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when to step in

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 
When questions come up of how children learn a skill like reading or adding, there are those who feel that the less you teach the more they learn - even if they learn it late they may learn it in a more meaningful way, or at least they learned it at their own time and were doing and learning other things meanwhile.  So - no need to teach.  They will learn it when they learn it.  Generally I think like this too.  Where I part ways is at the line that often follows, "if they don't learn it, it was probably not worth learning."

On the other hand, sometimes people pipe up and say that they feel that their child might not find his own way to reading or math.  Some say this after allowing time for them to do so - but often no matter how old their particular child is, someone on the internet will come forward and say, well my child didn't read till age [a number that is higher than what the OP posted].

Recently dd learned to ride a bicycle - she had been trying without training wheels (and having me first hold and then let go) for a couple of years, on and off, to no avail.  She lost interest as well.  Then I came up with a different method, and she learned pretty quickly.


I think what I learned from this experience is:  dd needed some very step by step instruction to learn to ride a bicycle.  (And also a bit of a push from me.)  Similarly, other children might in fact need step by step instruction to learn to read or do math.  Unschoolers aren't opposed to instruction but tend to leave the ball in the child's court to seek out that instruction.

Real life did not create a demand for my daughter to learn to ride her bicycle.  Of course, once she learned, our opportunities expanded.  But we did not wait for the day that she felt limited by her inability to cycle and then take steps to fill the demand.


Hmmm ...


I would like to hear your thoughts.

post #2 of 10

Certainly some unschoolers are more hands-off than others.  I'm very involved with my children, constantly gauging their interests, passions, frustrations, etc.  It's a lot of work, and often the most exhausting part of unschooling.


My eldest has always been reluctant to try new things.  When most of his friends began riding bikes without training wheels, he didn't want to try.  We'd ask him every now and then, but he was always pretty adamant.  Then his scouting troop was going on a Rails to Trails ride.  It was about a month away, and we asked again if he was interested in learning, and noted that it would be harder to keep up if he was riding with training wheels.  This time his answer was mixed, which told us there was some interest mixed in with the reluctance.  A few evenings later, dh offered to take him to an empty parking lot (and out for ice cream afterward) to have a go at riding without the trainers.  Significant progress was made.  After three sessions, DS could ride independently.  He was 7.


This is pretty typical of how we handle these situations.  Eldest DS (now 8) doesn't know how to tie shoes, but he's beginning to become interested in knowing how.  His younger sister has been doing this since she was four.  I think it's definitely worth knowing before he's an adult, but not something worth pushing right now.  I mean, all his shoes are slip-ons. 


I think there is a lot of middle ground between insisting kids learn things when we want them to learn them, and leaving it entirely up to them to ask for help.  When there is something they don't know how to do that I think it will be useful for them to learn, I observe and then maybe ask a gentle question to see what their interest level is.  This is pretty much how DH and I are with each other, too.  He was really insecure about some of his cooking skills, so I said, "Would you like me to walk through a few recipes with you?"  He said yes, but was free to say no.


I think knowing each child well helps a lot.  For example, my eldest DH didn't walk until he was 17 months old, but today he walks as well as his same-aged friends.  So with other gross motor skills, I might expect him to develop them a bit later than some, and to expect that there might be some physiological factors at work.  But he could work puzzles intended for four- and five-year-olds before he was two, so I might see if he's interested in some spatial-logic kinds of things even if his friends aren't yet doing them.  For example, he learned to play chess at age five, but some five-year-olds don't really get the game at that age.  He was a Battleship champ at age four, and I bought the game on a hunch that he might like it, even though the box said ages 7+.


Sorry this is so rambly.  Hope it helps.

Edited by Luckiestgirl - 7/10/12 at 12:27pm
post #3 of 10

I'm using your bike riding as an example, not picking it apart specifically.  Please apply it to other areas beyond bicycle riding.


I would look and see if there wasn't a better way.  I first bought dd1 a tricycle, then a training wheeler.  Then I learned about pedal-free ("balance") bikes, but her training wheeler was too heavy for her, even though she did try.  Instead of getting a smaller bike (*another* bike!) I let it go and she happily rode her training wheeler.


Then dd2 got a bike for her 4th birthday, a little bike that we took the pedals off of, and we called it a "scoot" and let them know that we heard this was a better way to learn to balance.  But noooo, dd2 was always and forever going to ride it like a scoot and wouldn't ever want the pedals back on!.


