How do you teach your kids mastery?

Question from a Reader: My wife and I have become increasing convinced that unschooling is the right path for our boys (grades K, 1, and 2). I love the idea of giving our kids the freedom, time, space and trust to learn by following their curiosity. At the same time, we think it’s important for them to pick up a physical activity and a second language and music. I don’t think their natural curiosity will lead them to do any of those things. (We know we’ve tried.)

From your posts, I know that you deal with your kids wanting to quit violin and thinking that learning Hebrew is stupid and with putting them in swim class twice a week.

So, two questions:

How do we balance the child-directed nature of unschooling with our own convictions about helping our kids attain mastery over things that aren’t easy and learn things that we find important to our family like language and religion?

What’s the best way to search persistently for what each kid both loves and has a talent for, and then focus on developing those areas, while at the same time giving them time and space to develop interests on their own?

Answer: You don’t need your kids to achieve mastery over things that are important to you like language and religion. Your kids just need to have a basic understanding, which they will develop, just from living with you. If it’s important to you, it exists all over your life so your kids will get exposure from being with you all the time. If it’s important to you and it does not exist throughout your life, then consider achieving mastery yourself instead of pushing your kids to fill your dreams for yourself.

The mastery will come when your kids find something that’s important to them. Your kids see the value of mastery by witnessing your process for mastery – in whatever arena that might be for you. Your kids find what’s important to them by you leaving them alone to explore the world. If you tell them what to explore or how to explore, then you limit them to only the stuff you can think of. 

Also, at time I have offered to let the kids quit violin, hebrew, swimming, and everything else as well. The kids quit swimming. As long as they swim well enough to jump into a lake, I was fine with quitting. 


18 replies
  1. Catherine Thiemann
    Catherine Thiemann says:

    Great post. I am dealing with this issue right now with my unschooled/home-schooled son. His #1 goal this year is to learn Morse code. The early stages of learning Morse are difficult and frustrating. I normally don’t push him this hard, but this time it’s HIS goal. So I’m making him stay with it, helping him find ways to overcome the obstacles, and learning it along with him so he has someone to practice with. I think he will end up being a great Morse coder. But even more important, he’ll know that it’s worth the frustration to keep working toward his goals.

    • mh
      mh says:

      That is a cool goal. Who does your son transmit Morse Code with? Is he learning to “receive” as well as transmit? When I was growing up, the “receiving” part was the hard part. How far along is he, and does he need a practice partner?

  2. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    My son needed to return to school to pursue mastery. On his own, he had interests but only followed through as long has he was interested, getting distracted with easier (mental “junk food”) pursuits, like YouTube videos and the like. Being in a class and on a team, however, drives him to keep going when distractions arise. He can’t simply drop his workout or homework because the internet beckons. He is more focused without the free-ranging that was Home. He wants to keep up and surpass others. Homeschooling was lovely, but he is thriving in a competitive environment.

  3. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    Here’s an ‘outsiders’ observations, as an aunt, helping a 10 year old neice master piano.

    Once a week I pull up in her driveway, and we drive off to lessons, I sit and listen, than back home to drop her off.

    While I can see she enjoys playing, and is proud she can, she struggles with practice. No one reminds her to practice, and in the evenings after school everyone else in her house is playing video games or watching TV.

    A couple of weeks we set up a system where I texted her mother when she got home from school, and then presumably her mother would pass the message on to her.

    All that did is reinforce that her mother is very good at making excuses.

    My husband and I are on our third set of neices/nephews that are approaching grown up age, and what we have seen is this: Kids do exactly what their parents do. They turn out like their parents. They learn everything watching their parents. I know this is a homeschooling blog, of our 4 sets of neices/nephew, 1 set is homeschooled, but they still turn out pretty much the same; just like their parents. They do not listen to advice, or change their behavior in response to bribes, or punishments. They DO exactly what their parents DO.

    So how I am helping my neice with mastery is this Sunday I will be at her house, sitting at the piano, practicing with her. Maybe she will do as I do, even though I’m only an Aunt.

