Cover image: Ethan Darby (and his brother Shawn) sold hot chocolate to raise funds for a family tradition—giving away flowers on Valentine’s Day.

Ethan Darby is a teen as of September 4, and he already knows he wants to spend the rest of his life building things.

At 13, he already has a wide range of experiences in design and construction. He forged a grilling tool for his dad, built a doghouse, taught himself to crochet, helped tile the floor in the family kitchen, and sketched an award-winning Google Doodle. This summer, he joined a robotics club.

Ethan lives with ADHD and executive function disorder. This condition can frequently make it difficult to focus. In order to master day-to-day functions, Ethan has taken part in occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy.

His mother, Alyssa, encourages Ethan to try different things to sharpen his creativity and imagination, reveal ways to show love to others, and offer choices for his future.

Alyssa has gained insight into his condition by dealing with her own health challenges, and because he is homeschooled, that insight can directly inform his education. Not only does Alyssa cope with chronic health problems, but she also discovered as an adult that she has autism.

Parenting with Sympathy

Homeschooled herself during her high school years, Alyssa said she tries to incorporate the positive elements from her own upbringing into her two sons’ education. She also labors to provide the understanding and flexibility she would have benefitted from if she’d been diagnosed with autism earlier.

“I try to deal with them the way I wish I had been dealt with,” she said. “Homeschooling allows them to learn at their own pace, and they get to explore things they wouldn’t get to in a typical school setting.”

The flexibility of homeschooling also helps when Alyssa has difficulty functioning because of a migraine or other flare-up of chronic pain.

“I try to push through when I can,” she said. “With homeschooling, I can switch up my schedule to cope with bad days.”

Days Full of Learning

Adjusting plans for health reasons has in no way shortchanged her boys’ opportunity for learning. Ethan and his 9-year-old brother, Shawn, engage in a full range of academics.

Ethan especially loves to read. To his parents’ consternation, he’s been known to stay up past midnight perusing a favorite text. But his true passion lies in doing and building—activities that often involve his younger brother.

Here is a list of some of Ethan’s adventures so far:

Prize-winning sketch

When Ethan was 7, he entered Google’s national drawing contest for students K–12. (Actually, Alyssa scanned and uploaded the image minutes before the deadline.)

Ethan with his Google Doodle certificate

At age 7, Ethan won a regional award for his entry in a Google Doodle student contest. An enlarged version of his artwork is in the background.

“I really want to be a robotics engineer,” Ethan explained, “so I drew little robots.”

The sketch won the contest’s initial round of judging, earning Ethan a new computer and accolades from the US Air Force base where his father Joseph is stationed.

“They had a whole party on base and featured him in the news,” said Alyssa.

Exploring above and below

Ethan joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) in May to learn more about airplanes and for the opportunity to fly them. CAP is the civilian auxiliary of the US Air Force. CAP cadets also work on physical fitness, STEM activities, and disaster response.

Ethan in a CAP plane

Since joining the Civil Air Patrol, Ethan has had several opportunities to fly an aircraft like this one (while being supervised by a veteran pilot).

“I also wanted to learn leadership,” he explained.

One adventure CAP made possible was spending the night with several other cadets in an underground missile silo. When the facility was in use by the Air Force, it housed a rocket-propelled weapon 100 feet tall with a range of 6,000 miles.

One thing the experience taught Ethan is how to adjust to the unexpected.

“In some parts, it was slimy and wet because the silo was underwater for several years,” Ethan recalled. And when it came time to sleep, he was surprised to hear his group being serenaded by a group of frogs. “Some were as big as the palm of my hand,” he said.

Always tinkering

Ethan is always looking for a chance to build something new. He used several feet of string to construct a device that switches the light in his room on and off whenever the door opens and closes.

Inspired by a gift his dad made for his mom while he was deployed overseas, Ethan taught himself to crochet. So far, he’s focused on crafting a particular dual-purpose garment.

“You roll it up, and it’s a stuffed animal. Unroll it, and it’s a scarf,” Ethan explained.

As an extracurricular activity, Ethan and his brother Shawn took part in a program for homeschoolers offered by a local business. The classes introduce students to various trades, as well as teach them about job opportunities, especially as they reach the high school years.

The program has covered trades including fire suppression, electrical work, plumbing, carpentry, and window installation. Ethan was able to use some of the larger equipment for a teen-oriented program under the close supervision of experienced adults.

Ethan and Shawn with a handmade doghouse

Ethan and Shawn built a doghouse as part of a homeschool program.

“I’ve done a lot of things the average kid hasn’t done,” Ethan said. “I’ve used an excavator and a scissor lift.”

Giving back

Alyssa has also made sure her boys learn the importance of assisting the community by taking part in service projects.

Ethan and his brother recently volunteered to socialize rescued kittens at a local animal shelter. They held and petted the felines to help them feel at ease around people and make them more suitable for adoption.

Another family tradition started when Joseph was away on an Air Force deployment and wanted to buy roses for Alyssa on Valentine’s Day. She appreciated the gesture, but decided it would be more meaningful to her to mark the holiday by giving flowers to others.

So for the past six years (not counting 2020, when their area got hit with COVID-19 and a blizzard), Alyssa and her boys have spent February 14 traveling to local shops and around the air base to hand out roses to anyone who wants one. One year, Ethan and Shawn sold hot cocoa at a homemade stand to help buy the dozens of flowers they give away.

More Than Just School at Home

Alyssa said that witnessing her boys engage in acts of kindness helps her to see homeschooling as more than just an alternative way of learning.

“I do feel it’s a calling,” she said, especially because of the value she places on being able to teach and model the principles she and her husband cherish.

And of course, homeschooling has its rewards. Because their educational model allows them to flex their schedule, the family plans to go on a missions trip to England when Joseph takes leave in October. They intend to assist with construction projects for a ministry in the village of Eysnford, and to do some sightseeing as well.

“It will be a great opportunity for our family to travel together outside the US for the first time,” said Alyssa.

And knowing how her family works, they will be sure to make the most of it.