“I don’t do anything I don’t want to do.”

That is what I said at our last Sunday potluck. The group gathered around our picnic table was having a conversation about home education and self-directed learning (initiated by Yours Truly), so my statement wasn’t completely out of the blue. Nonetheless, it was still kinda far out.

Right away, my seat mate took issue, “Well, I do! I do all kinds of things I don’t want to do!”

“Yes, yes,” I said, “Me, too. But! I do them because I want something bigger.”

I hustled to explain. “Take volunteering, for example. I say no to all volunteer opportunities I don’t want to do. When I say yes, it’s because I find the work meaningful and interesting. I want to do it. This doesn’t mean I always enjoy the work involved. In fact, I might detest it at times. But because I chose the task—nobody coerced me into it—I am motivated.”

“Okay, yes. When you say it like that, it’s the same for me, too,” my friend agreed.

A couple weeks ago, I had a stretch of several days with just my older son at home.

“How about I teach you to cook?” I suggested. He’d observed me in the kitchen so much, he already had a good sense how things worked. He could cook a handful of basic recipes and be well on his way to self-sufficiency.

He wasn’t overly enthusiastic with my plan, but he said he’d do it.

The first day he made pizza dough, baked hash brown potatoes, and deviled eggs. The second day, baked brown rice and Shirley’s sugar cookies. And that was pretty much the end of the lessons because, he said, he didn’t like cooking.

Part of me was mildly exasperated. Cooking was so much fun! Don’t be a lumpy! Seize life by the horns! do something! But another part of me couldn’t be bothered enough to much care. He is smart. The kid can figure out cooking on his own when he wants to.

Now, if I had needed his help, I would have pushed the issue. In our family, working together to run the house is non-negotiable. I don’t give a fig if the kids enjoy scrubbing the kitchen floor or not, JUST DO IT BECAUSE THE FLOOR NEEDS TO BE CLEANED.

But the cooking lessons weren’t necessary. I was going out of my way to help him accomplish my agenda. My rationale wasn’t exactly logical so I dropped the issue.

My mother made me learn to sew when I was a child. I hated it. Still do. I can’t stand the feel of fabric, and just the sight of threads and bobbins makes my hair curl.

I’m being melodramatic, but only slightly. The sick feeling of working on something that I positively hated has stuck with me all these years.

My mother maintains that sewing is a valuable skill (it is) and that everyone should know it. Regarding that latter point, I disagree. I don’t know how to sew—because I’ve intentionally forgotten—and I’m not walking around in my Birthday Suit. Somehow, I’ve managed to keep it covered (pun intended).

In an article by Sandra Dodd, she writes that the ideal conditions for learning are humor, music, and fun. Yet so often “learning experiences”—in school, home, wherever—are pretty far removed from these conditions. Even as a relaxed homeschooler, I often find myself slipping into the “just buckle down and do it” mode with my children. Tears and temper tantrums, while not the ideal, are par for the course. Learning isn’t easy. Just do it and you’ll be better off.

But wait. Is this true? Is learning through suffering really the way to go?

Science tells us that heightened feelings of distress cause the frontal lobe of the brain—the inquisitive, creative part—to shut down, and the hypothalamus—the primitive, life-saving fight or flight part—to kick in.* This means that in situations where we’re stressed, nervous, anxious, fearful, and worried, our minds aren’t exactly open to creative insights. In other words, pressurized learning situations (of the sort that aren’t self-initiated and self-directed), no matter how well-intentioned, are not conducive to learning.

As a life-long learner, my goal is to discover what brings me happiness and satisfaction and then do more of those things. When I view learning through a pleasure-and-fun lens and not a suffer-because-I-know-what’s-good-for-you lens, the process completely transforms. No longer is there fact-cramming for arbitrary reasons, such as, It is October and you are nine years old, so time to conquer two-digit division. Instead, the starting point is question-based.

What do you need?
What brings you joy?
What do you have to offer other people?
How can I help?

When approached this way, education is liberating.

My son—the one that doesn’t have a fire under his butt—has expressed interest in working. He’s driven by money and, I think, by the rush that comes from rising to the occasion and proving himself capable in the adult world. As this is his one expressed interest, we’re opting to let him run with it. What’s the point in holding him back to do mother-mandated learning? Maybe a sweat-for-cash curriculum is his best bet right now? So starting this week, he’ll work two days a week for the same guy that works with my husband.

When my son—a huge grin breaking across his face—filled me in on the news of the just-hammered-out job arrangement, he tentatively followed up with, “And what about in the winter? What if he wants me to work then?”

