We also spend a lot of time talking about time because we time music practice. My ten-year-old is great at knowing how much time is left during piano practice. He is an ace when it comes to asking me ten minutes before his ten o’clock bedtime if he can just finish what he’s doing.

But my husband and I both have a hunch that he doesn’t really understand how time works. On the farm we are out in the open and there are no curtains on the window. And even I, the only one of the four of us not raised on a farm, can tell what time it is based on where the sun is.

On a rainy day, it’s harder. And it’s been raining so much that instead of freezing, the ground has been soft enough to dig a completely new flowerbed and transplant shrubs in the middle of winter.

This afternoon, when it was darker than normal, and we had finished afternoon practice earlier than normal, my son said it’s time for dinner.

“It’s 3pm,” I told him.

My husband laughed from the other room.

My son said, “Dad thinks I can’t tell time.”

I said, “I don’t think you can either.”

My son threw a fit. He said he knows how, and “Of course every ten-year-old knows how!”

I realized that he feels he should know how, so I said, “You’re great at learning whatever you think you need to know.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Like I learned to read to play video games.”

“Yeah,” my husband said, “So when you get tired of not knowing how to read a clock, you’ll learn.”

“I already know,” he said. “Quiz me.”

“Okay. What time is it now?”


I look down to squelch my laughs. My husband doesn’t hold back.

I am pretty sure my son only wants to know more about time because he thinks that’s what people know. If he thought people just sort of fake it with the clock then he’d probably be okay faking it, too.

So is it self-directed that he wants to learn to tell time? Or is it something like peer pressure?

I recently read The Sports Gene, which is a compendium of research about why athletes choose to learn what they learn. It turns out that one of the reasons Kenyans are so good at long-distance running is that most of the kids run about six miles to and from school every day. And one of the reasons Jamaica is so good at sprinting is that all Jamaican kids are tested for raw sprinting talent in high school.

Those kids choose to run as adults, often, because it’s just what you do in that country. Like you play ice hockey if you live in Canada.

Self-directed learning is a combination of peer pressure and self-motivation. I think that might be okay, though, because the end goal is to create a good member of society, and you have to care about the people around you in order to achieve that goal.

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9 replies
  1. Erin
    Erin says:

    Yes. I think caring about what the societal group cares about is something that happens naturally, because we are social creatures. That makes sense. And it reinforces the “children are natural learners” premise of unschooling.

    Being a natural learner doesn’t just apply to book smarts. It applies to everything.

    In regards to peer pressure, though…I *guess* you could say that applies with unschooling, except for the part when a kid chooses between, say, ballet and cello. When the kid chooses a path to study, they are, in effect, choosing their peers. And if they have the freedom to walk away, I’m not sure the pressure to fit in with this group is true peer pressure. In a traditional school setting, kids can’t choose what they study or who they study it with. Perhaps the way peer pressure in public school takes on an air of survivalism to compensate for a lack of power the child feels.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      You make a good point. Not all peer-directed behavior should be considered peer pressure. Pressure has a negative connotation. The positive connotation of the same sort of thing attaches to the term socialization – you know, that thing homeschooled kids lack.

      It is natural for homeschooled or any other kids to want to learn or emulate behavior of their social group or intended social group. As social animals, part of how we learn to be human is by emulating others. It is nice when children can do this in an environment lacking in pressure, and one wonders whether the results will be better.

      Peer pressure, though roundly derided by schools, is the principal tool schools use to gain conformity and motivate children. There is no way children in kindergarten and first grade would sit still without peer pressure, and no way children in seventh grade would do three hours of homework without it. Without peer pressure, schooling as we know it would not exist.

      As Erin points out, choosing one’s peers is a powerful decision for a child. The drive to exhibit normative behavior is very strong – witness all the packs of teenagers roaming the streets dressed almost identically. I suspect that the homeschooled child might be able to delay (or, perhaps suffer from a delay in) finding his peer group, and benefit from a more mature decision.

      • Betsy
        Betsy says:

        As a classroom teacher I used the term, “peer-motivated” to describe a variety of behaviors – both positive and negative. I find it to be more forgiving.

  2. aquinas heard
    aquinas heard says:

    Self-directed learning can come about because of “peer pressure and self-motivation” but it SHOULD be based solely on self-motivation. If peer pressure is a partial motivator for my child I would look to make sure that I, as a parent, wasn’t somehow taking actions with my child to foster this trait in them. Succumbing to peer pressure is the result of not feeling confident about yourself. True intellectual independence (which unschooling CAN lay the foundation for) does not conform to the dictates (or fads) of the group. Peer pressure is notorious in ALL school settings. Of course not all kids succumb to it, but most do. I know I did when I was in middle school and high school.

  3. MBL
    MBL says:

    “So is it self-directed that he wants to learn to tell time? Or is it something like peer pressure?”

    From the post I couldn’t tell–does actually want to learn to tell time? Or does he just want to already know how? Or simply think that he should already know how? I mean, since this exchange, has he taken any steps towards learning?

    And regarding the not knowing, while it galls me to suggest it, does it really matter all that much if someone can’t read an analog clock? I guess if you’re on some train platform and you need to precisely sync your phone to the station clock…but, is it vital.

    I think there is definitely an element of shame in not knowing IF the child or the parent cares what people think, but otherwise.

  4. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I think he FEEL time. Otherwise, what’s up with ten minutes before bed and ten minutes after 3?

    He must have his own way of counting.

    But yes, he may not know how time works because it doesn’t mean the same when you’re in regular school and regular jobs that require you follow a set schedule for no real reason.

    When I was in Mexico (all those times, either living or visiting) 3 pm meant that exact moment when the sun looks that exact way on the water and OMG! It’s 8 pm let’s go outside for that perfect sunset!

    It meant the start of the telenovela that everyone watched. Nothing fills the air like the silence of your abuela, Tia, and comdres huddled together watching la novela.

    It meant that it was time to start dinner. Which means that I was to walk to the town market with my Tia for tortillas and other things. The smells. The heat. You always have to take extra time because you have to talk to everyone to bring back the gossip to the house, otherwise it’s a waste of a trip duh!

    Here in The States 3 pm is the dreaded slump time that no amount of coffee can lift me from. It feels like when Hercules dove into the underworld to rescue the soul of his beloved and all damned souls pulled him back into the water.

    So I lay down in my office floor and do breathing exercises and a few downward dogs.

    Maybe time means different things for him. And do you have one of those clocks with the hands? Because I couldn’t read those until I was embarrassingly old.

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