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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.