The real truth about instilling love of learning

The assumption behind the idea of instilling a love of learning is that your kids are not born with a love of learning.

It’s a terrible assumption. And probably wrong. Humans are born curious—as a species, we’re constantly learning something new. Babies learn to read faces because we are visually curious. Not because their parents purposefully instilled in their kids an interest in faces. And we acquire language without going to school because we are curious and we are self-motivated to learn. Right off the bat.

Most of the time when parents talk about “instilling a love of learning” they are talking about learning the way the parents like, about the subjects the parents like.

I remember when someone told me she wanted to instill in her kids a love of math.

It’s random. She loves math, so she is going to instill a love of math but not a love of art. Why one and not the other? Who knows what the kids are naturally interested in? Maybe neither.

The biggest issue to me is that we are each born with a love of learning, but it’s learning in our own style, learning our own interests. Kinesthetic learners learn through doing. When you decide on instilling a love of learning, do you mean running, jumping, throwing and spinning? Do you mean action painting and loud snare drumming? (How do you know what you’re best at? Take this personality test.)

The question today should be, “How do we preserve a love of learning?” Because we’re all born with it. Neoteny is the name for the playful, chatty, curiosity that human children retain far after infancy. This is a distinguishing trait that has been essential to human evolution.

Yet school knocks it out of most kids with incessant rules, rows of desks, and proscribed learning. I read incredible stories every week about the demoralizing things that happen in school. Like this child who had to sit on the floor for weeks as punishment. Yet there is scant acknowledgement that simply going to school runs contrary to everything evolution has taught us about child development.

And parents also knock the love of learning right out of kids with staunch plans for a well-rounded curriculum. Kids have a natural love of learning but learning in their own way. Some will like books, some will like to watch or listen rather than read. Some will want to work with their hands. All ways are paths to expressing a love of learning. But if you tell your kid the RIGHT way to learn, and the RIGHT subjects to learn, they won’t necessarily be able to love that way or that subject.

Maybe that parental approach comes from believing that adults need to be able to learn a wide range of ways. But almost no one does when they reach the workforce. Most people either work at a computer or they work with their hands or they work with other people. Few people do all three. Some people work by talking things through with others, and some people learn by thinking alone.

And now, before I get up high on my horse, a confession: My son plays the violin because I wished I had played it when I was a kid. At this point, I think he has benefitted from playing an instrument. But I try to be really honest about when I am asking my kids to do something because I wish I were doing it. And then I ask myself: If it’s so great, why don’t I just do it myself, right now, and leave my kids alone?


29 replies
  1. Erin
    Erin says:

    Do you know what would be awesome?! A Myers-Briggs test for kids. Little kids. Quistic Junior. :) Do you know an expert who could develop that?

  2. BenK
    BenK says:

    On nature vs nurture, I think it is very possible that children have less of an innate inclination to a subject and are instead socially impacted to orient toward what they see rewarded in others.

  3. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    Of course this is all about control. Governments want to control children by confining them in child custodial facilities and boring the curiosity out of them. Then the kids can grow up into dutiful workers and soldiers that are socialized to obey their political and economic masters.

    When we decide to let children follow their own love of learning we are deciding not to try and control the future.

    For just about everyone that is way too scary, because it admits that the future is in the hands of Darwin.

  4. Bria
    Bria says:

    The closest thing I could find to a meyers briggs test for kids was this one from the Parenting by Temperament website. The parent takes the test on behalf of their child based on how the child reacts to certain situations. I don’t know how accurate it is, but I took it for my two kids and it seemed fairly spot on. I’ll be curious to see if my kids have the same indicator once they are old enough to take the test themselves. Here’s the link:

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh, this is such a great link! And it makes me want to have a test for kids on Quistic. Thanks so much for posting the link.


    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Thanks for this. I’ve never been able to type my kids until you provided this link. My oldest is an INTP… having this one tool is beyond helpful. I never knew what she was before!

  5. Kelsey Langley
    Kelsey Langley says:

    My daughter was in a single desk by herself in kindergarten while all the other students were in clusters of 4-5 students. I repeatedly asked that this be changed (because it was implemented as a way to isolate her- not because she was bothering her neighbors) and was told it would happen and it never did… I pulled her out of public school before the end of the year. Best decision we ever made.

    Now the whole idea of dropping your kids off and entrusting them to strangers because they are “screened and certified professionals” seems so wrong…

    The biggest reward of homeschooling for us as we start our 3rd year… That spark and excitement to explore, ask questions and not take things at face value is thriving instead of being slowly squelched as we witnessed in public school.

