Teach Your Children Well

Okay, okay, put your hands down and retract your tongues if you have a strong reaction to the title of this post. Take a deep breath . . . in with the peach, out with the green. There you go. Let me explain.

For several years, I have advocated the importance of a parent allowing a child the freedom to learn what they want, when they want, and how they want, without the parent being focused on "teaching." After a few fits and starts, and with a bit of work, many parents can get to a place where they understand the value of allowing that level of freedom, and are able to trust their child's decisions even if it appears that no learning is taking place, at least when viewed through a traditional school lens. Once you are able to stop being an impediment to learning for your children and start being a resource and enabler, it becomes easier to see the growth and development of not only what they learn, but the ways and frequencies with which they learn it. It is amazing, wonderful, liberating, and simply enjoyable.

But sometimes we forget that our children may need something slightly different.
Sometimes, instead of needing us to get out of the way, they need us to lead a little bit. That can take many forms, from asking questions that prompt them to explore new directions to strewing new and potentially exciting ideas around the house, like books, games, videos, or maps. Now, they may never outright ask us for something new, although of course they might do just that. More often, they demonstrate that they want to learn or focus on something different, sometimes by wandering aimlessly around the house or quickly flipping from thing to thing without engaging. At times like this, a well placed "do you want to . . . " or "have you ever thought about . . . " can help catalyze a new interest that they may need some help exploring, at least initially.

For many parents who believe in natural learning (or unschooling, or whatever other moniker you prefer) it is pretty easy to understand the benefits of helping to prompt and perhaps even guide a child in a new direction. Prompting and guiding is one thing. But what if your child flat out asked you to teach them something? How does someone who believes in learning instead of teaching react then?

Let me share an example. Last night, Kade invented a new game. On it's face, it seemed pretty simple and fun. He took a sheet of paper and divided it into 64 equal squares, and then numbered each square. He and I used chess pawns as our game pieces, and then took turns drawing two playing cards each from a deck, adding the numerical value of the cards together, and then moving our pieces the appropriate number of squares. As we got closer to the 64th square, we decided that we needed to land exactly on #64 to win, and that we could use only one of the cards instead the total of the two once we got close. Now, an 8x8 numbered grid makes things pretty easy, if you think about it. If I needed to move eight squares, well that was just moving down one space. If I needed to move ten, that was down one and over two, because eight and two equals ten. Oh, the permutations . . . we tried the game several ways, at one point starting from different ends so that one of us had to subtract and the other had to add. It was great fun.

All this time, Kai was playing a game in the other room but was asking periodic questions that indicated he was interested. Kade was beginning to lose interest, but by this time I had gotten my math on and wanted to do more. So I asked a simple question:

"Hey, have you guys ever heard of a type of math called algebra? Yes? I bet I could teach you algebra in about three minutes, if you're interested. Anyone wanna learn some?"

Kade moved on to something else, but Kai sprang up and came right over. For the next half an hour, and with some gentle hints from Ginger, I "taught" him all of the basic arithmetic he needed to be able to do algebra - and then we moved even further. He's always been able to add, subtract, and multiply pretty well in his head, especially for a kid who has never really worked at math. But by the end of our time together, he was adding and subtracting complex numbers up to eight places. He was able to identify and use the patterns behind a times table, and learn about associative and distributive rules. He was able to work with basic algebraic equations to isolate the variables and "solve for x". We also got into exponents and square roots. Maybe we'll move on to division and the order of operations next; maybe not. But a hint about our next direction came directly from him:

"I love this stuff . . . I need this . . .this is so good for my brain . . . I want more!"

When I think about all of the reasons I love free learning, and there are many, the one that strikes the greatest chord with me is this: by choosing when, where, how, and what to learn, children will develop a passion for - perhaps an addiction to - the act of learning itself. If we accept that people love to learn, and that they especially love to learn something that brings them joy and hold their interest, then it follows that such feelings of joy will be contagious to them. They will never stop at just one subject or just one topic. They have felt the spark that comes from digging deeply into a subject, exploring new territory, finding new applications, playing with new ideas and the feelings that always seem to follow. That becomes a switch that is impossible to turn off, because they have ignited the spark of a love for learning.

Sometimes, they can do it all on their own. Sometimes, they need new ideas and methods. And sometimes they want to be taught. If you're an unschooling/natural learning family, please don't be afraid to teach your children new skills, tasks, or ideas. And don't be afraid to ask them periodically if they would like to learn new things - and if they would like you to be the one that helps them learn or teaches them. Remember, child-led learning means they get to choose -and sometimes, they choose to be taught.


  1. Some very good points here. The thing I am finding wonderful about unschooling is the insatiable curiosity I see in my children. My oldest is only 5 but he is so curious about the world and I am always surprised at what is interesting to him. I do try to ask him, when his interest is perked, if he would like to learn more about it. Sometimes the answer is yes, but sometimes it is a definite no! I find myself in a "teacher" role sometimes, but it is always natural, never forced, and never boring.

  2. Great post. I was actually just talking about how "teaching" isn't necessarily the root of all evil when it comes to unschooling. :)

  3. Espi, Lisa and IsabellaFebruary 23, 2011 at 2:42 PM

    Wait, can you teach me the basics of algebra?