Forced or Chosen: A response to the common, “But children need to learn to do things they don’t want to do” theme

It’s true, we do all sometimes have to do things that we don’t want to do; we all have to do stuff that we would rather just not have to and go have fun instead.  But when the piles of dirty laundry or dishes are staring at you, you have to bundle the kids up and pack them in the car just to go get a gallon of milk, or take the time to balance your checkbook and pay the bills, we have to push ourselves to just get it done so that life can continue smoothly.  Children as well need to learn self-discipline and responsibility, which can include doing things that they don’t necessarily feel like doing, so that, in theory, in their adult lives they will continue to be self-disciplined and responsible.  But somehow, some where, doing stuff that you don’t want to do became equated with school and learning, and is the common mind-set in my country – a phrase I have heard even out of the mouths of other homeschooling parents.  Interestingly, this has been on my mind this week, and a situation with Elizabeth, as well as a conversation with Chepe have kept my reels turning.

First, lets repeat the phrase: But children need to learn to do things they don’t want to do.  That ‘but’ is always part of the phrase when I hear it, don’t know why that is, I guess because I usually hear it in response to my description of our relaxed and fun homeschool.  Anyway, why was this phrase associated with school and learning, and is it useful?


I’m guessing that school was all ready boring in Europe when they set sail to find the “New World” so that concept came with them as well.  Since they came with such a hoity-toity attitude when it came to the Native Americans all ready inhabiting this “undiscovered” land, the Europeans imposed their boring and repetitive learning style on them, and it became the norm throughout our country.  This teaching style spread with the help of the government into every pocket of the nation as settlement spread westward and up into Alaska.  It probably reached it’s all-time monotonous boringness around the 1900’s, and hasn’t evolved much since, except to introduce testing of various kinds to ‘ensure’ accountability and who knows what else.  As it became law that all children up to the age of 17-18 had to attend school for a certain number of days per year, attending school really did become something that children didn’t want to do.  As they were being forced to attend and then forced to do more and more work and take (and pass) more and more exams they did learn to do things that they didn’t want to do, but begrudgingly.

And where has that left us?  Well, I know plenty of adults who can’t keep a job, can’t manage money, don’t know how to work through a relationship, don’t respect themselves or others, you get the picture.  So has it worked?  Does this mentality have it’s rightful place?  Doesn’t seem to to me.  So why is this question so popular?  And how should I respond so that I am not rude to others, but so that they will begin to think in a new way instead?

Blue Doggie checking out some books

Blue Doggie checking out some books

First off, I think it’s a shame that learning should be equated with something that you don’t want to do, something that you are forced to do.  This sets everyone up to become adults who can not go above and beyond, think independently, nor analyze critically.  It kills creativity, ambition, motivation, and can eventually lead to giving up on learning.  Why do so many people love reality tv?  Because it is totally mindless, exactly what they learned in school.  But on the flip-side, we are told that we need to go to college, and at college we are told that we need to have motivation and ambition and creativity, exactly what was not learn in school.  Where did that leave me?  Without a job and with a lot of debt.  Let’s go back further though, and see how my own personality and motivation tempered with laziness helped me overcome some of these obstacles, though some of them I would not learn to understand until the recession hit and it was difficult to get a job with my degree, I had children, and then later became interested in homeschooling.

As a high school student, I wasn’t super active in school activities but getting good grades was important.  I did though do activities outside of school, such as horseback riding and attending church that really helped develop my sense of self-discipline and to follow through in doing things that I didn’t necessarily want to do.  I loved horseback riding, I went every Sunday afternoon after church, but sometimes, I admit, I just didn’t feel like going.  Luckily, after we finished riding each week, we would always pre-organized for the following week, and so since it had all ready set up, I would make myself go when the hour came.  And 99% if the time, I always left feeling happy that I had gone, and even elated because I’d had such a great time – again.

Church was pretty much the same thing, my mom said that we needed to attend until we graduated high school, but if I had really put my foot down that I would not go, how could she have forced me?  So attending church was still a personal decision I made, and one that I had to be self-disciplined about as I had to get ready to arrive on time, and I had to be dedicated to attend weekly.  As well, sometimes the activities I was made to participate in made me uncomfortable, like public speaking, but I did them anyway.

Both of these activities taught me important lessons  in self-discipline and making choices that don’t always lead down the easy path.  These lessons remain with me still.  Because of them, I am able to push myself to plod forward through uncomfortable situations that drag on over weeks, months, years (sometimes marriage isn’t fun and takes a lot of work for a long stretch of time), and to look for the best in each situations.   I chose to do things that I didn’t necessarily want to do, and now I am able to do them responsibly in my adult life.  School did not teach me this – I did.

As such, I think that the forced atmosphere of public school is invalidating to students and undermines their confidence and self-discipline to become self-disciplined.  It allows and encourages them to be the very opposite, so when I hear someone say that children need to go to school to “learn to do things that they don’t wan to do” it just seems so silly to me.  I guess that people just don’t think that when left to their own resources, children (or even adults) can be capable of learning these lessons themselves, but that is exactly how they need to be learned in order for them to have relevance or any lasting impression.


