Modeling Being a Lifelong Learner for Your Children

In chatting with other parents, I often feel like we are the only household on Earth for whom “screen time” is not a major source of conflict. This is incredibly ironic, too, because we work in the tech industry. “No, we do not arbitrarily restrict our daughter’s access to devices,” I explain. My interlocutors clutch their pearls. “Experts say that if you do not have a rule about only thirty minutes of screen time a day, you are a very bad parent,” they respond.

Every time someone brings up the issue of screen time – how their child is “addicted” to video games or social media – all I can think about are those anti-drug public service announcement commercials they would run during kids’ programming in the 1980s. The father finds his son’s drug stash and storms into his bedroom to confront him about it. “Where did you learn how to do this?” he shouts. “I learned it from watching you,” his son replies.

“My kids don’t play outside.” When was the last time your family went hiking together?

“My kids don’t read.” When was the last time you curled up with Pride and Prejudice and some Earl Grey?

“My kid is a junior and still undecided.” They grew up in a household where no one had passions or hobbies, but sure, they might spontaneously identify a vocation when they are twenty years old.

Why does anyone expect their kids to crave something they don’t want to do themselves? Childhood is about constructing an aesthetic, and you are not going to micromanage your child into an aesthetic. If your kid sees you sacked out on the couch after work pounding chardonnay and watching vapid television shows, congratulations, that’s your household’s aesthetic. If you want your kids to be better than that, you have have to be better than that.

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One of the things I love about homeschooling is that it provides us with endless opportunities to model being a lifelong learner and to form a nexus in our own lives with what our daughter is studying. Here’s an example for you.

For our history curriculum, we use Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series. We are now on the second volume with our seven-year-old daughter, which covers the Middle Ages. We were reading through the history of Australia, New Zealand, and the Polynesian Islands. While no one knows how the aborigines arrived in Australia, the Maori people arrived in New Zealand during the time period corresponding to the Middle Ages in Europe.

Coloring pages from Story of the World history series. I like that this series is not entirely euro-centric (like what we were raised with in school).

Naturally, we covered the legends of Maui in discussing New Zealand. E loved this, thanks mostly to the Disney movie Moana. We compared how Maui was represented in the movie (the Polynesian version of The Rock) versus how he is represented in Polynesian legends (a prankster child).

Disney did not get everything wrong, however. The central conflict of the story – that Moana’s people were historically gifted wayfinders, but for inexplicable reasons, they stopped exploring, is part of the real archaeological record of these cultures.

The story of Polynesian wayfinders is extraordinary. They essentially used Stone Age technology to craft massive canoes from giant trees and wove coconut hair into durable material for sails. And those vessels were mighty enough to cross the Pacific Ocean. They’d load all their pigs and chickens into the boats and skip from island to island. And then they mysteriously stopped for a long period. Then they mysteriously started back up again. No one knows what was responsible for the hiatus. (These wayfinding traditions are still a major part of life in the region.) The green rock Moana carries around is also accurate to the region.

Our discussion of Polynesian wayfinding was so engaging that I ended up buying a book on it myself, On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands Before European Contact. Our daughter’s homeschool assignment thus became my leisure reading. I have the sense we will be talking about the history of the Pacific Islands a lot more in the future.

We are also studying ecology for science this year, and we found ways to connect our history lessons to our ecology lessons. (This happens a lot more than one would think. I have come to imagine the timeline of the world as different empires fighting to control their respective biomes, because those resources are the wealth of nations in its most basic form.) While studying about Australia and New Zealand, we learned about coral reefs, how they impact life on islands, artificial reefs, and conservation. We are in the process of building a model of a reef. When we make it back down to the Florida Keys, E will have an entirely new context for our snorkeling adventures.

Why Are Homeschooled Children So Advanced Relative to Their Peers?

It is a common gripe among homeschooling families that they frequently encounter other parents (or folks within their communities) who try to shame them for “pushing their children too hard.” These folks are generally responding to the differences in speech, demeanor, and general knowledge they see when homeschooled children interact with peers that have been educated in a more traditional environment.

There is often an assumption on the part of other adults that if a child communicates with the vocabulary of an adult and can draw upon cultural references that others will only receive in college (if they are lucky), then the child is likely being raised by some “tiger mom” figure (as popularized by Yale Law School professor and helicopter parent extraordinaire Amy Chua). “Oh, well, your kid is only several grades above my child in math because I allow my child to play more. I want my child to experience having an actual childhood.”

Of course, neither of these assumptions are accurate. There are many reasons why homeschooled children outperform their peers in public and many private schools academically that have nothing to do with their parents’ personalities or ambitions. And homeschooled children tend to have far more free time than their institutionally managed peers.

What is really responsible for these differences?

(1) You are seeing the difference individualized attention makes. Even the best teacher is going to struggle to guide 30+ students through content when each child occupies a different space intellectually. Add in disruptive students and distractions like technology, and things get even worse. Kids that grok concepts quickly find a lot of their time being wasted by stuff that is totally unrelated to their education. Kids that have none of that can move through work to new concepts with ease.

(2) Homeschooling families are often free to pick their own curriculum and education materials. This means their kids are often using higher quality curriculum than whatever governments (or their moneyed education consultants and lobbyists) pick for their peers. While kids in public schools get Common Core, many homeschool kids are getting an education on par with elite private schools (but with a 1:1 teacher-to-student ratio). Also, homeschooled children often are given the ability to study more content in subject areas they excel in and to seek opportunities with real world applications of subjects they love.

(3) Ceteris paribus, homeschooled children generally progress through content faster than their peers because their parents cut out waste and repetition. If you have ever purchased curriculum, you quickly learn that much of the content repeats what was learned the previous year. This is because school systems tend to devote the first month or two to re-teaching students that have forgotten much of what they learned over long, arbitrary breaks. There is also a lot of throw-away content that teachers can have at their disposal for when they are out of the classroom and a substitute is called in.

If a homeschooled kid is particularly good at a subject, they can move through multiple lessons in a day with little effort. That means they can complete in a semester or less what another student will complete in a full academic year. They are not being “pushed too hard,” but their natural speed is faster than what institutions require of their peers. The cumulative effect of this difference in teaching approaches can be enormous.

(4) Many parents who pull their children out of traditional schools to homeschool them (or never send them to a traditional school in the first place) are doing so because their kids have special needs. This includes children who possess extreme native intelligence and would otherwise be labeled as gifted and talented. It is something to behold when a gifted child is allowed to flourish rather than having their interests squashed with meaningless routines and spending much of their day waiting for other children to catch up. This can mean that a child that is of elementary school age chronologically is doing work at a high school (and sometimes even college) level. This has nothing to do with their parents’ ambitions and everything to do with their natural abilities. They aren’t being pushed too hard; they are actually getting the stimulus they need.