Home Education Magazine
January-February 1998 - Columns
Homeschooling Dads - Jeff Kelety
Notes From a Homeschooling Dad
The other morning, Myles, our six-year-old, stood precariously with one foot on a counter stool and the other on the counter's edge. He was writing on the kitchen calendar with a very determined look. I made a mental note to lower the calendar to kid height, then stepped forward to read his entry.
"Do nothing", I remarked, a little puzzled. "What does 'Do nothing' mean?"
"It means", Myles explained with some impatience, "that all week long we have forgotten to bake the apple pie and I don't want us to do anything else today until we have baked the apple pie."
You can be sure that the first thing we did that morning was to bake up an apple pie. It turned out pretty good, too, and all the better since Myles rolled and set the crust and the apples came from our own backyard. But what stood out most in my mind from that morning's Epicurean activity was the insight of a six-year-old to intentionally plan to "do nothing". Could he be on to something here? I reflected how my own plans for accomplishment are more often than not eclipsed by the endless flurry of everyday tasks. So maybe next Thursday evening between 11 and 12 PM I'll "plan to do nothing" and see what comes of it.
Myles' peculiar calendar entry came on the heels of a video-taped lecture series that a number of us viewed at recent gatherings of the homeschool parent support group. The lectures, Developing Capable People, were presented by Stephen Glenn co-author, with Jane Nelson, of Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World. Among the many nuggets of wisdom related in this series is one that I found rather cryptic at first. "Do nothing, conscientiously", Glenn admonished the parents in the audience. Excuse me? Had Myles seen this video already?
The background for Glenn's obtuse encouragement stems from his belief that contemporary urban and suburban life have left today's children with little that they meaningfully contribute to family life. Mom and Dad head to the office, kids head to school and all that we need comes from Safeway or Target stores.
As recently as 1940, however, prior to the onset of WWII, the population of America was made up of 70% rural, agrarian families. As such, children played a much more significant role in the day-to-day running of the family household. There were animals to feed, gardens to care for and crops to harvest. Every able-bodied family member - and that most certainly meant children - had his or her work to do. Children of that era, argues Glenn, grew up in an atmosphere where they experienced themselves more fully as capable, valued contributors to the life of the family. By contrast, today's demographics show just the inverse. Census figures reveal that 70% of our families live in more socially fragmented urban environments. Glenn demonstrates that this dramatic cultural shift parallels national statistics showing that our young people experience themselves as less capable, increasingly powerless and possessing lower self-esteem.
Intuitively, this decline in feelings of self worth rings true for me. Not only is the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to communal life generally lacking for children today, but it seems that at every turn, our young people are being told what to do. In schools they are told when to read, when to write, when to do math, when to eat, even when to go to the bathroom. Perhaps at home, the experience at times is not all that different. Clean your room. Brush your teeth. Wear your coat. Put your shoes on. Maybe it's no real surprise, after all, that our children are finding it difficult to experience themselves as capable individuals: we are treating our children just like children, not as uniquely capable contributors to our corporate life.
The result is that many young people today have forfeited (or have been relieved of) taking greater responsibility for their own lives. In so doing they have also postponed their passage to adulthood. Writers such as Grace Llewellyn in Teenage Liberation Handbook, Susan Littwin in The Postponed Generation and John Holt in Teach Your Own have made much the same point.
So what can we do to help fix this? Glenn makes the important point that in the absence of earlier social structures and support systems, parents need to be particularly mindful of empowering their children as capable individuals. This means that fundamentally we must first think of and see our children as capable. Polly Berrien Berends in Whole Child/Whole Parent makes the astute observation that our children "feed on our consciousness". So the first act of fostering capable people is developing the belief that our children are, in fact, capable individuals. This may at first blush seem obvious, but I believe the attitude that "children must be seen and not heard" is far more pervasive culturally then we may like to believe.
Second, wherever practical, Glenn encourages parents to let children learn from the consequences of their own actions. Glenn doesn't advocate ignoring your children. Instead, he suggests, we employ a strategy for "checking in" with our kids. Rather then pointing out every task or item that your child has neglected, try a check-in question like, "Do you have everything you need to be comfortable on today's hike?" or "What are you plans for getting ready for bed?" Should your child forget their jacket for the morning, simply let them go without one if it is not harmful to do so. A morning spent uncomfortably cold can be a much more powerful and internal learning device than a parental reminder. The process of "checking-in" may appear to be a subtle difference from something like, "Don't forget your jacket." But it is important in several respects. First, it places the responsibility for capable behavior on the child. Second, this form of communication reinforces a respect for the child as a capable individual. In my own life, I recall with some sadness that to her dying day, my very loving mother would ask me, "Have you eaten today?" I was 36 at the time of her death, and the message to me was that I was in her eyes still a child, not a capable person.
Finally, Glenn suggests, if you find yourself in a situation where you simply can not think of something to say that would encourage your child's perception of themselves as a capable person, then simply "Do nothing, conscientiously". Perhaps more often than we realize, doing nothing may be the best response, relying instead, on your child's own intelligence and resourcefulness.
Homeschooling, and unschooling in particular, offer a very natural and supportive environment for the development of capable individuals. Interest-led learning places the responsibility for the learning process squarely on the child, where it belongs. In this vein, Earl Stevens recently wrote in the fall issue of Home Education Magazine, "The most important qualities for living the good life reside naturally in children, like independent thought, self-confidence, curiosity, and a great capacity for wonder and delight...We can protect and nourish these qualities by giving up dependence on authority and on the opinions of others so that we are free to proceed naturally, with authenticity."
In the same issue, long-time homeschoolers Dr. and Mrs. Raymond Moore, among others, offer two related homeschooling tips: 1) Grant authority commensurate with responsibility and 2) Balance studies daily with entrepreneurship and service. The Moores' focus on "entrepreneurship and service" can be an exciting and potentially life changing component of the homeschooling experience, as well as one that adds to a child's experience of being a capable person.
The opportunities are boundless. Myles and I have begun volunteering together at the Marine Science Center. The youngest of MSC volunteers, Myles ably, as any six-year-old could, cleans tanks, feeds the fish and helps instruct visiting school children. It's been a wonderful experience together. And the possibilities for a family business (anything from a lemonade stand on up) can re-introduce entrepreneurial lessons that children were more readily exposed to in earlier times.
We, as homeschoolers, have the unique privilege and opportunity to regard our children's joy and curiosity and engage in an amazing process that at times calls upon us to "Do nothing, conscientiously."
(c) 1998, Jeff Kelety
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