I hate to brag and all, but I’ve raised a couple of geniuses so far, with a few more percolating in the wings. As much as I hate to brag, I need to — just a little bit — in order to make my points here in this article.
My oldest, Anne, could read pretty well at age four. I hadn’t officially taught her any phonics; she just picked it up because my husband and I are both avid readers and we read to her a lot. Reading early doesn’t make a person a genius, I just wanted to point out that she is naturally a pretty bright person. Actually, all eight of my kids started reading before I mustered the gumption to start teaching them phonics.
When I say ‘mustered the gumption’ don’t get the wrong idea. Initiative is my middle name! It’s just that I always have a holy ton of projects going on. And phonics is not my favorite thing to teach! A million yeses to teaching math and science, especially physics and calculus! But not phonics. So I’m not always itching to tackle phonics when my little people start exhibiting signs of readiness and they usually learn to read before I teach them how.
So when I sort of reluctantly began homeschooling, (Anne missed the kindergarten deadline and was devastated about not being able to attend with all of her little friends from the neighborhood, so I volunteered to have school at home with her as consolation) Anne could already read, and not just phonetic readers — real books. In addition to my precocious 5-yr-old, I also had a bright 4-yr-old, Drew (he could also read), and a 2-yr-old and a baby.
My husband worked for a Japanese company, automating clean-rooms (for the fabrication of computer chips) throughout Europe. He oversaw both design and installation aspects, so he worked more from Japan and Europe than he did from home. I was very alone with all of my young children, who were delightful and wonderful, but also a handful!
I’m sure you can imagine how our school went. It usually happened on the floor or at the kitchen table, with just the supplies I had on hand and with just game ideas I could think up off the top of my head (Pinterest did not exist yet!) and assemble myself. I was usually nursing the baby, trying to keep the 2-yr-old out of stuff, and trying to moderate Drew, who could seriously have given the monkeys at the zoo a run for their money. Those two loved all of my crazy games, though, and begged for school every day.
By the end of that year, Anne was several grade levels ahead, and so, for that matter, was Drew. Through some serious praying and inspiration, we all decided, as a family, to keep them home another year and homeschool in earnest.
I had great intentions, but being a mom, pregnant with our fifth and all of that craziness got in the way. The next six years were a blur of being pregnant, sleep deprived, and just doing my darndest to keep everybody fed and alive. I’ll tell you honestly that the last trimester of each of my next four pregnancies, plus the first couple of months with each of those infants, is a total blur for me. I know that ‘school’ like most of us think it should look, was not happening at my house.
With every new school year, I recommitted to all of the subjects I wanted to teach, purchased fabulous curricula and made detailed schedules, and then life would happen. I worried, a LOT, about whether I was giving my kids a decent education, especially as each baby arrived, shattering my ambitious intentions. I consoled myself with memories of my own nonexistent education. I figured that what they were getting, even it was nothing, was no worse than the education I had gotten.
We did have sensational bursts of really awesome learning, and because I love math and science we did work steadily at those. But everything else fell by the wayside. I actually boxed up most of our language arts curricula when we moved from one house to another, and never unboxed it after the move. I shouldn’t admit this, but I have yet to unbox it. It’s still sitting in the basement!
The funny thing is, the lazier I grew at providing education, the better my children became at seeking it out.
This phenomenon shifted my paradigm. I’ve learned a whole ton during the 14 years we’ve homeschooled, and this is honestly one of the most interesting!
Since birth, Anne has loved music. I play the piano, and soon after getting married, my sweet Grandma found us a beautiful, used Yamaha piano at Salvation Army for $700. So we have always had music in our home.
Anne would tinker at the piano as a tiny toddler, and figure out simple melodies. With a small amount of instruction regarding music theory from me, she became quite the pianist as just a little girl. She decided to play the violin at age 5, worked hard over several years, became highly proficient and joined a world-renowned orchestra at age 16. At age 17 she wrote and orchestrated (which is incredibly difficult!) an incredible piece of music that her symphonic orchestra performed on several occasions, including in front of multiple famous people. Along the way, she also learned the flute, the guitar, the organ and she sings.
If that isn’t genius, I don’t know what is. A genius is just a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative in some particular respect.
Anne ‘graduated’ our homeschool at age 18 with 60 credits from our local university, where she took classes during what would have been high school. She is currently attending a prestigious university on full scholarship. She applied with only her concurrent enrollment (which is what we call college-level classes taken during high school) GPA, her excellent ACT scores and her admission essays. They didn’t care that she did not have a high school diploma or GPA.
She did not have a difficult adjustment from high school to college, because she is already used to choosing her own course of study and really buckling down to attain mastery — she has worked naturally that way her entire life and was never trained away from it.
