Why Homeschooling?

This is adapted from an email I recently sent to a friend, who asked, “Why do you plan to homeschool your child?”

Education is informed by parenting and values

When we think about the purpose of parenting, we take a page out of Maria Montessori’s handbook and assume that our Little Lion basically has everything he needs already inside of him to be who he is going to be. It is not our job to give him personality, values or direction in life. Since we brought him into the world through no choice of his own and in a helpless state, it is our job to care for him and aid him in his own natural development so he can achieve independence and be whoever it is he will be. We hope to provide positive models and examples of what kind of person he can be and believe we will inevitably teach him the only thing we can teach him — who we are — by simply being authentic around him, but we don’t see it as our job to select values for him and teach him that he should value them.

We think this is different from a “traditional” parenting model which is built around the idea of the parents instructing the child in a particular set of values so they can become a “good” instance of that kind of person. For example, a Catholic parent might hope to raise a “good Catholic” and make religious values part of the child’s upbringing and instruction. A sports enthusiast might hope to see his child become a “good golfer”, and so instruct the child on the techniques and discipline necessary to excel at the sport. Thinking culturally, a Chinese person might see it as important to raise a “good Chinese child” with all the cultural implications that entails in terms of diet, attitudes toward life, behaviors and interests.. A materialist might think it important to raise a child who is a “good moneymaker”. And so on. We don’t see “goodness” as a goal of our efforts as parents, necessarily.

Our value framework

That being said, we are people and we do have values. We operate within a paradigm of what we see as desirable behavior, values and goals and what we see as opposed or detrimental to those things. This can’t seem to be avoided as thinking, acting beings– every moment we are faced with choices and the act of choosing implies moving toward some things and away from other alternatives. If one’s life has any consistency, these values and choices add up and create some coherence. Our coherence forms around interdependence and voluntaryism. We prefer a paradigm where people interact with one another on a peaceful basis, out of mutual desire and aimed at mutual benefit. This stands opposed to the narrative of “zero sum” and “dog eat dog”, where some must be slaves and some must be masters. We don’t see value in “using” people, which is one reason why we don’t plan to “use” our son to fulfill our own desires to create a good X.

By not pursuing “traditional” parenting, we have to use some other system of values to guide our choices and this is it. It inevitably informs our education decisions.

Education is socialization

Our theory of education is that education inevitably involves two concepts: grasping cause-effect relationships existent in reality and the pattern of facts that occurs as a result, and transmitting a system of values explicitly and implicitly about the role of individuals in society (what people refer to as socialization). Far from naively believing that education should only be about teaching cause-effect and facts, we embrace the reality that it is the very selection of which cause-effect relationships and which facts to focus on in a system of education that is itself a form of meta-socialization, before even formal social instruction is reached.

The intersection of parenting, values and education

Now I will try to put these three pieces together– our desire to give our child sufficient degrees of freedom to realize his inherent potential free of interference or intervention from us or others, our own system of values which idealizes free exchange, and our belief that education accomplishes two things in instructing a student about the nature of reality and also about their social role.

There seems to be an appropriate educational means to each set of values or goals in life. If you want a religious society, you need an education system focused on religious instruction. If you want a democratic society, you need an education system open to all and controlled by the government. If you want a free society, you need an education system (or lack of one!) that acknowledges individual differences and caters to them.

When I think about some of the alternatives we can consider when educating our child, they seem to fall short in various meaningful ways. Public or private, our child’s education will largely be guided by dictates of minimum standards and required instructional curricula handed down by people we don’t know from hundreds of miles away. We are socializing our child to understand that parents don’t have an important role to play in developing and implementing an educational program in their child’s life, this is something that can be given to “society” and its representatives, therefore, the child is to serve society because it is being instructed in things society deems it important for it to learn.

We will be telling our child that what it thinks is interesting, exciting, or important to learn is not germane to the process of education. We will be telling our child that education is something that happens in a prescribed place for a prescribed amount of time under tutelage of people who are “approved to teach.”

This seems like an overly regimented way to approach learning that denies the diversity of learning opportunities we believe actually exist. Our child won’t be able to listen to their own mind and body in knowing when to focus on studying something and when to take a break. And they will be inculcated into a pattern of hoop-jumping and test-taking that will push their sense of self outward, to what other people think about their competencies and capabilities, rather than inward in terms of what they think of these things relative to their values and goals.

It’s possible specific, market-based institutions can serve an educational role in our child’s life at various times and for various reasons, but it’s unlikely our educational habits will ever involve the kind of structure where we say goodbye to our child in the morning and hello in the afternoon, Monday through Friday. Homeschooling seems to meet our needs better.

