Monday, January 24, 2011

Other parents (and other children)

After a grueling weekend coaching my 4th grade daughter through her first big science project, I wondered what it was like for other parents. Many, I know, find the experience as grueling, and its ratio of effort to learning as maddening, as I do. But there are plenty out there who don't mind these projects at all. Somehow, even though the projects demand a level of organization and executive functioning that many 4th graders simply haven't yet attained, the pro-project parents seem to have kids who not only enjoy doing them, but are able to do them painlessly on their own. 

While I envy this somewhat (it would have been nice to have had a more enjoyable weekend with my daughter), what really gets my goat is when the pro-project parents (just like the pro-project teachers) can't understand why anyone would object to such projects, or why my child wouldn't be sufficiently motivated to do them on her own.  Worse yet is the implicit judgment that often accompanies this lack of empathy. After all, their children had no difficulty. Surely there must be something deficient about my child, or perhaps about my child-rearing.

A similar message has been reiterated during the whole of this weekend by a commenter on a recent thread on kitchentablemath. Far from being a pro-school-project parent, though, this particular guy is an anti-establishment anarchist who believes that schools and society are so corrupt and corrupting that all of us should be home schooling. Where his children--and all the children he says he knows of--have no difficulty, it seems, is in mastering the three Rs and everything else worth learning without any being pushed by their parents. Here is some of what he has to say:
Our kids started composing their own pieces (sort of pop neo-romantic classical, I suppose) when they were nine, without any suggestion at all from anyone that they do so (I guess they encouraged each other).


My kids play recitals; in a few weeks they will be part of a “Baroque Festival” run by the local university, as will some of their friends: I expect they will have fun.

And, that is the point, I expect they will have fun... Of course, they practice, of course they struggle over the correct fingering. But, it does not make them miserable, they are not “pushed.”

I’m well aware that most kids will not teach themselves special relativity when they are twelve-years-old, as I did. I view that fact with sadness, but, after all, it is rather besides the point. Very few people need to know special relativity. 
Having established that he has wonderfully bright, creative, self-motivated children and that he himself was astonishingly precocious and values learning tremendously, he starts generalizing:
...based on my own experience as a child and on my kids’ experience: I think kids innately want to learn, but that that desire is squeezed out of them by our society (parents, schools, and pop culture).
Ah, but. What if you have a narrowly focused child who doesn't want to learn everything that is necessary for functioning in society? What if your kid was this way from the beginning, before school; indeed, what if this child's narrow focus includes an obliviousness to pop culture? Again, there's that implicit judgment: either my kids are aberrant, or (assuming I've adequately sheltered them from toxic society) I shouldn't be pushing them because they're naturally curious like all (normal) kids are (or would be, if only...) 

Here's what I wrote in response:
While it may be true that *most* kids innately want to learn *something*, one should not take it on faith, or on anecdotal evidence drawn from ones own personal experiences, that *all* kids innately want to learn *all* that they need to in order to function independently in society.

Take, for instance, the many kids on the autistic spectrum who have no innate interest in interacting with other people and in learning basic social interaction skills, or even, in many cases, of learning the fundamentals of spoken and written language. Indeed, it's because of this deficiency in innate interest that many of the most effective therapies for autism involve high degrees of structure, teacher/therapist control, and extrinsic reinforcers.

I suspect that AS children are not the only ones who lack innate interest in learning certain sorts of skills that most of us would deem essential for independent living. Among the diversity of personalities that constitute humanity, I imagine that there are some who have (through no fault of pop culture in particular or society in general) no innate interest in learning how to read, in how to write intelligibly, and/or in how to keep track of their finances.

Especially if one is lucky enough to have smart, good-natured, broadly inquisitive children, it's important not to generalize from one's own parenting experiences and assume that, if only others would just follow in our footsteps, their children would turn out just as well as ours do.
Here's part of the extremely long reply I got in response:
Of course, I meant the vast majority of kids, those with normal intelligence, not suffering from debilitating mental disabilities. etc.

Well… of course, there are other forms of mental disabilities than autism.
My reply:
For a someone who prides himself on his ability not to take things on faith, you have a remarkable amount of faith in the idea that the only children who don't have an innate desire to learn *everything* their parents might deem important are mentally disabled.

Unless this is your definition of what a "debilitating mental disability" is? But then I'm not sure"vast" is the right word for your "majority". Also, I think it's important to draw a distinction between abilities and interests.

