How can your home become an incubator for learning? with Amber O’Neal Johnston

In this episode, Delina PryceMcPhaull talks to Amber O’Neal Johnston about making your home an incubator for learning. They discuss the importance of creating a home culture where children feel a sense of belonging. Amber emphasizes the significance of exploring and sharing family history with children, as it helps them form roots and feel connected to something bigger than themselves. They also discuss how to approach difficult or not-so-rosy stories in family history and the importance of knowing what children can handle at different ages and stages.

Show Notes

00:00 Creating a Home Culture of Belonging
04:07 The Importance of Family History
08:32 Exploring Family History
10:20 Dealing with Not-So-Rosy Stories
13:33 Knowing What Children Can Handle

Find Amber here:

Resources mentioned in the episode


Our homes can be many things, mere shelter, a comfortable refuge, or even a station for rigorous basic training. How can we create a home culture where our kids feel a sense of belonging? Welcome to Homeschool Yourself. I’m Delina Pryce McPhaull. In this episode, I talked to Amber O ‘Neal  Johnston about making your home an incubator for learning. And not just learning academics, but learning about ourselves.

Amber shows us how it can all begin by learning your own family’s history. One thing I’ve always admired about Amber is that she knows her own family history. She has artifacts that have been in her family for generations. I don’t have much of that. But what she has inspired me to do is to preserve what I do have from my descendants. My mom turned 80 recently and because of Amber, I started asking my mom questions about her life.

I am forever grateful that Amber sparked that desire for me. There’s something to learn through this conversation. Amber, welcome to homeschool yourself. Thank you. I’m happy to be here. I’m so glad you’re here because you have so much good wisdom and insight in your book, A Place to Belong. And I really want to just dive in a little deeper with some of the concepts. So before we even get started,

Tell us a little bit about you and tell us about the family culture in your home and your vision or your homeschooling household.

[AMBER, GUEST] Okay, great. So I live in Georgia. I’m from Illinois, the Midwest. I live in Georgia outside of Atlanta. I met my husband Scott here and we have four kiddos. They are 12, 10, eight and six, girl, girl, boy, boy. And we have homeschooled from the beginning and my kind of, I would say my family culture, is one based around relational education. And so we focus a lot on our time together as a family and discussions, a lot on kind of a good balance between me presenting things to the children that I think they can get a lot of good ideas from and them self -directing, especially my older ones and able to make time and space for their passions. And my vision for my homeschooling household is that two things, that my home is an incubator. And so sometimes I’ve heard people say before like, oh, homeschoolers, it’s like a bubble. And I’m like, no, it’s an incubator. Incubator is warming, you know, I’m warming my chicks, but I am preparing them, not to stay with me always, but to go out into the world and to do big things. So yeah, and in my incubator, I want, the second thing I want is for my children to always want to come home. So those are the two things that I focus on.

[DELINA] When you said incubator, it reminded me of, we used to have chickens and my son, we got an incubator, not the automatic one. We had to turn it every 12 hours, turn the, eggs, but when they started hatching, it was so cute. He was like at the at the thing. He was going, come on, chick, you can do it. You can do it. It was so like that. I know. And then that’s almost like us too, right? Just you’re hatching. You’re doing what you were born to do.


That’s right. And we could help them along, but they, you know, they’re there. So we help them by creating the right environment. That’s how we help them along. We don’t reach in there and crack the egg for them. You know, the shell, they’re going to get on their own. Yeah. But we do create the right environment. And I think that’s what I spend a lot of time working on my home atmosphere. And that’s what I like to write and speak about.

[DELINA] I love that home atmosphere. We’re not going to take the analogy too far and talk about the eggs at Don’t Hatch.

[AMBER] Yeah, no, we’re not gonna. Those still can be, yeah, they’re still used for those. Those can be reused elsewhere on the homestead, my dear.

[DELINA] I’m sure. Okay. So one of the things that you encourage parents to do is to explore their own family history. So first tell me why do you think that’s important?