How we plan to homeschool

So what does our homeschool curriculum look like? There are really only three “subjects” we think it is important we instruct our child in, at his own pace and based on his own developing interest– reading, writing and arithmetic. If our child learns to read, he will be able to follow his own interests by studying texts and other written resources imparting knowledge to any degree he would like. If he can write, he can communicate his ideas in another way besides verbally and improve his ability to connect and exchange with others. And if he can do basic math, he can think about personal circumstances (finance, time-keeping, etc.) and the nature of reality (“science”) in more sophisticated ways. These three disciplines are the fundamental building blocks of all other subjects of human knowledge he might like to instruct himself in. We would encourage him to consider learning these things and make every effort to provide him excellent instruction whenever he desires it until he has competency or mastery over them.

From there, the world is his oyster. He can be a self-guided learner and follow his passions, instincts and curiosities wherever they might lead. And we believe that by creating a paradigm for him from the get go that moves at his pace, he will maintain more innate enthusiasm for learning and growing than if he is faced with a “mandatory curriculum” and told he has to learn things he isn’t interested in and doesn’t care about, which don’t help him solve real problems he is facing. And we believe that by observing us, he will come to see the desirability of reading, writing and arithmetic because it will allow him to have more meaningful interactions with us.

Acknowledging our limits, embracing a child’s potential

Beyond that, we just don’t think we’re competent, as parents, people or anything else, to successfully predict what his life will be like and what knowledge he’ll need to be “successful” at it. As a result, our plan is to put a lot of trust and faith in him to figure it out with limited initial guidance. We’re excited to see who he will become and we hope this approach will be less stressful and more loving for all involved when we let go of the standard parent temptation to fight a child’s nature and try to shape them into something more “desirable” or good, from the parent’s point of view.

And this is why we’re interested in RIE, by the way, we feel it is laying the groundwork for the type of relationship we’re planning to build with our Little Lion, and we think it dovetails with our belief in trusting him to be who he is and giving him the framework and structure to thrive as such.

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Review – How Children Learn

How Children Learn

by John Holt, published 1995

John Holt says the essence of his book can be boiled down to two words: “Trust children.” We hear echoes Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy motto (“slow down”) and Maria Montessori’s “secret of childhood.” If we trust children, what are we trusting they will do and on what basis is the trust being given?

We trust that children will make not only good choices, but the right choices with regards to where they are in their personal development, that they will engage in behaviors and follow curiosities that maximize their ability to learn about themselves and the world around them and how it works. And the basis of this trust is that children are fundamentally competent to be themselves without any additional input, guidance or motivation from parents or other adults, who at best can merely replace the child’s ego with their own.

In reading Holt, I was constantly reminded of my friend’s book, A Theory Of Objectivist Parenting, which asks the reader to consider the philosophical dilemma of how an individual who is treated as incapable and irresponsible for most of their developmental life can suddenly be expected to be a functioning adult with the snap of two fingers. Where lies the magic such that an “animal” child is transformed into a “human” man without the benefit of practice or routine in these modes of thought and action?

Holt believes that children want to learn, and that their behaviors and choices are fundamentally aimed at learning about the important functional relationships of the world around them. They choose their own goals based on their own interests and then determine what preceding knowledge they must obtain to secure their goals. The schooling method, of which Holt is skeptical, involves sequential learning from the basic to the complex, with no object for the instruction other than to master the material. But this is not interesting to most children, because the learning is divorced from a meaningful context (ie, a problem they personally want to solve) and the structuring of the learning often serves to highlight to a child how little he knows about a given field, an unnecessary bruise to a young person’s self-esteem. The result is that children often invest a lot of energy in avoiding learning, rather than engaging with the material, and what they practice is denying their own values and interests rather than gaining competence in knowledge and systems they have no desire to learn.

The ego is so central to Holt’s understanding of how children learn that it almost defies explanation how absent this concern is from most other pedagogical methods! Where did people come up with the idea that the student’s own fascination with the subject (or lack thereof) is irrelevant to the problem of learning? Why should we think it is optimal to follow any path of instruction which ignores this fundamental element? And who is truly being served by such an approach when it clearly can not be the child himself?

A related danger that Holt discusses is attempts to trick children into learning things, by teaching them without them noticing they’re being taught. If the idea is to teach people even if they don’t want to be taught, and if doing so creates resistance to learning, then it does seem logical to try to sneak and cheat the information into children’s minds. But is that respectful, and should we imagine anything else but more failure from continuing to build on such flawed premises?

