7 Reasons I Let My Children Choose What They Will Learn

If it’s crazy to allow children the freedom and the power to chart the courses of their own educations, go throw me in the looney bin right now.  I’m actually okay with people thinking I’m crazy on this, because I’ve already seen it working well enough and long enough now to not care what the naysayers think.

They’re too young?  Too immature?  It’s too risky to hand such significant decisions over to children?  Children just don’t have the ability to understand the consequences of the decisions they make?

All utter hogwash.  All inspired by fear.

Let me walk you through how this has played out in my house…

Jarrod, Erica, and Jillian all miraculously learned how to walk and talk on their own, at their own paces, without any direct instruction from any authority figures who were telling them that it was prescribed time for them to walk or talk.  I suspect that’s the case with each and every healthy, normally developing child.  Most people seem willing enough to accept that toddlers will learn to walk and talk on their own, on their own terms.  

Most people seem relatively okay with preschoolers having the autonomy to play and learn what they’re going to learn along the way.  But, for whatever reason, that often comes to a screeching halt once children reach kindergarten age.  All of a sudden, it’s “time” for those children to stop learning what they’ve been happily and productively learning, and start learning what someone else has decided that they need to know.  The idea that children can successfully chart and navigate their own educations is now met with suspicion and stubborn resistance.

I allow my children the freedom and power to make their own decisions about what they will learn for seven reasons:

They are the ones who will be learning the information or skills

This is my most basic belief about education.  It is a deeply personal pursuit.  And it’s not something that anyone should ever seek to do to someone else.  

They are more intimately aware of their own needs and desires than I am

I don’t know what’s driving Jillian’s insatiable desire to explore mathematics and experiment with numbers. She doesn’t have the words to explain it, either.  Maybe she doesn’t even know.  All she knows is that numbers are cool and she wants to know what she can do with them.

I don’t have a full understanding of what successfully translating a song she loves into American Sign Language does for Erica academically and emotionally.  All I know is that she sinks hours of her time into it, and she’s absolutely beautiful when she signs.

I don’t really get Jarrod’s long-standing fascination with military tactics and weaponry.  All I know is that he’s a veritable encyclopedia of information!

The point here is that they have the freedom to live authentic lives.  There’s no waiting for some magical time in the future when someone else has decided they’ve played the game long enough to get out and then be able to focus on what they want to know.  They’ll never have to wonder what the opportunity cost to learning according to someone else’s agenda was for them.

They are more than capable of figuring out and articulating what they want to learn

This really doesn’t require any explanation.  When she was ready to learn how to read and write, Jillian started asking me to teach her.  When she was ready to hone her technical artistic skills, Erica started looking on YouTube for how-to videos.  When he was ready to learn how to write a compelling essay, Jarrod asked me to teach him the nuts and bolts of composition.  

When they actually need to know something, life throws up an obstacle that will otherwise be insurmountable in their way.  They have to figure out how to get over, under, around, or through that obstacle.  Any are viable options.  

Their feelings, desires, and time deserve my respect

This is a no-brainer for me.  Just as I want my feelings, desires, and time respected, so do they.  It is the pinnacle of disrespect in my mind to demand that someone set aside their own pursuits so that they can attend to something you want them to do without giving them any input or options.

I know of a lot of people who followed career paths that didn’t reflect their authentic selves because who they really are was never valued or respected by influence-makers in their lives.  The world needs lots of different kinds of people!  I want Jillian to know that whether she continues a focus on mathematics or horses or something else entirely, her gifts have value.  I want Erica to know that whether she continues a focus on art or American Sign Language or something else entirely, her gifts have value.  I want Jarrod to know that whether he continues a focus on history or politics or something else entirely, his gifts have value.

They are capable of delaying gratification

Delaying gratification is an important developmental leap.  It’s a sign of maturity.  It’s also a well-known hallmark of someone whose odds of success in life are much higher than the average person.

A year ago, while she was still taking tumbling classes, Jillian decided that she really wanted to take horseback riding lessons.  We discussed it.  I told her that she’d have to choose – tumbling or horseback riding lessons. Additionally, since horseback riding lessons are so much more expensive than tumbling classes, she’d need to quit tumbling a few months before riding lessons started to give us time to save up for them.  It was a tough choice for her, and she did end up choosing to quit tumbling, do nothing for a while, and wait for riding lessons.

They are capable of weighing the pros and cons of decisions

Someone who cannot weigh pros and cons effectively has no business making any decisions.  Thankfully, unschooled children get a lot of practice doing this, with progressively weightier decisions.

I know I have shared this story in other posts…it’s just perfect for illustrating why self-directed homeschooling works…At 16, Jarrod had a huge decision to make: accept an internship at the local district office of our congressman and derail his college-bound academic path in the process, or turn down the opportunity and continue with the traditionally accepted scope and sequence of a college-bound education.  There were pros and cons to each.  Jarrod had to figure out for himself how to weigh each one against his dreams for his own life, not what I wanted, not what his father wanted, and not what his friends might want.  He made his decision, and has been there for a year now.

They are capable of and willing to do hard and unpleasant things in pursuit of something meaningful to them

For reasons that escape me, many adults believe that children will not learn what they need to know if someone doesn’t make them.  It certainly is true that children will not learn what is not important to them without some figurative carrots and sticks in the picture.  That’s true of most adults as well.  However, if children are freed to learn what is important to them when it’s important to them, they will do hard and unpleasant tasks in the process.

At this point, Jarrod is eyeing a Bachelor’s degree in political science, followed by a commission in the Marine Corps, and building a career somewhere in federal law enforcement.  They all hinge upon acceptance into a university…which will require him to complete all of the prerequisites for admission, including the equivalent of four years of math.  Which he hates.  And I mean hates.  But, because it’s an inescapable, unavoidable obstacle in his path, he does it anyway.  

And before you dismiss me, saying that Jarrod is almost a grown man and therefore capable of doing things he’d rather not do or that he’s somehow an exception to the rule, both of his sisters also do hard and unpleasant things when those hard, unpleasant things must be done in order to do something else that is important to them.  Authority-directed models of education fail consistently because they consistently demand that children do difficult, unpleasant tasks without a reason that is personally compelling for them.

About the Author Becky

I’m a married, homeschooling mama of three who is passionate about self-directed learning.

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