Can We Trust the Path of Learning That Our Kids Choose?


My son loved numbers from an early age and I enjoyed watching him learn on his own terms. He painstakingly taught himself how to write the numerals on his blackboard, but he struggled with the number “5.”

I decided to step in and give him a short and cheerful tip about what was tripping him up.

He stopped writing numbers for a week.

When my daughter became interested in writing I knew better than to intervene. She once asked me to help her write her name. I tried to hold my tongue, but I couldn’t help giving her tips as we worked together.

Lo and behold, she responded well to my tips, did a great job writing, and was so proud of herself!

Every child learns differently and needs different support along the way.

That’s easy to say when we’re looking back and things have turned out well. It’s quite another story when the future is uncertain.

This morning I watched my two-year-old coast around on his pedal-less bike, my three-year-old struggle with her real bike, and my five-year-old zip around like a pro.

Seeing the stages of learning to ride a bike side-by-side made it strikingly clear how short each phase is.

The same daughter who likes writing lessons has resisted all help in learning to ride a bike. It’s taken all my strength to hold back and let her do it her way. I had hoped she’d learn to pedal this summer, but fall is at our doorstep and she’s still only sitting on the bike and pushing with her feet along the ground.

Suddenly I notice she has one foot on a pedal. The other is suspended in the air and touches down only occasionally. She quickly improves her technique and can soon bike one-footed the whole length of the lot, never once touching down with her left foot.

Amazing! “Surely biking with one foot is harder than with two,” I think to myself. “All she needs is a little encouragement to put her left foot on the pedal and she’ll discover it’s even easier!

“I’m right,” I assure myself. “But I don’t have to say so.” I congratulate her on her one-foot biking skills and with great self-control manage to leave it at that.

Why is it so hard to trust that she’ll find the way? I know from watching my first child that the learning time is over and gone so quickly. What’s the rush?

Each time a child learns something on his own, it is a personal victory. Why diminish that victory by intervening too much?

The time spent waiting for our kids to learn the next skill feels long because the future is uncertain. It’s not that I want to rush through the process, but the discomfort of uncertainty compels me to take charge.

There may be times when we need to insist on our way, but I’m starting to suspect that our kids need our intervention far less than we think.

Can we trust the path of learning that our kids choose?

We might not be able to answer the question once and for all, but we can challenge ourselves to have more respect for our children’s way of learning and have more humility in sharing our superior skills.

We can hold back a little longer before we jump in with our own ideas. We can respond positively when we’re asked for help, rather than insisting a child do something on his own that he doesn’t feel ready for.

We can stay in the suspense of uncertainty a little longer and keenly observe the situation before we act. Experience will teach us if we can trust how our kids learn.

After an hour of one-footed biking, the grandparents arrived and my daughter wanted to show off her new skill for them.

Scarcely had her grandfather noticed her unusual style when she put her other foot on the other pedal . . .

And she rode that bike.

7 thoughts on “Can We Trust the Path of Learning That Our Kids Choose?”

  1. What a wonderful story about the one-footed biking. Someone — no doubt many people; I think Richard Feynman was one of them — noted that the key to discovery is play. Play looks wasteful, and a reinventing of the wheel; why not save time and effort by active teaching?

    Because self-teaching, under the right circumstances, yields remarkable results. I once read that when the Rubik’s Cube puzzle first came out, children were discovered to be much better at learning to solve it than adults, because they played with it, rather than feeling pressured to solve it and giving up when the process took too long. Richard Feynman taught himself calculus and found that he’d developed techniques that were different (some better, some worse) from those of his normally-schooled colleagues. I know that I understand a subject better, and love it more, if I’m given (or take) whatever time is necessary to get things clear in my mind. Re-learning to play — giving myself permission to appear stupid to the rest of the world — has been one of the joys of my adult life. (Though that, too, took time!)

    Sometimes teaching is the best way to go; time is not always on our side. I am loving the gradual internalization of language that I’m getting through my short-but-daily DuoLingo efforts, but if I knew that next year I’d be living where I’d need to know a foreign language, I’d be signing up for intensive languages courses, pronto.

    I liken it to having a Caesarean section instead of natural childbirth: sometimes it’s necessary, but it’s overused and far inferior in normal situations. In each case a child is born, but there’s convincing evidence that the birth struggle itself is an important part of a baby’s development. Perhaps as parents we should consider ourselves more midwives than doctors, supporting and encouraging the natural learning process with our own knowledge and experience, while keeping interventions to a minimum.

    Your bicycle scenario reminds me of another of my favorite themes: that often the reason children appear unable to learn something is due not to lack of ability or maturity, but to lack of the appropriate tools. Your new, happy bike-rider is three years old! In my day, the smallest bike had 20-inch wheels, and some of us had access only to full-sized adult bicycles (generally 26 inches then). The ability to ride a “two-wheeler” was a rite of passage from which younger children were excluded simply for want of the proper equipment.

    1. So many good thoughts! The idea of seeing ourselves as midwives to our children’s learning shows an important difference in basic assumptions. A midwife basically trusts the natural process, but is prepared to step in when necessary. So the question could be, how much do we trust the natural process of learning, and how much do we trust our own ability to know when we need to step in? That’s hard, especially when we’re parenting for the first time!

  2. Great post, and something I REALLY struggle with. Eliot is really struggling in math right now- not from lack of ability, but form lack of maturity- not wanting to take the time to write neatly, line things up, show work, and then being frustrated when he gets something wrong because he is mis-reading his own writing or not keeping things in columns. My gut is actually telling me to set our math aside and pull out some Miquon books for a while, but I am always amazed to see how much of my own ego is tied up in my kids’ work. I need to LET GO!!!

    Anyway, my ideal is to be in a coaching role, rather than teaching role, but since this is so rarely modelled, I struggle with it. PBH has given me a lot of good trails to follow though, as has this post.

    1. I was the same way with math as a child – messy, but good. I did math on the white board for a while with my Mom watching, so she could catch stupid mistakes. I’m sure she didn’t like spending all that time watching me, but it sure was fun for me.

      I think neatness can’t be taught until a person wants it or needs it. Sad, though, because many tests don’t look at the work, only the answer, so doing neat work is important . . . eventually!

      I’m with you on the lack of models for being a coach or “midwife” rather than a teacher. I think maybe part of that is that the good coaches, or mentors, aren’t obviously teaching us, so we don’t realize how much we’re learning from them! It’s like how it’s easy to spot the person who talks too much, but harder to notice the person who is wise with words.

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