An excerpt from John Holt’s Learning All the Time

As far as learning goes, the one advantage we have over children – and in some ways it’s a considerable advantage – is that we have been here longer. We know a lot more. We’ve had a lot more experience. We know where things are. We have road maps of the world; not just real road maps, but various mental road maps of the world around us.

What adults can do for children is to make more and more of that world and the people in it accessible and transparent to them. The key word is ‘access’: to people, places, experiences, the places where we work, other places we go – cities, countries, streets, buildings. We can also make available tools, books, records, toys and other resources. On the whole, kids are more interested in the things that adults really use than in the little things we buy, especially for them. I mean, anyone who has seen little kids in the kitchen knows that they would rather play with the pots and pans than anything made by “Lego” or name whoever you will.

We can also help children by answering their questions. However, all adults must be careful here, because we have a tendency when a child asks us a question, to answer far too much. “Aha,” we think, “now I have an opportunity to do some teaching,” and so we deliver a fifteen-minute thesis for an answer. There is a well-known story about a child in school, who was assigned to read a book on penguins and write a report on it. His book report had the usual stuff in the corner: name, grade, school, class, subject, etc., and then the title of the book and the author and finally the body of the report, which read as follows: “This book tells me more about the penguins than I want to know.”

Whenever a child asks questions, there’s a danger to, one might say, penguinize. I heard a similar story about a child, who asked her mother some question, and the mother was busy or distracted, or perhaps didn’t feel she knew enough, and said: “Why don’t you ask your father?” The child replied: “Well, I don’t want to know that much about it.” If children want more, they’ll ask for more. The best we can do is simply to answer the specific question or, if we don’t know the answer, say: “I don’t know, but maybe we can find it somewhere or so-and-so might know.”

Not only is it the case that uninvited teaching does not make learning, but – and this was even harder for me to learn – for the most part such teaching prevents learning. Now that’s a real shocker. Ninety-nine percent of the time, teaching that has not been asked for will not result in learning, but will impede learning. With a minimum observation, parents will find this confirmed all the time. Again and again, in letters and conversations, I hear from parents a story that goes as follows: “My little two-year-old (or three- or four-) was having some kind of problem with something the other day, and I went over to help her or him, and the child turned on me with rage and said: ‘Leave me alone. Don’t do it. Let me do it!’ The child got absolutely furious. What happened?” These poor, helpful, well-meaning mothers and fathers reel back from this assault and say: “Why does my child get so furious at me, when all I want to do is help?” Well, there is a reason, a very sensible reason.

Anytime, without being invited, without being asked, we try to teach something to somebody, we convey to that person, whether we know it or not, a double message. The first part of the message is: I am teaching you something important, but you’re not smart enough to see how important it is. Unless I teach you, you’d probably never bother to find out. The second message that uninvited teaching conveys to the other person is: What I’m teaching you is so difficult that, if I didn’t teach it to you, you couldn’t learn it.

This double message of distrust and contempt is very clearly understood by children, because they are extremely good at receiving emotional messages. It makes them furious. And why shouldn’t it? All uninvited teaching contains this message of distrust and contempt. Once I realized this, I found that I had to catch myself all the time. I have to catch the words right on the edge of my tongue. The problem is that we, human beings, like teaching. We have to restrain that impulse, that habit, that need to explain things to everybody… unless we are asked.

Contributed by Laila Brence