And scoot she did!  Crazy stuff, in puddles, up mulch piles, around the garden where dd1 could not go with her training wheeler.  Sensing the freedom, dd1 asked for a scoot for her birthday.  So, for her 6th birthday her grandmother bought her a 12" bike that we took the pedals off of.  She was experiencing the freedom, same as dd2.  


Fast forward a year later, these girls were doing some impressive things on their scoots, but dd1 was outgrowing hers and wanted to go faster.  Back to the training wheeler, which she wanted to keep the pedals on.  She zoomed, but couldn't turn on a dime or ride through puddles.


BUT dd2 saw her speed by and was frustrated by her scoot's slowness.  DH suggested (for the umpteenth time) to put the pedals back on, because they were clearly ready then, they were just resistant to the idea.  Well, dd2 said "OK" this time.  Finally.  Pedals on, she zoomed down the street as if she had been doing it for years.  


Not to be outdone, the next day dd1 said she wanted the pedals on her scoot, and she was riding better in one day than I ever learned to ride in a lifetime.  


Their friend was influenced, both by the scoots, and then by the pedals and was riding bicycles before he turned 5, my girls were 5.5 and 7yo.  They learned back-to-back, at almost the exact moment.


So, what I saw was that the mode of learning (training wheels) was not the best if the goal was riding with pedals on and without assistance.  We did suggest, encourage, ask.  But really that goal was OUR goal, having BTDT.  It had to become their goal also, or, in our case, the means to their goal (riding fast AND through puddles and be crazy in general).


I would examine what external factors might be leading to the decisions they make, instead of assuming they are internal.  I would see if they are frustrated by their rate of learning, and why.

If it truly was a matter of simple disinterest, well, I guess I would be one of the parents that would think, not that it wasn't worth learning, but that "is it important they learn it NOW?"  Many, many things are worth learning, but that doesn't mean we have to learn it all.  Knowing how to ride a bike does seem pretty basic in our culture, like reading and swimming.  And if I thought assistance would help, I would surely offer.  I don't see assistance as strictly antithetical to unschooling.  I would start to question it if there were resistance, coercion, disdainful comments ("the other kids are going to think you're stupid if you can't read/ride bikes/swim" etc.)  


I agree with everything Luckiestgirl wrote.  There is a wide divide between insisting kids learn what we want them to learn (and when) and leaving it entirely in their court to ask for help.  

Edited by SweetSilver - 7/11/12 at 6:25am
post #4 of 10

Sorry, more thoughts.  I liked using your bike example for an analogy, and had these thoughts:


Long before you stepped in, the bike was purchased for her.  Many kids ask for bikes, others are given it as an unsolicited gift because we remember having so much fun with it (especially eldest children without close friends).  So, already there is parental (or grandparental!) input here.  Not saying it's bad, not at all, but here is a moment where there was a choice to introduce an item that a child never knew she might want.  


With training wheelers, there is already assistance offered: the wheels themselves.  In this case, this type of assistance can actually hamper learning the fundamentals of riding a bike, and make a child more reliant on further assistance (parents) and a great deal of (scary, for some kids) luck (or what seems like it).


Training wheels, in addition, prevent kids (as I said in the previous post) from riding over uneven (i. e. FUN) surfaces and make turning a bit sketchy and scary except at the lowest speeds.  Except for straight-as-an-arrow riding over smooth surfaces (something our town did not have, and our friend was on a dirt road) I can see how motivation might flag for some kids.


OK, I'm done (for now).  

post #5 of 10
I think that as others have suggested it's not just a question of when you step in but also how you do it. Personally if I see something that I think my kids will likely enjoy being competent at, I will offer to do what I can to help them get there. If they decline my offer, I'll let it drop at least for a while.

If it's one of those skills they'll likely want eventually, and I fear they're getting to the point where the gap between where they're at and where they want to be in terms of their mastery has become an emotional obstacle rather than a motivating force, I tend to take a more active role in getting my child over the hump. I typically explain that this is one of those things that often requires some systematic hard work to master, and like most things it's quite fun and useful once mastered, but the "getting there" isn't always a barrel of laughs. And I explain that I have some ideas for helping make the work productive ... and I ask if they're ready to try it with me. Usually they are. If it turns out they're miserable doing the work I would never insist they continue: though I might suggest changing things up and trying a different way. But years of working with my kids on music practicing has got them (and me) pretty used to the routine of just giving something a few good tries, and then leaving it to try again tomorrow, trusting that the learning is building incrementally and each day they're getting closer to the payoff. They're usually cool with that. I find it helps a lot to say "I'm guessing you'll learn this within 3 weeks" (or whatever I think is my best guess times three ... i.e. a very conservative guess) so that they don't get frustrated when it takes them more than a day or two.

