Ditch the standards, embrace the love

A few years ago Psychology Today published an article about the Presidential Scholars program, which recognizes high school students who excel academically and artistically. The story focused on a study in which award recipients from the 1960’s offered advice for parents and educators.

Their suggestions included the following:

“I would encourage parents and teachers to treat children as genuinely unique individuals, to worry less about their meeting conventional standards and devote more attention to helping them develop their particular talents and interests.”

As mainstream education becomes increasingly standardized, home educators have the opportunity to take a different approach. Homeschooling is the ultimate in individualized education, as unique as each family, and each kid, who does it.

There are many advantages to letting kids pursue what they care most about. Developing a strong identity is one of them. Through exploring the world, trying out interests, and developing skills on their own terms, they come to know themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, what they love, what they don’t love, and what makes them tick.

One of the great gifts of parenting, for me, has been the privilege of observing as that process unfolds, and experiencing the awe that comes from watching kids discover the world unhindered by didacticism. This applies to basic skills as well as pursuits that involve deep study and commitment.

Reading, for example. My kids learned to do it at their own pace. I saw the unique process each went through to master the skill, the particular way each of them decoded the words on the page. How fascinating it was to observe the varying uses of phonics, letter and word recognition, pictures, and visual recall. The outcome wasn’t simply the ability to read. It included pride, confidence, and excitement.

Other unique pursuits followed. My daughter, when learning to write, writing her name in a perfect mirror image. Knitting with pencils when no needles could be found. Using pattern blocks to make astonishingly asymmetrical creations. Sprouting lentils. Being the young pair of eyes on weekend trips with seasoned birders. Figuring out how to build a website. Falling in love with Ella Fitzgerald and soaking up every note she sang. Learning as much as possible about the human brain. Reading and re-reading and re-reading Shakespeare.

This year one of my kids is fortunate to have been nominated for the Presidential Scholars program. Her lifelong education as a homeschooler reflects the advice given by those former Presidential Scholars. It never focused on conventional standards, and always focused on helping her develop her interests. The recognition and awards are great, but they’re not the real prize.

The real prize is, and always will be, in the words of the late, great John Holt, “a life worth living, and work worth doing.”

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