Self-directed learning is more fun with parent intimacy

This is a guest post from Erin Wetzel. She is a painter and a poet who lives in Tacoma, WA with her husband and daughter. You can connect with her on instagram @ekwetzel. Earlier she wrote Unschooling Starts the Day Your Child is Born.

Tonight, as Phoebe was getting ready for bed, she turned to me and lamented, “I only know how to read one book, Mama. I only know how to read “Maisy Big, Maisy Small.” She looked longingly at her bookshelf.

“Do you wish you could read your other books?”


“Ok, Phoebe. We will start learning tomorrow.” Right then it was time for bed.

I remember learning to read with my Mom. The memories are golden—me on her lap in a shiny mustard armchair, sunlight pouring over our shoulders. We were reading Sally, Dick and Jane. I pronounced “Dick” as “Duck” and made her laugh. Then I read “Sally” the first time I saw it, without hesitation, and she was so pleased she called my Dad in to fawn over me.

Growing up, when I made my parents happy, I felt safe. I didn’t make an effort to pursue my own happiness, because I spent most of my energy trying to please them. By the time I was in college, however, I was depressed all the time. I blamed my parents for my adult unhappiness, thinking that I didn’t know how to live my life on my own terms. But the truth is, it has always been my responsibility to find happiness.

All the same, I don’t want Phoebe to repeat my mistakes. I want her to know my happiness doesn’t not depend on her. Each of us are responsible for our own happiness. It’s important to me that curiosity and learning are joys all her own.

Maybe that’s why I’d always assumed, when the time came to teach Phoebe to read, that I would step out of the equation. I figured I’d start by downloading a phonics app so she could teach herself by herself.

But I underestimated how much a love of reading for some of us is related to sharing a good book with someone you love. I underestimated how much Phoebe’s desire to learn is tied to her desire to learn from me. My desire to step away from teaching her was reactionary.

We fill our home with quality stories, and we enjoy sharing them with her. Whenever we snuggle up with a book, maybe I’m inspiring a passion for literature, but maybe she is learning is that reading together is a way to say, “I love you.”

Maybe the reason homeschooling works is because, when you are with your kid all day, every day, for her entire life, it creates consistency and intimacy. And, when those deep emotional needs are met, it frees the child’s mind to explore and grow.

13 replies
  1. Splashman
    Splashman says:

    Great post. It captures some of my very deep feelings about the pleasures and benefits (for parent and child) of homeschooling.

  2. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Really enjoyed this post. My 5 year-old daughter is just beginning to learn to read, and my favorite moments are when she’s sitting on my lap sounding out words and the smile she gets when she figures out the word. I often think how fortunate I am to witness those little learning moments rather than hearing about them from a teacher.

  3. Suzy
    Suzy says:

    Erin, as you continue to explore unschooling, I hope you will consider becoming aware of how you use the verb “teach.” Unschooling really started to flourish when my husband and I moved from trying to teach our kids to helping them learn. The difference is not merely semantic.

    Although I attended school, I learned to read on my own at age 5 (before kindy). My dad read to is every night, but did nothing “teachery,” so I knew I had learned myself. This was a very powerful experience.

    Two of my kids are now independent readers, and neither was taught to read, but rather learned from being read to and surrounded by print and parents who read.

    I also would be careful about telling any child you can help her learn to read in a specific timeframe (even her own) because a big part of reading is developmental readiness, which sometimes comes much later than the initial desire to read.

    • Erin
      Erin says:

      Suzy –

      You are so right! This last year or so has been a process of homeschooling self discovery for me, and I have to unlearn my concepts about teaching her!

      I’m starting to see my role more as a facilitator. If you are on Instagram, I would encourage you to check out a post I did yesterday. Phoebe has been painting her body a lot, and instead of yelling at her not to, I’m trying to help her explore this interest. My username is “ekwetzel.”

      I’ve also come to accept that we’ll make mistakes along the way, but that’s just part of life. Neither of us need get overly frustrated about it. We can just learn from it and move forward.

      I initially wrote this post to Penelope as an email, just sharing a precious moment. That was two months ago. Since then, my efforts to help “teach” Phoebe have been met with frustration on her end. So I stopped! I read to her a lot. We take turns pickin books. And we focus on the joy of the stories.

    • Erin
      Erin says:

      I’ve been thinking about this, and I have a question. I invite anyone to answer.

      Sometimes I HAVE to teach, instead of letting her lead. Sometimes it’s because of safety, like when she is helping me cook over a hot stove. Sometimes it’s because she wants to do something and can’t figure out how, and I can show her.