Holt’s warning is again startling. Children are not aliens who think completely differently from adults. They are simply differently capable people, and their human capacity for reasoning makes it obvious to them, even when they’re very young, when they’re not being treated on the level. How disrespectful to treat another human being this way, with so little concern for their own values and well-being! Imagine trying to “trick” an adult into learning something without their permission or interest, by asking questions one already knows the answers to, or insinuating that something they don’t consider important is actually quite so. Such a person would consider it demeaning to imply they can’t figure out for themselves what deserves their attention and what does not, or that they’re not sharp enough to know they’re being fooled with, and so it is with children.

This is a rich and dense work with many pithy observations I wish I had highlighted the first time through. The author clearly admires children for their potential and their capability alike, and he helps the reader to see children not as helpless, but as empiricists, experimenters and practitioners. The hardest thing for parents and teachers to internalize from this work is the need for them to exercise self-control in light of their penchant for thinking their interventions in the life of children are so critical to the children’s thriving. It appears to be just the opposite!

Why Are Journalists Considered Credible And Authoritative Sources Of Information?

From the blog of Mencius Moldbug, Is journalism official?:

When I think back to when I thought I was getting an accurate history of reality from the Times, I am full of amazement. I mean, when you read the Times, you are reading stories that were written by people. Their names are right there. “Steven Erlanger.” “Don Van Natta.” “Andrew Revkin.”

Do I know these people? Do I trust them? Do I have any reason to believe they are doing anything but feeding me a mile-long crap sausage? Why should I? Is it because they work for an organization called “The New York Times”? What do I know about this organization? How does it select its employees? How and why does it punish or reward them? Do I have any damned idea? If not, why do I trust its correct views on everything? Why not trust the Catholic Church instead? At least its officials make up cool names for themselves, like “Benedict XVI.” Imagine if all Times reporters had to choose a Pope name. Would this make them more, or less, credible?

You can see this quite clearly today when you look at journalists’ Twitter feeds. It is amazing what they put on these for the public to consume. More amazing still that they have any credibility left. Just try it yourself sometime. Read or watch something in the news, then look up the journalist’s Twitter feed and see if you consider what you just read/heard differently after the fact.

Review – Your Self-Confident Baby

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities

by Magda Gerber, Allison Johnson, published 1998

I read YSCB and Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Child Care in rapid succession; while this review will focus on the original work by Magda Gerber (founder of RIE in Los Angeles, CA), I may touch upon a few thoughts and ideas from Lansbury’s book as well.

The advice and ideas espoused in this book rest on two central premises:

  • Major premise; your baby comes built in with the tools it needs to learn and navigate its environment, and will create its own learning problems and discover its own solutions when given freedom to explore the world at its own pace
  • Minor premise; good parenting is less about what you put in early on and more about what you don’t, especially with regards to worry, anxiety and active interventionism

This doesn’t seem that controversial, but if you ask me it flies directly in the face of what I have routinely observed in both American parenting and Asian parenting, for example:

  • American parenting; your baby may be capable of great and wonderful things (which you implicitly choose for it), but like a Calvinist, you will only know for sure if you actively work to develop these talents and capabilities in your child. Failing to do so means risking that your child will turn out to be not one of the Elect, but a poor loser, or worse, quite average and content
  • Asian parenting; babies are stupid and a constant and confusing source of pride and worry for their parents, and if they are not condescended constantly almost from the moment they are born, they risk becoming ingrates, drug users, or worse, free thinkers, rather than guided automatons with eternal respect for their revered elders

American parents spend a lot of time getting wrapped up in the competition of their lives, which they impart to their children. Infant development is like a race– how quickly can the child progress from one stage to the next? And what burdens of guilt, anxiety, anger and frustration can the parents-as-pit-crew take on along the way to ensure the process is stressful and obsessive without wasting time reflecting about the race and why it must be won?

So this Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) approach, developed by the Hungarian Magda Gerber after a chance encounter with a pediatrician named Dr. Emmi Pikler in 1950s Hungary, is not just an antidote, but a holistic approach for individuals and families looking to foster authentic self-discovery in their children and connection built on mutual respect amongst kin.

But it is NOT a silver bullet! Raising children is still a real challenge, it still involves difficulty and even moments of self-doubt.