For some kids, for some tasks, persistence is required. And I don't think kids are necessarily equipped with the skills they need to structure their learning for persistent effort. A more experienced adult facilitator can help them through that process. With their complicity. Then in the future they may very well apply those skills to new challenges, either spontaneously or simply based on an adult's suggestion. ("Remember what you did to learn to ride your two-wheeler? I wonder if a similiar approach would work with learning ____.")

post #6 of 10

I have a child who periodically expresses great discontent with her life. For example, she has noticed that her classmates in Sunday School are a lot more comfortable with reading aloud, and with writing, than she is.


So, while I normally like to just respond to my children's urges to work on certain skills, I do periodically remind and encourage this child to work on those skills.


It's hard because, a few days after a period of just hating her life and where she's at in her life, she doesn't necessarily remember how upset she was and doesn't feel a need to work on anything anymore.


Of course, I'm also noticing that her favorite computer games actually involve a ton of reading...so I think she's practicing her reading a lot more than she thinks she is. But, when she's feeling upset about not being at the level that she thinks her friends are at, she doesn't count all the stuff that she is just naturallly absorbing as a part of doing what she loves to do.


For example, she seems to think nothing of the time when she googled "how to crochet" and learned to crochet by watching a video.

post #7 of 10
Originally Posted by SweetSilver View Post

With training wheelers, there is already assistance offered: the wheels themselves.  In this case, this type of assistance can actually hamper learning the fundamentals of riding a bike, and make a child more reliant on further assistance (parents) and a great deal of (scary, for some kids) luck (or what seems like it).


Training wheels are a pet peeve of mine, and a wonderful analogy for well-intentioned but misguided adult direction in learning. Training wheels are contrary to the physics of balance on a bike, causing children to lean away from the direction of their bike's lean, and they foster dependence on support, reducing the risk-taking necessary for efficient learning and ultimately, IMO, delay full mastery in a large proportion of children. They send a message that "bikes are tippy and dangerous and hard to learn to ride," and then they take away almost all the learning opportunity that comes of messing around with a bike. 


I live in an area where terrain is challenging and (whether for that reason or others) training wheels are rarely used. By the time many city kids are thinking about ditching training wheels (age 5 to 7?) kids here are have been riding for a couple of years and are already doing intermediate-level single-track mountain trails. I would say that the average age for kids to learn to ride a bike without is about 4: many kids learn at 3, and it's a rare kindergartener who isn't already riding (KG starts here between age 4.5 and 5.5). I just got back from a week of outdoors camp with my 9-year-old and she was in with a dozen kids aged 5-9, out for daily 3-to-6-mile technical trail rides with steep rocky descents, roots to hop over, shallow creeks and narrow exposed ledges to ride along. Just a day camp activity for a bunch of typical village kids: it's amazing how competent they are on their bikes by this age! Now, we have a mountain-bike kinda culture here, and our community is a bit of a throwback to the 1950s in that it's safe and normal for young kids to roam their neighbourhoods and nearby trails in packs often on bikes. Some of the conditions here may not be applicable in other places, but I think there are lessons about natural learning to be gleaned from the ease with which kids learn to ride bikes here. The low-pressure, child-led nature of it, the avoidance of unnecessary props and structure, the trust in the child's own timetable, the immersion in an culture where the skill is a natural and enjoyable part of life...


Training wheels can be thought of as an analogy for phonics programs, math facts drill, levelled readers, workbooks, swimming lessons, you name it. Not that these things (even training wheels!) might not have a place with some kids at some moments in their development. But I think we should approach the use of such tools and conventions and structures with skepticism, and consider how natural learning might be nurtured instead, or as well.



post #8 of 10

I also think it's a good analogy for a different focus in learning.  I don't think I have the right words to say that succinctly.  But I'll explain:


I think.  I had this in my head so eloquently the other day and *poof!* it's gone!


I can look at someone riding a bike and say, "The key to riding a bike is pedaling the bike.  I see you use the pedals and you make it go."  So, if that is the goal, to learn how to pedal and make it go easily, then training wheels or tricycles are the logical step.