Drew, who also ‘graduated high school’ with 60 credits from our local university, is at the same prestigious university as Anne, but with four separate full-tuition scholarships, so they also cover his books, room and board and other opportunities. Speaking of genius, one of those scholarships was awarded when Drew and my third son, Hyrum won a regional science fair for their work on graphene supercapacitors. Hyrum saw graphene mentioned in a science journal (yes, he reads them for fun) and allowed his natural curiosity to lead him through the scientific process, turning the whole think into a phenomenal engineering project for the science fair.
I won’t say that any of my children are perfect. They each have their failings and a few of them have actually put us through a lot of grief as parents. But they’ve all got genius in spades! So let’s talk about how to cultivate that genius. I chose the word cultivate precisely because it doesn’t mean to create. My children were born with interests and curiosity. Cultivate means to nurture and develop, which is exactly how I now see my job as a homeschooling mom.
Children are naturally predisposed, from birth, to seek learning and growth.
Your child learned to walk and talk without formal instruction, right? And he did it all by himself — because he wanted to. He watched everyone around him doing these fabulous, interesting things (walking and talking) and decided he wanted to do them, too. You may have held out your arms and offered encouragement or demonstrated different sounds as you cooed to your baby, but your child learned those things himself.
It is truly amazing to watch multiple children learn these skills (I was fortunate to be able to watch is eight times!) because each child truly has his own style of learning, even as a toddler. My oldest learned to both walk and talk early, methodically and capably with zero fuss, the same way she learns now. My second, happy and placid, learned neither until he was good and ready, and then picked them up extremely easily and rapidly. He learns that way today!
My third is the most determined and ambitious of all my children. He tenaciously taught himself to walk at 8.5 months! I never once held my arms out or encouraged him, because I had my hands full and didn’t particularly want him mobile. And then one day he was suddenly up, walking around furniture. The very next day he was experimenting at walking near the furniture, but determinedly not touching the furniture. How remarkable to see an 8-month-old doggedly experimenting and learning! And the day after that I walked out of a room and there that little guy was, walking down our long hall all by himself. He held his arms out to steady himself, but did not touch the walls, and he practiced it over and over and over, all day long, until he was proficient at it. He pursues learning like that — with immense, tenacious, persistent determination — still today.
“Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges. In such an environment, children ask for any help they may need from adults. There is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling. All of these, in fact, interfere with children’s natural ways of learning.” – Peter Gray
If you don’t squash their desires, your children will naturally seek learning and development the same way they did as toddlers. You don’t even need to teach them how to seek that learning; they were born knowing how.
Children are intrinsically motivated to learn.
Children naturally want to do things for themselves, because they want to participate in their environment, model behaviors they admire, and contribute to their families. Just ask any toddler mom. Toddlers LOVE to help with housework, baking and younger siblings. The skills they are working towards learning are appealing because the reward comes in the mastery of the skill itself. They don’t require applause or rewards or bribery, they are motivated by their own joy and satisfaction at attaining a new skill.
“I once heard someone declare that “human nature is to do as little as necessary.” This prejudice is refuted not just by a few studies but by the entire branch of psychology dealing with motivation. Normally, it’s hard to stop happy, satisfied people from trying to learn more about themselves and the world, or from trying to do a job of which they can feel proud. The desire to do as little as possible is an aberration, a sign that something is wrong. It may suggest that someone feels threatened and therefore has fallen back on a strategy of damage control, or that rewards and punishments have caused that individual to lose interest in what he’s doing, or that he perceives a specific task—perhaps correctly—as pointless and dull.” – Alfie Kohn
You can help your children to retain their natural intrinsic motivation by offering them choices, encouraging autonomy and problem solving and by limiting extrinsic motivators, like bribes and rewards.
Children learn by making mistakes and then noticing and correcting their own mistakes.
As an adult, when you want to learn about something, how do you go about doing it? I typically google my question and read a couple of articles, or maybe watch a video to learn what I need to know. If it is a subject I need more information about, I will go to the library and check out everything they have on that topic, and devour it.
I then practice my new skills and knowledge until I feel proficient at them. My early attempts are often disastrous, but I don’t worry about them because I know they won’t be displayed for all the world to see. (Thank goodness!) If I thought my early attempts would be on display, I might be more reluctant to try.
Adults are free to choose what they want to learn and how to best learn it. They can also can take up an interest for a time, then set it aside, then come back to it, then set it aside, as life an interests dictate. Adults have the freedom to practice newfound skills without being graded, berated, or made to stand up in front of their peers to demonstrate such new skills.
Do you notice when your efforts flop? Of course! I once tried to copy a darling birthday cake from a Pinterest photo. It turned out horribly, because I didn’t know the first thing about cake decorating, and I decided to throw it away instead of taking it to the party. Guess what I did the next time I decided to make a cake? I read several articles about cake decorating.
