The World at Two (continued)

From Growing Without Schooling 7

The mother of J (see GWS 6, “The World At Two”), writes:

J is great. No naps now which means he is super go—power all day with a huge collapse about 7:30. He has his room all to himself now . . . and he really likes to hang out in there alone for an hour and a half most days, driving trucks around mostly. I’ve never seen a kid more into organizing things. He plays with dominoes and calls them either adobes, for building houses, or bales of hay, and has them stacked, lined up, or otherwise arranged in some perfect order; same with the trucks; he’ll scream and yell, as per your theory of two year old behavior, if you snatch him up from a group of trucks and carry him off to lunch. But if you give him a couple of minutes to park them all in a straight line then he’ll come willingly. Your theory (treat them like big people) works out over and over again; brush past him, leave him behind in the snow when you’re hustling up to feed the goats and you get a black and blue screaming pass out tantrum, Treat them “Big” and things roll along. Only hangup is the occasional times you have to take advantage of your superior size and age and pull a powerplay. The trick is to learn to avoid the situations that once in a while make that a necessity, like not getting in a rush, and not letting them get so tired they break down completely—like letting dinner be late.”

As J gets nearer to, although still fairly far from, school age, I worry more about trying to go it on our own; not at all about trying to teach him the basics but about what this little town is going to think because in a way it becomes a put down to them: we’re not going to send our child to that crummy school; while they’re more or less stuck with it. Already people say, “When J goes to school, etc.” I Just smile and shut up. Also J gets so desperate for kids I’m pretty sure he’s going to want to go to that big building that always has a passel of children running around in front. Sometimes, just driving by houses where he suspects there might be kids, he says, “I wanna see some kids, mommy.” Actually, we’re working harder on it and he’s getting to be around more but there are still long gaps.

I wrote back, suggesting, more or less, that when people talk about J going to school she say, “He’s already going to school,” and that when people ask where, she say, “Right at home.” This in turn made me think of something so obvious that I can’t imagine why I didn’t think of it long ago. In GWS #1, I said that if unschoolers are asked by neighbors or other people where their children are going to school, they should reply that the children “are in a special program.” I now think this is a mistake. Unschoolers should never say, or admit, that their children are not “going to school.” They should insist that they are going to school. If people say: “Where?” they should say, “Right here in our own home.”

My strong hunch is that this will satisfy a large number of otherwise critical or even hostile people. In these days, most people believe in word magic. Not for them the wise advice of Justice Holmes: “Think things, not words.” For them, the word is the thing, the label on the package is the contents. If the label says “New! Fresh! Pure!” it must be new, etc.

Many of these folks have in their minds, among other slogans and rules, the rule that children should “go to school.” If we say that our children are “going to school,” most of them will not get into complicated arguments about what is or is not “a school, “ or whether our home is really a school, but will be satisfied that the rule is being obeyed. Some, of course, will not be satisfied, will say, “Why aren’t they going to the same school as the other children?” But nothing we said or might say could satisfy these people. For them, school is the Army for kids, a bad experience that they do not want any child to escape.

In saying that our children, who are learning at home, are “in school,” we are not just tricking people—though we may be doing that. We are also putting into their minds the important and very true idea that children (like everyone else) are always learning, no matter where they are or what they are doing, that the whole world is a learning place for them, that “school” does not have to mean only that big brick building with the cyclone fence and (usually) padlocked gates, but could mean any place at all. It will be much easier for such people, unless they are real Blue Meanies, to understand and accept later that some of the time—perhaps very little or none—our children may be in the red brick building, but that most of the time they will be “in school” somewhere else.

What I meant by “treat them like big people” was, of course, to treat them in the courteous and respectful way that we big people like to be treated. To snatch any child away from what s/he is doing, in order to do what we want done, is to say to that child, “Your interests and purposes are not serious and do not count.” In the many years I have been watching children and adults together, in homes and in public places, I have seen many two-year-old “tantrums.” Of those I have seen from the beginning (but who knows where anything “begins”?), except for a few that were brought on by exhaustion, almost all seemed to me to have been caused by a needless affront, often unintentional, to the child’s dignity, that is, by someone treating the child as if what s/he was doing, or what s/he thought or wanted, did not count. I have felt and still feel very strongly that most of these tantrums could have been avoided by taking a few extra seconds to show the child the kind of courtesy we would routinely show to another adult.

This mother’s words show once again what nonsense it is to talk about children’s “short attention span.” In How Children Learn I wrote about an eighteen month-old child trying to put together a ballpoint pen that she had taken apart. Though the task was much too hard for her small and unpracticed fingers, she worked steadily and patiently at it for at least forty-five minutes. When some of the schools in Great Britain began the unheard of experiment of letting school children direct and control their own learning, they found that five and six-year-olds would often work on a single task for an entire morning or afternoon and often for several days at a stretch. Most young children (at least when they are not dreaming, which is also important to them) pay a lot closer attention to the world around them than most adults. Their problem—at least it looks to us like a problem—is that almost everything in the world around them is interesting to them. Also, they see that world as all of a piece; it never occurs to them, as to us, that if they pay attention to this it means that they have stopped paying attention to that. They don’t think in terms of paying attention to only one thing at a time.
What we really mean when we say that children have short attention spans is that they will not pay attention for very long to the things that we want them to pay attention to. A sensitive and concerned mother has just written me—I get many such letters -to say that she is worried because when she tries to teach her young child letters (or whatever) the child only pays attention for a couple of minutes. She fears there may be something wrong with the child. From the little she has told me, I doubt that there is anything wrong at all. The problem (if we have to think of it as a problem) is that most healthy and curious children don’t like to be taught. The reason is not that they don’t like to learn -they like nothing better. The reason is that they understand very well the unspoken (sometimes unconscious) assumption behind all uninvited teaching: “You are too stupid to understand why this is important, and/or too stupid to see it or find it or figure it out for yourself.” Children refuse this kind of teaching as long as they can. If the time comes (as in school) when they can no longer find ways to refuse or escape it, they may soon decide that they are no longer capable of figuring things out, and can only learn when they are made to learn, told what to learn, and shown how. In short, they may soon become as stupid as the parents or teachers or schools believed they were all along. But they don’t start out that way.