learning for children is a complex process that starts at birth and continues through
adolescence. All children can learn within the limit of their inborn potentials. However, given
nearly equal capacity, some children become more effective learners than others. Yes, the extent
to which the learning process culminates in knowledge, skill, ability, insight, awareness,
academic success, and other forms of achievement related to learning depends in large measure
on how well the child learns to learn. Let us look at a few areas in which children learn how to
learn and at how parenting adults can help.
LEARNING BY OBSERVING:
Much of what children learn comes from observing people, situations, and things. The
principle is not complicated but is extremely important. For example, an infant observes people
wave and say 'bye-bye' when they leave. Through numerous observations, she gradually learns
the custom of making some kind of parting comments and gestures upon leaving. She also learns
to talk by observing people talk.
While most learning through observing takes place spontaneously, as parenting adults, we
can still do quite a lot to maximize it. First, we can encourage the child to be observant. For
example, our child hears some music and asks if we like the song. We could say yes and let it go
at that, or, we could encourage the child to sit down for a few minutes and listen with us. As we
listen, we might call his attention to different instruments, how the voices complement the
instruments, and the like. If we do this with enthusiasm, he may well pick up an appreciation for
music, including the all-important ability to listen carefully. As mother cooks, she might
encourage her child to taste the food as it is being prepared and to be aware of the flavors and
Second, we may want to take our child someplace special, or bring something unusual
home to him. For example, mother picks up a turtle by the roadside which she takes home to
show to the child. Or the child's uncle works at a pumping station and one evening shows his
nephew the plant
If we orient ourselves to making observation opportunities available to our children, we
will quickly find that interesting and unusual opportunities come up several times a week. We
must encourage our children to carefully observe with all of their senses, help them to be more
aware of what they are observing, and look for opportunities for observation from the
unimportant to the highly unusual.
LEARNING THROUGH IMITATION:
Children readily imitate the behavior of others, like talking and eating. How can we as
parenting adults help our children learn through imitation? First, we can encourage a 'show me
how' attitude - we observe a toddler playing with blocks on the floor, so we sit down, play for a
while, and demonstrate some of the possibilities for playing with blocks. We come back later and
notice that the toddler is doing some of the same things we had done. Later, while playing with
some other toys, he asks, 'Show me how to play.' He has picked up the idea of finding someone
who knows how to play to imitate. Or, a grade schooler asks if he can use the electric hair dryer.
We say, 'I'll have to show you how to use it.' He says, 'I already know how. I watched you.'
Children need to learn to be selective about whom they imitate, how to find people who
know how, how to get other people to show them how, and how to express appreciation when
someone has taken the time to show them how. Children who know when and how to find
someone to show them how, and how to get them to show them, are a big step ahead of children
without these skills.
We want to show children how to do things, but may not want to do things for them. For
example, a grade schooler wants to know how to do a particular arithmetic problem. We
carefully show her how to do the problem. Did she really learn how, or did she simply 'con' us
into doing the problem for her? We say, 'Now I want you to do another problem, to show me you
really know how to do it.' She may object a little, but will soon come to understand that once we
have shown her how to do something, we expect her to demonstrate what she has learned. This
encourages her to observe more closely and to really imitate the behavior.
When children learn how, we want to encourage them to use reference books and other
resource materials. They need to learn how to interpret diagrams, follow instructions, recipes,
and the like. They will gradually develop the skills of observing, reading, asking questions, and
LEARNING THROUGH TRIAL AND ERROR:
Learning by trying something, doing it wrong, and then trying again, is important and is
to be encouraged. At the same time, though, we should aim to help the child do a thing correctly
the first time around. For example, your grade schooler is gluing together a plastic model. Since
it will be difficult to take apart once put together, it is fairly important that she learn to do it right
the first time. Of course, she will develop increasing skill through practice, i.e. through trial and
Children need to learn to 'consider the possibilities.' Putting puzzles together is a good
example. Exploring the possibilities comes up in numerous situations.
