Teaching versus Parenting

Natural Learning by Kathleen McCurdy

Parents who decide to homeschool their children usually start out with what they are most familiar―school. Being themselves a product of the educational system, they naturally approach their child’s education from that perspective in which they experienced education and with which they feel familiar. So they may decide upon a “school” room or dedicated space in the house, where they can place desks, blackboard, maps, etc. And then they will probably be thinking about the purchase of textbooks, perhaps a complete curriculum, and will start outlining a program or schedule that will include certain hours of the day set aside for “school.” Certainly, if curriculum has been purchased, the family will want an orderly plan for completing it.

One problem with this scenario that emerges almost immediately is that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Housework, visitors, phone calls, younger siblings, all tend to interfere with the “schooling,” and both the “teacher” and the “student” become frustrated. They find themselves falling behind in their program and constantly trying to catch up. After awhile they may wonder if the benefits are really worth the effort.

Another difficulty, that tends to emerge after the novelty and initial enthusiasm begin to wane, is that the child feels uncomfortable when the parent assumes the “teacher” role. The child may grow resentful and may begin to resist the parent’s efforts to educate him, and may even become non-communicative and uncooperative. The “school-at-home” then begins to degenerate into a family struggle that is likely to culminate in placing the child back in public or private school, while the parents wonder why homeschooling didn’t work for them.

What mechanism is at work here? What causes a child, even one who has never attended school, to resent the teaching efforts of the parent? Until now the parent has successfully helped the child to master skills such as speaking, walking, tying shoes, being courteous, and many others. What brings about this sudden breakdown, which even trained teachers experience when trying to teach their own kids? The explanation is quite simple: Children need parents.

When a parent attempts to teach the child, he or she has the tendency to set aside the role of parent and put on the teacher’s hat, so to speak. To the child this may seem devious or even frightening. It threatens a most important relationship which the child cannot afford to lose.

Research reveals that the type of adult-child interaction that takes place in a teaching environment is quite different from normal parent-child conversations and, in fact, is much less useful and informative for the child:

Perhaps the most striking difference between the way in which children talked to their mothers and their teachers was the failure to ask questions in school…. [The children] asked their mothers on average twenty-six questions an hour, but they only asked two questions an hour of their teachers.… Of those questions that were asked at school, a much smaller proportion were ‘curiosity’ questions and ‘why’ questions, and a much larger proportion were ‘business’ questions of the ‘Where is the glue’ type, than was the case at home.

…The structure of teacher-child conversations was also typically very different from conversations at home. At school, the teachers contributed much more to the conversation than did the children, while at home the contributions of mother and child were more nearly matched. Staff conversations with children characteristically took the form of a series of questions organized round the educational objectives of assessing and fostering the children’s language and thinking…. This educational approach seemed to choke off the children’s own questions, and their spontaneous talk to adults. The children asked very few questions, especially ‘Why’ questions at school. [1]

The teaching parent has a definite goal in mind and tries to draw the child toward it. But the nurturing parent intends only to facilitate the child’s own learning endeavors, knowing that important skills will come, and vital questions will be asked, all in due time.

The nurturing parent has a definite goal in mind also, that of helping the child to grow and develop to his or her fullest potential. Whereas the teaching parent’s goal seems t be that of prodding the child to become what the parent and society have determined is the expected norm.

Watch a mother with her one-year-old sitting on her knee in front of a collection of toys; a large part of her time is devoted to such quietly facilitative and scene-setting activities as holding a toy that seems to require three hands to manipulate, retrieving things that have been pushed out of range, clearing away those things that are not at present being used in order to provide the child with a sharper focus for this main activity, putting things next to each other that she knows the child will enjoy combining (such as nesting beakers), turning toys so that they become more easily grasped, demonstrating their less obvious properties, and all along molding her bosy in such a way as to provide maximum physical support and access to the play material.

…The amount of time mothers spent in directly teaching their children was surprisingly small. Instead of plain instruction they tended to employ various “low-keyed facilitative techniques” that aimed generally to encourage the child’s activity― suggesting things for him to do, helping him when in difficulty, supplying needed materials, participating in his activity, admiring his achievements, and so on…. A nondirecting parent who accepts a child’s behavior― both verbal and nonverbal― facilitates the child’s progress in language acquisition. But in those cases where the parent takes a highly active role and directs his child, his behavior has an “interference effect” that delays the acquisition of new verbal skills. [2]

Most parents seem to realize that we can’t “teach” a child to talk or walk. We have to let him learn when he’s ready, and offer help only when he needs it. Sometimes we convince ourselves that they never would have learned to use the bathroom (or some other skill) without our help but usually this is not realistic. Eventually, most children acquire whatever skills their parents encourage them to develop― give or take a few due to differences in individual aptitude― provided the parents use such skills themselves.

Those parents who are most successful at educating their children then are those who have managed to forget most of what school is all about, who have not tried t “teach,” but have facilitated learning by nurturing and, in a word, parenting their children. The child, after all, is born motivated to learn. We cannot add anything to that fact, except o interfere with the process. Leslie Hart presents a marvelous illustration of this:

Picture my neighbor and me standing in a tulip bed in February. “I have planted fifty tulips here,” I inform him. “How can I motivate them to come up in the spring?”

The question is, of course, absurd in such a context. My tulips need proper planting, reasonably good soil, and the heat that warmer weather will bring. I can ‘de-motivate’ them in a number of ways― by piling a foot of earth on the bed, or putting down planked flooring, or spreading various chemical agents. But the motivation to grow is in the bulbs. So are the precise instructions as to how to form leaves and construct blossoms…. Learning, in humans, can readily be blocked, impeded, discouraged, or fostered, facilitated, encouraged― as we hardly need a specialist to tell us. But the one thing we don’t have to do is motivate.

What a wonderful picture! Watching our children grow and learn is like watching a bed of tulips come into bloom. We can nourish their mind by answering their questions, and we can water their spirit by giving them many memorable experiences. How they will use this in the shaping of their “leaves and blossoms” we cannot tell, but we know that they will be fully equipped to survive in our society. In fact, telling seven-year-old Johnny that it’s time he learned to read because five-year-old Jeannie is already doing so is about as useless as telling the tulips to bloom because the buttercups are already blooming!

[1] Tizard & Hughes, “Young Children Learning,” 1984, Harvard University Press, pages 200, 213
[2] Rudolph Schaffer, “Mothering,” 1977, Harvard University Press, p. 73