When you start to think they’re not learning anything…


We all have those days, right? Especially after we’ve met the parents of a five-year-old violin virtuoso who speaks five languages, is training for his first triathlon, and reads at a grade seven level. We look at our seven-year-old who kinda, maybe knows the alphabet song, spent all day yesterday chucking rocks in to a river, and plans to spend today building pillow forts and we wonder… are we doing enough? Are they learning anything? Maybe they’re not learning anything! Maybe I need to buy Math-U-See, Explode-the-Code, sign them up for French lessons, find a guitar teacher…

We all panic. We’ve all been there, and will be there again, alas. Here are some strategies that help me keep my sanity when the demons of doubt attack:

1. I compulsively write down everything we’re doing and learning. Maybe for a day, maybe for a week or a month… until I realize our life is too full for me to waste time documenting its minutae (then I shift back to documenting just the really funny).

Less compulsively, but regularly, I do keep a journal of our days at our boring blog, Nothing By The Book Days, where I record books read, movies watches, games played, field trips, classes, etc. And when I start to panic that “We’ve done nothing!” I scroll through the blog entries and see that we’ve done a hell of a lot… and we’re now going through a quiet, fallow period, which is just as necessary to learning and growing as periods of excitement and stimulation.

2. I implement “Learn Nothing Day.” This is really fun―and not my idea, by the way, I’ve appropriated it from a poster on Unschooling Canada years ago, if it’s you, raise your hand so I can give credit where credit is due. I decide that this Tuesday, my kids are going to LEARN ABSOLuTELY NOTHING. And then sit back and watch how by 9:15 a.m.―provided we got up that early!―the little bums wrecked Learn Nothing Day by learning something.

3. I give Mom a project. See, most of the time, the anxiety isn’t from the kids or about the kids―it’s me, right? The anxiety and worry’s mine. I need a project. So I give myself a project: a Nature Journal. A photo or art project. And I do it―and invite the kids to participate in it with me. Sometimes they do―sometimes they don’t―they’re “too busy” doing other things. And that makes me look at what they’re doing more closely. Look! They’re doing stuff! Creative stuff! They’re learning! I chill.

4. I put something into the daily rhythm that makes me feel like we’re doing something that really looks like learning. Handwriting. Reading Story of the World or Horrible Science. Mathletics. Now, I should offer a caveat: this strategy can backfire. Briefly, while you might feel like you’re doing something and they’re learning something―they might think you’re being coercive and resist on principle… and you may end up reinforcing that whole “learning is something people force you to do and it sucks” thing. So if you can put something on the table that makes you feel like they’re learning―and they feel like they’re planning and loving it―great. If it feels forced, resisted―reconsider.

Ideally, go to strategies 1, 2, and 3 instead. Implement one or all. Rotate through them. Sooner or later, the demons of self-doubt back off. Often on the day when your eight-year-old spontaneously explains to someone how multiplying by 8 is just like multiplying by 4 twice. Or brings up tectonic plate theory casually in conversation. Or asks you if JK Rowling read Lord of the Rings. Or wonders if the Odyssey is story or myth… and you go and grab The Children’s Homer off the shelf, and he grabs the latest Percy Jackson book, and you compare them, and then you go get that Kirk Douglas movie from the library…

Adapted from October 27, 2009, Unschooling Canada.


3 responses to “When you start to think they’re not learning anything…

  1. I listen to those moms with “have tos” in their day – imposing them on their children and think how lucky we are. Then I make popcorn and join mine in whatever they are doing. 😊 Sandra Dodd started Learn Nothing Day and it is a specific date. But I like the idea of implementing it when the “worries” creep into my brain. Thank you!

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