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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Thoughts on Coercion

I read an interesting quote today in Mary Hood's The Relaxed Home School:
There's never any harm in offering to help a youngster read a story, or asking them if they'd like to play a particular phonics game! The harm comes from "forcing" these activities when the children aren't interested!
I'm torn on this issue.

On one hand, there are plenty of things that children are not particularly interested in (or self-motivated toward) doing that I feel completely comfortable and justified in "forcing" for their own healthy development and, frankly, for the sanity of those around them. I don't care if they don't feel like following good hygiene or nutrition or manners; it's not something I'm willing to make optional. And if that makes me a monster amongst the more radical of the unschoolers, so be it.

On the other hand, I can give countless anecdotal examples of vibrant and exciting child-led learning as compared to the drudgery and resistance to the compulsory and passive lectures and rote-regurgitation that are so often passed off as "education". I've seen time and time again how a child who is in a defensive mode will not learn. So I get that, too.

The real issue—as with most things, I'm finding—is navigating a healthy and sane balance between two well-meaning but ultimately damaging (if only by the sake of their extremism) extremes. And as with all balance issues, it's a constant dance of assessing, readjusting, and living with awareness of the moment. Here's a moment from our recent experience.

We were busy outside, but doing our various things. I was in the garden, C was tinkering with his go-kart, and T went on a walk in the woods. When T returned, he was very excited to show me what he'd been doing. He had a notebook in one hand and an assortment of small items in the other. It seems that my little naturalist had found items of interest and sketched them in his book.

I was so unbelievably proud.

I asked him to tell me about his pictures, which he did. He also produced the original items, to show me what had inspired each drawing. He was a little self-critical about his drawing skills, but I praised his effort and his interest in this self-motivated project.

And then I ruined it.

T is very reluctant to practice writing, spelling, or reading skills. I'm not sure why...but I've already seen one of his older brothers go through a similar stage...where he has the aptitude, but not the interest, in pursuing literacy. I'm usually laid-back about this, assuring him (and reminding myself) that he will read when he is ready, and doing plenty of positive modeling (reading to, and in front of, him) in the meantime. But for some reason, I decided that this was a perfect opportunity to turn his self-led project into a springboard for a Mom-led lesson. I suggested, then encouraged, then cajoled, and finally insisted, that he label his sketches.

I could just keep these photos in the scrapbook and let them tell their own story, but the true story was not one of those harmonious homeschool moments that we all strive for, and assume everyone else is busy living. He pouted. And sulked. And refused. And whined. And huffed. And eventually cried. And me? Oh I stopped respecting his interest and got frustrated with him. Said things like, "You Can do this, you just Won't!" and other not very peaceful pressure statements.

It was not our best moment, and I regret it.

I honestly thought at the time that it would be no big deal. A few months ago, he took it upon himself to start a dinosaur scrapbook, and he labeled many of his entries either with my help or by copying from another source. This was surely the same thing, right?

No. It wasn't. And I took his joyful project and sucked the fun out of it. Turned it into Work and made him hate it. And it made me question not just that exchange, but my entire philosophies of parenting and learning.


  1. Aww, Heather. Honestly, I don't think T is at an age where you should be worried about it. I would say, try to stimulate an interest in letters, but don't force it. I get the pressure there is, because in the US these days, kids start reading in school at like 4 or 5 (which is just nuts, really). My younger sister is very disapproving of the fact that my son will be 7 soon, and still doesn't read, and has not had it at school yet. Frankly, the real reading won't even happen for him until NEXT year, in 2nd grade, because that is how they do it at the Waldorf school. Sam was not ready for this any sooner- and he is now. I tried to encourage it early, and got lukewarm reactions (his sister is now deeply into letters, and possibly knows more of them than he does, so I have suspicions she will read sooner than he did- but she has always been motivated by him and what he can do). Really, I think you have the right attitude. Try to encourage it- but don't push it- the more you push, the more he will resist. And you can't MAKE a kid learn to read- so don't try. Give him all the opportunities to gather the tools for it, and he will come to it on his own. If it doesn't happen for another year or so, so what? Your school curriculum does not depend on his ability to read a textbook, so don't sweat it. Just my 2 cents

  2. My kids were early readers and are mathematically adroit (in the latter, esp. the 6 yr old). So people leave me alone and assume I must be doing something "right". It really irritates me because I think of how many other kids take longer for some (culturally-obsessed-upon) skill and how those parents/carers are pressured to "make" their kids perform. It's not fair and it's silly and potentially hurtful.

    And it made me question not just that exchange, but my entire philosophies of parenting and learning.

    Well then I think it was a GOOD thing. :-)

    For me at least, the times I screw up as a parent are the times I go back to the drawing board and look up some better ideas and find good support (and usually, write and write and write). I hope you can do the same or find a way to make some lemonade. Questioning our (husband and I) deeply-held parenting stuff has made us far better parents and more fun people and happier husband and wife, even!

    Go easy on yourself. Your mistake was pretty small potatoes, don't you think? Even the most awesome radical unschooler (or whatever) screws up. Personally I think it's because we have been trained by our family of origin and our culture and it's hard to break the training while we're in the thick of it, raising and caring for our little ones.

    Your T. will have a great time next time, and you likely won't interfere in the same way, but will be all the more present and helpful and enjoy the moment. (Probably)!

    Thanks for the anecdote!


  3. Aw, don't worry too much about me, girls. I'm not flagellating over this. I look on it very much as a learning experience, and although it bothers me that I felt it important to push past his resistance, I haven't been beating myself up so much as trying to figure out *why* I did that.

    I do believe, BTW, that there are definitely times to do that pushing...but not when it steals the kid's thunder. I'll do better next time, I'm sure. :)