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Self-Directed Life Newsletter: Cover me!
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Hey guys,

Last week we talked about chauffeur knowledge. If nothing else, this topic has helped me learn how to consistently spell “chauffeur” correctly.

So now that we know chauffeur knowledge is useless, the question is: How can we encourage and enable our children to acquire deep knowledge?

This is what my work is all about.

      • Save some time for them to pursue their own interests.

      • Don’t discourage interests that seem silly or stupid to you — the only thing that matters is your child’s level of engagement.

      • Don’t focus on variety and novelty. Don’t train your children to wait passively for someone else to offer up a steady stream of fun activities.

       • Send a strong message that your family values meaningful work.

And so on. (Book, blog, forum — it’s all in there.)

We start out already scrambling, because it’s difficult to encourage deep learning when you yourself are a product of an educational system that promotes coverage over depth.

We’re used to shallow learning — graze through, hit the high spots, memorize a bit, regurgitate it on the test, move on.

Because we’ve been trained with novelty and variety, we get bored easily. Children can have very long attention spans for things they are interested in. They like to read the same books over and over again, they like to play the same games, and they can stare into a puddle for an eternity. We’re the ones who fidget. We’re the ones who believe they can’t possibly be learning anything if they don’t do something ELSE. (Also, we’re BORED.)

It’s easy to agree with a statement like “Deep learning is a good thing.” The challenge is building a set of actions around that statement — one at a time, putting the pieces into place that can make it possible.

I can tell you that it’s important to leave white space in your child’s schedule and not say yes to every class, every social invitation, and so on.

I can tell you that the topic doesn’t matter — only the learning *around* the topic matters.

I can tell you that no matter what our society says is important, we can have a strong family culture that puts our core values into action.

But in order to make progress on any of that, you have to be able to withstand the pressure of expectations — your family’s, your friends’, your community’s … and your own.

We are buried underneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. — Tom Waits

I learned…that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness. — Brenda Ueland

We can understand intellectually that even if our child has a seemingly goofy interest (e.g., My Little Pony), what matters in terms of knowledge and skill acquisition is the work our child does around that interest.

She might learn how to navigate the library, she might start a club, she might plan a party, she might write her own stories and explain plot, character, and denouement.

She might learn to use your SLR and create her own stop-motion animations, start her own YouTube channel, and contribute to a group blog.

She might, in order to buy more ponies, start a small business, create flyers, learn about taxes, and open her own bank account.

And you in turn might be able to explain all of this to your Aunt Frieda at Thanksgiving in a way that makes your child seem obviously intelligent and well occupied and you like a good parent who knows what they’re doing.

But meaningful projects don’t start with a laundry list of accomplishment — unless an adult takes over and creates a rubric, in which case the work is no longer self-directed.

Meaningful projects build to this level of accomplishment over weeks and months. In the meantime, you still have to go to Thanksgiving and pass the yams to people who are grilling your child on her times tables.

If you don’t know how much you need, the default easily becomes “more.” — Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy

In old cowboy movies, one character will shout to another, “Cover me!” before running a zig-zag course across the open corral under a hail of bullets.

It’s your job to cover for your child.

It’s your job to say “no thank you” to the invitations and opportunities that would eat into her time — HER time, the time when she can relax into her own thoughts, play, ideas, and making.

It’s your job to deal with the discomfort that comes before you have that folder full of proof you can slap down next to Aunt Frieda’s overloaded plate.

Being able to bear this discomfort is what helps you every time you step away from what your friends and family are doing. If they’re spending money and you’re saving it and they’re giving you grief about not going to Disney World with them… If their kids are signed up for umpteen activities and yours are going to one art class… It’s something you have to be able to do if you don’t want to be swept into the current of what everyone else is doing.

And everyone else is not doing this.

You can’t build deep knowledge if you don’t have time to dig deep.

Even if you have some time, you won’t dig deep if you can’t relax and stop worrying about the thing you have to go do in an hour. You aren’t going to get out the paints if you’re leaving soon … you aren’t going to fall into that what Barbara Ueland calls the “dreamy time” of imagination and creativity. You need big chunks of relaxed time.

Your child depends on you to set the schedule. If you don’t leave adequate time for play, for messing around, for having ideas … if you don’t leave adequate time to come back again and again to an interest, an idea, a creation… if you don’t clamp down on your anxiety and allow them to keep exploring the same thing a thousand different ways…

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WILL HAPPEN.

The world will not end, everything will be “fine,” your child won’t show any obvious signs of neglect, and you’ll be doing what almost everyone else you know is doing so you’ll fit right in.

There will be no flashing red lights saying “Wrong Way,” “Go Back,” “Last Chance.”