    Penelope- my husband and I took your Quistic personality test finally- spot on! I’ve never felt that satisfied with a personality test! Incidentally it’s the same type you told me I was a year ago in email- just INFP instead of ENFP.

  6. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    The ‘girl sitting on the floor’ story reminded me of an incident in my elementary years. There was an article in the local paper about a teacher who made a boy sit in a big refrigerator box (with his desk though). And apparently other kids would throw things at him. Of course the teacher and school were lamblasted in the artcle.

    Well I had been in class with that boy the year before, and all the other kids, as well as the teacher, were scared of him. In the 4th grade he would spout explicit sexual comments to the girls and threaten the boys with violence.

    Once this boys mother walked with him to the busstop, and we could all see she was pregnant. All us kids could talk about afterward was how he would probably kill the baby.

    This experience has always made me take these ‘public school treats child horribly’ stories with a grain of salt. There is probably much more to the story.

    When kids are in public elementary school, they are all in there together; even the ones who will eventually be filtered out of society in the near future. When you are 8, you are stuck there. Sometimes I think adults forget that, because in adult-world the baddest have been filtered out in some way; prison, mental hospital, could never get hired where you work etc. and you don’t have to rub shoulders with every sociopath out there everyday. When you’re 8 you have to be more accommadating of many different, often horrible, people, because you have no choice.

  7. Shelly
    Shelly says:

    I have a follow up question for you, I know that you have written before about the need to provide girls an option for staying home with their kids (rather than just prepping them for a career). Do you think specialization is as important in this case? Or is there any more need for being well rounded?

    This line here is what prompted my question: “Maybe that parental approach comes from believing that adults need to be able to learn a wide range of ways. But almost no one does when they reach the workforce. Most people either work at a computer or they work with their hands or they work with other people.”

    It seems as though a “stay at home mom” would need to be able to learn in a wide range of ways, but I would love to hear your thoughts.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I was not prepared to be a stay at home mom, so I’m having to learn a lot of things on the fly, but I’m also more than just a mom even though I homeschool.

      I’m still trying to use my individual expertise at home. My husband and I are working on side inventions, and I’m trying very hard to become a complete person through yoga, working on family relationships, and networking with other people who I have something in common with. Being more well-rounded in home economics would seriously have benefited me, but I feel like I can still learn these things even if they are foreign for the moment.

      I feel like I really appreciate this question, but also feel like I don’t think there is any single answer here. I think mainly, it’s completely dependent on who you are and what you want to do in life. If you solely want to have a family and raise kids as your career, I think a well-rounded education is important for you. If you want to have a big career before family, then you need to specialize. I’d love to read PT’s response because I think most of us are asking ourselves this question.

  8. karelys
    karelys says:

    I think the ones who homeschool for the sake of freedom to learn have this idea that successful homeschooling shows in a very motivated kid doing, trying, experimenting, etc.

    But what about the kids who find themselves watching tv bored out of their minds??

    Even when you’ve removed restrictions and given them freedom to learn and explore sometimes people (including adults and kids) just feel demotivated for a myriad of reasons.

    Maybe this is something else we can explore in the blog. Because at this point I am convinced that it’s better for my kid to be homeschooled. And I am convinced that controlling really takes the steam of out of people to want to do great things.

    But what about when your kid doesn’t want to excel but rather be a dilettante?

    Or is being a dilettante a pejorative and the sign of a problem to be fixed?

    • AP
      AP says:

      I’m worried about this. When I place no demands on my kids, they just sit around staring at one screen or another. It isn’t always a bad thing… my son made a Minecraft server by watching youtube videos. He also learned about Minecraft “mods” on YouTube and he does excellent origami. Kip Kay is another of his favorites. My daughters love Nerdy Nummies on YouTube and they want to make their own youtube channel (they’re 7).That stuff is great. They’re generation whatever and they live online. But they also spend too much time playing pokémon and other DS games and watching sitcoms and cartoons. I suppose I spent a lot of time watching tv, too, when I was young (I loved creature feature!). And I watched the three stooges ad nauseum and I turned out ok.

      I guess I’m worried that they won’t be prepared for adulthood if I homeschool them. I feel like all I’m teaching them to be is a workaholic because I am always working (i have a business I run from home). I don’t trust myself to homeschool effectively.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        Look, school was a great structure for me because I thrive when I have a charted path and a score card to measure my progress.

        I FIND WAYS (!!!) to make a score card of sorts even in things where there’s none. It lessens my anxiety about whether or not I am progressing and doing things right. That’s just the way I am.

        So that aspect of school was good for me.

        Almost everything else about school not only did NOT prepare me for adulthood but it got in the way.

