In this Vital Mercy series, Dr. Brenda Murphy shares letters to help calm the fears, answer the questions and steer parents on a path to successful teaching and learning with struggling learners at home.     

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” certainly applies to the Murphy family! We ventured out on summer road trips along blue highways when our five sons were small enough to fit in one king-sized bed. After a day’s drive and the obligatory splash in the pool, they’d lie down like little soldiers in a row beside their dad to retell their day’s adventures. Before long the animated recollections gave way to silence; all six were sound asleep. And all six were lying on their backs, hands resting palms down, left-hand thumb aimed at the Adam’s apple; right pinky on the belly button. I chuckled at the sight. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I thought to myself. “They all sleep like their dad!” 

This year my oldest son Matthew sent me a Mother’s Day card with a similar sentiment and one that is more appropriate to our discussion and concerns than the familiar original. It read: “To Mom on Mother’s Day. They say the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree…That just scares the h(eck) out of me. :)” I smiled because I know he fights some of his mother’s eccentricities, like worrying unnecessarily, taking on more than any one person is capable of doing, and writing semi-legibly. Thank you, Lord, for computers!

Each of our sons inherited certain traits from us like poor math skills, attention deficits, a keen sense of humor, disorganization, and creativity to name a few; I won’t say which ones came from which side. An honest inventory of the sterling and tarnished traits on both sides of the family tree can be a telling, important, and fearful exercise. It’s hard to face the fact that our problems can become our children’s problems as well. We don’t want our children to struggle to learn to read or spell, have trouble remembering math facts, never quite get jokes, display inappropriate behavior in social situations, have a tendency toward depression, battle against an inability to concentrate, or a gamut of other life stumbles. But, they will because it’s in the genes. Or, is it?

Bad news. The truth is genes count, big time. The probability of inheriting some conditions like dyscalculia, dyslexia, and some mood disorders is pretty high. However, there’s good news, I’d like to say great news, too. Genes may not be as influential as was once thought. Hooray! And that’s particularly good news for homeschool families because recent research in cognitive and behavioral psychology indicates that environment and role modeling can be just as powerful a predictor as the “apple.” That means that the stable, secure, warm, affirming, nurturing, God-fearing environment created by home educators is a proven antidote for many genetically-related disorders. 

Within the walls of your home, you, the home educating parent, have full authority and responsibility to make wise choices for your children and minimize the genetic effect. If you know reading problems run in your family and your child displays those same tendencies, you can intervene with preventative measures like early phonological awareness (ability to recognize sounds) training. If math is a genetic handicap, you can get a tutor to help your child (and you!) learn strategies to overcome the problem. Fact is, you probably struggled as a child yourself, and you overcame. It may have taken time, but you did it. What better teacher, what better example to light the way for your child!

So, take a deep breath. Pick up those apples, worms and all, and see what you—and God—can do with them. Something wonderful, no doubt about it!

Standing with you, in genetic disarray, 

Brenda Murphy

Read the next letter, Why Worry?