Wednesday, March 21, 2012

If Only I Could Light a Fire Under My Child...

“Can we build a campfire?”



When I can say “yes” to that question on summer vacation, I know I’ll hear an enthusiastic round of cheers. My three teens will work at building, feeding, prodding, and nurturing that fire for hours. I’ve passed on to them the simple campfire building tricks I learned as a boy in Cub Scouts.

The biggest mistake when getting a fire started is not giving the early flame enough space and time grow. Beginners, as soon as they see the tiniest flame, start throwing more sticks and wood enthusiastically onto the fire – and quickly smother the flame. Then they start again, and often repeat the same mistake until they learn: build a loose structure with lots of room for air; light a fire under it and leave it alone. When it is burning brightly, and only then, offer it more wood, just within reach. Don’t force the wood onto the flame, or you’ll smother it.

Are you beginning to suspect there is a moral to this story? I hope so. Parents who take their children out of school feel such a heavy burden of responsibility for them. It's very common for parents who start on the path of unschooling to experience anxiety - especially in the first year -- as they see their once busy youngster apparently doing nothing. They so much want them to succeed academically at home that they start piling on the fuel before the fire ever has a chance to get started. At or even before the first sign of natural curiosity or spark of interest, they push this book or that project on the child. In so doing, they smother the very flame they are trying to nurture.

I observe that children who are in a coercive school setting eventually lose much of their natural curiosity. When we take them out of school, it takes time for them to regain that curiosity – lots of time. They need space for that tiny flame that always remains to rekindle into a blaze. The more stuff we throw onto the pile, the more we quench the flame. By giving them safe space and time to “de-school” we provide the best conditions for their natural love of learning to return and grow. Enough unschoolers have walked this path to give ample assurance that eventually - given time and space - that flame will in fact rekindle and burn brightly.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On Punishing Students Who Fail

Caring parents want so much for their children to be well and to do well. We love them, and we want them to be happy. We sometimes go to great extremes to achieve that.

ABC News carried a brief story about a Florida father whose son, in seventh grade, is failing three classes.
[1] As a last resort, the father brought his son to a busy intersection and had him wear a sign reading “Hey, I want to be a class clown, is it wrong?” and “I’m in the 7th grade and I have a “F” for the semester. Is anything wrong with that. Blow your horn if you don’t think so. Thank you!!!”

When Yahoo news posted the story, many left comments both for and against the father’s actions. A number praised him for caring enough to show his love and take action on the boy’s behalf. Many parents, they said, just don’t seem to care at all. Some pointed out that there are too many things we don’t know about the situation to make a fair assessment. The ABC newscaster commented that the student was getting an “A” in humiliation.

For my part, I have not received any request from the family to evaluate them or their actions, nor do I expect to get any such request. The story does prompt me to write comment on a couple of issues it raises, however. The first is about punishing children in general. Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s work showed compellingly that both punishment and rewards are extrinsic motivation, and that any such motivation that comes from outside of us is ineffective in the long term. Intrinsic motivation, Deming found, is the most effective and consistent force that drives us. We are motivated from within when we do things for our reasons, not because we are punished if we don’t or rewarded if we do. Systems of punishment and reward do not tap into a person’s own inner motivation; on the contrary, they can interfere with any inner motivation that was once present.

The second issue the sign-wearing youth raises is that of public humiliation. Paul writes in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” In the discipline and instruction of the Lord Jesus, we lead by example and service, not by lording it over others (Matt. 20:25) and certainly not by humiliating them publicly. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that no child shall be subject to any “form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”
[2] Everyone has the right to their human dignity – no one has the right to take that away from them. Being a parent or a teacher does not give us that right, and being a child does not take that right away.

The third question the story raises is, for me, “who failed?” According to an article in the Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s schools rank near the bottom nationally. Yet, Education Magazine gave Florida an “A” in standards and accountability. Will higher standards and accountability save our schools? In the absence of a motivational learning environment, high standards and accountability will actually guarantee that many students miss the mark! Not surprisingly, Education Magazine gave Florida “C's for school climate and efforts to improve teacher quality.”
[3] If we want students to perform to high standards, we need to provide an environment in which they can thrive. Otherwise, we fail them. According to the young man in the Florida story, his experience made him realize that his failure was his fault. I agree that we should all take personal responsibility for our actions, and still I am sad to think of him shouldering all the blame, in a system that is also failing. Are we ready to do our part?

I realize that the concerns I raise and the opinions I express show that I am not in agreement with this Florida dad’s approach to his son’s situation, as far as I understand it from the outside. It is not my intention to disparage him; he raises concerns that are important to all of us, difficult questions for every parent. My intention is to speak to the issues raised in a general way, rather than to his actions or motives, which are not mine to judge. I very much wish this father and his son every success.