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When does Guidance become Manipulation?

Many homeschooling parents have puzzled over the distinction between "guidance" and "manipulation". As a parent strongly committed to "unschool­ing" (learner-directed home­schooling) with my son Jason, now 17, I have sometimes wondered if I should encourage certain activities in spite of a lack of interest on his part, or at least remind him of areas he has ignored for a while. I was most likely to wonder about these things after reading about an unusually dedicated child who has excelled in a particular field of activity, such as music. It was at those times that John Holt, through his inspiring books, reminded me that trust is the most essential ingredient of a homeschooling program.

While it is indeed important to make a variety of subjects available to the child, I think that is almost impossible to avoid. This is the age of information. Children are surrounded by information of all kinds, through conversations, books, television, films, the Internet, stores, and nature. One day when Jason was five, he asked me about opera. This surprised me, as we had never discussed this topic. I asked what had led to his question, and learned it had been a Bugs Bunny cartoon!1 He asked me several questions about types of operas, and we had a brief discussion. In spite of my own lack of interest in this subject, I trusted him to know if and when he would want more information. He knew that our encyclopedia had articles on opera, and that he could find additional information at the library, or from knowledgeable people. (These days, of course, virtually every topic is also covered on the Internet.) While modeling by the parent can be helpful, if the interest the parent shows is not sincere, it will have little value; I would never feign an interest in opera or anything else. Over the years I have often seen him study subjects at great depth despite my own lack of interest, and I trust him to set his own "curriculum" in this way.

A subject either "clicks" with Jason, or it does not - who knows why? Initially, art, astronomy, math, and physics "clicked" strongly; and over the years he has studied other areas as well. What would have been gained by requiring him to study those other areas sooner? The most likely result would have been resentment, frustration, and less interest in that particular area. If I can trust him to know what he needs to learn, and when he needs to learn it, he may some day become interested in the areas he has "missed" so far, and with that kind of inner motivation, he can learn them quickly. Even if he "misses" a subject all his life, there should be little reason for concern. After all, no one is interested in everything, nor is every field of study essential to living a good life.

In some circumstances, we should direct and model important concepts that children may not be ready to learn all by themselves - avoidance of danger, constructive handling of anger, peaceful conflict resolution, compassion for others, and so on. But does Shakespeare really fit into this category? I think not, and besides, what is the rush? There seems to be an unspoken assumption in our society that if a child has not mastered each and every subject by the age of ten, we have failed in our homeschooling. But a child has a lifetime to learn whatever interests him as an adult; homeschooling advocate John Holt demonstrated this beautifully, when he learned to play the cello in his 50's.

Children are very adept at hearing our hidden messages. Regardless of how carefully we phrase it, when we tell a child that a certain activity is required, we imply that it must be so unpleasant or difficult that he would never want to do it on his own; otherwise, why are we going to the trouble of requiring it? No one has ever required a child to eat ice cream!

Another problem with requiring a child to do something is that it implies potential punishment. If the child refuses, then what happens? If we require a certain activity, and the child is unable or unwilling to comply, then we are forced into the position of either rescinding the requirement or punishing the child (if we do nothing, we weren't really requiring the activity after all). If we punish, then we give many harmful messages to the child. As Susannah Sheffer, Editor of the homeschooling newsletter Growing Without Schooling once suggested, using force to further learning is a mistake because "it is discourteous and probably won't work anyway, and the risks of doing it are so great."2 Perhaps one answer to the question, "When does guidance become manipulation?" is "when it becomes threatening".

The goal of homeschooling is to help a child learn how to learn. At the same time, we should not dictate what that learning must be, or when it must take place. As John Holt so often reminded us, the simple truth is that we can and should trust children.

1 "What's Opera, Doc?", 1957
2 Sheffer, Susannah. Growing Without Schooling, issue 75, pp. 4-5.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc. is a parenting counselor, director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.

Originally published in Growing Without Schooling, issue 76, page 26.