The most important thing a parent can do to ensure a child has a desire to learn is to never allow them to believe that education only occurs in big concrete buildings filled with teachers. Nothing destroys the desire to learn more than being put in a box and being yelled at by people indifferent to the ultimate success (however you may define it) of a child. For most children, schools are where ambition, confidence, creativity and curiosity go to die, with doubt, shame, blind obedience and fear left in their stead.
If a child hasn’t already lost it, the most important thing a parent can do to ensure that child maintains their desire to learn is to continually feed the desire to learn at home and anywhere else they may find themselves. So long as they do that, the love of learning that is inherent in children will likely not be extinguished.
If/when the child loses the desire to learn, or buries it under the trivial concerns that have become commonplace in the lives of today’s youths, helping them rediscover it can be extraordinarily challenging. The path can be tortured, and at times it may seem that a given child may be too far gone to be saved. However, no child is a lost cause, and virtually every child can rediscover their love of learning.
It is far more important to allow a child to pursue their self-interests and lose a year of sitting-in-a-seat class time than it is to ensure that they are covering material at the same pace as their same-aged peers. The first step for any child who has attended a traditional school and then lost their desire to learn is to allow them to deschool, or be completely free of the pressure to learn, especially in an academic sense. Six months is a reasonable amount of time for a child to deschool, and most children will naturally revert to a knowledge seeking state in that time.
The love of learning is far more likely to be found through the child than through the parent. Parents should not try to rush the learning process – and when the child is ready to learn, the parents will better serve their child if they envision themselves as enablers and cheerleaders rather than authoritarians who need to use coercion as the means to encourage a desired behavior. If a child does not want to learn, the parents should try to help set the child on a path toward self-directed learning.
Encouraging self-directed learning does not mean allowing a child to sleep in until noon every day and interacting with them only at dinner time or when they want a ride somewhere. There is a fine line between encouraging self-directed learning (to include all of the unstructured learning that comes along with it) and enabling intellectual sloth or laziness. Encouraging self-directed learning means talking to a child, asking the child what she wants to learn, helping the child set learning goals and helping the child identify and seek out the resources necessary to reach those goals.
Parents need to be mindful of the fact that just because their children are not learning what the parents think they should be learning (i.e., spelling, multiplication, etc.) does not mean that the children are lost. Because a child has not yet mastered a particular task or subject area by what is deemed the appropriate age to have done so does not mean that they are doing something wrong. Judging students’ academic progress by grade-level standards relative to their same-aged peers can derail the learning process. If children are actively engaged in various forms of learning then the content of that learning is not necessarily what parents should fixate on.
Of course, if the child is, for example, at the age that many would consider 8th grade and they still haven’t mastered multiplication or they are writing at what would be considered a 5th grade level, then certain forms of intervention should be considered. At such a point, it may be necessary to provide more direction and to reorient the child’s learning path so that they can better develop certain areas or “catch up” with their same-aged peers. But while self-directed learning is not the solution for every child, it is a surer path to robust intellectual development and academic achievement for most children. It is also the best place to start when trying to solve the dilemma of a child who does not want to learn.