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.
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.
...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).
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.Here's part of the extremely long reply I got in response:
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.
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.
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.His reply:
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.
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.
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?But our anarchist home schooler continues to insist that:
"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.
Teaching reading is stunningly easy: all you need is a couple books and an adult who can read.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."
...in 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.
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.In response, our faith-free scientist professes to believe that he's already addressed these points:
"The human race is a wee bit broader than that."
But not, apparently, when it comes to learning how to read.
Already settled issues, Katharine: asked and answered, as the lawyers say.