How Do You Defend Your Relaxed Approach?

The other day I mentioned that I’m an advocate of a non-academic early childhood. In the comments, Betsy wrote:

I have a question about your relaxed approach. I have been relying
on this for years and every one has looked at me like I have three
heads. I got into quite the discussion after Mass on day when two moms
were playing the competition game of what they were going to home
school their soon to be 3 year olds. I chimed in talking about waiting
until the child is ready and being relaxed…you should have seen the
look of horror on their face!!! How do you handle the "neglectful"
response that people seem to give me all the time.

You know, I really love it when people give me an opening like those looks of horror, Betsy. I enthusiastically grab all opportunities to jump up on my soapbox!

In my experience, if you answer skepticism with an eager flood of information, people will nearly always reframe their initial response. Quite often, the are-you-crazy looks are a gut reaction, but when the skeptic hears that you have actually put some thought and research into the issue, her response changes. She may still disagree, but at least she acknowledges that your point of view is an informed one.

So, for example, if someone said, "Are you nuts? Everyone knows that you’ve got to give kids a strong start from an early age or they’ll be behind their peers and never catch up," I’d say, "Actually, there are many educators and scholars who believe just the opposite. Have you read the works of Charlotte Mason? No? John Holt? John Taylor Gatto? Montessori? No? Oh." (Brief pause to digest this astonishing fact.) "Well, if you’re interested in how children learn, you’d probably find them quite fascinating, especially Mason; I know I do."—And then I’d launch into a brief but fact-packed description of Charlotte Mason’s vision for children under seven, emphasizing the richness of a young life filled with storytelling, nature study, cheerful housework, and song.

I have never, ever presented that picture of early childhood to someone without having the person respond positively. "Oh, that sounds so nice!" is a typical response. I really think people—especially mothers of little ones—recognize the beauty of that vision, even if they remain in disagreement over the issue of early instruction in reading and math.

You know, that touches on an important point. In such conversations (and they occur with surprising frequency), I’m truly not out to convert anyone. I don’t initiate them; but if someone opens the door I will jump through it as if there were chocolate on the other side. My aim in this kind of discourse is simply to show that there is thought behind my opinion. It’s amazing how much that relaxes people and shifts the tone of the conversation from confrontation to exchange of ideas.

What happens is that people begin to ask questions—specific questions like, "But what about math?" or "So when do you start teaching reading?" Which means I can respond with specific answers, and suddenly, instead of being on opposite sides of an abyss, we’re two interested parties discussing learning strategies. It’s a whole different kind of conversation, because it naturally leads to book and idea recommendations. ("Oh, gosh, my kids have learned so much math just from playing store or cooking. You learn a ton about fractions from making cookies!")

And that kind of conversation is just FUN.

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7 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Angela,Mother Crone says:

    YOu are so on target with this! I agree that sharing your knowledge and active research in the field of educational theory will quickly diffuse any critic. The truth is that most people never consider learning theory, and just contentedly sent their children off. Once they realize that we have, they stop looking at us as someone a few marbles short, and become interested in what we have to say. Again, not that thye would agree, but at least they understand our thought process.

  2. J says:

    What do you say when people start talking about brain research and those crucial ‘first five years?’ I mean, people who really disagree with you can always turn around and say that Holt, Steiner, Montessori, Mason, Erikson all lived a long, long time ago before in a land before neuroscience. They can argue that Gatto was a high school teacher who didn’t happen to have access to an MRI or preschool aged children. They can argue that had these early educators known these things, surely they would have all embraced these current high stakes philosophy.

  3. coffeemamma says:

    Happy hearts and happy faces,
    Happy play in grassy places—
    That was how, in ancient ages,
    Children grew to kings and sages.

  4. JoVE says:

    My daughter went to school for the early years and though I didn’t push her to read early she started anyway (writing, too). But her first school teacher was excellent and had a meeting with parents to discuss precisely those issues around getting them doing “real work” early. She didn’t believe in it.

    Her argument was basically that there is a whole lot of physical development that has to happen before kids can read and write and that a lot of the play that we do with them at a young age contributes to that physical development. Things like fine motor skills, focusing the eyes, distinguishing shapes within shapes, etc. I would add developing concentration.

    There is substantial evidence out there that if you delay formal teaching of reading, kids advance more quickly so that within a couple of years they are at about the same level as kids who started earlier. I think in the Netherlands, they don’t start teaching reading until kids are 8 (in the public system).

  5. Queen of Carrots says:

    If you read current brain research, it actually reinforces that the tremendous growth in brain power in the first few years is fueled by interaction with the real world, not by “academic” learning. A good modern resource is Jane Healy, *Your Child’s Growing Mind*.

  6. Karen E. says:

    Melissa wrote:
    “My aim in this kind of discourse is simply to show that there is thought behind my opinion. It’s amazing how much that relaxes people and shifts the tone of the conversation from confrontation to exchange of ideas.”

    Yes, exactly. Perfect.

    “J” commented:
    “What do you say when people start talking about brain research and those crucial ‘first five years?'”

    This “relaxed” approach *is* crucial in those first five years. It is an approach that fosters learning and creativity, rather than squelching it, which early *academics* (which is not the same as early *learning*) can do. That’s *exactly* what Holt, Mason, et al, understood.

  7. Suzanne says:

    What I great post! I have been struggling with this a bit lately. I have a 4 year old boy and often get asked when are you going to start homeschooling him? What curriculum are you going to use? Etc etc… I have read John Holt and Charlotte Mason and agree with them but have a hard time explaining that to people. Your post has inspired me to be a little more assertive about what I believe. Thanks so much. I love your blog! Good luck on the move!