That short, innocent-looking hyphenated word has the power to strike horror in the hearts of some homeschooling families. Whilst for others it represents everything that is good and right about socializing with like-minded people.
In my 11 years of living in a homeschooling-aware context, I’ve come to realize that co-ops come in all shapes and sizes. Some work. Some don’t. Too often, I’ve heard about the ones that don’t. Those are the stories of hurt. Brokenness. Bad experiences. Reluctance to trust. I’ve seen miscommunication bring down an entire group of people. Co-ops where families fall out. Support groups where there is anything but support. Children being unkind to other children. Vastly different viewpoints causing factions and furies. It’s sad. But not entirely surprising. People are people and when we get together, there often are sparks.
But then there are the ones that work.
For 6 years now, that’s the type of co-op my family has belonged to. Every Wednesday, the moms and kids meet, share, learn, laugh, play, cry, chat and grow. We five moms have become friends who love deeply and share deeply. We’ve been through births and deaths, sickness and health, sorrow and joy. Our children are as thick as thieves. Of the 13 kids, no two are the same. Personalities range from shy and compliant to boisterous and bossy. Ages range from 5 to 13. And such diversity is reflected in the moms’ ages, personalities, and backgrounds. But, despite our differences, those two and a half hours each week are some of the most precious hours of our busy lives. Some weeks, coming to co-op is like sinking into a deep bubble bath after a long hard day. The burdens of the week slip off our shoulders as we share them over tea. Somewhere between cups of tea, we manage to fit in music, art and language lessons. And the kids manage to fit in plenty of ball games, role-plays, imaginary games and even swimming in the summer. It is, without a doubt, a highlight of our week.
While I am eternally grateful for the huge blessing our group has been, I have often wondered, why?
Why does our group work when so many don’t? Why do groups with such diverse personalities and circumstances work, while another, seemingly more homogenous, group falls apart? It’s only when I was faced with a passage of the Bible that I realized what characterizes a group that works. In the letter to the Galatians, the writer of the letter, Paul, says that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It is without a doubt that any group that has a large dose of these characteristics is a group well on its way to success.
Which is why there are 10 reasons I love my co-op.
Love, Joy, Peace
Every mom, dad and child in our group is different from the other. We would cover every conceivable combination of Myers-Briggs’s personality definitions. Yet, the one thing that seems to be in abundance is love. We don’t always agree. I know I often speak without thinking and potentially tread on toes. But, mountains of grace are extended to each and every one of us.
Every celebration is shared. When something exciting happens to one family, the others rejoice with happiness as if it were their own joy. We’ve welcomed new babies, celebrated good news, swapped holiday stories, cheered achievements and enjoyed simple pleasures with as much joy for each other as if for ourselves. Sometimes, one family’s joy is a heartache for another family: a new baby, much longed-for, perhaps. An overseas holiday for one family, when another has not even had a local vacation in years. Yet, somehow, I’ve experienced only encouragement and joy from the families in our group. Selfless joy.
And peace. Such peace I have learned from the women in this group. They each hold their own hurts lightly, whilst holding the other’s hurts tightly. When there has been reason to address difficulties in the group – a struggle in a child’s friendship, a misunderstanding amongst moms – the issues are handled with great humility. There is no posturing. No back-and-forth. No having to win the argument, the moment, the point. There’s a real sense of getting to the core of the issue whilst ensuring the well-being of the other. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seldom experienced elsewhere in deep friendships.
Patience, Kindness, Goodness
I jokingly say that I have a “sieve-brain” for things slip my mind like flour through a sieve. The amount of times I’ve forgotten a date, an item, a venue or a responsibility is many. Yet, despite the times I’ve let our group down, I’ve experienced utmost patience from the other moms. And, while we all struggle with patience with our own kids, I’ve witnessed my mom-friends patiently caring for children not their own. We have run the gamut of childish behaviors – enough to test us all. Yet, the patience my children have enjoyed from these mothers is truly phenomenal. And it’s not just patience-through-gritted-teeth, although we all would laughingly admit to times like that! It’s patience with kindness. Patience with goodness. Patience while redirecting childish behavior to a greater good.
Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control
Two of our moms are particularly gifted in art and music. Every week they share their gifts without complaint. They have, by far, the largest ‘teaching’ and preparation burden of all the mothers in the group, but every week they keep sharing with great faithfulness and much joy. Our children speak with fondness of these other mothers in their lives. And it is not surprising, because every lesson has the tranquility of a gentle servant leader who exhibits self-control and kindness. And, without their realizing it, those mothers are instilling an example of faithful servant-heartedness – the stuff that people of great character are made of.
Every week, we enjoy plenty of laughs as we share stories of our own insecurities or foibles. Despite the list above, not one of us is even near perfect. In fact, when I shared these thoughts with them, I marveled how I feel as if they are the ones that exhibit these traits, and I’m just the unworthy recipient. My thoughts were echoed! Each mom feels that she too is nothing like the list above on her own, and yet, her experience with the group as a whole is one that is truly reflective of the fruit of the spirit.
Those 9 characteristics of a great co-op have made the 10th characteristic that much easier. Honesty. Knowing that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control will be waiting for us when we arrive, it’s easy to sink into the couch and say, “I messed up today,” or “Please pray,” or “I’m so discouraged.” It’s a safe place to be who we are and yet, at the same time, to be graciously challenged to become who we are to be.
Without a doubt, our little group of diverse personalities and personal failings is a success only because of the very same things that a man, almost two millennia ago, called “the fruit of the spirit.”