Any time a child wants us to decide, to tell him how, to choose, or to figure out the right
answer, we should consider the possibility of suggesting that he consider the possibilities. Yes, at
times we will show him how, give him the answer, or solve the problem. Much of the time,
though, we should encourage trial and error and explore various possibilities. This approach to
learning will have the very desirable side effect of helping the child become socially and
A second concept involved in trial and error learning might be thought of as successive
approximation. Our first approach to a problem does not work or turns out incorrectly. We then
look at why it did not work, and our next effort takes this into consideration; we come a little
closer. For example, an adolescent hurriedly paints a fence. She steps back, observes a few
missed spots, and touches them up. Her hurried effort approximated a good job and her
touch-ups really got the job done. Writing a theme for school goes through successive
How do we as parents help children learn to use successive approximations? We
encourage them to look critically at what they have done and to try to improve on it next time,
whether it is their behavior while visiting a friend's house or school work. We encourage an
orientation to successive approximation when we refrain from always giving the correct solution,
or telling how to do something.
Learning through mental rehearsal may be the highest learning skill. What do we mean by
mental rehearsal? Learning through mental rehearsal is more of a thinking process than a doing
process. We imagine in our mind's eye or ear what something would look or sound like. We
mentally try out each of the possibilities for solving a problem or completing a task, as if we
were actually doing it.
How do we help a child to use her capacities for mental rehearsal? If your child is
presented with a problematic situation and asks what should she do, we say, 'Let's think about it
for a little while before you do anything. Let's see if we can imagine all the ways of dealing with
it, and then think through what will happen if we follow each of the possibilities.' We are
encouraging the child to use mental rehearsal as well as demonstrating the technique. If your
adolescent is experiencing a lot of anxiety about a debate, we can say, 'Imagine yourself in the
room where the contest is going to be held. Now imagine that the debate is about to begin and
think through everything that is going to happen (in sequence) before your turn. Now it is your
turn. Think about getting up, walking to the microphone, looking at the audience, and giving
your speech. Run this through a few times in your mind to see what the problems might be, what
other people are going to do and say, and what you are going to say. Make mental notes about
what you are not sure of, and what you need more information about.' After the debate, the
adolescent says, 'It was not as bad as I thought it was going to be. It was almost like I had been
It is really true; she had been there before, in her mind.
With a preschooler, we would want to encourage her to slow down and think things
through a little before starting an arts and crafts project, or participating in a special ritual at
church, or making her first solo excursion to the grocery store. With a grade schooler, we would
want to encourage her to think through an arithmetic problem before starting to work it, or how
she is going to hold the bat before her turn at plate, or how she is going to get to school the first
time she tries it on her own. There are innumerable opportunities for mental rehearsal, and
children should be made consciously aware of the technique and encouraged to use it.
LEARNING ABOUT THINGS AND RELATIONSHIPS:
Children need to learn a lot about a lot of things - from needles to calculators, from
wedges to measuring cups, from flashlights to bulldozers. People who know what tools are for
and how they are used have an advantage over people who do not. There is a similar advantage
for people who know about games and toys, objects around the house, works of art, or almost
How do we help our child to know as much as possible about as many things as possible?
We try to answer her endless questions about things, call her attention to things, we encourage
her to ask others questions about things, we take her to museums and art galleries, we read to her
about things and encourage her to read about things. We also take time to look at something
special or interesting, to show the child things we observe when shopping, we ask questions
about things that interest her. In addition, we point out things, give the names of things, explain
what things are for.
Money is a special thing. Children need to have money, need to learn what can be
purchased with their money, need to be able to tell how much money they have, and need to
develop appropriate attitudes toward money. Before a child learns to add and subtract and to tell
the different pieces of money from each other (about six-years-old), she should have some money
of her own, be encouraged to spend it on things she wants, be allowed to listen to adult
discussions about money, and told how much things cost. Of course this can be overdone,
making the child too conscious of cost, or apprehensive about whether or not there will be
A few examples: A seven-year-old picks out a toy car costing $1.81, but has only $1.70 to
spend. Should we simply pay the other $0.11? Generally not. We should simply tell her that if
she wants the toy car, she will have to save more money or suggest that she pick out a toy that
does not cost so much. Another possibility is to tell the seven-year-old, 'I will loan you the $0.11
and you can pay me back as soon as you get more money.' If the child agrees, remember to ask
her for it the next time she gets some money.
Our twelve-year-old tells us he should get paid for doing things around the house. Do we
agree to pay him? Probably not. Being a member of the family and living in the house involves
sharing responsibilities. Household jobs are not something for which anyone gets paid; everyone
is expected to help. You may decide he has a right to some spending money which he can count
on having. This allowance is one of the rights shared by responsible members of the household.
