Rebelling Against Early Start
by Beverley Paine, 2004
I am definitely a rebel, make no mistake about that. I think if I wasn't I wouldn't have home educating my children. Just about everything I've heard about education I've repudiated at some stage.
Today I read that acclaimed choreographer Garry Stewart began dancing at twenty. My own nephew, ambitious climber of frozen waterfalls and challenging mountains and cliff faces, began climbing at eighteen. These people and other 'late starters' give me hope. And I know that if I looked hard enough I could find examples of starters in all areas of life at any age.
So why all the hype and pressure to get children to learn everything and anything from a very early age, to give them that all so precious advantage and to fulfill their potentials (a phrase I now loathe and consider meaningless)?
I grew up listening to people telling me that if you haven't learned something by the age of five it is an uphill battle from then on. I was sucked into this way of thinking and coaxed my eldest as a toddler to learn how to read with those huge red and white Doman flash cards. I spent endless hours berating myself for not laying out the biggest and best educational smorgasbord (well beyond our meagre financial means in any case) before my tiny children. Having been there, done that, albeit for the tiniest fraction of time, I soon realised the error of this way of thinking.
Children naturally learn and soak up so much in those early years and love doing it: actually they live to learn, their lives are so full of wonderful learning if we stop to just watch them tottering around our educationally rich environments.
Our house and garden were always topped up with interesting things young children love to explore. We didn't go out of our way to make these things educationally valuable, they were just part of our everyday lives. We encouraged our children to explore and answered questions, and engaged in lots of conversation, drawing them into our activities and getting involved in theirs. What more can any learner ask for?
But my doubt, sown from the seed of societal pressure to conform to the paranoia that unless I was actively pushing a variety of educational opportunities at my children each and every moment of the day they wouldn't reach their full potential, nagged constantly at me, and I frequently latched on to the latest educational gadget, program or text, usually identifiable by its exceptionally high price tag.
I believe that if I didn't expose my children to drama they wouldn't develop adequate social skills: what chance would they have of pursuing an acting career in movies if they didn't learn to love drama before the age of five? Or that if little April didn't have access to a piano or other musical instrument, a skilled tutor and hours of practice in her fist ten years of life, she'd never make musically. I was at risk of destroying a potential maestro. And what instrument should we pick? One we could afford, the one she wanted, or the one given by generous grandparents?
If we never bought the chemistry set, the electronics set, the telescope or microscope would we be cutting off a budding love of science, the potential for a world class scientist son or daughter fizzling down the drain with the kitchen chemicals? And if we didn't actively pursue a lifestyle that included time spent each day dedicated to the practice of reading aloud would our children grow up illiterate?
There is no doubt that there is enormous cultural pressure pushing children and parents into early learning. Not just the basics, which probably have some merit but only when a child shows readiness, which should be the basis of learning for all ages. I'm talking about the incessant pressure to be everything to all people, the good 'all rounders' that exhibit exceptional talent and abilities in at least one area of life.
We all applaud talent and genius. As a society we willingly accept the sensibility of spending million dollars for each and every gold medal our athletes won at the Sydney Olympics. We'll spend billions identifying sports talent early in life and coaching it into a successful career. Success, in terms of community recognition and fame is a cultural icon. We have awards and medals for the best of the best. The whole idea of the 'quiet achiever' disappeared with the demise of the 'big Australian'. I miss those adverts on the TV, the ones where the everyday folk doing everyday things, the backbone and underbelly of Australian life, were loudly and proudly celebrated.
I think recognition of achievement, especially community-related achievement, is admirable and desirable. Role models are essential learning tools. But society has gone much further than that, idolising success and conning whole generations into believing that if they only try hard enough and have enough opportunity presented to them they too will reach the dizzying heights of fifteen minutes or more of fame.
And if fame isn't the goal then wealth is. We're persuaded that if we don't subject our children to a barrage of educational opportunities, learning toys, accelerated learning programs, cultural experiences and more in an ever widening and expensive smorgasbord, then they won't have that golden opportunity to reach the top of their chosen profession. Financial security will be forever out of the grasp.
Have you ever noticed that many children take up the profession of their fathers and mothers? With a broad based and more comprehensive education than my father had, and an array of choice that would have dazzled the previous generation as they entered the work force two decades earlier, my brother became a fitter and turner, just like his dad. I've seen families of doctors, families of plumbers, bakers, farmers, any and all occupations. And like my mum I became a mum actively interested in the education of children. This tendency persists and seems to fly in the face of the goal of our educational system. Sure, some people break out and try something different with their lives, but then this has always occurred: it isn't a modern phenomenon and not one led by the opportunities opened up by a wide and varied education.
The argument over 'nature versus nurture' is an old one now, and most people consider that both are needed to promote excellence in any field of endeavour. Children draw on their innate abilities as well as their environment (and that includes psychological and cultural as well as physical environment) to develop into the beings we eventually cherish as adults.
As I've watched my children grow, interfering less and less in their educational development, providing a rich and stimulating environment without overdoing it, I've noticed a tendency for them to be children longer in many areas of life while accepting extraordinary responsibility in others. They are quite prepared to put in an adult workload if they have adequate time to play, in the way children do, for the sake of enjoyment and fun. How many gold medal winners were out there to have fun during the Olympics? What do we lose when we hold fame and success so highly in our culture?
The other thing I've noticed as my children grow is their amazing ability to learn, despite having passed that magic age of five or ten or whatever. This really blew away the myth for me that there is any difference in our learning abilities as we age. Without spending endless hours tutoring or teaching my children the basics in maths and English they achieved that by simply living and playing. An hour or two of dedicated study in their teenage years fills the gaps. Not an hour or two everyday of their life for ten years, just an hour or two sometime in their teenage years.
April sat down at the piano aged sixteen and learned how to play, teaching herself how to read music as she went along. Aged ten Thomas couldn't help himself and picked a few of the harder tunes to play, teaching himself how to read music, which wasn't bad for a kid who couldn't read yet. I've watched them sit down with pencil and paper and knock out brilliant sketches, a skill which with a little encouragement and a lot of interest from them could turn them into fantastic and successful artists. The ability is there. Same with photography. And with so many areas in my children's lives. Their work and achievements were commented on as brilliant by so many people. And I'd get that nagging feeling that if only we put more time into encouraging their latent talents (what all of them?) they'd become 'successful' or 'talented'. Instead I let my children put their time and their effort into whatever interested them, and remembered to ask them if they need anything at all to support their goals and develop their interests further. I was careful to take a back seat, alert to the possibility of 'taking over' and making their learning my pet project.
I am heartened by the likes of Garry Stewart, my nephew and others. Reading stories about young and old, people having a go and making a happy life for themselves at any age, is music to my ears. We don't need to push our children, subject them to a dazzling and often confusing array of opportunities and experiences for the sake of education. We simply need to respond to them, as fully operation and successful human beings at any age. We reach our potential in each and every moment. Nurtured by an attitude like this, how can we fail?
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We began educating our three children in 1985, when our eldest was aged five years. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn as they grew and explored and discovered this amazing world since the moment they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. I hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was!
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