[AMBER] Okay, so I think that it’s really critical for children to be able to form roots. They have to be able to put down roots because really anything else we’re asking them to do, we’re asking them to stretch and grow and we’re asking a lot of them if you really think about it, not just academically, but just in terms of the type of people that they’re growing to be. And I think that having that history helps them feel that they, belong to something bigger, you know, that there’s something more important than just what they can see and what we’re doing in this very moment. And so there was some research done that I talk about in my book where the researchers found that the children who had a strong intergenerational self, that those children were able to really feel confident about their families and about their roles in their families. And, they felt like they had a more positive view about the future. And that was really attractive to me because given all that we’re asking and all that our children are having to deal with, I mean, we could rattle off a really long list, right? And the idea that they could have a more positive view of their future because of their past, really stood out to me. So this intergenerational self, you know, they talk about, it’s really, it’s a fancy word, but it’s really just knowing the stories of your people. It’s that storytelling aspect coming out. And some of the questions the researchers asked were like, do you know where your mother grew up? Do you know where your grandparents met, do you know the meaning behind your name, why your parents chose your name? And I really clung to that because I felt like there was already some amount of that happening naturally in my home, but I wasn’t being intentional about it. And so I started doing this with my kids when they were really little. And I’d say it’s part of our family culture now. And so these stories like my grandmother, one of my grandmothers, you know, Back in the day, you would have these small black schools and they were under resourced in a lot of ways, but that created a very close knit community. And my grandmother, she was a stay at home mom, but when they needed help at the school, she would walk up to the school and she was the lunch lady. Sometimes she was the office admin secretary and sometimes she was a substitute teacher. And so I tell the kids about all these different hats and then she would leave and go home and fix.

what we call lunch and what she called dinner. And I talk about where Scott and I met. And we met right here in this place at the art museum where my kids still go. And daddy walked up to me, he had that swag and I was like, oh, okay. You know, they know exactly what. [DELINA] Were y ‘all meeting there? I’m getting sidetracked.

[AMBER]  No, we met as strangers. We met at one place at the art museum.

Yes, they were having live jazz that night and I was there with some friends and he was there with some friends. And I was like that right there.

[DELINA] And I love it.

[AMBER]  Yeah, it was magic. So my kids know right here in this room, right around this tile, this floor tile is where daddy walked up to me and laid down that mat gate. But, and you know, I talk about how my papa raised hogs on his farm and how he would get so upset at us as grandchildren coming because we’re like, oh, I don’t like that part. I don’t want that. And he ate the snout, the tail, the feet and all the things. And he was like, who are you people? Who do you think you are? We eat the whole thing. We’re not throwing out this good meat. And so those are the types of just casual stories. And I think, so when I talk about family history, it’s layered. Yes, there is a deeper history and we can get into some of that and that importance, actual like, you know, going back generations and ancestors and things that happen. But there’s this kind of more recent history that we can share with our children that I think is part of what helps them feel like they are not just a person in this world, but that they are a part of a group of people.

Yeah, and the stories are not always…the easy stories either, you know, my children know that my uncle was an alcoholic and what that meant for our family. And they know about people who have lost jobs or even times when my husband was unemployed and what that did to us and how we overcame. So I think all of that is critically important.

[DELINA] It’s good for them to know that there was a life before they were born. And yeah, sometimes they…know it’s hard for them to picture. You’ve always been an adult to them.

[AMBER] Yeah, yeah pictures are great. You know you say it’s hard for them to picture but literally, you know, photo. My senior picture has me with the with the phone, a landline. A landline. What is that? Right, I know that’s so cool. Our local history museum has like a phone booth. It’s like,

non -working phone booth and inside is a rotary phone. And my kids like to run in there and like go in the phone booth like, and watch it go back. They’re like, boom, it’s like old fashioned. So you mentioned art history. Like you don’t just tell them, you know, the fun stories.

[DELINA] So what do you do when you’re digging through your family history and you find not so rosy stories? Yeah. that’s going to happen. If you dig back far enough anywhere. And I think that for me, I look at it in two ways. And so I try to evaluate one is facing the discomfort or tension in that aspect of your genealogy. Is that going to bring healing and redemption to your family’s complicated past? And if so, I think you can move forward knowing that you’re going to come out on the other side of, you know, evaluating that and digging into it with a fresh perspective and even stronger roots. And that’s probably going to impact you as much as it would impact your children. And so digging in may even help help you to reframe or to reclaim your family’s history triumphantly. So sometimes that hard history, you have to face it. You need to walk through it and don’t shy away from it because it’s cathartic. Like there’s healing in the further you lean in, kind of the more freedom you’ll see. Now, on the other hand, there can be for some people pain in their past that is so pervasive that digging around in it is not going to bear healthy fruit, okay? And for some people there just is no past, right? Rather it’s because of adoption and remarriage or…just lost history over time, broken relationships. Some people just don’t have access to any of their history for both of those. When it’s too painful or you don’t have access, then I really think that the focus then is to think of the idea that people are complicated and they’re very messy and that that is something that is a shared part of everyone’s history and you don’t necessarily have to have all of the details to build out the whole web, you can start dealing with today. And so I think that for those families, you can start building a history for your children or your grandchildren today. Start with your story from five minutes ago and some ideas I give in the book. It’s like, what’s your family’s favorite meal? Do you guys eat the same thing every Friday? What do you guys do for summer vacation? Do you always want that same condo on the beach or do you like to just go bike riding?

