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Don’t Teach Your Kids to Read (Part 2 of 2)

I met a woman on LinkedIn who watched her son sink into a mind-numbingly bored existence. Like many young learners, he was required to spend several hours each day — with his video turned on — in virtual school. At the end of each day, he was drained, discouraged, moodier than normal, and oddly quiet. She saw the spark in her son dimming… ever so slowly each day. Can any parent relate? (Can every parent relate?)

What’s a Mom to Do?

What did this parent do in response? 

She played hooky. 

She exercised her parental authority, vetoed the school’s orders and took a “parental snow day.” She and her son went to the park and made snowmen. They threw snowballs. They slid on a sled and made snow-angels. (Texan’s may not know about snow-days, but for a kid, it’s as close as one can get to Heaven on earth.) 

Then mom and son packed up a sled-full of snow and delivered it to the Littles in their neighborhood. I saw pics of these Littles playing in the “imported” snow. This small act of kindness inspired me. Very cool.

All in all, the son and mother made some great memories, they learned the importance of service, community, and — let’s not forget — simple pleasures. None of these experiences, however, would improve his academic standing at school. School only values certain types of learning — facts, dates, discrete knowledge. But while playing hooky, this parent remembered something that school has forgotten: the importance of Learner Engagement.

Learning Self Control through Engagement

This post is a continuation of How to Teach Self-Control. Last week I described a hard, structured, disciplined approach that builds self-control in kids. Parents are wise to practice the lessons from last week’s post. But learning self-control through engagement is a completely different activity and a different form of learning.

The Power of Engagement

From “In education, student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education…”

Parents: reflect on this definition. Is your child showing any “attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, or passion” in their learning? If not, then keep reading. If so, then please schedule a call with me to tell you how you did it. (Seriously.)

The EdGlossary definition continues:  …”student engagement” is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise “disengaged.” 

Read the bold section again. If your child is not “interested or inspired” by what they are doing in school, then their learning is suffering. 

Practical Definition of Engagement

An engaged child is able to control himself. An engaged child may spend hours mastering a craft because she is engaged. An engaged child learns many times faster than a learner who is cajoled or threatened to learn or is uninspired.  

In short, our efforts to require that our kids tolerate protracted periods of disengaged learning comes at a cost. “It will all be worth it,” we tell our young learners. “Doing tedious assignments builds character and positions you for college,” we promise but the value of a college degree is fading fast

A Test for Parents and Young Learners

A question: Parents (and learners), “How engaged is your child (are you) in daily learning?” Use the scale below to answer.

The Dual Epidemic of COVID and Disengagement

A few months ago, I did a thoroughly unscientific survey of families and found that almost 80% indicated that their children were disengaged. Most were in the Ritual Compliance zone and required daily reminders, prodding, and threats to complete assignments. (Sound familiar?) 

Those in the Retreatism zone invented creative ways to avoid virtual school (like the student who put a monitor behind his school-issued laptop on which he played video games during class. He kept his camera on and looked totally engaged. Genius.) 

My survey, and any causal monitoring of your child will likely evidence that they are frustrated, bored and/or uninspired. These are the emotions that kill curiosity, engagement, and a love of learning.

What’s a Parent to Do

In the story that introduced this blog, I described a mother who exerted her parental authority to “veto” school rules. She substituted disengaged learning for a different learning opportunity that engaged her son. This is what I recommend, but there are many models of doing so.

Liberating the Disengaged

Option 1 – Dream: 

Start by inviting your child to Dream. Spend an hour doing a DreamMap to unearth their interests. This is an essential first step. Until you know your child’s interests, it will be difficult to authentically engage them in learning. You may also find that your child doesn’t know what they love. This, sadly, is because most of traditional school is decided for them. The bureaucrats in charge of schools seem to have an allergy to giving kids space to explore and imagine. But I digress.

Option 2 – Negotiate the Essentials: 

Talk to your child’s teacher and request additional flexibility in the day. Ask, “What does my child MOST need to learn in the coming week?” The goal here is to negotiate the removal of the non-essential for the sake of your child’s sanity. Many teachers are willing to simplify your child’s school day when parents respectfully negotiate on topics that the teacher identifies as priorities. 

Option 3 – Prune and Plant: 

This builds on Option 2. Here parents can negotiate the entire removal of certain homework, assignments, or entire subjects. It’s best done when parents propose to replace those subjects/assignments with other forms of learning in the areas that the child has indicated interest (identified by their DremMap). How about an example:

Here’s advice I gave to a parent with a 9-year-old girl who was bored to tears (literally) during school. This child also had a hard time answering DreamMap questions: 

For the child who doesn’t know their interests (which is all too common because we adults never ask them) it’s a pretty safe bet that they will like animals… especially dogs. (But not cats, because cats are evil). So, I proposed that the parent negotiate the substitution of science assignments with a deep-dive on dogs. The deep dive began with a trip to the animal shelter (or local Humane Society) to see the dogs, inspect the conditions of their confinement, talk with the manager about how the shelter works, and other questions like these. The child was asked to take notes on what they learned. The deep dive also included watching one of the many Netflix documentaries on Dogs again while taking notes. I also suggested searching YouTube for the “Best Dog Training Videos” like this one — you guessed it, while taking notes. I even suggested sitting for a friend’s dog to study its behavior. Finally, I instructed the parent to ask – but not answer – questions like these throughout the experience. The child LOVED the experience and it identified new areas for her DreamMap. “Learn how dogs think,” became a DreamMap goal for the child. This child now happily reads books on dogs, dog training, and animal socialization — here’s the punchline — because she is ENGAGED in the learning! 