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      To tie in your comment with mine just above it: my son likes to run. With me, he would go a mile then quit to go back to YouTube or Pokemon. On a cross country team (last year and this) he is driven to run more, try harder, and push himself. There’s a team counting on him; there are other kids his age doing the same. It helps that I’m there with him–my observation about his personality and physical tendencies got us started–but being one of a team has made him much better.

      • Jennifa
        Jennifa says:

        That is so interesting! I was trying to remember what made me practice when I was young, and I had a piano partner, so I did not want to be shown up by my partner each week!

        • mh
          mh says:

          You are right, Jennifa. I was lucky to grow up in a house full of people and there was always somebody to pair up with.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Jennifa, I think the fact that you are an aunt and not a mom makes you able to see all this so clearly. I think parents so much want to believe that they can teach their kids to be better than they are, different than they are, whatever.

      My brothers and I absolutely hate our parents, and we still turned out like them. I’m convinced that the only way to definitely not turn out — in some, particularly ways — like your parents is to go to years of therapy. Otherwise, you pretty much are your parents. We can lie to ourselves and say it’s not true, but anyone form the outside can see.

      The nature debate is winning so big over the nurture debate but it’s so disheartening to parents. Because then all that’s left is to be your best self and enjoy your kids.


  4. Karen
    Karen says:

    I have to agree that mastery of anything cannot be forced, but competence can be. Like Penelope, I forced my sons into swimming lessons but let them quit when they had achieved competence. The amount of dedication and persistence that is required to achieve mastery is so great that it must be freely chosen. Above all, I think that mastery requires passion and passion cannot be faked.

  5. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    You’ve given me food for thought. I really struggle with this, as a person and as a parent. I do not have a lot of passions or hobbies. I dabble in all sorts of things. I’m not really good at any one thing. My husband is the same. I am always wanting to do more with the kids, get out more, be more active, try new things. I want fun and passion for experiences and activities to be ingrained in them. But how will they learn this if we ourselves aren’t getting out there for bike rides or swimming at the lake or whatever it is? I realize there are exceptions, but I feel this one…

  6. mh
    mh says:

    Teach them mastery?

    Let them surprise you. Get the obstacles out of their way, and they’ll pursue their own interests. Along the way, they will be much cheerier about putting in time on other family priorities.

    Kids master things fluidly. Maybe they’ll be all-in on a competitive activity, or maybe it’s more like researching a fascinating topic. Maybe they’ll be learning about lasers or pursue an interest in Roman artifacts found in Great Britain. And then maybe they’ll veg out and play games for a solid week. Kids can rev their own engines. Just give them some room.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think you need to try homeschooling first before you decide their natural curiosity won’t lead them to pick up a physical activity, a second language, and music even though you’ve already tried. Currently they’re going to school and doing homework while you’re trying to engage them in these other activities in the short amount of time that’s left available in their day. That’s not giving them time and space to develop interests on their own.
    While you search persistently for what each kid both loves and has a talent for, and then focus on developing those areas, I believe your greatest virtue in this pursuit will be patience. The patience to let them try and fail. Maybe even quit (which may turn out to be short term) depending on the circumstances. It’s all part of the learning process for both you and them.

  8. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I am convinced that the best way to teach mastery is by example. We can encourage our children, and if we are sensitive we can manage to keep our encouragement beneath the threshold of harassment and turnoff. But the only real way to communicate the love of mastery to our children is by showing them it in ourselves.

    We can organize or purchase classes in many different things, but the lessons that will stick with our children the longest are those we teach by our actions. What have you achieved mastery at? What are you working to achieve mastery at now? If the answer is nothing, this will likely be the answer for your child as well.

    Another thing to consider about mastery is that apparent prodigy is not enough; in fact, it might be a setback. If your child is in double digits and hasn’t found anything he’s naturally good at yet, consider yourself more fortunate than unfortunate. This means that every advance requires hard work and commitment over the course of years. Determination is more portable to other endeavors than a natural gift.

    If you are really determined to teach mastery to your children, pick something you have no natural talent for, and develop mastery in it. Become fluent in a new language, learn a musical instrument, become a master gardener, start a business, anything that seems relevant and useful to you.

    The deep lesson of your child’s early life isn’t ABCs or potty training, but the fact that his parents love him deeply. The deep lesson of your child’s later childhood isn’t what classes he takes or what activities you sign him up for, but what his parents really do with their lives.

