When you think about your child's education do you feel relaxed and free or stressed and constrained? If the word "school" feels a bit stifling, perhaps this might throw open a door, or at least a window...
A parent from our school suggested we start a book club - obviously a virtual one in this time of social distancing - and she suggested we start with the book Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray. If you’ve read other blog entries here, you’ve seen the title referenced frequently. Like many other educators and parents, it was a seminal work for me so I was delighted others wanted to talk about it too. I hope by the end of this post you will be so curious yourself that you too will dive in and see how it might change your life for the better as a parent, person, and/or educator.
I realized a few pages in that I had been ready to read this book for years, without knowing it. Teaching languages, literature, and science for many years, I came to the firm belief that we only truly learn things we feel are real, useful, fascinating, or essential for survival. The survival approach was one of my favorites in language instruction. While I dutifully scaffolded, I knew that only authentic contexts and the right amount of real frustration would bring deep learning. I would see this learning happen almost magically the more I stepped aside and let my students engage with each other more authentically. I was frustrated by giving grades, though. They felt time- and energy-consuming for all of us and took the focus off of learning as growth. I could feel in my bones there had to be a different way, a more human approach.
Peter is a professor and researcher at Boston College, frequent writer for Psychology Today, worldwide lecturer and author, and founder of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. He’s also a very down-to-earth writer who helps readers to see childhood and learning from a dynamic historical, even anthropological, perspective. He gently blows open what can feel like a closed system of education today. He does this not with anger or finger pointing, but with carefully curated curiosity and compassion.
Our book club met for the first time about two week ago and launched feet first into this rich resource. “What is it really about?” was the first question. There’s not really a spoiler alert to give here. What I’ll share from our conversation will potentially strike a chord with your or your child’s journey (or struggle) with education and childhood. It may whet your appetite for the substance found in these pages. Maybe you’ll take them as Cliff’s Notes in installments and wait for future blog posts. If you’re anything like me, you might find yourself hungry for this fresh, intelligent perspective on important things that occupy a good chunk of parental time and energy. I found freedom in these pages and hope to pass that freedom on to others. Read on if you’re ready...
What’s this book really about? We identified 3 basic themes in what we’d read so far:
Commentary on the current state of education
What is this thing called “school” that we find being played out around the country? It seems to be a game in which adults provide a lot of discrete content for a group of young people who have little choice in the matter. The adults then require the young people to give that cache of content back to them in some version of performance that can be qualified and quantified, rewarded or punished. Isn’t that just education? Wasn’t it always this way? What’s so interesting is that the answer is no! What?!?
Peter provides the salient details, but the model we all know of separating children by ages then dividing learning into “subjects,” and marching linearly through a predetermined curriculum as a uniform cohort was not really a “thing” until it was imported from Prussia to the US. It was promoted in large part for the systematic molding of citizens through shared nationalism (later it would model factories, as you likely know already). The choice of this system was not based on educational research regarding how children learn best. It’s foundations are not in child development but rather in nationalism. Discussing education is never a quick topic, so this is no attempt to argue all the aspects of it, but knowing it “wasn’t always this way” seems to be helpful in stepping back for a little perspective.
Our group commented on how they’ve seen traditional schools feel like a “game” of teachers testing students and in turn students testing teachers (not in the graded way). We talked about feeling our children were mostly expected to “do what the teacher says” as the main way of “winning” this game, and that kids can see right through this exercise in frustration. They may question all the pushing and prodding or succumb (as many adults have) to the worldview that learning must be stressful work best done quickly and never done when not rewarded with a grade.
I shared an anecdote about a time a younger family member came to our house and asked our oldest son why he was reading. Not what he was reading, but why he was reading. He said he didn’t understand her question (we were homeschooling/unschooling at the time and I’d already stopped pushing learning to let it happen). She asked, “Like, do you have a report on it? Is there a test on it?” He looked at her again like she was asking why he was eating lunch. He just wanted to read it. I don’t think there was anything particularly remarkable in his approach, or there shouldn’t be. It did feel like she had been trained to see books as a means to an end, advancement toward the goal of better grades or avoidance of punishment. Is this really what we want for our children? Is the grade worth the trade?