        Your kids are probably not doing any worse if they got really good at doing techy stuff than if they went to school all day. They would probably just be happier. They would probably still complain about you and then when they have their own kids would become much more compassionate and see how hard you tried.

        One of them may require psychotherapy and another one may vehemently insist that you’re the best mother in the world.

        A lot will be out of your hands.

        I guess the questions should be geared more towards “what’s the purpose of doing this? can it be done better?”

        I am still discovering my purpose for homeschooling.

        From the way it looks I don’t think it will be unstructured. There’s a lot I want to instill in my child.

        I am not worried about him being interested in education. I know now that we all need to learn. So that doesn’t worry me. However, my “curriculum” will consist of character traits and the bare minimum so that he can take care of himself if his father and I were to pass on when he’s young.

        I know it sounds grim.

        But that’s how my dad handled a lot of our life. He was always pushing me to be self-sufficient. He was a fruit picker in the fields and was always terrified that he’d die or fall sick or break something and not be able to provide for our family. I wasn’t even done with 6th grade and he was already setting me on a path to earn money on my own.

        It was VERY STRESSFUL and I grew up with a lot of fear. But at the same I was never afraid of how’d I’d make money if the worst were to happen. I grew up with a heavy burden of protecting my brothers and providing for my family. It’s okay. I would gladly choose that again over a struggle-free childhood.

        I really doubt school will prepare your kids for adulthood any better than playing games all day at home. Seriously.

        At least they will be happier. And happiness is a buffer against depression and it feeds confidence. And you need confidence to tackle this crazy life.

        At the very least they are learning grit, determination, creative problem solving, etc. while they are creating all those things online. They have an audience. They have to learn to deal with criticism. And c’mon! they are learning skills that will be nothing but the basic requirement in the future.

        They’re ok.

        You’ll probably be better off too if you homeschool them and have to stop fighting for homework, getting up early, etc.

  9. AP
    AP says:

    Well I accidentally hit post. I hate this kindle. I don’t know that I can homeschool effectively because I’m always working and I have ZERO support from my husband. I work from home but I’m an intj and can’t work when there are three kids interrupting me all day. That sounds harsh, perhaps, but I have to make money (somebody has to). I’m trying to set times for work and times for family, but it’s hard when you run your own business. I think it would be easier to homeschool if we moved out of the city, too (chicago). What else are my kids supposed to do if I’m working and they’re bored, right? Mostly I’m thinking out loud, I think. So, thanks for the place to do that. I love reading this blog because it’s helping me to thoroughly think through the educational options.

    Autocorrect on the kindle is atrocious, too. The comment section needs an edit button.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      If like me, you really believe that your kids are better off being educated at home or through self-directed learning….anywhere really other than school to siphon the life out of them…

      Then I would say, start by taking the restrictions down. Many people believe that if you’re homeschooling YOU have to homeschool the kids. Like, YOU have to deal with them all day long. YOU have to sit down and read books and do activities.

      Look, kids need and love their parents. But not all of us had the fortune of starting life out without a wrinkle so that we could be on the perfect path to homeschool and be like super calm all the time and imparting wisdom and instruction to our kids.

      Can you get help? can someone take your kids to places and activities they love and enrich their lives?

      If so, then take advantage of it! and carve time to work while they are gone.
      If not, then I’d say hit someone up that home schools too and try to do some sort co-op or rotation where the other family takes the kids for a few hours some days per week and then you’ll have to do it too for her/his family. It’s not that I expect this will all fall perfectly in place. Sometimes you find a puzzle piece that fits easily and it’s the right one, sometimes you are trying all kinds of places before you find where that piece goes.

      Sorry about your husband and the situation in general. I think for me it was most helpful to admit right away that it’s not good for anyone in the family when I stay home with the kid. I am a mess and I make everyone else a mess. IDGAF that anyone thinks I should be all nurturing and maternal. Maybe one day but it’s not happening right now. So I have to go on and find an alternative. And we did! And it’s working great.

      So if you really want to do this there will be a way. But you have to know it’s going to be your way and it may be miles and miles away from your “ideal” but whatever, no one has their own ideal life all the time. But whatever you make of it will be a thousand times better than pretending your hands are tied and you have no other option but to send your kid to school (if you are convinced that school would just be bad for your kids and your happiness).

      Wish you the best! it’s always trial and error.

      My major anxiety was that I thought I had to make myself the best version of myself before homeschooling so I wouldn’t screw up my kid. But you know what? this is a relationship! so the kid is growing along with me (my mother side and my individual and my wife side). We are all doing this homeschooling/unschooling/self-directed learning thing.

