The perpetually enigmatic and shifting nature of parenthood means I have never in all my life been so acutely in agreement with Socrates, who is reputed to have said, “I know only one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” I have, however, learned a good deal. Some wisdom I have gleaned from my family and friends and wider community, some from books and articles, but mostly from my child.

I remember once reading about the democratic educational community, Summerhill*, and laughing my head off. “Pahaha. As if children are voluntarily going to do maths and stuff. Surely they will just be swinging around in the trees.” Now I understand that 1) Yes, they will do maths if they want to, and if it is presented to them in an interesting way. 2) Even if they are swinging about in trees that is also a perfectly valid learning experience. They will be finding out about balance, coordination, forces, gravity, etc. They will probably be able to walk about without bumping into things/dropping things, which is more than I can do.


I had a sort of epiphany when my son was about 2. We were playing catch, and initially sitting very close to each other. After a few successful catches he stood up and took a step back. When that became manageable, he turned around slightly. With absolutely no communication or direction from me he managed the game to make it just the right difficulty for it to be challenging but not without success. He did not need me to challenge him. He took care of that all by himself. I took this knowledge into the classroom in the school where I was working, and stopped giving children differentiated work (work of different difficulty levels), instead, letting them choose. They were incredibly accurate in their self-assessment, and so much more empowered.

About a year ago my child said to me, “Mummy, what are those numbers on the page?” when we were reading a story. I took this as a sign he was ready to start some early phonics so we invested in some flash cards.

Initially, my son was filled with boundless enthusiasm and wanted, “More, more.” We did two a day, it wasn’t enough. We did more. Then, just as I was really pleased with myself, he said, “No. No more. Done.”

Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher?

There was a real inner struggle in this moment. My inner teacher reaaaallly wanted him to do the phonics. I’d set up a whole activity and everything! It was so galling! What do you mean, no? Obviously, I did not say this. I put the cards away, somewhat grumpily, it must be confessed, and he did something else. I offered again a couple of weeks later, still not interested. I began to worry, had I started him too young, did I do it wrong? Then, a few weeks after that, we were playing in the garden, and he said, “Mummy, look. I made a s.” I wandered over, with fairly low expectations, and he had drawn ‘s’ in chalk all up the garden path. The next day he made an ‘a’ with clay, and a ‘d’ with string. I didn’t ask him to do any of it.


This has been the pattern now, driven by him. We have a vague weekly rhythm with a few set activities – playdates and meets, local home ed clubs and our own workshops, library visits etc. -but often I am, I guess, some kind of facilitator, or guide, rather than a teacher. I am continually amazed by his innate self-awareness and clear, confident knowledge in when his brain is ready for more learning, and when it is “full”. It’s not always easy to let go of my own preconceived ideas, plans or expectations. We can’t always do what he wants, because it’s not feasible, or we’ve made other plans. But in the moment, he knows when he needs to move, when he feels like he wants to create, count, balance or throw. Build words or make circuits. When he is just thirsty for knowledge. (No one is more mindful than a toddler: “What is that tiny hole in the wall for? And how exactly is a lightbulb made? What is snow? What is time?”) And he is infinitely more knowledgeable about what he needs to help him learn than me, with all my years of teaching experience.

It’s very humbling and I’m not always sure who is educating whom.

[Little disclaimer: there are many in the home education community who make the decision not to teach their children to read and write when they are young. They may be adopting an unschooling approach where all their activities are entirely child-led. They may have taken their children out of a school where they were overly pressured and be avoiding recreating the same environment. Perhaps they are following a model beloved by Scandinavia and Germany and simply delaying the start of any kind of formal learning until the age of 7. Meanwhile, many other families choose to follow a structured, or semi-structured model. The magic of home education is that the parents can make whatever decision they feel is right for their child and their family.]

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