How human beings actually learn
So, if it wasn’t always in classrooms like we now know, how did and do human beings actually learn? Good question! Our group was fired up. Play, Peter argues. Play, play, play. He methodically and realistically details how powerful a learning tool play is for our young (and not just the 0-to-4-year-old crowd at all). What is learned in play is not as easily quantifiable as content acquisition seems to be (though studies of content retention make one wonder if it was worth the time and effort - a topic for another day). Play provides procedural knowledge. Play builds skills that virtually every employer would list as essential and increasingly lacking: interpersonal interaction, negotiation, creativity, persistence, compromise, delight, problem solving, experimentation, and frustration tolerance, to name a few. Mixed-age play has shown to be an incredible vocabulary builder for everyone in the group, in addition to providing practice in scaling up or down the intensity of an interaction based on the participants.
We remarked that we know it’s hard for us as adults to see kids having fun and think of it as “learning,” but that’s evidently exactly when they’re learning the most! Relaxed and engaged are some of the best conditions, potentially prerequisites, for deep learning. Someone wisely asked the group, “What is more important than learning about human relationships?” The demonstrated mastery of historical timelines and mathematical theorems does not necessarily equate to the kinds of skills one needs to lead a successful and fulfilling life, including an academic one.
All of us in the group had been overachievers in our own traditional schooling. Whether it had been interesting or boring, we learned to play the game with high scores. And then what? Were we ready to succeed? A cousin of mine has talked about when she started college feeling she was able to recognize which of her peers had held down a job in high school or not. There were just some practical skills and perspectives that seemed to result from doing the kind of work that wasn’t simply performing for a grade in a teacher-moderated environment. Managing real world expectations and interactions in a job that could fire them gave them an edge that another’s AP classes simply didn’t.
This was clearly speaking to us on the personal level of our own experiences of childhood and we began to contrast that with what we observe of our own children’s paradigms of childhood.
How and why is childhood so different today from generations past?
We’d mostly all grown up in different places - some of us here in Miami, the Midwest, and even as far as Brazil and Germany. Our experiences of freedom, even just to be outdoors, was pretty varied (the Miami contingent chuckled at the quaint stories of roaming the Midwestern woods alone with friends). What we did all note is that regardless of the particulars of our baseline freedoms, there seems to be a significant shift today away from trusting children. Besides an even more intense focus on safety, we commented how adult organized and managed our children’s play has become. The entire day for many kids is completely structured (school, teams, homework, repeat) with little to no time for free play. It’s no wonder so many kids turn to devices to escape and have at least one domain they control and have free rein in - Peter gets to that topic in a later chapter.
With the best of intentions, we’ve become a culture that spoon-feeds and then force-feeds our children with what we deem important or educational. We wondered if this new generation is losing the confidence to teach and trust themselves, and frankly if they’re burning out from all the pressure.
We all talked about some of our own most memorable learning coming from mentors - the person and not the dry content. Modeled behavior teaches so much more effectively than lecture or direct instruction. Why? Because we are human! Especially for the young person, abstract instruction - and the seemingly arbitrary requirement to spend your time and energy on things you cannot see a direct connection or meaning for, - is part of what makes school a bore or worse for so many. Even the “good students” going through the motions may be longing for context and meaning, for ownership of their day.
Understandably, parents have the fear that their child will not be prepared to succeed if they don’t push them during childhood. They may have unconscious images of illiterate, unemployable children hanging around their house on the couch forever. The truth, though, is that today literacy is as much a tool as walking and speaking - and they very effectively and largely independently learned those skills by observation and trial and error. In fact, the less we pressure our children in speech and mobility, usually the more relaxed and adept they become. Peter argues that the same holds true for all learning for our young people. This is a truly radical notion supported by some very sobering facts.
What do you think - too “pie in the sky”? Does any of this resonate with you? Does any of this smell like freedom to you? The next question of course is what it could mean practically for us and our children. We want our children to feel that we trust them to think for themselves and learn new things. Let’s trust ourselves to acquire this new information and see where it takes us all.
Our book club meets again this Wednesday night - send me a message if you’re interested in joining us or hearing more about the discussion as we move through the book. Or, just dip your toe in yourself - read or listen and see what you think.
They can’t find their favorite shirt. Someone wouldn’t share their ball today. The photo of them on Instagram was not very flattering. Their sibling joked that mom or dad was going to give away their iPad. BOOM. The world is over. Tears. Anger. The sky is falling.
Why are they making such a fuss over nothing? What’s the big deal? Get over it, right?