Would forcing me to take that embarrassing cake to the party to be ‘graded’ and judged by everyone in attendance have benefited me? No. I already knew I had failed. I wanted to do better the next time, so I did. No self-respecting adult would tolerate school the way most elementary schools are run.
Thomas Edison is a great example of the efficacy of this model of learning. After finally discovering a filament for his light bulb that would be long-lasting, bright enough, and cost efficient to mass produce, he is famous for saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
Children learn best with minimal interference (the scientific process is instinctive to them).
“Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process, the independent scientist in the child disappears.” – John Holt.
We took our oldest, Anne, to Yellowstone National Park when she was about ten months old and had just started walking. We woke up our first morning there and I dressed Anne in some brand new pink overalls with embroidery on the bib and a ruffled top underneath. She looked adorable for the next three minutes!
I then took her outside, to enjoy the fresh, cool mountain sunshine from the front porch of our rented cabin. Anne immediately pushed herself backward off the edge of the porch (only a few inches above the ground) and sat herself on the dirt to feel it, smell it, taste it and rub it in her hair and clothing.
Have you ever watched a baby taste dirt? They really taste it, without preconceived prejudice, sort of savoring both the taste and texture on their tongues. You can see their minds working as they analyze their data and form conclusions. They then move on to experience the rocks and the plants and everything else.
Older kids do the exact same thing when they encounter new environments and experiences, as long as you haven’t obliterated their natural curiosity. Children are capable of learning everything they need to know without force, coercion, rewards, teaching, or bribery. Children learn passionately and joyfully when they choose the subject material and the timing.
“A person’s learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone the right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought.” – John Holt.
Provide a rich learning environment, model correct behavior, and support your child’s choices.
Maria Montessori, another renowned educator, advocated an educationally-rich environment complete with a caring adult who set a great example, engaged each child individually, and never expected any two children to learn identically.
Parents should first model behaviors that they want their children to adopt. If you want your child to be a voracious reader — you first become one. Show your children, by example, how exciting and valuable learning is. Show them examples of other great learners and give your children the very best models to emulate. Then help your child figure out his own interests and motivation, and support him toward his objectives, trying to play on his strengths.
My kids are all pianists because I am one. I play the piano every day and I leave my favorite music sitting on the music stand, where I know they’ll run across it. When we see a movie we enjoy, most recently ‘The Greatest Showman’, I purchase the sheet music (always the non-simplified versions!) and play and sing it with my kids a few times before it disappears into one of their music folios.
Frequently, my kids will hear a piece at a concert (we attend lots of concerts!) and decide to learn it. They’ll look it up, print it off (imslp is an online library for sheet music in the public domain) and learn it on their own, for the most part. I do help them fine-tune their piano pieces, and their other music teachers (cello, bagpipe, harp, flute, violin, guitar, organ and voice) help them correct and polish pieces, too, but the children are the primary instigators, which makes all the difference.
Support can look like a million different things. My relaxes style of homeschooling, which I laughingly refer to as lazy, might look Nazi-esque to someone else. Within the homeschool umbrella, you have myriad styles: unschooling, self-directed education, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, Waldorf and many others. And your style morphs over the years and even within the years, as life and needs change. Whatever you are doing, it you are adapting the learning to fit a specific child, it is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Force is detrimental to learning.
It’s not uncommon to see children feel a complete and utter lack of responsibility for their own learning because the what/where/when/why/how is all dictated to them. They are spoonfed facts that they only have to retain for a few days before they regurgitate them onto a test form. This method is not conducive to meaningful, lasting education.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who wasn’t motivated to figure things out, to find the answers to personally relevant questions. However, I’ve met (and taught) plenty of kids who aren’t motivated to sit quietly and listen to someone else talk or to memorize the definitions of a list of words. That lack of interest doesn’t suggest an absence of motivation (to be remedied with carrots and sticks) but a problem with the model of instruction and curriculum.” – Alfie Kohn.
The way learning is forced and controlled and dictated promotes a shallow understanding, at best, of whatever is being learned. At worst, that type of learning promotes a dislike of the subject matter and a lack of confidence in the student.
Indeed, force is necessary when you are making children learn things they don’t want to. But when you remove the expectations to all learn the same thing, in the same way, at the same time, force becomes superfluous.
“Children do much of their learning in great bursts of passion and enthusiasm. They rarely learn on the slow, steady schedules that schools make for them. They are more likely to be insatiably curious for a while about some particular interest, and to read, write, talk and ask questions about it for hours a day and for days on end. Then suddenly they may drop that interest and turn to something completely different, or even for a while seem to have no interests at all.” -John Holt
Do not overschedule your child.