Gerber offers these basic principles:

  • basic trust in the child to be an initiator, an explorer and a self-learner
  • an environment for the child that is physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing
  • time for uninterrupted play
  • freedom to explore and interact with other infants
  • involvement of the child in all care-giving activities to allow them to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient
  • sensitive observation of the child to understand their needs
  • consistency and clearly defined limits and expectations to develop discipline

Gerber cautions parents to slow down, to develop the habit of observing before intervening. Many child troubles — frustration during playtime, an unintentional fall, conflict over a piece of property with another infant — can be resolved by the child on its own if they’re given the opportunity and support to meet the challenge with their own solution. Similarly, it is not the parent’s duty to entertain or preoccupy the child, children become present-oriented and externally directed primarily through the influence of their anxious parents. If left to their own devices to play and explore at their own pace in a safe environment, they will learn to focus and entertain themselves through their own creativity and exploration at length.

Another suggestion is to “sportscast” the infant’s life during caregiving activities such as feeding, diaper changes, bath time or preparation for bed. By narrating what is happening to the child and why, and what will happen next, the child learns about the meaningful sequence of events in its life and can begin to build expectations about the future and acquire a measure of predictability about its life and routines which creates security, comfort and trust in the parents and caregivers. Young children’s minds are “scientific”, they’re always trying to understand the cause-effect relationships behind observed phenomena and one of the primary cause-effect relationships they are exploring as they develop is the sequence of activities across time. Much like raising a dog, following a predictable routine reduces stress in the infant’s life and allows them to focus their attention and learning on other things than the fear of what might happen next to them.

According to Gerber, quality time means total attention and focus on your child. Holding your baby while you watch TV, or read, or run an errand, is not quality time and the child can sense that it’s not the priority. Quality time is watching your child play, uninterrupted, or reading to him, or giving sole focus to feeding him, or diapering or bathing him. Because of this, Gerber encourages parents to reflect on even the routine caregiving moments, because over thousands of repetitions over an infant’s life they will leave an indelible mark on the relationship and come to represent a sizable proportion of the total “quality” time spent together– do you want your child, even in their limited perceptual state during infancy, to see their diapering as a disgusting task you as a parent have to get over with as quickly and cleanly as possible several times a day, or do you want your child to see that you love them and are interested in them even when doing mundane things like changing their diapers?

Further, this approach has a transformative effect on the parent, as well. By treating the relationship respectfully and seeking to include the child in caregiving activities by narrating what is occurring and being present in the moment, the parent is slowly but surely training themselves to see their child not as an obligation to which things must be done, but as another person like themselves with needs and values and a personhood just like other adults they interact with. They will be modeling for their child the very behaviors they wish for them to adopt in how the child is expected to behave toward others.

This book is chock full of so much wonderful, important information for parents, caregivers and anyone interested in the world of small children. It’s too hard to try to summarize all the advice and concepts and it wouldn’t be worthy to try. Instead, I will simply observe that this is another philosophical work that goes much beyond how to put on a diaper or how to create a safe playspace, and instead says much more about how we can build a peaceful and encouraging society for all people to live in, adults and children (future adults) alike. And to the extent this approach is not recognized and its advice goes unheard and unheeded, it explains clearly why we witness the social problems and family and individual dysfunctions we do!

Here is a brief list of some of the more pithy wisdom I enjoyed from Lansbury’s “Elevating”:

  • As parents, our role in our baby’s development is primarily trust
  • Our relationship will be forever embedded in our child’s psyche as her model of love and the ideal she’ll seek for future intimate bonds
  • The secret to connecting is to meet children where they are
  • Grieving people want and need to be heard, not fixed
  • A nice bedtime habit to start with your child is to recapture the day… You can also mention what will happen tomorrow. This connects the past, present and future and gives her life a connected flow
  • Since our lifespan is getting longer, why not slow down?
  • We don’t think twice about interrupting infants and toddlers, mostly because we don’t think to value what they are doing
  • Babies are dependent, not helpless
  • “Readiness is when they [the baby] do it.” “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it himself.”
  • Instead of teaching words, use them
  • “Don’t ask children a question you know the answer to”
  • Purposefully inflicting pain on a child can not be done with love

Review – Totto-chan

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window

by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, published 1981

What a wonderful book! I’ve never read anything quite like it, although it reminded me quite a bit of various Hayao Miyazaki animated films I’ve seen in the past. “Totto-chan” is a memoir in the guise of a novel. The author’s childhood self is the main character and the events described actually took place while she attended a creative school called Tomoe Gakuen in pre-war Tokyo. This proves to be an interesting narrative device because the story is told from the emotional and experiential point of view of a child, but with the knowingness and articulateness of an adult. The obvious fondness or at least understanding of the author toward her younger self serves to enhance the overall sensation of empathy the story engenders, for that is the primary theme of the school and what the children were learning there.

