A guilt-free existence: Part 3, Guilt-free Educating

I alluded, briefly, in the previous post, to the idea that parenting is fraught with guilt. The idea that you could and should be doing something differently arrives pretty much with the baby, and is very hard to shift. My children are educated at home, which gives me a whole new area to feel guilty and inadequate about, though I don’t imagine it makes me as different as all that. Most parents seem to have guilt around whatever choices they’ve made for their children, in all areas, not just education.

My children are currently nearly nine, and just six. When I look at the people that they are, I am (mostly…) very proud. They are intelligent and articulate. They both read at a level well ahead of their age. They understand mathematical concepts, and can manipulate numbers. They know a great deal of history and politics, for their age, and compared with their peers (so far as I can tell), they have a basic geographical understanding of the world. They are creative, imaginative, mostly caring and compassionate, and they are doing pretty well, I think.

However, if, instead of looking at the people they are, and are becoming, I choose to focus on how they actually fill their time, I get much wobblier. They are provided with a wealth of books, their gift toys, craft materials, etc, but largely reject them for the watching of My Little Pony videos and  the playing of Skylanders for Wii, respectively.

We take an autonomous approach – I honestly believe that if learning a particular thing is important for a child, they will work that out, and seek the information for themselves. I don’t have to hit them over the head with a big stick to make them learn to read – the world is full of written words which are interesting to them, and which unlock all kinds of valuable information. Sooner or later, they are bound to want to crack the code, and when they do, motivated by their own priorities rather than mine, it should be pretty easy for them to do. And it does seem to work that way. They know all kinds of things, including how to read – as an approach, it has validated itself in practical application.

So, what am I worried about? They’re happy watching YouTube, I’m happy letting them. Why do I feel so bad about it?

I traced the problem to a long family history of Protestant Work Ethic*. There is a deep-seated belief in me, which goes against everything my rational self thinks that I believe in, that whatever we’re doing, we should probably be working harder at it. And if that’s what you believe about yourself, then you just can’t win.

The pressure of the Protestant Work Ethic seeps in all parts of your life. It basically says that if you’re sitting down, you’re doing it wrong. There is always housework, paperwork, educating to be done. How can you possibly find the time to sit down, when the work is never-ending?

But that’s just it. The work is never-ending. It is always possible to do more, to do it better. But because it is possible does not make it desirable. There is no particular merit in getting ten straight As at GCSE, if your chosen pathway only requires five Cs. If you have other reasons to pursue those extra subjects, those higher grades, then knock yourself out – if you love a subject, and long to learn it inside out, then that’s a much better motivation than any grade-collecting exercise could ever be. But if you are only in it to get the qualifications you need to move forward, then you have wasted a great deal of effort in reaching a far higher standard than is necessary.

So, instead of succumbing to the uneasy sense that no matter how much you have done, you should probably have done a bit more, ask yourself the question: “What am I seeking to achieve? Is what I’m doing achieving that? Is my desire to achieve it great enough to warrant the effort it will require?”

Educationally, I appear to achieving my goals. The children are learning, are happy, are healthy; I am enjoying my role in their education, and am not exhausted by the effort. So what we are currently doing is working for us. And it continues to work for us, even when I sit down to watch Pointless of an afternoon. Even when I know there are things I could be doing. Even when I’m just shrugging my shoulders and choosing not to do them.

Clearly, I am doing enough. I don’t need to do more. Indeed, there is every chance that doing more would create problems rather than solutions. If the children feel I am haranguing them about educational activities that they would sooner avoid, then that will have a detrimental effect on our relationship, and maybe even on their general education. Presumably, the mindlessness of the My Little Pony videos allow Daisy space in her brain to absorb and consolidate the things she has learned. Or else their relentless focus on managing social interaction is giving her food for thought. Or there is some other hidden value there that I haven’t spotted. Just because I think they’re appalling television, doesn’t mean that they have no value to her.

The right amount of work and effort is not necessarily the absolute maximum amount of work and effort. There is no logical reason why it should be so.

Now, I am not suggesting that it is generally helpful to put in no effort. Hard work, whilst hard, and, well, worky, is a very good way to get things done – of course it is. But only if it’s the right work. Only if you know and understand what your goal is, and what it will take to get you to it. Only if you’ve evaluated the cost, and concluded that it’s worth it. Anything else you’re filling your day with is essentially busy-work.

You do not have a duty to be busy. Your only duty is to do the things that you have prioritised, according to your own values. Your goals are set by you, and they can be changed by you, too. There is no reason to feel bad about what you’re choosing not to do; the choices are yours to make.

* I’m describing this particular work ethic as Protestant, because in my case, I strongly suspect its root lies in the traditions of Protestant Evangelical Christianity. It goes without saying that the mindset can occur in all manner of religious and non-religious backgrounds!

2 thoughts on “A guilt-free existence: Part 3, Guilt-free Educating

  1. You got me thinking about an essay I read years ago that argued that Open Source was the result of a particular attitude towards ‘play’ – that things like Linux originate not from some dolorous attitude to work but from free exercise of intellect. Whereas the Microsoft / Apple approach is always explicitly predicated on profit first – other things; such as bug-free code, and usability, only really become issues when they affect profit. Profit-motive, in some cases can actively prevent a good product (exhibit A: Windows Vista or B: Apple’s heavy reliance on proprietary standards).

    Most science, by contrast is removed from profit-motive. There was no profit-motive behind General Relativity, no attempt to patent the Strange Quark. And yet the free play of science really does make things better (vaccines, electricity, anti-biotics – all things discovered by sheer, raw *curiosity*)

  2. Indeed. Plus, pursuing things out of curiosity is so much more FUN! Who wants to spend their life only doing things where they can see the opportunity for profit?

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