Can you guess what one of the things is that most demoralizes the many parents of eccentric children, narrowly-focused children I know who feel they must push their children quite hard in certain areas? The judgments of parents of kids who *are* innately interested in pursuing these things on their own and who assume that every child must share these innate interests. The fact that these judgments often stem from ignorance does not erase their sting.

It's important to note that many of the children I've written about do broaden their interests later on in life, but that if one waits for the innate interest to show up on its own, the resulting delay in mastery may frustrate not just the parent, but the child him or herself. For example, not every 5, 6, 7, or even 10-year old boy wants to learn how to read, even if he or she is not mentally disabled, and even if he recognizes the importance of reading later on and wishes he had started earlier.
His reply:
First, I think there is not just faith but very strong (not admittedly, conclusive) evidence that most kids are naturally willing to learn a great deal, but that our society has distorted that natural inclination.

I alluded to some of that evidence above: There is little trouble in our society in getting kids to want to learn how to drive. Historically, aside from the modern West and mandarinate China, teaching kids what they need to know to function in their society does not seem to have provoked enormous resistance or rebellion on the part of the kids. Everyone knows that toddlers tend to be curious about just about everything (including a lot of things they should not be curious about for safety reasons), but that this curiosity tends to get squeezed out of American kids before adolescence.

And, in my own personal experience, watching kids I know – family, friends, etc. – as they develop, the process by which the schools squeeze out the children’s natural curiosity has been fairly obvious: some of the kids have even been rather explicit in telling me that this is the case.

As a scientist, I look for simple hypotheses which fit all the facts I can uncover. This hypothesis seems to best fit all the facts I know of.

My second point relates to your mentioning kids’ not having an “innate desire to learn *everything* their parents might deem important.” You’re right, of course, but my sympathies do not lie with the parents on that! Sure, most kids would not voluntarily read The Scarlet Letter. Why should they? 


Perhaps, most people should not learn history, literature, etc. in their teens. Perhaps, most people can’t.. Perhaps, you grok “Macbeth” or The Scarlet Letter better when you have some life experiences than as a callow teen. Or, perhaps, both are not really ever worth reading at all.

What kids really need is the three Rs. Americans once knew how to teach the three Rs rapidly, in four years or less, as my great-grandmother’s generation proved, and there was much less of a “youth culture,” “adolescent rebellion,” etc. back then than there is now.


If you’re suggesting that most American kids really would like to avoid acquiring the basic knowledge of the “three Rs” that my great-grandmother already had acquired when she dropped out after fourth grade circa 1893, well… how on earth could we have produced children who do not want to know that? It is not normal for children to so hate their society that they do not want to acquire the very basic knowledge required to live in that society, and, indeed, American kids are (notoriously!) eager to learn how to drive, how to use credit cards, etc.
My reply:
I'm not, of course, talking about MacBeth and the Scarlet Letter. Nor am I talking about learning how to drive. I'm talking about basic skills for functioning independently in society of the sort that may require of kids a tremendous amount of discipline to master, and time (yes, four years of time): yes, the three Rs. What is your evidence that kids in general--not just your great grandmother-- used to master these things without forced to by adults? What about all those rebellious farm boys we read about in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books--or are you referring to an even earlier golden age of education? That most people have a love of learning that has been squeezed out of them by school (a point with which I agree) does not imply that only mentally disabled children resist learning the three Rs.

It would seem that you haven't met many children whose love of learning is channeled into narrow, esoteric interests; I've met tons. Families share genes; friends share personality traits; family and friends do not represent the gamut of personality types. People don't realize this, think they've seen everything, and then make toxic judgments about other parents.


Glen, on a different thread, puts it beautifully:
"There is a value conflict between the little people my kids are today and the adults they will one day become. The little people fight for what they value today, but who represents the adults they will become?

"That has to be me. I'm like an agent representing the interests of faraway clients with whom I can't communicate. I have to do my best to figure out what they would want me to do and act on their behalf while still protecting the interests of the kids in front of me. I can't let either side take too much advantage of the other.

"Many years from now I'll meet those adult "clients" face to face and have to justify my actions. There will be some second guessing. They'll have the benefit of hindsight and won't fully understand how things were. But, overall, will they be pleased at how I took care of their interests?

