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.


  1. I would be the one who smothers the flame repeatedly. I am working towards taking a step back by allowing the required air and space needed on achieving a blazing,vigorous, everlasting flame.

    1. We all have done it, I'm sure! Just ask my kids and they'll tell you about the many times... It is a journey for all of us, and ultimately a great one!