Don’t Let Your Children Learn!
Wendy is Life Learning Magazine’s founder and editor. She is an unschooling pioneer, who helped her daughters learn without school beginning in the mid-1970s. She is also the author of twelve books, including Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society, Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn’t Exist, and It Hasn’t Shut Me Up. She is currently working on In Praise of Messy. Visit her website.
I’ve just been scanning my morning collection of newspaper articles, Google alerts, blog posts, and other social media writings. And I’m struck by the number of times I’ve read about adults “letting” or “allowing” children to learn in various ways and how unschooling “lets” children learn through their own experiences.
There are a couple of things wrong with that notion. The idea that a person can let another person learn is as ridiculous as it is dangerous. We are all learning, all the time. That is part of being alive. Learning is inevitable; to prevent someone – especially a curious child – from learning is virtually impossible. So to say one is allowing a child to learn something or to do it in a certain way is misinformed at the best, and patronizing and adultist, at the worst.
"We can’t let a child learn any more than we can stop her from learning. We – and our children – learn because we want and need to learn. The control is in our own hands and minds."
Once a bit of the curriculum has been “taught,” the children are tested to be sure they have performed as required. A good performance on a test doesn’t tell the adults – expert or otherwise – much about what was actually learned. But they take comfort in such things anyway. And it tells the kids nothing useful or interesting, except that they are able to do well on tests.
Of course, unschooling is a situation in which children are free from all of that; that freedom is one of the reasons why many families choose to live without school. However, even life learning adults can indulge in well-meaning attempts to meddle with their children’s learning process. Sometimes, we do it out of concern that nothing seems to be happening, that our kids are bored, or just because our goals are different from theirs.
However, it’s always a good idea to stop and think if we’re really helping or hindering, if we’re letting or facilitating, if our efforts are productive or counterproductive….and if it’s any of our business. Author and social critic Lillian Smith put it this way, “Education is a private matter between the person and the world of knowledge and experience, and has little to do with school or college.” If we believe that statement, then as life learners we should avoid getting between our children and what/how they’re learning.
So let’s be clear about our role as life learning parents: We provide love, trust, safety, support, encouragement, mentoring, and sometimes suggestions or inspiration. We answer questions (no matter how many or how exasperating), rather than ask them, because seeking answers from trusted adults is an important way for children – especially young ones – to learn how and why things work, to assess what’s true or false, and to develop their vocabulary. And we do all of this in a respectful manner that avoids condescension and the assumption that children only learn what they are taught.
We get out of the way so that our children can proceed with their lives. If you find yourself thinking in terms of “allowing” or “letting” a child learn in a certain way, please think about what independent learning means, and how much independence you are comfortable with your child having. And remember that we can shut down a child’s creativity and curiosity and joy of discovery – in some cases forever. But we can’t let a child learn any more than we can stop her from learning.
We – and our children – learn because we want and need to learn. The control is in our own hands and minds.