"That's a question I try to keep in mind when deciding how hard to push."

And many other parents as well, especially, I imagine, those of us with kids whose "natural willingness to learn" is focused on a narrow range of esoteric topics.

Unlike the evil schools, we don't try to squeeze out these interests, but we do push, often harder than other parents do--and however much they might frown on us.
But our anarchist home schooler continues to insist that:
Teaching reading is stunningly easy: all you need is a couple books and an adult who can read. sane societies, it is not that big of a deal to get kids to learn the basic things they need to function in society


Teaching a kid to read is really, really, really easy. I strongly suspect that anyone who thinks otherwise has never successfully taught a kid of normal intelligence how to read. It’s easier than changing diapers.
Addressing someone else, he also notes, in reference to Rousseau vs. the Enlightenment philosophers whom he says support his views, that "distinctions matter," and, in reference to a purported division of humankind into neocons or Rousseauists, that "the human race is a wee bit broader than that." 

My final reply (before it became clear that this debate was going nowhere--see below): 
"Distinctions matter."
But not, apparently, when it comes to mental disabilities vs. narrow interests, being highly curious vs. being broadly curious; and objects of natural curiosity vs. skills pertaining to artificial systems like written language.

"The human race is a wee bit broader than that."

But not, apparently, when it comes to learning how to read.
In response, our faith-free scientist professes to believe that he's already addressed these points:
Already settled issues, Katharine: asked and answered, as the lawyers say.
Just like that. If only life were so simple for the rest of us. And if only more people would realize that it simply is not.


Deirdre Mundy said...

Ummm... his grasp of history seems off. Most civilizations have had to resort to beatings to get the majority of children to do their schoolwork/chores/apprenticeships and whatnot.

And even my bright, cheerful homeschooler needs extra motivation when things get "hard" or she'd rather blow off school and play all day. In our house, that takes the form of "No screen time until you do everything on the list -- and if you don't finish, no screen time at all."

I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to motivate a kid who can be entertained by ceiling fans and light switches! I mean, short of locking him in a box (child abuse!) how to you get your mischevious, defiant son to buckle down while keeping your own sanity?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I strongly support science projects and other project-based learning, even though it was sometimes a lot of work to get my son to do projects. Writing projects (mainly in history classes) were particularly difficult for him.

He learned a lot from them, though, far more than from an equivalent amount of time spent on "ordinary" classwork or schoolwork.

Oh, and I mean *individual* projects. He's not learned much from group projects except in theater.

FMA said...

Projects can be good or bad, depending on the project. Making papier mache planets is hugely time consuming and about all you get out of it is knowing the names of the planets. It's a lot of time in for very little out. Projects need to be designed so that the time and effort put in is more proportional to the knowledge gained.

Anonymous said...


I really appreciated your comments over there, probably because I completely agree with them.

The projects of grade school used to make my blood boil. There was no way most children could do them without massive parental intervention. The instructions were often too long and too specific. Each instruction (i.e. write a summary of the book on the side of the shoebox!) was a project in itself and would take longer than the entire project should have taken.

Again, I really appreciated your measured responses on the KTM thread. I don't think I would have been as civil, so I stayed out of it.


Amanda said...

On differing levels of motivation: I once asked the head of a very highly selective girls' school whether she thought her school should go co-ed. Her reply was no, on the grounds that the job of a good girls's school in her bracket was to defuse the pressure that bright adolescent girls create for themselves, whereas the job of the corresponding boys' school was to create the pressure that bright adolescent boys mostly don't.

Chris said...

I'd like to stick up at least a little bit for that KTM commenter.

I agree with you that it's presumptuous to criticize someone's parenting choices when you don't know that person's child, because different kids need different things.

But, for most parents, I think, two things are going into parenting decisions. First, there's the parent's knowledge of the individual child. Second, there are the parent's predispositions about parenting, about how people learn, about how the world works, about value tradeoffs, etc.

As to the former, you have to assume the parent knows best. But the latter seems like fair game for disagreement. If it weren't, we could never have any debates about education.

I don't know of any parents whose decisions are driven solely by (1) and not at all by (2). It would be rare to find someone entirely unschooling one child while being very interventionist with another.

I can't speak for the KTM dad, but as I understand it, the unschoolers' basic idea is that you shouldn't use coercion without a really good reason and a high degree of certainty that the benefits will outweigh the costs. That doesn't strike me as such a bad principle.