If some week you do not have money to give to him, he will have to do without but still do the
work assigned him. Children should be expected to share in the responsibilities of the household
and should also have a right to share in the resources available to the family.
Should children be forced to save part of their money? Probably not. Most children need
to learn to handle their small amounts of money responsibly. If a child has, say $50, we might
insist he save part of it. Even in this situation, though, he should have the right to spend it on
Should children have pets? Yes, if at all possible, because they learn a lot about
relationships with people through their relationships with pets. In addition, they learn how to take
care of animals and to develop good feelings toward animals. Through a relationship with a
kitten, for example, a child learns the importance of playfulness combined with gentleness,
respect for the kitten's autonomy, the responsibility that goes with love, and seeing that the kitten
has food and water. The same is true with other pets. Children also learn from their pets about
death, illness, and injury. Pets offer children one of the best ways to learn about relationships.
Very young children, of course, cannot accept full responsibility for pets. Parents need to
help small children, but should not accept responsibility for it themselves. In addition, children
need to be shown how to hold pets, play with them, not abuse them, see that they do not get lost
or injured. Parents should insist that children accept these responsibilities, consistent with the
child's age, and actively show them how to deal with the pet.
Relationships are not taught in school, so parenting adults must take the responsibility for
teaching children about relationships. You might be talking about friends and say, 'There are a
lot of different kinds of relationships.' You could then go on to talk about what is different about
Consider two children who are about to deal with a new type of relationship. The child
who has thought about relationships in conscious terms can think, 'Visiting Grandma in the
hospital will probably be a little like visiting her at home, plus a little bit like visiting Aunt Jenny
at the nursing home.' On the other hand, the child who does not make the comparison
automatically, will have to have it explained to him in his own terms.
LEARNING ABOUT PEOPLE AND SITUATIONS:
How can we help our children learn to deal with people as unique individuals, not as
stereotypes? First, we should encourage our children to talk with our friends, to say hello to most
people with whom they come in contact, to make a variety of acquaintances, to play with a wide
variety of children. We should talk with them about people we know or have heard about.
Learning about people begins with exposure to as many people as possible, even objectionable
people at times.
As parenting adults, we should help our children interact and talk with the people with
whom they come in contact. We learn the most about people when they tell us about themselves,
their interests and experiences. When our child talks about his friends, we might ask him to tell
us what is interesting about them, to give examples of interesting places the friends have been,
things they like to do, and so on. This helps them to think about people's unique and positive
qualities, as well as their negative characteristics.
When we introduce our child to someone else, we might tell the other person something
that we find interesting about our child: 'This is Sally; she has been working on a 4H project.'
When we introduce one of our friends to our child, we might say, 'This is Ann Smith. She is
interested in ceramics.' Similarly, we might encourage our child to do the same. When he
introduces one of his friends, we might say, 'It is nice to meet you,' and (turning to our child) ask
'Can you tell me something interesting about Billy so I will know him a little better?'
Learning about situations follows the same principles as learning about people. The
greater the variety of situations with which a child is familiar, the better prepared he is to
effectively handle himself. If parenting adults encourage a wide range of situational experiences,
the child will be better prepared to function socially. In addition, parents can talk about situations
they have been involved in, and encourage the child to do the same. The child can learn about
similarities and differences within situations, things he likes or dislikes, appropriate and
inappropriate ways to behave. Even more importantly, the child can develop awareness of what is
unique in each situation. Examples: After a friend has left, mother says to her toddler, 'I noticed
that you and Julio had a lot of fun and did not get into any arguments.' Our adolescent talks
briefly with a friend but does not introduce him to us. We say, 'I was surprised you did not
introduce your friend to me.' Specific situations and incidents come up all the time. It is
important for the child to look at these situations one at a time and to add his understanding to his
knowledge about situations.
Parents often raise questions about whether or not children should be exposed to specific
situations. Let us consider a few of these. Should children be taken to funerals? Yes, especially if
the deceased was close to the child, because death and funerals are important situations in which
children need to know how to behave. Should children be taken to weddings? Yes. Weddings
present a good opportunity to talk about marriage, and love relationships. Should children be
taken to hospitals? Yes, if possible. They may get uneasy, but these are parts of life about which
children need to learn. When we protect children from normal life situations, we are neglecting
opportunities where we can talk about the situation and deal with their feelings.
