In my inbox this week was an email from Mystie. I tried to ignore her, but she got into my brain, and so here I am, tackling a subject for which I feel almost totally unqualified. The deal is: I don’t have it all together. But I’m learning that the idea that someone has to have it all together in order to speak on a subject is ridiculous because … no one has it all together.
The ideas I’m about to present are not my own. I have been blessed with many wise tutors, from my own mother, to real-life friends, to British governesses. It is from them that this series of posts will flow.
But first, of course, we have the requisite disclaimer. I am not talking here about children with severe behavior problems (though our friend Charlotte Mason does spend a number of pages in her first volume explaining that creating and maintaining the conditions of healthy brain activity is foundational for all learning). In this post we are talking about what Mystie called in her email to me “just your basic obstinacy or laziness, or a generic, low-grade bad attitude.”
What ought we to do if little ones tell us they “hate school” or they don’t like studying on their own, anyway?
This series of posts is going to focus more on principles — things to consider — rather than anything really practical. This is because principles are easily applied to any child. I don’t know any particular children as well as my own, and my children may or may not be like your children.
If that makes sense.
Please do not think that I am denying that children are sinners and need discipline and instruction. This is not the case, and we will get to that. But when I come across a negative attitude, especially in regard to lessons, and especially if the child does not have a habit of bad attitudes, these are the things I think through first before I assume that the root issue is sin.
The two things we will consider today are: starting too young and bad books.
Starting Too Young
Our culture tells us that if our children are failing at something in school, we need to start them younger. We need to make them spend more hours on the subject. And so on.
The older I get, the more I believe that what we need to do is lay off and allow their brains to mature, rather than pressuring them to use areas of their brain that aren’t even myelinated yet. The human brain is not a finished organ at birth. Charlotte Mason observed that children will reject what they are not yet ready to deal with: This reminds me very much of my oldest child, who decided that he “hated math” when he was in first or second grade. The funny thing is that I thought I had delayed math because I didn’t do any math until he was in first grade (other than counting objects and learning to identify the symbols). But he struggled through math that year, and his conclusion was that he not only hated math, but that math hated him. “I’m bad at math,” he would say.
One limitation I did discover in the minds of these little people; my friend insisted that they could not understand English Grammar; I maintained that they could and wrote a little Grammar…for the two of seven and eight; but she was right; I was allowed to give the lessons myself with what lucidity and freshness I could command; in vain; the Nominative ‘Case’ baffled them; their minds rejected the abstract conception just as children reject the notion of writing an “Essay on Happiness.” But I was beginning to make discoveries;…that the mind of a child takes or rejects according to its needs.Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, p. 10
On the inside, I panicked. Here I was, teaching him at home, believing that a huge side-benefit of this was that no one would ever kill the love of learning for him, and already, at age six or seven, his love for math was dead.
After a little reading, thinking, praying, and consulting with my husband, we dropped math. In its place, I added in some workbook pages from Critical Thinking Press that didn’t look or feel like math, and yet purported to help children develop math ability. They were more like little logic puzzles. E. loved them. He told me he wanted to do more “like this.”
About nine months later, I noticed that he was easily adding up scores for Yahtzee games, and decided to try math again. He took to it like a fish to water. There was no bad attitude, and no self-doubt. Only enjoying playing with the numbers.
All I can say about this is that he was finally ready for math. I didn’t change my discipline. I didn’t change the curriculum. All we did was wait.
Today, even though we took nine months off, he is only about six months “behind” because he is moving at such a rapid pace.
This sort of thing takes wisdom from above. There was a very real chance that I could have been being manipulated by a bad attitude, and that he would have learned that his attitude would get him out of doing something he didn’t like. One child’s rejection can be due to brain immaturity, while another’s can be due to rebellion. This is why I say that the possibility of having begun too early is only something to consider.
I am writing the Term Two examination today, and, as is my habit, before I write an exam, I reread Charlotte’s words on exams. I wish I could remember in which volume it was that she explained that trouble narrating or recalling for exams can sometimes be due to “bad books,” as I call them. We can think we have found a living book upon the subject, but when the child is struggling joylessly through it, we can say one thing about the book, and that is that it is not life-giving for the child. One way I judge the quality of a book is based upon how easy it is for me to narrate and to enjoy. Do I, as a fully-capable adult, catch ideas from the book?
There are many good books, but they are not the best books. This is why I appreciate AmblesideOnline so much. These women took the time to wade through good books until they found what they considered to be the very best upon the subject, meeting the requirements of a living book — high literary quality, full of ideas, etc.
More to Come
I have a list of thoughts on this subject, so I’ll continue this series in the latter half of next week.
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