The carefree childhood

I’m not sure whether I ever mentioned this, but one of my favorite authors is Gerald Durrell, the renowned zoologist. He traveled all around the world and wrote many books about all the places, people and animals he encountered, but what I love the most from his works are the books about his childhood on Corfu.

In the Corfu books, he describes a truly carefree childhood. He was sporadically educated at home by a number of private tutors, but overall had all the space and time he wanted to explore, invent, and give free reign to the primary and overwhelming interest of his entire life – animals. In his books, he reports more than once that he never really had much interest in anything else.

He was fortunate enough, however, to have what many children these days lack – a true zeal for something, a burning desire to learn, know, and do everything connected with his favorite pursuit. His thirst for knowledge prompted him to read all about animals; a fortunate idea to start a nature journal, planted by a wise friend, encouraged him to develop his writing skills; the practical care of his specimens involved measuring, counting, building cages etc, which taught him probably all the math he ever needed. In the context of the animal kingdom, he learned history and geography, and his roams around the island of Corfu usually involved meeting an entire host of interesting characters, which were later vividly portrayed in his autobiographic books.

Such an education would have been considered skewed and incomplete, not to mention shockingly undersupervised by many of today’s experts, but it was far better than most children can hope for today. A strong passion for something, if this something involves exploring the world and meeting people, and being introduced into life, is education in itself. It is far better than professionally planned, age-appropriate, well-balanced, well-rounded, but insipid and boring lessons received in a school setting and automatically disposed of by a caged brain. Gerald Durrell had the desire and freedom to learn, access to resources of learning, and the rest was done almost automatically. Life educated him.

And, something which is perhaps a little trivial but nevertheless important, he never forgot to return home for tea. His books are full of descriptions of family meals, of breakfast, lunch, and dinner eaten together, of family outings and family parties, of life lived together, even though each individual child was given the freedom to be, and do, and develop according to his unique personality. I’ve always loved the descriptions of Durrell’s mother in his books – she is portrayed as someone stern enough to keep a family together, but indulgent enough to give her (sometimes slightly eccentric) children room to grow, and easygoing enough to adjust to the flow of life with all its bends and twists.

This combination of flexible, non-compartmentalized education and good, stable home life produced an intelligent, talented, energetic, sparky individual with an enormous zeal for learning, good works, and life in general. Not all of us can be as talented. Not all of us can do things of such magnitude; but many children can likewise blossom, in a warm home setting, with freedom to be who G-d made them, and encouragement to do what they are good at.

I was a child when I read those books for the first time, and could relate to the author very well. I remember thinking with envy, I wish I could live like that. For various reasons, I did not, but I think the seed was planted then. I reached adulthood perceiving it as an axiom that schools, at best, contribute nothing to the education of those who already love to learn, read every book they can lay their hands on, and would like to try everything and know everything.

Answering their questions

I have a theory which perhaps may sound a little far-fetched: by simply taking the time and effort to try and provide insightful answers to the questions our children ask us, we are helping them complete a large part of their education.

By doing so, we are achieving several things:

1. The children find that they can ask questions about anything in the world, which is in itself a fuel for further learning.

2. They also learn that they are important, that their questions aren’t brushed aside, but discussed with interest – and a 4-year-old can ask very interesting questions.

 3. Everything becomes an educational opportunity, because little children will ask about many things we take for granted, from Who made the stars to how is it that vinegar can dissolve an egg’s shell.

Of course, as this kind of free learning emerges spontaneously, it needs a good deal of unscheduled leisurely time to just hang around, watch and observe, and ask questions. Naturally, sometimes we are busy, and none of us can be available always, all the time… but when we are never available, when we are so overwhelmingly busy that we do things on autopilot even when we are there, it leaves a void in many things – our children’s educational opportunities among them.

Around here, the school bus leaves around 7:30 and comes back around 16:00. I have spoken to many stay-at-home mothers who, as of themselves, would love to have their children at home for more hours in a day, and genuinely wonder why a 6-year-old needs an 8-hour school day. Preschoolers in government-funded institutions now have an obligatory extension of their time at preschool until 14:00; such reforms are accepted with relief by the majority of working parents, but the minority of mothers who would like to take their children home early aren’t allowed to do so, unless under special circumstances (of course, things may be different in private kindergartens, but not everyone can afford them).

In Israel, it’s really pretty much black and white. Either you send your child to preschool/school, or you don’t  – and homeschooling is a very controversial choice here. Once the child is enrolled in school, most of their waking hours belong to it – extending to hours spent at home, because there’s also homework to be done. And the lengthening of the school day is painted as an “educational reform” which is in the children’s very best interests – disregarding things such as attention span and effectiveness of learning, which by necessity are reduced with the longer school hours. Thus, instead of a concentrated and effective school time, we get a longer time in which learning is diluted, causing boredom and frustration.

No more summer?

I opened the local newspaper this week and blinked. “Summer school is about to open”, it said. Well, I must have been out of the loop for a good long while, because I have only just learned that our Ministry of Education is running a pilot program, in the course of which schools are required to provide something like “school lite” for the first three weeks of the summer. Participation is voluntary and the payment depends on the family’s income – low-income families are supposed to get this lovely program for free.

I turned to my husband and asked, “don’t the kids get enough school as it is?”; my sentiment was echoed in many comments on the web made by students, who all basically say, “give us our summer vacation and let us rest after the hard work we pull in school all year.”

