Telling or Teaching?

Our neighbors asked Mike if he would stop in twice a day while they were out of town and take care of their pets (two cats, two turtles, three beta fish, and five goldfish). Mike agreed, and I decided the opportunity for him to have a hands-on lesson in responsibility was worth the effort on my part. Plus I really wanted to help out my neighbor. Plus plus we have our own "zoo" that will need "sitting" in a few weeks. Win, win, win.

"A little to the left... oooh, yeah, that's it."

On our twice daily trips, I referred to the list of morning and evening "to-dos", while Mike performed each task. I stepped in with words of caution ("Don't pull the turtle's leg out too far!"); reminders ("Did you turn on the light?"); and to do what he physically couldn't ("Don't climb on the turtle tank to turn out the light! Let me do it."). I was proud of Mike. He did (pretty much) all the work without complaining (much) about it. I was proud of myself too for facilitating the learning experience.

Mmmm... turtle sandwich.

About mid-week, I asked Curtis to take Mike over to do his evening chores, so I could finish making dinner. I was confident Mike knew what to do, and if not, there was always the list for reference. Curtis, like me, would be in a purely supervisory role.

Upon their return, I asked Mike how it went.

"Fine. Great."

"You gave the cats food and water?"

"Oops." [blank stare]

"What do you mean, 'oops'? Didn't you look at the list?"


Curtis interjected from across the room, "NO! Obviously, you didn't read the list! If you had, you wouldn't have forgotten to feed the cats!"

"YES! I did so read the list! It said, 'Evening: turn off the lights.'"

I explained, "Michael, that was just for the turtles, the first thing on the list. You have to read the whole list."

This big boy could stand to miss a meal, but that's not the point.

So what happened? Mike had already been through the routine several times. How could he forget such a basic and vital item like "feed the cats"? Upon reflection, I remembered something my brother told me:

Learning happens in the mind of the child, not in the mouth of the teacher.

Charlotte Mason (whose philosophy of education and method of teaching we follow in our homeschool) calls it "masterly inactivity" or "wise and purposeful letting alone". If I am always hovering, cleaning up behind, and reminding my children what to do and when to do it; all I have managed to teach them is how to be directed by a source outside of themselves. Then, when that source is no longer there, why am I surprised that they forget to "feed the cats"?

What we must guard against in the training of children is the danger of their getting into the habit of being prodded to every duty and every effort.*

"Seriously, who hired this kid?"

While Michael indeed did most of the physical work, I had created a situation where it wasn't necessary for his mind to be fully engaged in the process. He didn't need to think or remember, because I was there thinking and remembering for him. Both the list and the responsibility were firmly in my hands the whole time.  

It's like being driven to a new place and then asked to navigate back to the same spot yourself the next day. After passively riding along, even two or three times, how well do you really know the way? As a passenger, you have to be quite motivated and pay close attention at every turn to be able to confidently and successfully find your way on your own. If you were an eight-year-old boy you might not care too much about where you were going, or how to get there, or doing it yourself the next time. Even if your mother had been calling out each turn as she made it, you probably still wouldn't be able to get there on your own.

Curtis had it right. (Indecently, Charlotte Mason observed that fathers tend to have an easier time with this "letting alone" than mother's do.) Curtis was present as an authority for safety and supervision, but the responsibility for the job was Mike's and Mike's alone. I had the right idea, but all my telling him what his responsibilities were did very little to actually teach him how to be responsible.

So once again, the lesson for myself is to get out of the way. My role is to guide, facilitate, support, and to create an atmosphere where my children can enter into relationships with the world and all that is in it. I can put these things before them, but they must do and learn for themselves.


*For more on "Masterly Inactivity" see School Education  by Charlotte Mason; chapters three and four.