SANTA CLAUS AND THE TOOTH FAIRY:
Occasionally, we talk with parents who say that they do not believe in telling their
children about Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, or even fairy tales. Their idea is to
be truthful. Should children be exposed to nursery rhymes and fairy tales? Should they engage in
fantasy? Yes, fantasy is not only harmless, but extremely important in developing the child's
imagination and creativity. As we talk with a child about fantasies and fairy tales, tell her that
fairy tales are fairy tales, fantasy is fantasy, and neither are true. The ability to discriminate
between real and unreal, between those times when people are telling us how it really is and
when they are 'putting us on,' is extremely important. Fantasies and fairy tales help a child make
these discriminations. In addition, involvement in fantasy and fairy tales allows a child to
imagine and dream, and create new worlds. Most innovative and creative adults were great
fantasizers as children.
Encouraging young children to believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny,
and so on represents a slightly different type of parenting problem. Should these myths be
perpetuated? Again, yes, they are a lot of fun, are very meaningful to children, and become an
important part of the childhood we remember. Santa Claus and the tooth fairy are positive
notions for children, and have no negative consequences. Let us look briefly at the typical
objections and then consider a few real advantages of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.
Magical beings do not exist; children should not be taught that they do. For the young
child, magic is a convenient explanation for almost anything they do not understand. Santa Claus
and his magic represent a reasonable explanation to the toddler and preschooler for Christmas
toys. Once a grade schooler, the child quickly raises doubt about the existence of Santa Claus. To
suggest that the child will not understand the myth of Santa Claus, or continue to hold distorted
notions of reality reflects a real misunderstanding of the mental ability and perceptive skill of the
grade schooler. The spirit of Santa Claus lives in us all and our childhood experience has led us
to want to give occasionally without receiving. Hopefully, the myth of Santa Claus is one way in
which we (as parents) can help instill such values in our children.
The tooth fairy simply takes lost teeth and leaves money. Is there any harm in this myth?
No. Children learn by the time they are seven or eight that the magic of the tooth fairy comes
from Mom or Dad's coin purse. While the child is still a true believer, the tooth fairy adds a little
fun to the process of losing baby teeth.
Parents occasionally ask what to do if they forget to put money under the pillow or are
unable to find the tooth. A child finds it quite acceptable if parents say that the tooth fairy must
have been too busy, and will perhaps stop by the following night. Also, it is quite easy to go into
a child's room and pretend to find the money someplace other than where she had expected it,
and simply tell her that the tooth fairy must have been in a hurry and didn't have time to put the
money under the pillow. What about the teeth that were too far under the pillow to risk
awakening the child? Sometimes, the tooth fairy has more teeth than she needs. Will the child
still leave the same tooth under the pillow again? No. The tooth fairy pays up only once.
As you can see, the involvement of a child in fantasy, fairy tales, myths and magical
beings and so on is fun and has no negative consequences. In fact, the consequences contribute
significantly to a child's lifelong creativity, imagination, and overall ability to think beyond the
present and beyond the particular reality within which he lives. In addition, the child who has
been exposed to Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and other such myths has the opportunity to learn
that part of the world in which he believed implicitly was not the way he thought is was. To a
small extent, this makes him a little skeptical, a little less gullible, and a little less likely to take
things on faith. Also, he learns that even Mom and Dad may be wrong, and may tell him things
that aren't completely true. A little skepticism is healthy and productive.
Some parents have the belief that their child's success in school is something over which
they have no control. They are mistaken. As a general principle, we should start out assuming our
child has average or slightly better than average ability and then be sure he is learning as much as
he can. How do we do this? First, we need to create a healthy, stimulating home environment.
Children need to come to school as healthy physical/doing, emotional, moral/spiritual, social
individuals. They need to feel positive about being in school. They must be able to relate to
teachers and conform to their expectations. With such a background, a child comes to school
with enthusiasm, prior experience, and a readiness to take on the world of school.
No, it is not important that a child be able to read, count or write numbers, or spell and
print before getting to school. If another parent says that their child could read by the age of four,
knew the alphabet before going to school, could count to one hundred before entering
kindergarten, or the like, there is no reason to be alarmed. School is a good enough place to learn
these things; our emphasis before our child gets to school should be on his physical/doing,
emotional, moral/spiritual, and social development.