around your neighborhood on Sunday evenings. What does your family listen to? Do you have jokes you do with Alexa? Alexa, my family has a lot of stuff that we get Alexa to say funny things, the Amazon Alexa. What do you guys like to read? Is there a favorite show that you guys all jump on the couch and pop popcorn in every week you do not miss? Those are…

They’re happening now, but that is your family’s history. And the way you speak about those family rituals, you can build that same level of importance in your children’s minds. And you can feel that same level of importance in your heart if you treat it as such. So I think that’s where that comes in.

[DELINA] Yeah. So let’s talk about this. One of the very many valuable things in your book is about knowing what your children can handle at various ages and stages, especially when you’re talking about hard history. But there are a million topics, right, that we as parents have to have to tackle that has nothing to do with history. Yeah. But so what do you tell parents who want to wait, in particular with this hard history aspect, something that homeschooling parents especially, but anybody who has a child, they’re learning something about history. And there’s some, topics that are avoided in our culture in general, in schools in general. So how do you encourage parents that now is the right time to say something?

[AMBER] Okay, so two things. One, it’s naive to think that just because we’re not talking to our kids about these things that they’re not experiencing and thinking about them. So in any other subject, we always say,Oh, I want to be the one to talk to my kids about this. I don’t want them to find out about this on the street or to be struggling about this. Our children are thinking about this and no matter what we want to say, they may not be talking about it. That could be true. They may not be talking to us about it, but research has backed this up study after study after study. And I’ve seen it play out with my own children and others. This is when our kids say the darndest things. because they’re processing and they’re taking in these inputs and they are making, beginning to make judgments and have thoughts on the way that people look on skin color, on hair, on accents, on people’s positions in society and within their community. And you can remain silent if you want, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not learning. It just means they’re not learning with you. They’re learning haphazardly on their own. They’re making it up, right? Yeah, yes. And so, I think that it would be wise to take your role, your given role as the leader of your household and to have a say in how those conversations roll out and to fill your child with truth. The other thing I think about is that when you think of other things that our children may experience, they can start experiencing these things at a really, really young age. And it’s like they never know, life any other kind of way. And so they don’t have this shocking, this shock to their system later. It is traumatic to raise a child until late elementary, middle school, God forbid high school, and they start finding out the real deal. They can experience betrayal, feeling like they have had the wool pulled over their eyes. But what’s even scarier, they can be in denial.

The truth that they hear is so different than what they thought or the roses and sunflowers popping through the poppy fields, you know, that the line that they had been given to have their happy, safe childhood, that they reject it. And I think that that is one of the biggest travesties. You have this situation where even when they hear truth later, they can’t absorb it because it’s just too much. They don’t believe it.

And so I think that the safest thing really is to, you know, it’s kind of the difference between, I’m not going to teach my child to look both ways to cross the street because I’ll always be there and I’ll hold their hand all the time. Or I don’t want them to know about people getting hit by a car.

[DELINA] Right, right.

[AMBER] And it’s like, no.

You know, you tell your child, this is a dangerous thing. You want to teach them. They have to learn how to cross the street. They have to learn how to cross the street with you and without you. And you show them and you start talking about that at a very early age. You start talking about strangers or even people you know, safe and unsafe touches, all of these things. The earlier you start, then the less complicated it is later. And the difference is I always get this sarcastic thing. Oh, I’m just supposed to talk to my five year old about lynching and show them pictures of people hanging from trees? Well, no, that’s dumb. So what I’m saying is that it’s like you are building layers. You start and you build upon it. And the best description I’ve ever heard of this is it’s through a training I took with the organization Teaching Tolerance. And they talked about math. You don’t just wait until someone’s a senior in high school and be like, calculus, here we go. No, they started math in kindergarten and they learn more and they do all their elementary math, they learn their math facts and it’s pre -algebra and then algebra and then you let you know like flowing into it. And so the point they brought up is history should be the same way. They should be always from the very beginning. There should never be a time when they’re not talking about history and hard history included and you build upon it, build upon it, build upon it until the fullness of the story appears and it’s never going to end. We’re adults and we’re still piecing the story together. Yeah. I think that that’s, I think that parenting out of fear in that way, it’s something that temporarily allows us to avoid doing something that’s difficult, but in the long run, it harms our children more than it helps them.