“That would be fine,” I said.

“Really? Wow. I didn’t expect to win that quickly!”

I just smiled. No need to tell him just yet that we’re both winning.


*I’m no expert. The point is: when people are stressed, the parts of the brain that govern open-mindedness and rational thought shut down and instinct takes over.

P.S. The Sandra Dodd reference is from Chapter 18 of Natural Born Learners, edited by Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko and Carlo Ricci.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (7.16.12), in the woods: forts, ticks, and pancakes, Jeni’s Best Ever Vanilla Ice Cream, simple bites: in the pits, pasta with roasted tomatoes and summer squash, counting chicks, Banana Coconut Bread, and Red Beet Salad with Caramelized Onions and Feta.    


  • Rachelle

    I like that your son agreed to the cooking lessons but at the same time you didn't push him when he wanted to stop. Someday he's going to really appreciate knowing how to do stuff and while he might never be as prolific of a cook as you are, he'll at least know how to not burn dinner when he moves out on his own. There are so many children these days who never really get the basics of cooking and are afraid of it, in a sense. Being able to cook for yourself is a great skill and makes people feel more self-sufficient, even if they don't really enjoy it.

  • Suburban Correspondent

    I agree and disagree. I know how fruitless it can be, forcing lessons on children when they are not interested. I have a 9-year-old who has just learned to read, but she has absolutely no interest in reading for pleasure – yet. And I know that there is nothing I can do (aside from completely restricting videos) but wait. And hope. At the same time, I don't feel right waiting until a kid is 16, say, for him to be motivated (by his first paycheck) to figure out percentages and decimals. I feel I'd be shirking my responsibility by not making him become at least passingly familiar with them as soon as he is developmentally ready (usually by age 11). So I do force schoolwork on my 14-year-old son, who really could spend the entire day happiily playing with Legos (and learning a lot about mechanics in the process). I don't want him to realize at 15 that he can't take Physics because he is 3 or 4 years behind in math! True, he would probably cover that math pretty quickly at that point, but it would still hold him back. I guess I feel that any dogma/approach to education has to be tempered with common sense and an intuitive feel for what a particular child is ready for, even if he doesn't know it yet.

    • Jennifer Jo

      I get this. Your reasoning sounds awfully similar to the debate going on in my head.

      But, "any dogma/approach to education has to be tempered with common sense and an intuitive feel for what a particular child is ready for, even if he doesn't know it yet." I'm MUCH more inclined to approach education and learning this way. But if learning is deepest and most effective when self-directed, then where's the common sense in that approach?

  • Michelle @ Give a Girl a Fig

    I am loving all of your posts lately! SO GOOD…so insightful. I am wondering if reading this book would help me in encouraging my son even though he goes to public school? I'm going to look into it…it couldn't hurt. Thanks for sharing these new finds…:)

    • Jennifer Jo

      The book I was quoting from is a bit cumbersome to read. The essays are taken from radio interviews—it's not great literature. There's some incredibly thoughtful ideas in them, though, and lots of real-life experiences that I found helpful. If you want to read a book, I recommend "Freedom to Learn" above all else.

  • GreenSideChronicles

    Hi Jennifer…I read your blog all the time! And now can't help but comment…what you say is so inspiring…yes I feel myself in limbo…out of fear probably…My 9 yr old son,…is quite interested in business. We moved to a new country..and the first week there, he is making a flyer to hang on a bulletin board for small jobs…he soon had a job gardening for an hour a week making $10 each time for a lady in the neighborhood….in times..MATH..has us both almost in tears…he daydreams, puts around…and literally can take FOREVER doing one page of math….so, when I read your brain analysis with stress, etc…I thought, oh no! this is him..shutting down…anyways..i just can't seem to get a grip on our homeschool structure…there are things I love about Classical and the whole interest led…self directed learning…but multiplication tables must be learned right? I am just trying visualizes what you are talking about…looks like? I am such a curriculum person..if we haven't completed Writing with Ease…I feel we didn't make it thru our day…I don't know where I am going with this..probably take me another 5 pages to get it all out…:) just wanted to say thank you for that post…and I will continue maybe to wrestle with a few things and pray that I can let go a little bit and trust the learning of a child

    • Jennifer Jo

      I'm not actually sure what it looks like, to tell the truth. I'm not the most trusting of mothers (plus, I'm quite bossy), so this is new terrain. Right now I'm settling for flooding myself with reading, trying to understand these wild (and logical!) ideas. I'm not sure how it will translate to our daily living…

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