Let’s press pause. What makes something a “big deal” vs. a “little deal?” Importance is a pretty relative term. Food, shelter, and breathing aside, what constitutes important depends on who’s doing the constituting. And when something is relative, we would probably say it depends on your perspective. Good, perspective. Let’s get some perspective on this issue.
Maybe we think about perspective in terms of art - angles and viewpoints. A lot of perspective also comes from distance. With your face smooshed right up to something, it’s a little difficult to say you have perspective. We literally have to get some distance to see the larger picture.
A child’s world is right up close, not a lot of distance for any proper perspective. Their worlds are simply smaller than ours. In terms of what they know, have known, and have control over, it’s a limited microcosm. We all had it. It’s part of why little people can seem so selfish, like the whole world revolves around them. Without being able to see much farther than the very small radius around them, everything sure seems to orbit them - and they are clearly in the center. Developmentally it’s pretty normal. It’s a naturally limited awareness and subsequently limited perspective.
The world can seem terrifyingly large and mysterious to a child because of their limited view. In a little world, everything has a large effect. A little cup of water isn’t so insignificant to an ant farm. Scale, fragility, and precarity. There’s not a lot that your under 10 year old (or even older) has any real control over. You provide and they depend. It’s quite a vulnerable position if we think of it in that way. Perhaps you feel they’re too entitled or demanding, but in the end the providers have the reigns. We pay the grocery and internet bills. We provide transportation. That’s a lot of dependency.
In contrast, we adults probably hardly realize how much bigger our worlds are and easily forget the miniature world we once navigated. We’ve been alive two, three, or four decades longer than them. At this point, we know hundreds more people than our children. We’ve been driving our cars and our lives longer than our dependents have been saying the word “car,” let alone living.
I’ve picked out what shirt I wanted to wear at least 13,000 times. I’ve had a couple decades and some fabulous therapists since I was excluded from schoolyard games. I’ve learned I like to take photos more than be in them, and I just never worry someone is going to take away my devices unless I leave them somewhere, and then I’ll figure out replacing them. I have history, strategy, and agency in my toolbox. Our kids are building up those tools through experience (as discussed in my last post, it’s our struggles that prepare us for our resilient successes), but they haven’t done anything 13,000 times except maybe blink, and there wasn’t a ton of choice in that action. We have tons of practice and immense control over things in our lives that our children do not.
“Getting some perspective” is really something we adults must do. What may seem like trivial matter to us may indeed be a big deal to them because it’s enormous in the small scale they live in. It can’t really be otherwise, not yet.
We’ve all chuckled at how big we remember the hill from our childhood seeming, the one that’s actually more of a gentle slope. While one of my aunts does have a nice-sized backyard, my cousins and I remember it as being at least an acre. We all commented upon return in our adulthood that it must have shrunk. Did she sell off ¾ of it? We were little people. That yard was huge.
Coping is a skill
A shirt is a big deal from their vantage point. Add to the fashion distress the complication of the associated lack of experience with coping skills that comes from the reduced number of times one has had to cope. Coping is a skill. Anyone remember holding an inconsolable infant? Baby didn’t come with a bunch of self-soothing skills. That takes time and opportunity. Hopefully we can also recall times in our lives when we were convinced that all was lost. We get to the other side again and again, hopefully picking up tips for coping along the way.
Our children are hopefully building those skills, but they don’t just appear for them because we have them nor simply because we want them to have them. They take time and more time to cultivate. There’s nothing wrong with them when they’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s a feeling. We all have feelings, and not one person, of any age, likes those feelings dismissed or minimized.
Take a quick moment to remember the last time you felt overwhelmed. Got it in your mind? Would it have been supremely helpful at that moment for someone to look at you with exasperation and say, “Geez! Why are you making this such a big deal? Don’t be such a baby!” Please try not to fantasize about harming that imaginary person.
You, like your child, probably want a little empathy and solidity while you’re feeling big feelings that have you shaken up. Not “You poor thing” or “Tell me who did that and I’ll punch them.” Those don’t seem to help the situation, but are understandable knee jerk reactions.
Our kids get distressed. While we don’t need to solve all their distresses (in fact it’s best to not solve as many as possible), we can be a solid presence that neither dismisses their dismay nor crumbles along with them. Once again, I highly recommend Between Parent and Child for practical ways to empathize without enabling or infantilizing.
