This morning, as I walked through the harborside park near my home, I watched a mother and her young child who were also enjoying the warm sunshine. The little girl had on an immaculate white dress, white socks and shiny black shoes. Oblivious to what her activities might do to her clean clothes, she was excitedly watching some worms wriggle through a puddle of water. Gently and with great joy, she was trying to coax one of the worms onto a stick that she patiently held at the edge of the puddle. Unfortunately, her mother dragged her, screaming, away from her science lesson with the admonition that she would wreck her clothes “playing in the dirt.”
I hope (but doubt) that was an isolated action on the part of the mother, since interfering with the natural learning process destroys children’s pleasure in discovery. It also contributes to the compartmentalization of learning and reinforces the myth that we only learn in certain places, during certain hours and when certain people (usually older and wiser than us) are in control.
Adult control of the learning process can also inhibit kids’ fearless approach to problem-solving. We have all seen that sort of interference in action. I still remember vividly an incident that took place over 30 years ago when my two-year-old daughter was trying to put her shoes on. She proudly put the left shoe on the right foot, then determinedly spent ten minutes creating a massive knot in the laces. Her grandmother, no longer being able to watch in silence, said in her peremptory way, “You’re doing it all wrong. Here, Grandma will do it for you!” My daughter burst into tears. Fortunately, I had the courage to intervene because the legacy of that type of “help” left me with a lifelong resistance to trying something new for fear of not being able to do it perfectly well the first time.
When people are fearful, confused or bored, or have been convinced that something is too difficult or messy, or that they are too dumb, they shut down. The surest way to make someone fearful of risk taking is to demonstrate their chance of failing. It is no wonder our schools are full of bored, frustrated, angry, passive children who have lost their ability to question, experience and learn.
This essay was published in Homeschool Australia magazine in 2004.
Photo by Nationaal Archief. Young boys working in the Dutch shoe factory Jan van Arendonk, The Netherlands, Tilburg.