In 10-years of coaching parents I have never heard of a child who didn’t LOVE deep dives like this. The personalized learning that is impossible to replicate in a traditional school did wonders for this child’s interest in science — animals, animal training, socialization, biology, etc, etc. (But, again, none of this will be on the bureaucrat’s state-mandated test. They wouldn’t value any of this. As a result, you will need to decide which is most important for you and your child.)

I encourage you to try this with your child and, if this doesn’t become the highlight of the month, then you may want to check your child’s pulse. (Of course, it could mean that they are a cat lover… so, reluctantly, I might suggest you try the above with cats. Ewwww.) 

And, of course, if the DreamMap uncovers hidden interests in your child, then follow a similar approach with whichever area was identified. Dive deep and Liberate their Engagement!

Option 4: The Parental Veto and Replacement: 

[Preface: Most teachers are stuck between a school system that treats them like technicians — not professionals — and parents/kids who blame the teacher for the problems of the system. Be super careful with what I’m about to recommend to make certain that you don’t signal that the teacher is the problem. They are as stuck as your children are many times!]

I know of several parents who regularly take their child out of school early for various parent-authorized activities. Sometimes those are defined — doctor’s appointment, funeral, etc — and sometimes those are based on the parent’s read of their child’s needs — parental snow day for a discouraged child. 

In any case, you, the parent, are the supreme authority for your child’s life and future. NEVER FORGET THAT. You can delegate your authority to a school if you desire, but you can also veto the school’s policies when they are not working. 

And, if your child is disengaged, and your negotiation with your child’s teacher does not result in a satisfactory outcome, then, by the power vested in me from the State of Rational Thought, I hereby authorize you to inform the teacher that your child has “other plans” and close the computer. (Please be respectful of the teacher and let them know in advance, however.) 

Am I worried you’ll abuse this advice? No. Because every parent I know loves their children far more than the policy-makers and bureaucrats who have structured school into the mind-numbingly-boring, one-size-fits-few place it has become. I trust that, during your self-imposed day off, you’ll make sure to include some formal and informal learning opportunities into your child’s experience. And I trust that whatever learning occurs will spark other curiosities because your child will be engaged. And, above all, I am confident that it will lead to higher levels of “attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion” in their learning. 

Option 4: The Veto Without Replacement: 

In this final option, you can consider negotiating reductions in disengaging material or take your child out of school for a day or more, but without replacing it with anything. Simply allow the child to have some space pursue whatever interests them. I generally recommend putting some limits on this (ex: you must be outside, no/limited gaming, no/limited videos, must include some reading, must include some time with siblings, etc). Sometimes I recommend asking your children a few wildly open ended questions like these and letting them think about them during the day. 

Personal example with Option 4: Three years ago, after years of trying to force my son to learn the piano, we quit trying. There the piano sat. Dusty, sad, and lonely. But, since COVID, for reasons that only God Almighty knows, my son began teaching himself piano. First it was a few minutes once or twice a week. It grew — without my encouragement at all! — and he now practices at least 2-hours a day. No joke. And, to top it all off, he is now beginning to compose his own songs. That’s right… if you needed proof that God exists, here it is. (This also proves that God has a wild sense of humor.)

In conclusion

An engaged child is a self controlled child. 

Unfortunately, much of what school demands of kids is utterly mind-numbing, which destroys curiosity and feeds disengagement in learning.

The solution: Start with a DreamMap, then move into negotiations with your child’s teacher. Remember, you know your child better than anyone on the face of the earth so, if the negotiation breaks down, use your parental veto. 

Last week’s lesson on Sit-Time can help teach your child to focus their mind long enough to fall in love with the written word. But great human beings also know areas of genuine interest and curiosity for themselves. Because they are Engaged, they are able to focus their mind on the task in which they are interested, curious, and passionate about. 

Self-control produces good fruit in your kids — from being able to resist urges to spend money, to holding their tongue, to ignoring negative invitations by peers. So, parents, be like Mary and practice self control daily. Also be like the parent who strategically and thoughtfully vetoed school rules that didn’t work for her precious young child.  

Help if Needed

And, as always, feel free to schedule time to discuss your situation with us by clicking here and following the prompts. This service is underwritten by my family and contributors on Patreon. Take advantage while space is available. 

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If you made it this far then don’t stop now. The Quick Start Guide delivers a week’s worth of curated and highly practical resources to grow your learning leadership for the next 5 days. This is only the beginning! 

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