plans back in the spring. We’re all moving disjointedly forward, entirely unsure of ourselves, lacking in confidence and with low levels of generosity.

When Fain first arrived home, I was too overwhelmed to even attempt my ambitious early plans, but every alternative I came up with was either too taxing for him or too grueling for me.

I wanted Fain to be more autonomous, but I’d been expecting too much from a kid who’s never had to learn independently.

I reminded myself that we’re all in survival mode at this point. We’re all adjusting, and what we probably need more than anything is a routine. Instead of trying to force the homeschooling and risk everyone feeling disappointed and exasperated, I pulled back and decided to start by just learning a new routine.

Together, Fain and I created a daily schedule of check-ins that would require him to complete a series of simple, familiar learning goals. All he has to do is complete the established task and update me on his progress at the top of the hour in person or via text. The goal: to develop the habit of self-monitoring.

The initial schedule looked like this:

9 am: Wake up call

10 am: Reading (his choice)

11 am: Math via Khan Academy

12 pm: Spanish via Memrise

2 pm: Social Studies/Science via Coursera

4 pm: Reading (his choice)

5 pm: Writing (a novel he’s working on)

The results?

Initially, it felt like he was still spending most of his time playing video games. I wasn’t confident that I’d made the right decision, but I didn’t have the energy to make a better one. I comforted myself with the knowledge that – at the minimum – he was building a routine and good habits.

Any progress is progress.

But wait! There’s more!

I’m thrilled to say that after a few weeks of this bare-bones non-curriculum, I’m seeing some real progress in his independence and his engagement, and we’re starting to slowly add to the schedule.

He’s reading James Michener’s Poland, and it’s shaping how he perceives his own novel. He told me yesterday that he’s definitely going to need to flesh it out as he’d pretty much finished the story in three pages (very un-Michener).

We’re all engaging in conversations about math. Math! We’re. Talking. About. Math. Like. It’s. Interesting.

We’ve added an extra challenge to Spanish. We’re both translating Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, stanza by stanza and comparing our versions. It’s a lot like cracking a code and seeing the meaning unfold. He’s also seeing how and why translators (and poets) choose one word over another.

He’s conducting independent research on travel blogs and vlogs, and he’s come back to me with some very insightful observations. Today, he told me that vlog titles that are “dark” (contain words like killer, tragic, etc.) have higher view numbers than “normal” titles, and we discussed what counts as clickbait.

In short, dropping my expectations to the lowest possible rung hasn’t led to chaos and a decline into localized idiocracy. It just gave us all room to adapt and eke our way upwards, which is still upwards, just more slowly.