Should we “push” our children to learn?

Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning

I’m going to start critiquing some of the homeschool methodology/philosophy books I’ve read. Oliver Van DeMille (along with his wife Rachel) created the Leadership Education method, also know by the title of Oliver’s first book on the subject A Thomas Jefferson Education. I have garnered much from this philosophy. However, there are several points that I question from my perspective of a Contemplative Homeschool. I will discuss one such issue here: whether we should “push” our children to learn or wait “until they are ready.”

The DeMilles take up the question on pages 20-23 of Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning. They are criticizing the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky “taught that teachers should observe students playing and intervene at a sign of interest to push them beyond their comfort level.” The Demilles argue that this works with adults, but not small children. They say that pushing kids teaches these lessons, among others:

  • “Learning is what I am forced to do by others when I’d rather be enjoying what I discover myself “
  • “I do not know anything unless someone certifies to me that I do.”
  • “The things I am really interested in are not very important.”
  • “When I am a Mom/Dad I will worry and ‘beat myself up’ about what I am not doing and wonder if I should be doing what I am doing.”
  • “The faster I grow up, the better.”
  • “Once I am a Mom/Dad I will not need to study any more.”

Now, I admit that many adults in our culture seem to have learned these lessons. But DeMille does not provide evidence that being pushed to learn is what created these attitudes–particularly young children being pushed to learn.

Let’s look at an area outside academics where parents often push their children–chores. If we push young children to clean up after themselves, will they develop an aversion to work that they wouldn’t have had otherwise? Will they lack initiative as adults, because no one is pushing them any longer? Is modelling (which not only the DeMilles, but I believe in) enough to motivate kids to clean up? Should every chore be made a game, or only required if a child naturally enjoys it? If not, why is academics different?

I don’t wait to give my boys chores until they are “ready”–in the sense that they want to help without being asked. Yes, toddlers do like to pitch in a bit, but I need more help than that. I have specific chores that need to be done. And I don’t like them all myself and can’t pretend that I do. But I do try to suit chores to their ages and temperaments as much as I can.

The DeMilles worry that pushing promotes pride and competition. I believe pride and competition are inborn, and some children (one of my boys, in fact) have them in spades. They come partly from original sin, but in other respects are not unhealthy. Being competitive motivates children to strive for greatness. Trying to excel–even to be the best at something–is not bad. Thinking your worth depends on your achievement is. We should start teaching our children at an early age that their worth is intrinsic and comes from God–but that’s a mature concept the young mind can’t fully grasp.

In general, I think the book poses a false dichotomy between pushing and inspiring. It implies that the parent who pushes her kids in the early years has no time to continue her own education or take care of herself or her household. Actually, you could teach for only 30 minutes a day and push hard during that time.

What do you think?

Connie Rossini

Note: Make sure you get your free e-book, Five Lessons from the Carmelite Saints That Will Change Your Life. I think you’ll love it.


8 Responses

  1. SaintlySages

    I see a trend in many US public school districts to lower the bar on achievement by guaranteeing successful grades. At the same time, higher education has become a lucrative big business that makes advanced degrees an easy, but expensive, commodity to obtain. I wonder whether this turn of events has really benefited students and/or contributed positively to the common good. Or is it a shiny apple with a worm inside. God bless!

  2. Michelle

    While I am unfamiliar with this book, I believe that all children are different and have unique needs. I know I hate the feeling of pushing (sometimes an indicator), but have those that seem to need more nudging than others. Natural consequences are important. If you don’t do your chores, you can’t do such and such. If you don’t learn math, you may not be able to…..

    I do agree that inspiration is important. How do we keep our children zealous? Sometimes, there are specific reasons for weakness. (i.e. depression, family problems, health problems, personality defects, etc.) Both emotional and spiritual health are the foundation to everything else. If my daughter is not emotionally or spiritually healthy, it doesn’t matter what kind of housekeeper or scholar she becomes, she will struggle to be happy. What we want for our children is “To be happy and pleasing to God.” Taken from Louis Martin (Therese) right? I have had to let go of what I thought was important to nurture a broken spirit (divorce,deployment, etc.), including my own.

    Now, I am not kidding, as I am typing this, my 20 year old daughter is washing dishes, with no knowledge of what I am reading or typing, and begins to comment the following:

    “I’m so glad I gave this book (All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot) a chance. It’s weird how like when you are ready for something, compared to when you’re not. When you first tried to make me read this book (high school), I grumbled because I didn’t like it. But now that I have realized my love for animals, and developed a love for reading (reading didn’t get really going until 16 or so), I was ready to read it and I love it!”

    After 23 years of parenting, I can see the results of both pushing and letting it go for a time. I am convinced by the outcome of both.

    Even adults learn better when the time is right. Take an addict for example; they will not learn sobriety until they are truly ready. Some though, learn by force, but I don’t believe it’s as fruitful.
    “So by their fruits you will know them.” Matthew 7:20

    God is good. He often encourages me with my own words and I am convinced of my path….once again.
    God bless you today. Michelle

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I often observe that a person must be open to learning and to God, or he will just keep his distance. We certainly can’t make our kids learn anything they don’t want to. So I let them have a certain amount of say in what we study in a broad sense and how our individual days go. But I find that the self-motivation to learn often comes after some pushing. This is particularly true in reading. None of my boys has liked phonics, so I have “pushed” (a loaded term) them in that. But once they get to a certain skill level in reading, my modelling and their own pleasure is enough to make them avid readers. Not that they will necessarily always want to read the same material as I want them to–but I tend to be pretty flexible in that.

      • Michelle

        I agree that “pushed” is a loaded term. Have you seen the synonyms for it? I’m thinking each family and member thereof has needs special to them. Less force is good for us, at least for now. God gives us a special grace to know instinctively what our children need, if only we trust the small voice. Thank you Connie; I loved this conversation and you are welcome too.

  3. Loyd McIntire

    I feel we must push our children to excel. Mediocrity doesn’t advance people in the world that we live in. Our standards must be high and we must pass these standards on to our children.

  4. Manny

    I’m with you. If you don’t push children then they won’t do it. Sure there are different levels of pushing and different means of pushing. I can’t speak for the best strategies, but I doubt all those illiterate people complained that they were pushed too hard and that’s why they stopped learning. I find some of these “intellectuals” that pontificate to be so dumb.

    • Connie Rossini

      As I wrote to Michelle, I combine requiring and inspiring. I don’t believe learning should be dreary, but adventurous. After all, why do I love it? But we all encounter things we must do that we’d rather not–no matter how old we are. School-age children aren’t toddlers. I don’t want them to grow up thinking the world revolves around their likes and desires.

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