No one else cares about this. That’s why you have to care.

Your child will just do the activities you offer up. She’ll get used to going to one thing after another until she says, “What are we doing TODAY?”

Your friends won’t say, “Do you want to stay home today?” No one is going to ask you that.

This is something you have to value and prioritize yourself and if you don’t do it, nothing terrible with happen. Your children simply won’t have the opportunity to direct and manage their own learning and make their own ideas happen. Most kids don’t.

Before you make the space, before you buy the open-ended materials, before you say “no, thank you” to a hundred and one invitations, you have to want this and think it’s important enough to feel a sensation of mild discomfort over and over again in the face of friends and family who’ve decided it isn’t important.

You have to decide to normalize a completely different life — one where spending hours playing and making isn’t out of the ordinary.

Most people think variety is better than concentrating on one thing. They are happy to tick off all the field trips their child went on this year vs. saying “we went to the natural history museum 22 times.”

Most people think novelty is more entertaining than repetition. They groan when their child wants them to read the SCUBA page of the encyclopedia for the one millionth time. They plan a different fun activity for every weekend. They strive to keep their kids entertained.

Most people think coverage leads to being well educated — the more facts you know, the better. If a child is an expert in something, it had better be science-related.

Too many parents want to see the return on investment before they invest. They won’t invest in opportunities for self-directed learning. They won’t leave time empty because they fear it won’t be well spent. (And simply learning how to manage yourself isn’t generally thought to be an important skill, either.)

For your child to get the opportunity to do meaningful self-chosen work, you have to cover for them. You have to be the one who says no to the things that don’t matter and yes to the things that do. If you don’t, they can’t.

It’s easy to make the right choice when obvious mayhem and injury lie on one side and safety and prosperity on the other.

It’s not so easy to make the choices where nothing too terrible is going to happen if you take the easier path.

But this is a compounding decision.

If you invest for your retirement starting in your 20s, the job is a lot easier than if you start in your 50s.

Similarly, if you help your child develop the habits and attitudes of a confident self-directed learner in their toddlerhood, it’s a hell of a lot easier than if you try to turn the boat around in their teens.

When your child is 2 or 3, it’s easy to help them believe that their ideas are important and the best thing in the world is self-directed play and making.

After that, it gets harder every year.

The further you travel down one road, the more distance you’ll have to cover just to get back to where you are right now.

A child who’s a strong self-directed learner as a preschooler is going to be set upon by the world — by friends, by society, and possibly by the biggest and bossiest time-eater of all, school.

That’s the child who is already a strong self-directed learner.

To sail through those stormy seas, you need to have a set of strong beliefs — I know what I like, I know what I want to do, and I know I can figure out how to do it.

Be your child’s champion and after awhile, they will be their own champion.

Let it slide and after awhile, they won’t be interested because their life will be full of other things.

This is the big question. What are you going to do with your time? — John Cage

“Instead of saying ‘I don’t have time’ try saying ‘it’s not a priority,’ and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: ‘I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.’ ‘I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.’ If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.” — Laura Vanderkam, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think

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“Abundance requires simplicity — because in order to have abundance in one area, you must reduce something else.”Parenting with abundance and simplicity

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If you dismiss your kids’ interests, they’ll simply stop talking to you about them:

“As we walked out of the hotel and headed towards the arena I said to my son, ‘I don’t think those guys wanted to talk to me very much.’

To which he replied, ‘You know why right?’

‘No. Why?’

‘It was just a defense mechanism. Because you look like an adult they figured you were going to think the whole thing was pretty stupid since that’s what all the other adults think. Didn’t you notice how they were totally cool once they realized you were into it too?’”



“And it was then that I understood, at least for a moment, why teenagers and young adults so often seem reluctant to engage or talk with those of us who aren’t.

They’re waiting for us to make the first move, to show that we’re not going to judge or criticize or critique.

Generally speaking they’re more than happy to share their interests and stories as long as we’re willing to listen and not criticize.”Don’t judge. Just observe.

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“Self-motivated, meaningful work is never wasted time.”How to mentor a kid with big (possibly unrealistic) dreams

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If everybody knows what’s best for kids, why don’t we do those things?

Why do our schools have kids sitting down all day instead of moving around? Why do we have less and less recess? Why do we control what kids do instead of helping them learn to educate themselves? Why do we ignore research on play?

If helping your child become a fantastically capable self-directed learner is so important, why doesn’t everybody do it?

“Common sense is not common action.” — Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

Don’t wait for everyone else to figure out what’s important.

The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs. — John Dewey

Thank you as always for your continued support!

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Have a great week!
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