I realize that in families where both parents work (or, at least, both parents work outside the home), the question of What To Do With The Kids is a major one. No matter how much parents and women’s rights organizations clamor to have an ever longer government-funded school day, kindergarten or daycare program, to this day a family cannot rely on government-funded programs alone. So people sign up for private afternoon programs, hire babysitters, beg grandparents for some help, and register their children in a multitude of summer camps. Having a government-organized, government-funded program for a large part of the summer vacation can seem like manna sent from heaven.

I understand and sympathize, but I still don’t think it’s good for the children.

When the children are young and parents send them to a daycare or preschool, they basically turn the daycare provider or the preschool teacher into the most influential person in this child’s life. In the current reality, the child spends more time with the daycare provider or preschool teacher than he does with his parents. And you know what really gets to me? Often, the parents don’t even have much conscious choice regarding the identity of the person who cares for their child. Their choice of daycare or preschool is simply determined by where they live or work.

I’m not saying the actual time spent together is the only thing that matters; after all, in most traditional families where the children stay home, they usually see their father far less than their mother. It doesn’t mean that the father is less important, or less loved. But it does mean that the mother is responsible for the practical realities of bringing up the child. If the daycare worker is the one who spends the most time with the child, then this responsibility is shifted on to her.

I will never forget how a little girl of about three years told me, “my preschool teacher’s name is Ruthie.” “That’s nice,” I said, “and what is your Mom’s name?”… she shrugged. “My preschool teacher’s name is Ruthie,” she repeated. She continued to talk about Ruthie for a while, but didn’t say a word about her mother. Somehow, this made me incredibly sad.

Most preschool teachers and daycare workers are decent people who care about the general well-being of their charges, but they don’t individually care about each child the way his or her parents do. The essence of what preschool teachers do all day is group management. Their job is to get the kids during the day reasonably content so that they don’t get bored and start fighting. This requires constant entertainment. Also, naturally, many preschool teachers are nicer than the child’s parents. They don’t need to address the core issues of bad behavior, which turns us into the Bad Guys in the little child’s eyes. They don’t give out punishments. They just need to keep everybody happy until everybody goes home – and it would be unreasonable to expect anything else.

In school, things are a little different because there isn’t one teacher that spends the entire school day with the class, but rather, each subject is taught by a different teacher. This gives more influence to the peer group – an even less desirable situation, because though all the kids in a class may be good, they are spoiled by the effect of a large group of children that is cooped up together for long hours.

If that is not enough, there is incessant demand to make school hours even longer, to fund afternoon programs (which will probably soon turn into evening programs), to shorten vacations, to thin out the summer holidays, and so on and so forth. There are also extra-curricular activities, youth movements, and more. The overall trend means the children spend less and less time with their parents – or even on their own. This isn’t much better than the despised children’s houses of the old kibbutz movement.

This over-organizing, over-scheduling works to create passive adults that require close management and constant entertainment in order not to become restless, dissatisfied and bored. This also makes teenagers who have dropped out of school into such a disaster. If these teenagers had been given the right tools at the right age, they could find a place for themselves even if they don’t fit (and not everybody can fit) in an increasingly academic-oriented world. As it is, many of them are lost because it’s either strict school regime or total anarchy; self-management is a foreign concept.

Children need time. Time to grow, to mature, to learn, to dream… on their own. There is time for the positive, educational, organized experiences… but there must also be time for the “doing nothing”. For gentle, spontaneous learning, which can never happen if all our waking hours are strictly regulated.

Home education made simple

I had one woman tell me the surplus of her salary, gas costs deduced, is only enough to pay for daycare for her two-year-old. For this family, daycare for a two-year-old was believed to be an unquestionable necessity; not for a moment did they stop to consider the possibility of just keeping their boy at home. Why is that? Because we were led to believe that “properly trained” people are better at caring for toddlers than us, their own parents. In Israel, especially, it’s very unacceptable for children over a year old to still be at home. It always boggles my mind to think how many families with two children under three (in religious families, this is nearly a status quo for many years) could afford for the wife to be home if only they considered keeping their children at home as well. I’m not even talking about full-fledged homeschooling, just the delay of shepherding the children off to institutions from very young age.

 

Generally speaking, though homeschooling is not necessarily cheap – in fact, I know homeschooling families who spend a great deal of money on extracurricular activities each month – educating your children at home is very compatible with a frugal and resourceful mindset. You are the one who decides how much to spend and on what, and can provide a rich educational background with a wide selection of excellent books, inexpensive field trips, science experiments conducted right in your kitchen, extensive use of your local library and other local resources, and bargain-bought craft supplies.

 

What you need in order to teach your children at home

 

“We can sum up very quickly what people need to teach their own children. First of all, they have to like them, enjoy their company, their physical presence, their energy, foolishness, and passion. They have to enjoy all their talk and questions, and enjoy equally trying to answer those questions. They have to think of their children as friends, indeed very close friends, have to feel happier when they are near and miss them when they are away. They have to trust them as people, respect their fragile dignity, treat them with courtesy, take them seriously. They have to feel in their own hearts some of their children’s wonder, curiosity, and excitement about the world.

 

And they have to have enough confidence in themselves, skepticism about experts, and willingness to be different from most people, to take on themselves the responsibility for their children’s learning. But that is about all that parents need. Perhaps only a minority of parents have these qualities. Certainly some have more than others. Many will gain more as they know their children better; most of the people who have been teaching their children at home say that it has made them like them more, not less. In any case, these are not qualities that can be taught or learned in a school, or measured with a test, or certified with a piece of paper.”

 

– John Holt, Teach Your Own