Once children are in school (kindergarten through high school), active parental
involvement is extremely important. Since in general the more interest in a child that is shown by
her teacher, the more academically successful the child will be, we want to maximize this
attention. We do this by demonstrating our concern for our children. We should always go to
scheduled parent/teacher conferences. We should make an active effort to attend school
functions, including PTA, special programs and school events. Where possible, we can become
volunteer room parents, help with school projects, or serve on committees. We can even say
hello to the teacher when we pick up our child from school. If our child shows signs of difficulty,
we should telephone the teacher and otherwise let the teacher know we are vitally interested.
Don't become a nuisance, of course.
Next, we should be restrained in approaching the school or teacher about problems,
which are generally fairly minor, anyway. Also, children frequently distort what has happened at
school to make themselves look better and the teacher worse. We should let these difficulties
pass unless particularly severe or repeated. We should save our disagreements with the school for
important issues. All of us will probably have at least one problem with the school during the
child's school years. If we have a history of being cooperative, interested, and understanding, our
credibility will be good when we need to call a serious problem to the attention of the school.
Next, we should take major responsibility for monitoring the academic progress of our
children. For children of grade school age, we should insist they regularly bring home their
papers and school projects. Most of the time, we should look over this work and specifically note
any errors. When we find a problem answered incorrectly, we should calmly go over it with the
child. Emphasize the positive, but be sure the homework is corrected by the child. Don't make a
big deal of this process - helping a grade schooler with homework should normally take no more
than thirty minutes. Any longer and you should talk with the teacher about the problem.
It is important that a child have a place to do his homework (loud radios and TVs seem
not to be particularly distracting to children) and that he be encouraged to do all homework. If a
child is having difficulty at school, he should spend time every evening on school work, whether
or not homework has been assigned. (Twenty minutes is long enough for first and second
graders; an hour is reasonable for high school students). Check with teacher from time to time to
see if homework is being completed and turned in on time. It is also important to look at high
schoolers' books once in a while, and to look over their homework papers, and ask questions
about their studies. Make an active effort to see they do their work.
If a child has special difficulties you are not prepared to help with, first talk with the
teacher and then arrange for special help if necessary. Perhaps another high school student can
tutor. Most high school teachers are quite willing to give extra help, if the student shows interest
and asks for it.
School is fun and enjoyable, but it is also a lot of hard work. A child may not like all
subjects, every teacher, or doing school work. Especially with a high school student, you must be
firm about your expectation to do well with school work, to get along well with teachers, and to
conform to parental and school expectations whether or not she likes every aspect of school.
Succeeding academically is a child's work and is one of her major responsibilities.
PIANO LESSONS AND OTHER EXTRACURRICULAR INSTRUCTION:
In addition to school courses, children take many kinds of lessons: music, art, dance,
swimming, tennis, singing, and so forth. Such lessons may be just for fun or for developing a
skill; they may be for a set number of weeks or continued indefinitely. This makes four
categories: (1) lessons just for fun and for a fixed period, (2) lessons just for fun but for an
indefinite period, (3) lessons for developing a skill and for a specific period, (4) lessons for
developing skill and for an indefinite period of time.
This structured learning is added to the regular schoolwork. Now, although education is a
good thing, enough is enough. If children spend six or seven hours a day within a structured
learning environment, more is abusive and leaves too little free time. No child should take more
than three types of extracurricular lessons; in fact, one or two is probably quite enough. A rule of
thumb might be that the lessons (including practice) should take no more than five hours total a
week for any child.
Lessons just for fun and for a specific time period should be totally at the child's option,
following the maximum time guidelines suggested above. If a child wants to take such a lesson
for a few weeks, and if time is reasonably available, she should be permitted to, assuming there is
a qualified teacher. The child should be expected to attend all of the meetings and to follow
through to their completion. Lessons just for fun and for an indefinite period of time are
somewhat different. For lessons of this type, we are making a long-term commitment to pay for
the lessons, and to arrange for the child to be present. Should the child be made to continue the
lessons if she becomes bored or decides she does not like them anymore? Suggested rule: Tell
the child she can, at any point, let you know if she wants to stop. After that, she must take three
more lessons. If after taking three more lessons, she still wants to quit, then she can. Remember,
these lessons are just for fun anyway. If they are no longer fun, they are no longer important.
The third type of lessons are for a limited duration and for developing a specific skill or
talent. Using swimming lessons as an example, should a child be made to take swimming
lessons? Swimming can be learned within a limited time and is an important skill. Yes, the child
should be made to go to swimming lessons and to follow through with the course whether
interested or not.