[DELINA] And in a practical way, it’s kind of naive to think that you can avoid, because like you said, they’re learning everywhere, but also,

Like if grandma dies, you can’t not tell them that. That is a hard truth. Your job is to walk them through it. So something that happened in history, it happened already, right? So you can’t, avoiding it and pretending it didn’t happen or, you know, it’s just. Yeah, it’s a dangerous route.

[AMBER] I mean, the other problem, it creates a disconnect.

where they don’t have the scaffolding to understand life today. So if you have no vision of the hard things, you cannot possibly understand the dynamics of the real world today. And we don’t need to be raising more children who don’t get it. And that’s just

[DELINA] Put that on the shirt.

[AMBER] Yeah, right? That’s not -That’s not what we’re here for. And so, and I think it’s all about the approach. Again, there’s this sarcasm like, oh, so I’m just supposed to tell my kid that I never just, let me just tell you about this. It is in a lot of ways and I don’t mean to make light of it, but learning the hard history is fun in my house. So one of my daughter’s 1800s fiction, biographies, historical fiction, biographies and nonfiction, hands down, it’s her favorite genre.

So like even for her birthday, she got, I had a little necklace made for her on Etsy and it’s the cover of her favorite book. And it’s a, it’s a slave narrative. And I was kind of worried about her early on. I was like, okay, are you going to, you’re reading this book. It’s like the eighth time what’s going on. And she said, I love hearing how they persevered, how they made a way out of no way. She’s like, it’s like, it’s like a, it’s like the most fantastic story to her. And so.

Those, you know, we can’t say that just because society deems that something’s hard, you don’t know how your child’s going to process it. For her, she feels she gets strength from that. And so now we need the name of the book. OK, it’s called The Diary of Clotee. OK, and it’s not this like deep thing. I saw some people online. They were like, oh, the Dear America books or whatever. It’s those diaries. It’s like a whole series of them. They’re written by different authors. This one’s written by one of our favorite authors, Patricia McKissack.

And they’re all different, depends on who wrote it. And she wrote several of them. And it’s just a story of this girl who goes, she’s a young girl, she’s growing up in this plantation. She has the opportunity to leave, but decides to stay and be a conductor on the Underground Railroad. But it talks about a lot of things. And there are even some subtle things where like after she had read it about six times, she was like, so I was like, yeah.

And she was like, oh, okay. But she didn’t get it the first five times. So they’ll get it when they’re ready for it. But I look at that and literally when I see this child just rereading this again and again, and I’m like, what are you doing? Isn’t this sad? Isn’t this tragic? Isn’t this? But that’s not what she saw. She saw that life happens. And she likes reading about stories of survival. Love it. I think that that’s the way we can look at this. It’s not just,

all this bad stuff that happened, but it’s like this happened and yet and still look, that’s the story.

[DELINA] That’s powerful. I can’t wait to see how that shows up in her life as she grows. [AMBER] Yeah, it’s amazing.

End of interview

[DELINA] I love how Amber reminds us that we can start today in creating a rich family history for our grandchildren. For more amazing inspiration and resources for making your home an incubator for learning, check out Amber’s book, A Place to Belong.

It’s out on paperback and you can find it at your favorite bookstore. I linked to her book, her social media accounts, and her website in the show notes at wokehomeschooling .com slash podcast. Until next time, go and learn something today.

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Delina McPhaull

Podcast Host

Delina Pryce McPhaull is a seasoned editorial consultant and owner of Woke Homeschooling. She lives in Texas with her family. Her happiest days are spent with her loved ones, enjoying good food, stimulating conversations, and basking in the beauty of the sunset and sea. She loves sharing her love of learning with her kids, through homeschooling, and with others through the Woke Homeschooling community.