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.
Although on the surface that's true, 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 know that adults – within schools and out –try to
manage children’s learning, to channel it in the direction they think it
should go. Schools do it in an obvious way. There, adults who have studied
such things (and some who haven’t) slice and dice a certain, selected body
of knowledge into subjects and sub-subjects. Then they map out a master
plan that organizes the information in a way that will supposedly enable
all children to inhale it at the same time.
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
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
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.
Wendy is Life Learning Magazine’s founder and editor. She
is a life learning pioneer, who helped her daughters learn without school
beginning in the mid-1970s. She is also the author of thirteen 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 a couple of new books.
Visit her website to learn more about her,
and to read more of her articles.