Piano lessons are a good example of lessons developing specific skills and talents over an
unlimited duration. Should a child be made to take piano lessons? Probably not. The child is
unlikely to do well, and can easily develop negative attitudes and resistance unless initially
interested. Most young children, however, are quite interested in these types of lessons, at least
initially. They want to learn to play an instrument or to develop their artistic talents. In time, the
lessons may get tedious. It is a lot of work to learn how to play the piano. Should we insist that
the child practice? Should we allow him to quit if he wants to do so? Without practice of this
type, lessons are a waste of time and money. No, the child may not want to practice. Even if he
gets fairly upset about it, we should insist he practice for at least thirty minutes a day or that he
practice each assignment three or four times a day.
Piano or other skill-development lessons are frequently more important to us than to the
child. We can say to the child, 'We want you to learn how to play the piano and think that it is a
good thing for you to pursue music. This means you will have to practice on a regular basis
whether you want to or not.' It is unlikely this will cause the child to resent music or other
lessons. The child's increasing skill will be reinforcing and any praise he receives will be
encouraging. Nonetheless, if practicing and taking lessons is a daily problem over a period of
months, and if the child's skill does not seem to be developing, then there is no point to
continuing the lessons. Yes, children should at times be allowed to quit. In reference to this type
of lesson, though, the final decision should remain with us. It is our responsibility to encourage
and sometimes insist that these skills and talents be cultivated.
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES:
Parents of older grade schoolers or adolescents often say their children do not appreciate
the good life they have nor the efforts parents make. In reality, there is no particular reason why a
child should be especially grateful about the opportunities and things available to her. After all,
the child has grown up in a family environment where such opportunities automatically are
available as a member of the family. Real appreciation can only develop over time. Appreciation
develops when, as an adult, the individual realizes that these things did not come easily or
naturally. Also, the grade schooler or adolescent will begin to appreciate the opportunities she
has in relation to other children who have less.
As children's lives expand from their involvement with the family to involvements with
other groups, they gradually learn that certain rights are inherent in membership in these groups.
For example, they learn they have rights at school, such as the right to have teacher help with
problems or the right to materials and supplies. They learn they have certain rights within
It is very important that we parents actively help our child learn about her rights as an
individual, as a family member, as a member of other groups, as a member of the community.
For example, if our grade schooler is refused a turn at bat because others won't let her, we might
say, 'If I were you, I would not play ball with them anymore if they are not going to let me have a
turn at bat.' Or we might suggest that she say, 'I have a right to a turn at bat and insist that you
let me have my turn.' If our adolescent says, 'I asked my math teacher to help with a problem
and he said that I should already know how to do it and that he did not have time to help me,' we
might suggest that she go back to the teacher and say, 'Maybe I should know how to do this
problem, but I do not. It is important to me to learn how to work these types of problems and I
think that you should help me. When can we arrange a time?' In this situation, the adolescent is
asserting her right to receive help from the teacher, and in a firm yet reasonable way. Or if our
adolescent wants to use the family car, discuss the issue of her right to the car instead of arguing
about family rules.
Other rights frequently at issue within families include rights to privacy, including
telephone conversations, the sanctity of our rooms or things, rights to express our opinions, right
to family resources such as money or food, rights to loving relationships, to who watches what
television program, how loud the stereo can be played, and on and on. While children need to
learn to respect the rights of others, they also need to learn how to responsibly assert their own
rights. To use an old expression, they need to learn to stick up for themselves.
The notion of responsibilities is closely related to the idea of rights. As children become
aware of their rights, they must also learn that the rights of others need to be assured. A grade
schooler has a new puppy and Dad tells the grade schooler that he will be responsible for feeding
the puppy. The puppy then has a right to be fed. The adolescent has a right to access to the family
car. Other family members have a right to expect that the car will be used with care. If the
adolescent respects the rights of other family members and other drivers, he is then a responsible
driver. Family members have a right to an orderly home. Each family member, thus, has a
responsibility to help keep the house neat.
Children learn about responsibilities in part through relationships and seeing other people
behave responsibly. In part, children learn to be responsible through active teaching by parents
and other adults. Children also learn about responsibility through discussions about the rights of
others. Yes, children learn from life experience, but they also need to have the ideas of rights and
responsibilities explained and re- explained from a very young age.
