When Your Child is the Teacher


Photo credit: PhotogLife from morguefile.com


To someone who has never been a teacher, it’s hard sometimes to describe the process of learning. Control of learning is best left to the student; not the teacher.


When your child is the teacher, he sees learning through his own eyes. He makes his own lesson plans, checks himself for learning, adapts his schedule, and assesses himself. He chooses his own breaks and his next subject matter. He is his own teacher.


Watch a young child some time learning to walk or hand a small child an object he’s never seen before. Devote your attention to his eyes and his hands. Watch for several minutes as he decides if an object is worth investigating or not. Watch the look of puzzlement, delight, frustration, and satisfaction. Don’t say a word. Don’t intervene. Just watch. You’re watching a child become his own teacher. It’s tough sometimes to not fix things for our kids and to not show them the way, but this is how they learn. To solve a child’s problems for them is to put off learning for another day. When we demonstrate, we rob our kids of learning. Yes, we can do it quicker, better, and more efficiently, but it’s not our learning. Learning is about floundering, grasping for ideas, and learning your way.


Many people learned how to swim by being thrown into a lake or pool. While that makes me nervous to think about, having someone nearby who can rescue you when you’re drowning tends to make us feel safer, but also hinders our ability to learn, to struggle, to do it ourselves. Eventually, most of us learn to swim, but it’s not while someone is holding our arms and legs. The learning comes when they let go and we trust ourselves to learn.


Today I watched my self-directed learner struggle. It’s much easier to watch other people’s children struggle than to stand back and let our own find their way. My work as a teacher has proven to me time and time again that the power of learning is in the struggle.


“Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.” – Chinese Proverb


My child wants no part of a structured and mom-directed education. He shows and tells me often, but there’s a part of him that’s still influenced by traditional learning. It’s the part that encourages competition and uses learning as a way to beat someone else. It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good; it just is.


Competition can be a driving force urging you onto victory or it can be the force that stops you in your tracks while screaming into your ear, “You suck. You’re worthless.” Two extremes. Both are components of competition. We give the concept of competition too much credit. Without us, competition doesn’t exist-unless of course, we’re competing with ourselves. 


It is a good feeling to know we beat someone else in a competition, but it’s fleeting because at any moment we realize we can be knocked down again. The better lesson is the win we gain for ourselves. Pushing yourself past your self-imposed boundaries makes the difference. It’s intrinsic motivation and it’s the only worthwhile motivation because it’s the only one that teaches.


My sons both love the Zelda games. They’re third generation gamers who crave adventure and puzzles (and of course, cool weapons). Today my youngest son was his own teacher. He usually hands the controller over to his older brother at the tough parts, but his brother wasn’t around (and mom can barely fly on a bird without getting lost these days). He had to do it himself. No one urged him on and no one helped. In fact, he chose a new tactic leaving behind his brother’s seasoned advice. He had decided to battle the boss his way.


With no one to praise and no one to save, he took a chance and it worked. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch that battle (though I was shown several subsequent re-enactments). I only got to see his shock and elation while his mind raced with “What ifs”

What if he’d followed his brother’s plan?

What if he hadn’t tried?


He assessed himself as victorious having beaten The Imprisoned, but with an added bonus of having beaten his brother’s time. He knew he was good because the boss went down and went down quickly. Competition began to creep into his brain, but he kept coming back to his main focus, “I can’t believe I beat him. I figured something out today.”


I watched his brain work through a variety of facial expressions. Meanwhile my understanding and remembering kicked in having seen those expressions a million times on the faces of my former students. THAT was real learning and he was the teacher. Life gives us that gift every day. Sometimes we recognize it, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we fail and sometimes we triumph, but we’re always learning.


If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably come to the realization that we are all our own teachers. Some days we get the lessons and some days we don’t. Life has them ready for us at every move.


Sometimes, we resort to tricks to perform tasks. Sure, I use that trick of running a jar under hot water to open it, but I never learned it- I just remembered what someone else learned and followed their directions. Later, I learned why it works. There’s a huge difference and it’s worth noting. It’s a subtlety that’s lost on most people, but learning is when you discover something for yourself. It’s not when you are taught, but instead when you become the teacher. I’ve learned so many things from my former students and I’m learning even more homeschooling my own son.


Let your children learn.


It takes so much longer, but the payoffs are immense. My youngest son not only learned how to beat the boss, and beat his brother’s time, but he beat himself too. I watched him transform a little more today gaining in confidence to meet the next challenge that life throws at him. Yes, it was only a video game, but that’s how it starts- one baby step at a time. Before you know it, our kids are running their own lives and becoming their own teachers.


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