In the end, we're all guessing. You look at a child who seems to have no interest in skills that are essential to independent living and conclude that you need to intervene. You may be right, but you can't be sure. Maybe the child would eventually have shown interest in those things; maybe your interventions will backfire and make the child more resistant to those topics; maybe you'll succeed with those topics but the child will miss an opportunity to learn to take responsibility for his own life. Or maybe KTM dad's kids will end up with huge gaps in their knowledge and deficits in their ability to function in the world. Or maybe your kids and his kids will all turn out great, but would both have suffered if they had switched places. Nobody can be sure.

Since we live in a society where the interventionist mindset so completely dominates the discussion that many people don't even know there are other ways to think about education, I appreciate hearing the other point of view from people like the KTM dad, even if he is too confident that he's right.

Katharine Beals said...

Good points, Chris. Thanks for your thoughts.

I'd add a couple of points to what you see, however.

I think there's actually a three-way distinction involved here. You mention:

1. "the parent's knowledge of the individual child"
2. "the parent's predispositions about parenting, about how people learn, about how the world works, about value tradeoffs, etc."
I'd subdivide 2 into two parts:
2a. The parent's hypothetical predispositions
2b. How the parent would actually behave should hypothetical circumstances become real.

While quite a lot of parents may *believe* that they would never put a lot of pressure on a child to learn a particular skill, I believe a much smaller subset would actually act on this predisposition should suddenly become the parent of a child who doesn't want to learn an essential skill that involves many years of cumulative practice--like reading or math (arithmetic through algebra).

My prediction, in other words, is that if our unschooling parent actually had a capable 9-year-old child who couldn't read and refused to learn, even with a fair amount of encouragement and explanation as to why reading is important, he would start applying pressure. I predict, further, that however gentle the pressure he starts with, he up that pressure until his child starts complying.

In other words, in this situation, our unschooler would, as you put it, start experiencing a "high degree of certainty that the benefits will outweigh the costs."

But since he hasn't been confronted with anything like this situation, and since he believes it's "stunningly easy" to teach the vast majority of children to read (excepting only the mentally disabled), it's easy for him to pontificate.

But I stand by my prediction about what he would do if confronted with those circumstances that he steadfastly refuses to believe could possibly exist.

Chris said...

Yes, I don't disagree, and again, I don't speak for KTM guy. But I still think there's a difference there -- between someone who waits longer before applying the pressure, and someone who is quicker to do so, and that that's a difference worth thinking about, given the "make 'em learn" world that we live in.

I've really only known one unschooling couple, and one of their kids wasn't reading at age eight. The parents were getting antsy, no doubt about it, but they did hold back. And at age eight the child did start reading, and very quickly caught up to her peers. That's just one person, of course, and there's no way to generalize from the experience. But I do wonder what her experience with reading would have been if she had been pressured into reading at age five or six.

That child appears to be no worse off for having waited, and might have been worse off if she hadn't waited. But maybe another child would be worse off for waiting, and might have trouble catching up. Who can know in advance?

If it were up to me, my kids' elementary school would take a much lighter hand with math. A child of eight who can't read makes me anxious; a child of ten who can't divide by fractions doesn't. I don't see the harm in being patient with math, and waiting until they're a little older and might be able to learn it more easily with less anxiety. I'm afraid the schools are creating a lot of lifelong math-phobes just for the sake of maximizing those third-grade standardized test scores.

Anonymous said...


Schools are creating math phobes by not covering topics long enough for children to develop mastery. The problem is not teaching third graders to divide by fractions. The problem is not requiring them to master material. A child who has been given a weak foundation in division and fractions will struggle with dividing fractions.

There haven't been a lot of studies done on reading early but the few studies that have been done have found that early readers tend to be better readers. Children who learn at 3 are more advanced than children who learn at 4. Children who learn at 4 are more advanced than children who learn at 5. And so on. This 8 year old girl may be reading well but she may actually be behind her peers if actually tested.

Chris said...

Anonymous -- If there are studies that say that, does it follow that *making* kids learn to read at age 3 will produce adults who are better readers? In other words, aren't you confusing correlation with causation? Kids whose parents drive Lexuses also probably have better educational outcomes, but that doesn't mean that making all parents buy Lexuses will improve educational outcomes.