But if I look at the bike and see that *balance* is the key, along with leaning properly into turns, using feet as aids to turn, correct, and stop, then training wheels will actually prevent this.  Like Miranda wrote, my girls (a bit later than hers, in part because we did live in a town with, technically, paved roads) can go over some amazing terrain, correct when they spin out on gravel, make maneuvers that would have landed me on my face when I was 14.


So, I think this is the same for learning many other things.  It makes it difficult for schoolers and school-at-homers to understand unschooling.  Unschooling relies on self-directed learning (which doesn't mean assistance or teachers but I'm sure you all know that).  Directing your own learning has benefits in and of itself that we unschoolers prioritize.  Schools see the value of self-directed learning and offer it to some degree, but it is not given the kind of weight as learning specific *things* has (which has been made worse by tests and I have yet to meet a teacher who likes this).


So, when I think about "stepping in" (by this I do not mean offering unsolicited assistance, I mean saying "we're hiring a tutor" kind of stepping in) when a kid , say, doesn't know his times tables by the right age, I see first that I have a different paradigm as to what is important for kids to learn.  I do not gauge learning by "he learned X by the age of Y".  Not really.  I pay more attention to what they are concocting on their own, for now.


I made a pretty unschoolish decision a couple of years ago.  Context:  My oldest would keep us home forever and always.  Not surprising, we live 45 minutes from nearly everything event-ish like swimming and open gym.  DD2 really wanted to go swimming (lessons at that point, I hadn't really thought about free swim vs. lessons at the time).  DD1 really resisted, while dd2 was enthusiastic.  I do this more than I like-- having to lay down the law so some of us can get out of the house.


So, she whined and fussed.  Turned out she didn't want to take a shower.  She ended up loving the shower, loving the swimming, and she found a new activity she adored.  (We do free swim now instead though.)


Now, I don't think I'd be disowned by this unschooling community for pushing this, especially since it was a matter of two little kids and different desires and one car and no child care.  But non-unschoolers are going to look at this and are likely to think, "see?  Stepping in can be a good thing.  You knew she would like it, and she did, and it opened up a new world to her.  Parents should step in when they see something lacking.  It works."  Well, don't argue the exact specifics of the wording, you get the idea.  But personally, and as an unschooler, I look at that and I say, it worked on that occasion.  I knew my daughter really well, but it was still a gamble, and I got "lucky" because I did.  


Long post.   Gotta go.  Hope I made sense.  Three different points in here, I think.

post #9 of 10

Interesting comments about training wheels.  I completely agree, and if I'd known then what I know now, we would have avoided them entirely.  It's kind of like how dh and I started our parenting journey with a bassinet, a baby swing, a special nursing stool, baby monitors, etc. and by the third child the only piece of special equipment we needed was a sling.  We used sippy cups with my two oldest, and my third was drinking well out of an open cup at a year old.  He was using a real glass before he was two.  And I'd look around at all these three-year-olds with sippies and wonder what we had been thinking.


I also dislike "junior" versions of board games.  My kids received Junior Monopoly as a gift after they'd been playing regular Monopoly (with help) for a while--they were four and five, I think--and they thought regular Monopoly was way more fun.  My five-year-old isn't very good at Clue, but he loves it, and I have no desire to try the "Clue Junior" version, which I've heard is terrible, just because it's out there.


I think more kids prefer to do the real, meaningful thing imperfectly than to do a "junior" version perfectly. 

post #10 of 10
Originally Posted by Luckiestgirl View Post


I think more kids prefer to do the real, meaningful thing imperfectly than to do a "junior" version perfectly. 

This is exactly our experience with reading.  My girls prefer much more to read books beyond their skill, not read all of it, have me read some, or just pore over the pictures than they do reading books where each word can be read (at least by dd1).  She does like to show off, but for something that catches her lingering interest, it's the big books.  DD2 can't read very well yet, but she traces the letters in her guide books with a quill or brushes across the pictures with a dry paintbrush (dd1 does this too), and she can look through them, organize and reorganize her considerable collection of them.  She has used the pictures for math practice (3 pictures on that side of the page, plus 2 pictures on that side make 5 pictures) and who knows what else.  She is in her own world, operates by her own rules, fulfills her own needs that only a 5yo--actually just this 5yo-- is able to understand.

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