Led by the visionary headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi, the Tomoe school’s philosophy is built on trusting children to be themselves, “let nature lead” as Kobayashi put it. The story is filled with anecdotes of Totto-chan and her classmates being entrusted to figure things out for themselves, with adults and authority figures like the headmaster and parents simply listening and providing confidence that the children will succeed in coming up with workable solutions as they learn to navigate the world around them. Mistakes and slipups (such as Totto-chan falling into the school’s cesspool) are treated with dignity and patience. Instruction and structure come in the form of simple guidelines (for lunch, students were asked to bring “something from the hills and something from the sea”) with the belief that the children will be motivated to find their own solution with a limited amount of information.

The effect on the children is a unique sensation of freedom and capability, of openness and consideration of themselves and the needs of others. Seemingly without encouragement, the school spontaneously forms a meaningful, interested sense of community and ownership by the students toward their school grounds, neighborhood and classmates. Left to pursue their studies and interests at their own pace, some students excel through deep study and careful focus of a particular subject while others enjoy sampling disparate bits of knowledge and experience without a plan. All students appear happy and enthusiastic about their lives, even those students who come to the school with severe developmental handicaps. As the author says, this liberty allowed a lot of children who were misfits in the standard schooling regime to find a sense of ease and belonging and to go on to live productive, independent and connected lives as adults.

The story gives the reader a glimpse of an educational philosophy and pedagogical approach that is at once intuitive and mysterious: why shouldn’t every school demonstrate such empathy and concern for its students; and how DOES Mr. Kobayashi manage to have such patience and a sunny disposition toward the antics of small children that are considered so “obnoxious” by nearly everybody else? The epilogue of the story summarizes some of the research travel Kobayashi performed in Europe for several years leading up to the founding of the Tomoe school and it becomes clear that there is a dedicated, principled purposefulness to every single event in the story, which the author as an adult reflects upon in the present with a “Oh, so THAT must have been what Mr. Koboyashi was trying to teach us there…” To a cynical mind it may seem almost exploitative to be so cunning in one’s schemes, but if the ultimate goal of the approach is to develop in the students the maxim “Trust yourself”, how nefarious could this stratagem actually be?

The school seems like a very “social” place and less like an academy– numerous field trips, “sports” days, music and exercise classes and camping overnights pepper the plot and while there is a library and scenes of students doing self-directed physics studies with alcohol burners and beakers, they always take place in Tomoe’s disused railroad cars-cum-classrooms. It’s a challenge only to those readers with a constricted view of what education and learning necessarily mean. For Kobayashi and his students, every experience brings teachable moments and the question begged and answered is why reading about flora and fauna in a textbook is a superior approach when one can go outside for a walk and study the variety of life up close.

From the view of paranoid American parenting, the children disrobing with their teachers and swimming naked together in the school’s small pool will seem like a perfect opportunity for secret child abusers amongst the faculty to get their jollies. But the lesson here seems to be that every choice in life brings with it risks and if bathing suit-less swim time is a useful means for helping the children (especially the physically handicapped) to appreciate and accept their differences and similarities such that they can have confidence about who they are and act with kindness towards everyone else, the risk of something monstrous or mean-spirited in such an environment might be a better risk to take than watching certain individuals grow up feeling alienated from themselves and others for lack of such experiences.

Indeed, those same paranoid parents would be wondering how a child could ever develop a moral sense without correction and punishment from adults. It is enjoyable, then, to witness the many moments when Totto-chan attempts to do something underhanded or less than honest (with herself, her parents or her friends) but recognizes the moral inconsistency of her actions on her own and eventually makes amends and moves on. It makes you think that children are capable of so much more than they are given credit for, typically, and that maybe the moral failings of children reflect not their immaturity, but the perverse incentives of the adults who guide them.

This is a humorous book, as well. There were many moments when I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and recount a passage to someone nearby, they’re just too good not to share. And thankfully, there are moments of profound tragedy and despair. I say thankfully, because it is in these recollections that we are truly reminded of how precious life is and what a wonderful gift a school like Tomoe is.

One of those tragedies is that the Tomoe school burned to the ground near the finale of the Pacific War as Tokyo came under increased firebombing by the US Air Force. It’s a stark reminder of the injudiciousness and unfairness of war, even though it is recounted without particular frustration or anger on the part of the author (a testament to the empathetic spirit of the school itself!) But there is also a lesson in the resilience of the creative spirit, as Kobayashi’s only response is to ask, “What kind of school shall we build next?”

The good news is that we don’t have to suffer war or burn our schools down to ask that question ourselves.

I think this book can be enjoyed by children, parents, families, teachers and social theorists and anyone concerned with building a more empathetic society built upon respect for the individual and the instinct of trusting oneself.