Just give him the fish

This morning Sammy (6) decided to “figure out what these words are” in a book that he and little sister had been pretend-reading up to that point. A couple of weeks ago, I would have thought to myself, “What a great opportunity for a spontaneous reading lesson.” But now I’ve had the benefit of reading all about unschooling. And my growing conviction is that my job is to be a helper, rather than be his teacher. This account was still fresh in my mind:

As Christian continued to teach himself to read, David and I came to understand that the pace of his learning was going to be set by him. Christian seemed to know what he needed to learn: if he asked, “What does ‘c-o-o-k-i-e’ spell?”—that’s what he wanted to know. He had no use for us telling him, “Sound it out now. Look at the first part of the word. What does the ‘c-o-o’ say?” Such instruction only frustrated him.

[Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves, p. 45]

So this morning whenever Sammy asked what a given word was, I just told him. He initiated the experience. Why should I hijack it for my own purposes and effectively ignore his request? I don’t want to get in his way and make him lose interest.

Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?

[Matthew 7:9-10, NIV]

I can already hear the objections. “You’re lucky that your child is so naturally curious. That won’t work for everyone.” But what if the secret truth is that every child is not only naturally curious but also a born expert at learning? What if the kids that “lack motivation” are only that way because they’ve learned (quite well) from Kindergarten on up that learning is a difficult thing, is work, not fun, and is about doing what the big people say—whether to please them and gain rewards or appease them and escape criticism, punishment, or ridicule? How many times does a child’s spirit have to be crushed before they start showing signs of “deficient motivation”?

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Instead of Gold Stars

I can relate to Patrick Farenga’s challenges in moving away from a punishment/reward model of parenting—not just for “school” but for basic daily activities, like getting the kids ready for bed.

As a parent I do find some of John[ Holt]’s ideas hard to implement—the temptation to externally motivate our girls, using praise and criticism as my primary motivational techniques, is one I constantly find myself fighting against. It is the teaching/learning relationship I’m most familiar with, just as my diet is more familiar with fat and meat than with vegetables and fruit. In both cases, I need to get more comfortable and consistent with new ideas, and in both cases it is difficult to do so.

[Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling, p. 99]

Several months ago, we instituted a “bedtime routine” in which both of the older kids (6 and 3) go through a sequence of steps (pajamas, brush teeth, clean room, etc.) in order to ascend one more notch on the path to winning a prize (granted every two weeks or so, if they’re “good”). We’ve had limited success, but lately it requires a lot of nagging.

The more I read from John Holt, the more I think we should move away from this approach. After all, bedtime routine still isn’t that much more fun or easy for us than it was before. Their room is consistently more clean, but at what cost? Maybe we need to let go of short-term results in order to find ways to make getting ready for bed more intrinsically motivating.

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