      It’s not about the kid. It’s about all three (almost 4) of us.

      We’re not catering to our kid. We’re doing this as a family and we’ve determined that for our collective happiness homeschool is the best way to go (even with it’s challenges).

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I don’t work from home, I mean, I’m not making money just doing lots of research and math. But I am an INTJ so I feel like I somewhat understand why you would feel that way. Look, you have said in the past that your kids go to private school, right? So it seems completely within your budget to hire 1) a tutor to help with the homeschooling/structured part and 2) a babysitter to watch your kids so you can work.

      Many people don’t hit there homeschooling stride until the 3rd or 4th year. We’re all working on this together, and I love coming here to bounce ideas off other people and to also see how I can improve things.

      Right now, it sounds like excuses… but I totally know I can’t assume that because I don’t know your full situation or even why your husband is so dead set against homeschool. This is why the compromise is to just “test it for a year”. My husband was also iffy at first, but now he is my biggest champion.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        so good to read that most of everyone hit their stride until 3rd or 4th year into it.

        If I hadn’t read this I would’ve just probably rip my hair out when it wasn’t working right away.

        I mean, I know it’s different if your kid has never been to school. But still.

  10. Erin
    Erin says:

    “But I try to be really honest about when I am asking my kids to do something because I wish I were doing it. And then I ask myself: If it’s so great, why don’t I just do it myself, right now, and leave my kids alone?”

    I do this too. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but right now homeschooling 5 kids takes up all my time. Which is fine, I’m doing it on purpose, but when they’re grown (or grown-er), I’m going to sit down and write, darn it. But that seems a long way off, and I find myself responding to very imaginative statements by them with, “Have you ever considered a career in fiction?” and really hoping they develop that talent. But it’s not really them that I’m talking about at all. It just seems that if one of them became a successful author, I wouldn’t have to, somehow. I’ve begun catching myself when I do it, though, and realizing that I’m talking about myself.

  11. karelys
    karelys says:

    I saw a green car drive by this morning and immediately thought it was pretty. But then I realized that I was hearing my mom’s voice not really mine. I don’t care much for that color. She loves burgundy, army green, and the like. I grew up hearing that. I grew up thinking those were “good colors. Elegant colors. Colors for proper women with gravitas.”

    I can’t help but like a lot of things just because my parents showed me the way.

    The thing is, we’ll naturally want to share things we love with our kids the way you want to tell everyone about “THE BEST BAND EEVVVEERRRR YOU GUYZZZ!!!”

    It’s a relationship after all.

    I wish my husband felt the same alterations in heart rhythm when latin music plays, but he doesn’t.

    Still, it doesn’t stop me from trying to share the joy with him.

    That doesn’t mean I’ll force him into a latin dance class or anything of the sort. It just backfires.

    I figure it’s pretty similar with kids.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Being forced to play a musical instrument as a child is the only thing I’ve heard adults say was the best thing their parents forced on them. I mean, I haven’t ever heard anyone say “I wish my parents didn’t force me to play the violin/piano/cello” It’s always the opposite, they are so glad that their parents pushed them through the pains of practice, some even wish their parents had pushed it harder… For some reason, music is always this outlier where it’s ok to force it.

      I do like Latin music… but don’t even try to teach me to dance, lol.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I have actually heard people talk about being forced to do it (piano or something else) but their heart wasn’t in it. They either hated the teacher or found ways to day dream or do something else.

        Maybe the ones that are glad they were being pushed into are the ones that found a way to fall in love with it and can successfully play now.

        I don’t know. My dad tried teaching us to play music and I never stuck with it because even though I thought it was cool I just was too busy trying to do something else. My brothers stuck with it. They haven’t pushed themselves much lately but it’s something they have with themselves forever. But for them it’s neither here nor there.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I guess everybody’s personal philosophy comes into play here then. If you are generally a positive person then you probably will appreciate it more??? My husband is the most positive person I know, I can’t be around him until I’ve had my morning coffee because it’s too much. (I just want to be a storm cloud for a little bit and he won’t let me.) He was put in piano lessons as a kid but his mom let him quit when he got frustrated, he really regrets that now and wished she would have pushed him further with it. He’s got great piano hands…

          I guess what I’m saying is, a lot of the people that I talk to probably aren’t going to have negative experiences like that. I feel bad for people that have had a horrible music experience. I wonder why it was so bad?

          • karelys
            karelys says:

            bahaha! my husband is perma happy too!!

            haha! I too, just want to be Eyore (from winnie the pooh) for a little bit. His constant happy and joking makes me feel like cold water has been thrown in my face.

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