Are children too young to have responsibilities when they are only two or three years old?
This is, in fact, a very good age to learn to respect the rights of others. If emphasis on rights and
responsibilities can be initiated at a very young age, it will not be much of a problem as children
Teaching children about rights and responsibilities can be overdone. Children can assert
their rights so frequently they actually alienate everyone. Similarly, a child may become
somewhat compulsive about doing what is right. In either situation, parenting adults have gone
too far and should back off a little. The criteria of reasonableness, appropriateness, and
effectiveness should govern our involvement with children as we teach them about rights and
LEARNING TO THINK INDEPENDENTLY:
Teaching children to think independently is one of the most challenging tasks for
parenting adults. We are at the heart of a real parenting paradox. We want our children to think
independently but we also want them to accept our ideas and values. How can we keep our
children on the right track while simultaneously assuring that they become autonomous
individuals who think independently? How do children move from being the one who is
influenced to being the one who is influencing? How do children make the transition from
follower to leader or independent participant? It will happen gradually and spontaneously if we
first encourage it to happen and then allow it to happen. Let us make the point through a fairly
simple example and then move on to discuss the idea in depth.
A six-year-old had grown up in a family where she was allowed to express her ideas,
disagree, and dream. Her first- grade teacher encouraged independent thinking and her parents
took delight in her imagination, innovative thinking, and developing intellectual agility.
Similarly, her teacher liked children who appropriately said what they thought, entered into lively
discussions, and showed enthusiasm for finding out about the world. This particular incident
happened when it was still customary to start the school day with a prayer: After one such group
prayer, teacher said to a six-year-old, 'You did not have your head bowed and your eyes closed
during prayer.' Teacher was, of course, trying to encourage the child to conform to customary
praying behavior. The child spontaneously responded, 'You must not have had your eyes closed
either, or you would not have noticed that I did not have my eyes closed.' How did the teacher
handle this? Did she see the reply as smart alecky? No, she saw it was a perceptive conclusion
for a six-year-old to have made. She said, 'That's true; why don't we both close our eyes and bow
our heads next time?' Three cheers for this teacher.
When a child tells us about something that bothers him, he may wait expectantly to see
what we think. We can tell him what we think, or we might respond, 'What do you think about
that?' If the child says, 'I don't know; what do you think?' we might then say, 'I will tell you
what I think but first I want to find out what your ideas are.' This encourages independent
thinking and lets the child know that he is both permitted and expected to think independently.
Another child comes to us with a problem, wanting to know what she should do. We go
through the same process of asking her what she thinks she should do. We say, 'Why don't you
think about it for a while; then let's talk.' We are saying, in essence, 'You think independently a
while longer and I will think independently about the situation also.' Go back to the child, of
course, after a while and ask, 'Have you thought any more about that situation?' This again
encourages the child to think independently and renews our permission to think independently. A
mild level of skepticism is fundamental to a child's growing capacity to think independently. For
instance, a child comes home and tells us that her friend has two ponies and three dogs, when we
know that her family does not own land and that they are not boarding animals. We say to the
child, 'That is not true.' The child insists it is true. We say, 'I do not think that is true; and it is
clear that you and I disagree about whether or not it is true.' That is the end of the conversation.
Have we helped the child to think independently? We have pointed out that things are sometimes
misunderstood by us or are misrepresented by others. This encourages the child to be a little
skeptical about things she is told by others. The same approach can be used with things children
read or are told about.
It is extremely important that we do not always impose our beliefs and values on our
children. The extent to which a child learns to think independently has a lot to do with our
willingness to permit independent thought. We further encourage independent thinking by letting
him know we feel good about it when he expresses his own ideas, comes to his own conclusions,
and thinks independently. At times we need to insist that he think independently by refusing to
say what to do or think, making him sit down to think things through himself. We also need to
demonstrate independent thinking. Just as our child is permitted to disagree with us, we also have
the right to disagree with him. He sees that we come to our own conclusions, and do not always
accept what others say. In addition, we point out independent thinking techniques such as
considering alternatives, mental rehearsals, and the old standby, 'Think before you act.'
Helping children think independently is a real parenting paradox. If we err, it should be
on the side of independent thinking. Our child may be a little flippant or rude, but this is more
acceptable than risking his becoming mechanical and closed off.