Making Children Learn What They Don’t Want to Know

My children follow their own interests when it comes to learning. This sounds rather indulgent, doesn’t it? Why should I let them direct their own learning? Hey, they’re only kids. How do they know what they need to know?

I stop and think about these questions for a moment, and then I remember something my youngest daughter Gemma-Rose said to me a while ago:

“You can’t make me learn anything I don’t want to learn.”

These weren’t the words of a defiant child. They were the observation of a rather astute eight year old.

“You can’t make me learn anything I don’t want to learn.” This reminds me very much of trying to make children eat. We can’t forcibly feed a child something they haven’t a desire for, however hard we try. In the same way, we can’t really stuff knowledge into a child’s head if she isn’t interested, though it might appear we can…

… for of course, children learn things they don’t want to learn all the time. Anyone who’s been to school is very aware of this. For years I was subjected to bribes or punishments, or even shame, to ensure I learnt many things I had no interest in. Gold stars, and reports full of compliments and high grades, encouraged me to do my best. The threat of my parents receiving a bad report of my academic work, and the fear of failing the numerous tests and exams (which were apparently essential for a successful and happy future), pushed me to study when I didn’t really want to. The thought of being at the bottom of the class, and labelled ‘stupid’ shamed me into trying harder.

But those methods of getting me to work were worth it, weren’t they? I ended up with a great education, didn’t I? Yes, I received high enough marks. That cannot be denied. But a great education?  On the day I finished my formal schooling, I said with great relief, “No one can make me learn anything ever again,” and then I promptly forgot most of what had been forced into me over the preceding years.

Albert Einstein said, “Education is what is left after you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned.” I didn’t end up with much of an education.

But our children don’t go to school. Surely homeschooled children are in a different situation? Many years ago, I was absolutely sure there were certain things my children needed to learn. They didn’t agree. The battle was on, and I was determined to win. I was the mother and I knew better than my children. Or did I?

Even if I am convinced I know best, how am I going to get past the problem Gemma-Rose stated so clearly: “You can’t make me learn anything I don’t want to learn”? Like the schools, I could bribe and punish and shame my children into studying what’s in my homeschool plan. But I really don’t believe knowledge gained this way is very valuable. I want my children to have a better education than the one I received, and for that to happen, motivation for learning must come from within, and not from outside a child. That internal motivator is love which every child seems to have until forced learning chases it away.

But just because my children follow their own interests, doesn’t mean I can’t suggest new experiences and ideas they might like to learn about. Like anyone with a healthy attitude towards food, they try this and that, and often discover something new which they develop a real taste for. So frequently my children, motivated by their love of learning, end up learning things I would like to share with them, without me insisting.

I am now wondering what John Holt had to say about this topic. I’m off to find out…

Of course, a child may not know what he may need to know in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the chances are that he won’t learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will before long lose most of his appetite for learning

Oh that is so much better than all I have written. Why didn’t I just quote John Holt in the first place?

My daughter Imogen walks by and I say, “I’m writing an unschooling post. Listen to this: ‘You can’t make me learn anything I don’t want to learn.’ True or false?”

“True,” she replies. “And even when children do learn something they’re not interested in, they only learn just enough to satisfy whoever wants them to learn it. They don’t retain that type of learning.”

“Do you have an example?” I ask.

“I’m thinking about music exams,” Imogen replies. “I’m not interested in all the general knowledge but it’s part of the exam. I just remember as much as is needed until the exam is over, and then I promptly forget it.”

Then Imogen adds, “But playing the music… of course I never forget how to do that. That’s the bit I love!”
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  1. Reply

    Another interesting (and encouraging) post. Thanks Sue!

    1. Reply


      You're welcome. And thank you for your comment. I do appreciate your support. I think you are the one who is being encouraging!

    • Kari
    • July 11, 2013

    This is the part I can't help but agree with! This is why I am so fascinated with unschooling! John Holt (and Imogen and Gemma-Rose) are all so right!

    And you make some wonderful points, as well. 😉

    God Bless!

    1. Reply


      I am so glad we have found some common ground! Yes, unschooling is very fascinating. I am finding that the longer we do it, the more I understand what it's all about. But I've still much more to learn, I'm sure!

      I've been thinking about our discussion on parenting. I might write something else which I hope will give a better picture of what we actually do. It's very complicated, and I don't always express myself as well as I could.

      Always good to chat! God bless!

    • Gina
    • July 11, 2013

    Thanks, sue, for the great post! I agree with what you wrote and I do think food and maybe even bedtime are similar to education in what you can and cannontb"force." I used to think that as a parent, it was my job to force all of these things. I am starting to change my mind thanks to your blog. However, I have always been laid back about food, because I do want my kids to enjoy food and to have a healthy attitude towards it.

    1. Reply


      I wish I'd acquired your laid back attitude to food a lot sooner. But I learnt eventually!

      The longer we unschool, the better I see how the same principles we apply to learning, also apply to other aspects of our lives, like food and bedtimes.

      It is always great to chat with you here on my blog. I am hoping you'll write more on your own blog. I meant to have returned to comment on your David and Goliath post. I guess there's still time to do that!

