Home Education Magazine
November-December 1997 - Articles
My Kids Won't Let Me Teach
Some homeschooling moms find opportunities for a dozen teaching moments throughout the day and invent a few educational projects per week. These are moms who encourage their children to collect baggies full of things to examine under the microscope during a walk around the block, who design board games that teach math concepts, who use common household ingredients to make volcanoes and rockets, and who take advantage of a morning of gardening to spur a discussion on helpful and nonhelpful bugs. Why can't I do more of these things? Shouldn't I be doing more of these things? I worry about my lack of discipline, my laziness. Am I justifying our lackadaisical approach to homeschooling just because I don't feel like doing it any other way?
The answer is yes, to some extent. I am usually unwilling to be a cheerleader for life's interesting facts, and when I walk around the block, I just want to walk. Also, I dread the thought of planning a project, buying materials, cutting, gluing, laminating, measuring, sewing, hammering, nailing, or digging so we can do an activity that will end up being largely directed and completed by me. For instance, this winter I thought it would be fun for each of us to plant a different kind of bean and have a bean-plant "race. " So, my husband built a planter box and he and I took turns watering, exclaiming enthusiastically over the growth of the plants, graphing each plant's progress, putting up stakes and climbing wires, harvesting the beans, cleaning up dead leaves, and tearing the whole thing down when the plants died. It's not that the kids (Kate and Molly ages 9 and 7) couldn't have done all these things, it's just that my husband and I thought it was more fun than they did. Projects they think up themselves, on the other hand, such as making their own bows and arrows, engage them from start to finish.
Many non-homeschooling moms I know assume we spend the greater part of our home-school days taking advantage of spontaneous teaching moments in which we learn about the world in a series of impromptu science, math, and geography lessons. But most of the time my kids won't tolerate lengthy explanations even on subjects about which they're already curious. At this point, they mostly want short, simple answers to their questions. For example, if Molly asks why birds don't get electrocuted on the power lines, telling her the wires are covered with rubber is enough. If I were to "teach to the moment" by talking about other materials that do or do not conduct electricity, or how nice it would be if we could get all our electricity from the sun, she would probably tune me out and be wary of asking me questions in the future.
I do try to nab "teaching moments" as we move through our day, but if I begin an explanation of, say, where mangoes are grown while putting them in our shopping cart, my children protest, "Mom! ! We don't care! We just like to eat them! " Or I might be reading them a children's magazine, and although they usually reject articles that look text-bookish, I'll try to interest them beyond the picture-captions by saying enthusiastically "Oh look at this glacier! Did you know that glaciers are formed by millions and millions of years of snow and ice. . ." "MOM! " they'll interrupt, "just turn the page!" It's not that they have no interest in the cotton gin or the route of the Pony Express, it's that for now they're only interested in a few highlights. So, unless they ask for more information, I stick to short comments like "these mangoes are grown far away where it's hot all the time" and "aren't those glaciers beautiful?"
From a smorgasbord of possibilities, they pursue their daily activities with little direct involvement from me. Their days are filled with art projects, singing, instrument playing, organized sports, drama productions, reading, riding bikes, swimming, and roller skating. Most of their time, though, is spent playing: playing with soccer balls, softballs, tennis balls, playing with their friends, their animals, their dolls, their dress-up clothes; playing board games and computer games. . In The Seven Lesson School Teacher, John Taylor Gatto says that he became a better teacher as he began to "get out of his students' way "and let them discover their own learning opportunities. I, too, have found that I need mostly to stay out of my children's way. My role is to offer encouragement and advice when requested, provide experiences and materials, include them in the daily business of living, and read them their favorite books about brave, independent girls. But I don't make plot suggestions for plays they create or correct historical inconsistencies in stories they write, I don't make them listen to long explanations of comet behavior, or heaven forbid, make them do stacks of workbook pages. And I don't do these things primarily because if I did I would seriously jeopardize our relationship. I'm afraid they would stop listening to me, stop trusting me, stop loving my company. And I always wonder how project-and-lesson moms maintain harmonious relationships with their children. It doesn't seem possible with my kids.
I respect my children for protecting their limits and their preferences, for knowing and verbalizing what they will tolerate as mental input. Therefore I do not force information on them any more than I would force friends on them or force them to eat food they don't like. And I am sad for school children or school-at-home children who must always be told what to pay attention to. A child's mind, it now seems to me, is a delicate organism, one that can easily be suffocated or dulled by a constant barrage of information it isn't ready or willing to absorb.
So, even though I will probably always grapple with self-doubt when I read HEM articles about parents who develop their own Egyptology units, I need only begin elaborating on some interesting fact and then listen to my children's inevitable objections ("NO, Mom! I don't want to know about centrifugal force! I just want fifty cents for the ride!"). And it will help me realize, once again, that I need to relax and trust my children: when they want to know something, they'll ask, and when they've heard enough, they'll stop me.
© 1997 Ann Leadbetter
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