I understand the desire to give your kids everything. You love that little person and want him to excel at everything you wish you did. I will never forget my first year of homeschooling. My children were involved in orchestra, piano, violin and cello lessons, dance, gymnastics, swimming, multiple community sports, choir, book club and two different homeschool co-ops. We attended field trips with friends every Friday and a PE class, which I taught, on Wednesday afternoons.
I became a slave to our activities schedule, and we all burned out pretty quickly. The constant stimulation of today’s reality makes arriving at a place of inner stillness really challenging for a lot of kids. Numerous studies have shown that boredom helps kids to develop creativity and imagination. Boredom is the most direct path to creativity, passion, drive and ambition.
Genius can only be realized by it’s owner.
I wasn’t quite sure how to word that so it would make sense. What I want to make clear is that your child’s genius can only be realized by him. You can’t hand it to him, gift-wrapped. His school teacher can’t threaten it into compliance, and nobody can beat it out of him.
The realization of genius takes a heck of a lot of work, which can’t be completed by anyone but your child. How is that scenario most like to occur with your own child?
If you read about Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, you’ll see one common thread. Each was unsuccessful in school and was removed by his mother to be educated at home. Each of them was allowed to learn at home in exactly the ways outlined above. And there is your answer.
Your child will most likely realize his genius if you, as his parent, protect his right to learn the things he wants, when and how he wants, and as much as we wants. He needs your support in the form of providing opportunities, including the establishment of a rich culture of learning in your home, and your strong confidence in his abilities. He needs to be allowed to fail, without interference or ‘help’ or grading or judgement, and make corrections to his course — on his own. All of this means that you need to step back. Provide opportunities for learning, along with plenty of time, and then step back and let the magic happen.
He needs to be allowed to spend hours, days and even weeks learning, uninterrupted, when the need arises. Did you know that Handel did not even eat for days at a time while writing the Messiah? I have not ever felt passionate enough about creating to ignore hunger pains, but I sure hope my children will.
How will it look?
I can’t tell you how it will look in your home, with your children, but I can give you an idea about how it looks in mine.
Our ‘rich culture of learning’ looks like a library exploded. All the time. There are books in every room in our house, including bathrooms and closets, and often in the yard as well (darn it!). Our vehicles are always filled with books, no matter how often I clean them out. I’ve given up trying to contain books to our library or organize them in any way, and have instead resorted to building bookcases in every room.
Because I want to take advantage of all the ‘moments’ and not waste time on flash cards and worksheets and facts, all of our shower curtains are maps. Our tablecloths are, too. We use learning placemats that have helped us to memorize all kinds of facts almost by osmosis, just because we spend so much of our time at the table.
Our music room is covered in instruments, and our kitchen table frequently looks like a science laboratory. I want my kids to be able to study and research and really engage without interruptions. I am probably making my house sound very messy, but it really isn’t. The kids help me tidy up before every meal.
We don’t have a single TV in our house, although we do have a home theater and we sometimes watch netflix on laptops. I feel very strongly that TV-watching is a huge waste of time and intentionally discourage it. I also keep all of our laptops and tablets put away in a kitchen drawer because my second child had/has a severe gaming addiction that has very negatively impacted all of our lives.
What if my child never learns to read? I can’t imagine that happening in a family with a reading culture. As soon as my kids could walk, they would bring me books to read them, because it was fun! We’d snuggle up and read and laugh. It wasn’t hard at all for me to stick some ABC books in the basket for my kids to choose, thus precipitating the learning-to-read process.
I can’t imagine a 2-yr-old that doesn’t ask five million questions every day. He’s just getting started on this wonderful process! Learn to thoroughly answer his questions instead of dismissing or feeling irritated at them, and you, too, will be starting down this road.
Barring any disabilities (which would also exist in a classroom setting and probably with less chance at remediation) your children will learn all of the things that are important to you. The things you cherish and emulate and create your family culture around will also be important to your children. Because you can offer your child thorough, supported, unforced, voluntary and uninterrupted access to the learning he chooses, those things will be that much more important to your child.
What if you raise geniuses who are also kind, honest and able to interact with all ages and nationalities, because they have never been stuck in a classroom of only their peers? What if your geniuses share your interests and obsessions and you have delightful dinnertime conversations? What if you — your child’s parent and biggest fan, rather than their classmates, who don’t give a hang about them — are the primary influence on the development of their intellects, imagination, and character?
The odds are definitely in your favor! Relax and trust the process! Set the stage and then allow yourself to be consumed by your own interests and passions, instead of by whether your child is achieving a particular benchmark or standard. Enjoy your life! Travel, explore together, and enjoy each other instead of stressing over schoolwork and deadlines. You just might be pleasantly surprised, like I was, at the results.
Related Reading:The Ultimate list of FREE Homeschool Curriculum
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