  2. Reply

    I totally agree with this. I was like Imogen, knew it all for the exam and then purged it from my mind. I guess this is why I homeschool as I want them to LOVE as many subjects as they can and find them fun and enjoyable and not just retain things to pass exams.

    On the other hand at the time I LOVED learning at school. I was one of thos nerds who did extra projects at home and took them into show my teacher … that was at Primary … High School was not a fun learning situation at all and I started to head in the opposite direction!

    1. Reply


      "…knew it all for the exam and then purged it from my mind." A lot of what we are made to do is such a waste of time!

      I can also remember some good years at primary school where we had a couple of fantastic teachers who let us do such things as have impromptu concerts. I really liked a particular teacher who showed us how to build a kiln for firing pottery. He let us help him make glue and other supplies during our lunch breaks. Then school went downhill and my high school years were, on the whole, a real trial. Yes, I headed in the opposite direction too!

      Reading your blog, I get the idea your girls LOVE learning! I am inspired by all the fun and interesting ways you use to introduce your daughters to different topics. I love sharing your posts! Thank you for reading mine.

  3. Reply

    Just wanted to let you know that I LOVE your blog- best unschooling blog out there by far! I love your passion and love for your kids that comes through in every post. Thank you!

    1. Reply


      Thank you so much for your kind words. You have made my day!

      It is so lovely to hear my stories reflect the love I have for my children. I am very blessed, as all parents are. Love really is the basis of everything.

      Thank you so much for sharing my unschooling stories! And thank you for stopping to say hello.

  4. Reply

    “You can’t make me learn anything I don’t want to learn.”
    These weren’t the words of a defiant child. They were the observation of a rather astute eight year old.
    “You can’t make me learn anything I don’t want to learn.”

    THIS! So often I think it's assumed that unschooling children are stomping around declaring defiantly to all they come in contact with that YOU CAN'T MAKE THEM DO ANYTHING! 🙂 When the truth of the matter is, the sky is blue, the grass is green and nobody can "make" anyone else learn something. No defiant attitude or spirit…just a simple fact.

    1. Reply


      You understand exactly the point I was trying to make! Thank you!

      It is funny how we spend so much energy trying to achieve something that just isn't possible. We close our eyes to the simple facts, instead of trying to work with them. Yes, Gemma-Rose isn't a defiant child. She just put into words an observation that many parents haven't yet faced.

      YOU CAN'T MAKE THEM DO ANYTHING!… There are so many misconceptions about unschooling. Sad really.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

  5. Reply

    Great post, Sue!

    I wish the BoS would value the same things that children do! Why do adults think they know exactly what children 'need' to know when children are so capable of finding that out for themselves?

    God bless:-)

    1. Reply


      You bring up a very relevant point: we have to satisfy the educational authorities, while still respecting a child's need to learn in her own way and her own time. For me, my children are too important to make compromises. They only have one chance at childhood and I don't want that to be affected by the state. But I have found the BoS to be very helpful and easy to work with. Although we don't tend to advertise we are unschooling, there is no need to keep our methods quiet as unschooling is a legal way of homeschooling in NSW. I have found that our children's love of learning ensures they learn far more than is required by the authorities, so for us, there is never a problem.

      "Why do adults think they know exactly what children 'need' to know when children are so capable of finding that out for themselves?" Could the answer to that one be that adults don't trust children? They probably like to think they know better.

      God bless!

    • Amy
    • July 25, 2015

    As always……I whole-heartedly agree! My mind immediately jumps to math facts/history dates……that to me, meant nothing more than memorizing to spit back out onto the test & then promptly forgetting. Granted, I was a good student, like you said….and made mostly As & Bs… long as I paid fairly close attention in class, it came easy for me. But like with math (always my example because it's not my favorite, LOL) if you don't use it, you lose it. My kids are all about practicle math…..when they can SEE that it's useful for whatever they might need……cooking, building something, etc…….but silly, useless word problems from a text book…..that just doesn't cut it for them. And the piano……makes perfect sense! I took lessons for years, but hated it….because I never seemed to get to 'the good stuff'….like playing songs I actually knew/liked. Fast forward to my youngest, Alli & she has learned to play guitar beautifully on her own….with just dad teaching her a few chords & then she's either watched Youtube videos or learned from practice. She has a good ear. And since she has taught herself to play piano, ukulele & mandolin. Anyway, I always go off rambling too much…………sorry. 🙂

    1. Reply


      You never ramble! I love hearing your stories. They give me confidence I'm on the right track. I also just enjoy chatting with you! I'm sorry I am taking so long to answer your comments. I am always so pleased to see a comment from you. I've been spending lots of time revising the manuscript of my children's novel and haven't had much time left over for anything else. I am happy to say I have now finished rewriting, editing and formatting my novel. I hope I have improved the quality of it! Now that's finished I can move onto other things. Before I finish… Wouldn't it be great to get together for a musical evening? I wouldn't be able to play anything worth listening to, but think of all the wonderful music our children could create together! I'm dreaming again!

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