Here’s a little example that happened this past week:  Thursday is story-time at our local library.  Usually it is a fight to get us – particularly Elizabeth – out the door, and once there she will usually prefer to play quietly in the back with the legos than to sit and listen to the stories.  How could I possibly force her to sit and listen without causing a huge screaming scene, I couldn’t, so I allow her to listen or not per her choosing.  But this week, I felt neutral on the decision about whether to attend or not, so I asked Elizabeth if she wanted to go.  At first she said that she did not.  That was fine, I continued to clean the windows as I had been.  After about five minutes, she changed her mind, and we set to getting ready.  At this point, we had fifteen minutes to get there, we need fifteen whole minutes to get into the van and for driving time, getting coats and shoes on needs to be done before those fifteen or we will be late.  But I decided that if she wanted to go, then that was ok if we were late or not.

So, I took Paul outside and strapped him into the car and got it out of the garage to warm up, when I got inside I was amazed: usually I would have come in to find Elizabeth with no coat, no shoes, perhaps socks on, usually just putzing in her room, but this past Thursday she was completely ready with Doggie in hand and walked right out the door.  I didn’t nag and I didn’t rush, and left to her own choosing, she got herself ready quickly and that was that.  We still arrived a few minutes late, but I will take that over the tantrums any day.

I have decided that from now on, I’m letting her choose every week, or most weeks, as I do like for Paul to go and be with the other kids.  I’m also not going to worry about being late and hope that it will actually spark a conversation about how much time we need for getting ready and how we can manage ourselves in that time.  I’m hoping it will turn into a very educational experience, one directed by Elizabeth with only my guidance.  I’m hoping that it will become chosen instead of forced.

Though I have given this as an example of something chosen, there are still things that Elizabeth has to do that she may not necessarily be wanting to.  She has to be polite, she is not allowed to hit, etc.  I have recently set a new rule that her bed must be made before she can watch tv in the morning.  As well, sometimes we do have to go places that she doesn’t want to go and so she is forced to tag along because she is only 5.  Daily tooth brushing is a chore to her as well sometimes too it seems.  Letting her choose some things sometimes is validating and empowering, yet she still does have to do as our common response implies: she does still have to learn to do things that she doesn’t want to do, it’s just not equated with school.

In our school, I ask her if she is interested in “doing school” at that moment and almost always she accepts.  Actually, in this week that I have taken for a break, she has asked to do school every single day, and really was badly behaved the first few days which I think was in conjunction with my telling her that I was busy with other things.  Anyway, for the first few months of homeschooling, I was wanting her to do the activities as they were outlined in the curriculum guide but have relaxed about even that, because creativity and fun are some of my goals in homeschooling and I don’t want to squelch the ambition and motivation, I want to encourage it.

I also do not force handwriting.  Elizabeth is free to do worksheets/workbooks and to shape her letters how she feels comfortable for now.  Little doubts do cross my mind occasionally that she will not learn to form them correctly, but by my example and nearly daily practice, I sincerely believe that interest in forming them properly will arise in it’s own due time.  Learning to read is also a natural process here.  We read books everyday at multiple comprehension levels and discuss them.  I have a little reading area set up in the living room to encourage looking at books.  We work on letters and word sounds whenever we feel inspired, and any questions she has I answer and support, and I try to not make my answers too preachy.  In this way, reading is fun and the desire to learn is encouraged.  Flash cards shown to a student at the desk are boring.  Reading is so much more than that!  Elizabeth is left to choose to want to read, which will leave a more lasting impression, as well as increased motivation.


Reading area

Lastly, in having a sort of intense conversation one day with Chepe about this silly phrase (not for the first time either), he threw out something that amused me.  He said that when he hears this phrase, his first thought is, “Do the parents let the children do whatever they want?”  Hmmm, that is an interesting point.  If a person believes that going to school is for learning to do things that you don’t want to do, how is that child’s home life?  Does the parent let the child get away with anything?  I think that some do, but probably not those who are responding to me in this way.  So, I’m thinking that those that are telling me that children need to learn to do things that they don’t want to do still discipline their children at home, their children have to do things that they don’t want to do at home as well.  That’s kind of a sad life, don’t you think?  Spending all day doing things that you don’t want to do.  Some people also throw out the idea that school also prepares you for work that you don’t want to do.  That’s also sad.  But if careers have to be something that you don’t want, shouldn’t childhood be fun and filled with stuff that you do want to do?  Doesn’t that also give children a better chance of finding a career in something that they do like to do?

Most importantly, learning the essential material can be done in creative and fun ways, driven by motivation and ambition on the part of the student – if allowed to be creative, motivated and ambitious.  Learning doesn’t have to be something equated with things that we don’t like to do, but best left as something exhilarating and wonderful, don’t you think?

Share your thoughts:  Do you think that school and learning need to be equated with learning to do things that we don’t like to do?  If so, how do you support creativity, motivation and ambition gently?  As well and if so, what about Chepe’s response to how your kids are left to behave outside of school – do they still have to do things that they don’t want to, or are they allowed to just have fun?


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