      In these moments, I am more than a facilitator. I am a teacher. And I guess I do believe that teaching is one way kids can learn. Isn’t learning from a teacher, fundamentally, just learning from others’ experiences??

      • Splashman
        Splashman says:

        Erin, there are some folks (our hostess included) for whom “teaching” is anathema, and for whom “self-directed learning” is the be-all-end-all.

        To me, that’s unnatural and a roll of the die. The desire to pass along one’s wisdom is as natural as the desire to pass along one’s genes. Of course the parents must be wise about how they teach, and allow each child’s unique set of gifts to develop. And there are plenty of situations when a hands-off approach is extremely effective, especially with kids of certain personality types.

        However, a balance must be maintained between hands-on and hands-off (as appropriate for each personality type), because children will rightly interpret a predominantly hands-off approach as indifference or neglect, and that will cause relationships to suffer. When parent/child relationships are good, the children crave the parents’ knowledge, and when effective teaching happens, relationships benefit in a virtuous cycle. (I speak from experience.)

        Taking Suzy’s comments on reading as an example, I’ll mention that I waited for each of my children to express a solid interest in learning to read, and then I spent 15 mins a day with him/her in a phonics workbook. Of course each child also spent plenty of time on their own trying to read this or that favorite book, so it wasn’t as if I was controlling the learning process. But I have precious memories of the time spent with each, seeing the light bulb come on as they learned a new letter combination. The fact that this process happened together, with Daddy’s help, served a number of purposes in deepening our relationship.

        Could they have learned to read by themselves, with my involvement? Of course! In fact, they could grow into adults without me having taught them anything more than “Dad’s a busy guy”. But . . .

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        Sometimes you do have to teach. Sometimes it’s very helpful if you do. And sometimes it’s best if you don’t.

        I teach a lot more than most unschooly types. I even have actual classes with an actual curriculum that a bunch of homeschooled kids follow together… with homework even!

        I expect you’ll find times when your kid wants to be taught, and you’ll find subjects that are going to work better if they are addressed through teaching on a regular and progressive basis.

        What a lot of folks react to – sometimes from bitter personal experience – is the danger of seeing yourself, the homeschooling parent, as primarily a teacher, or someone who needs to be on the lookout all the time for opportunities to be all teachery, to turn every observation or question into a ‘teachable moment.’ For a lot of kids, the teacher mode can be a real turnoff. If a parent responds to a kid’s enthusiasm by getting all teachery or dominating the discussion or project, the kid sometimes pulls back and doesn’t want to do it anymore.

        I have two kids. One is ten, calm and introverted, and really likes to be given his own space to work on things for a long time by himself. He also likes to have teachers to challenge him for a couple of things a few hours a week. I am one of those teachers for him, but if I thought I was his teacher for everything all day long, that’d be a drag for both of us.

        My other kid is pre school age, and I wonder if she’ll ever like to have teachers at all. She really likes to figure things out by herself, and will take what she wants from you and leave the rest. I don’t know what’s going to work out for her. For now, her job is playing. But the point of bringing it up is that it’s a big part of my job to calibrate the degree and frequency with which I act like a teacher, depending on my kids’ needs and preferences, which will be different for every kid. The only thing you can feel certain about is that it’s less than six hours a day.

  4. redrock
    redrock says:

    I don’t really see the negative connotation of teaching – it is an exchange of knowledge and skills. Someone wants to learn/know/experience something and asks me to show them how – so I teach them. Like someone wants to learn how to knit- I can sit down with them and show them how it is done, that is teaching someone how to knit. They still have to do it themselves, proficiency can not be taught but only experienced by practice. But how can you learn a new skill you are curious about without finding a way to learn, and often this includes looking for someone to teach you?

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      People with this “we don’t say teaching” thing are just ideologues….and appear hyper-reactionary to teachers. It’s OK to teach!

      • Suzy
        Suzy says:

        I AM driven by an ideology–one that has expanded and evolved significantly–but I don’t think I’m an ideologue.

        The word “teach” is just very saddled with schoolishness, and beginning homeschooling parents can be really hung up on teaching when it is neither desired nor helpful. It sounds like Erin found this out when her daughter began to resist Erin’s attempts at teaching her to read. I think this is a good thing, as even brain scientists can’t fully explain how we learn to read, and Erin’s daughter is still very, very young. Intervening too early and forcefully can cause its own problems.

        I’m not a big fan of “self-directed,” either, which makes it sound like the parent isn’t supposed to be involved. I think the kind of intimacy that Erin is aiming for is really wonderful, and that it makes sense to think of unschooling as more of a partnership that is respectful of all persons involved.

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