Learning to cope by watching us cope
Can the whole day stop because of a clothing crisis? Is a bad day on the playground license to spew angry words at everyone else? We can recognize that a problem feels seriously significant without giving it the right of way to run the show. We must all learn to make it to the other side of our disappointments and dilemmas, but, again, it’s a learning process. It doesn’t happen automatically. Being sensitive to feelings doesn’t mean we are slaves to those feelings and our children learn that first by watching us.
We adults get to model frustration tolerance and quick recovery times from setbacks. That will do much more than scolding or shaming. They are always watching us to see how we handle this big crazy world. Every parent is a teacher and we mostly teach through our everyday example.
We empower our children with opportunities to self soothe - not in the face of mortal danger, but in the precious low stakes moments life gives us a lot of if we can appreciate them. We all must learn to calm ourselves, console ourselves, even counsel ourselves, making distressing times our stepping stones to more quickly-found solid ground and showing our children the path forward.
What would we want said - or not said?
We can model our own emotional regulation while we embrace emotional dysregulation. I find it helps to think what I would want as an adult. Let’s imagine a morning where the hot water didn’t work. We are understandably frustrated, and cold, but have learned to still show up for work and not take it out on unsuspecting coworkers. While we don’t expect the whole office to rally around us with sympathy and blankets, woe to the colleague who hears and retorts, “Suck it up. There are people in the world who never have hot water.” (I’ve also worked in Haiti and even I would never say that and expect to remain friends with the person). Let us not be that annoying coworker to our children.
“I can’t believe you’re worried about that. That’s so silly.” Those are more words from the imaginary person you no longer plan to speak with. Our struggles are real. So are our children’s. Their disappointments and dilemmas are also very real for them. Even if we cannot totally grasp what it means to them, clearly it means something. They probably need to solve it themselves, and we actually help them do that by first appreciating that it’s something hard for them to solve.
Becoming an ally is awesome
Not having to solve their conundrums while recognizing the validity of the concerns is actually pretty awesome. You get to be on their side, not trying to push or pull, not diminishing or destroying the obstacle, but standing on their side while they figure it out, or simply let it pass. I’ve had plenty of panics that I realized myself were false alarms and was glad there wasn’t anyone giving me the “told you so” look when I came to that conclusion.
There are many great practical ways to apply this idea of taking them seriously without seriously taking over. Sometimes just a hug. Or “Ug, I’m so sorry.” We may have to retrain our eyes if they’ve become accustomed to rolling a bit.
Sometimes our lack of empathy can simply be the collateral of hurry hurry rush rush. Trying to get myself and three kids out the door isn’t typically the peak of my emotional availability. It really takes a conscious effort to remember that my children’s crises are not a plot to thwart my day and they’re not just “being drama queens,” as much as that does come to mind at times.
I have to remember that I can model and scaffold the advanced planning that helps prevent the last minute crisis. I often have to watch them go to school a bit disheveled or without papers that seemed to disappear overnight. Berating them is really quite tempting, I’m not gonna lie. And the less sleep I get the less zen and compassionate I know I am. I know I must try to align myself with them as much as possible. We all know frustration and we can feel for them in those moments, while still getting out the door. They’ll watch us for how we deal with our daily crises as well as how we deal with theirs.
Children: The Challenge
I don’t think I’ve mentioned the bedrock of my own parenting education. It’s an older, unassuming, and often-referenced book by Rudolf Dreikurs called Children: The Challenge. I think it’s gold. It held my hands when I felt ready to throw them into the air. More importantly, it invited me into a mindset of freedom from constant frustration and a practical pathway to empowerment. I see the premise as respect for both the parent and the child and how that can play out without compromising order and growth. I’ve heard there are updated versions, but in the version I have I still love the scenarios where “mother sits down to write a letter” both for how quickly that language became quaint and also for how relevant those scenarios described still are (when I substitute letter with text message). I recommend mentally updating the language and mining the wealth of wisdom.
We don’t have to convince them their crisis is trivial, nor should we take it over as our own mission. We can look with new eyes at the importance of things in their scaled-down worlds and recognize their feelings for the real feelings they are. They probably can’t understand why things as meaningless to them as stock prices or insurance premiums gets adults all in a tizzy.
Does any of this resonate with you for yourself or your child? Do you have any tips to share? Let's collaborate. Comment here.
MAIN Author: CHRISTEN PARKER-YARNAL