  9. sylvia
    sylvia says:

    This is a great discussion! As a teacher and parent, I’ve observed that passion only takes kids so far on the road to mastery. Self-discipline is a bigger part of the equation. The kids who are born with self-discipline or whose parents model it have a much easier time. But, I do think self-discipline is a skill that can be broken down into parts (depending on the subject at hand) and developed over time. Often kids appear to lack discipline or can’t sustain effort because they don’t know how to break a task down into manageable parts. Parents often tell their kids to practice their instrument or study (public school!), but the kids have no idea where to begin or how to approach the task. Even kids who are passionate about researching a topic can benefit from help with metaskills.

  10. beth
    beth says:

    As a highly motivated and highly disciplined adult learner, I find that I benefit from the structure and accountability of a class or group learning environment when pursuing a new interest.

    Even kids who are passionate about a topic can have difficulty sustaining effort on their own. I think it’s important to help kids become aware of their own learning styles and needs. I often ask kids I work with: How do you learn best? What support/resources do you need to keep you going?

  11. Frances
    Frances says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your insights Penelope. Your blog has increased my understanding of my kids, myself, and my marriage. This one really caught my attention, however. I go nuts whenever I hear, mostly from my unschooling friends, the phrase “kids should be free to pursue their passions.” My eldest son, 18, is highly intelligent, musically talented, likes to read, ballroom dance, and play online video games with friends. But for none of these things does he feel more than moderate interest, despite the fact that he has grown up with two parents who are very engaged in mastery activities of our own. I’m a professional artist, avid reader, singer, cook, and master gardener. Hubby is a boat fanatic, DIYer, church volunteer, and computer nerd. Our other two kids resemble us – always filled with interest and enthusiasm, not to mention ambition to excel at their favorite activities. Mr. 18 has always been a very mellow kid: relaxed, humorous, and fun. He will willingly do assigned activities, but is completely lacking in self motivation, competitiveness, and any kind of work ethic. Even the teenage milestones of driver’s licenses and dating aren’t of particular interest. And now that he is moving more into the adult world he seems to be starting to feel a lack. A few months ago he said, a bit teary eyed, “Mom, I’m just not that interested in ANYTHING.” Having always been ambitious and self motivated, I am completely at a loss as to how to deal with a kid who seems happy, or at least content, to simply drift. And I’m terrified of making him feel unloved or unappreciated because he is different from the rest of the family. Do we leave him be to develop at his own pace and hopefully, eventually find his something? Provide the structure he seems to lack at the risk of having him become dependent on us? (We have a cousin who at 47 still calls his mom everyday to debrief. Horrors! Especially since she is currently suffering a terminal illness.) So how do we encourage mastery in a talented child who lacks passion and drive? Should we just shoot for basic competence? Can he have a fulfilling life absent those qualities, or will he always feel a lack, surrounded as he is by zealots? And for all of you who are struggling with how to best encourage your passionate child, be thankful! I envy you! It’s painful to watch natural talents fall to the wayside.

    P.S. Penelope, we all took Myer’s Briggs based on your recommendation and hoping for some insight, and Mr. 18 repeatedly came up INTJ, only without the whole “strong work ethic, self motivated” part! On the upside, I have a whole new and better understanding of my daughter since we figured out she’s ESFP! Her homeschooling is so much smoother now – wish we had done it earlier. So thanks so much for that.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I am also INTJ as your son, he sounds almost exactly like me when I was that age. The good thing is that he has many things that he excels at even though he isn’t passionate about them. The one thing that I can immediately identify with, and it could be part of my aspergers, is that I just want to be loved for who I am, I don’t want to have to be something that I’m not to please other people. We can also shut you out of our lives just as easily as we let you in and not really care, so I would encourage you to not push Mr. 18 and just let him know you love him no matter what. He’ll figure things out, maybe come up with some goals, really easy ones, short term ones that he can see results. Like maybe he could start his own blog about ballroom dancing, or his video games. Like you asked, just let him develop at his own pace, but be there for him to help him, let him know that he can ask for help with anything. He’ll get there!!! :)

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