“One thing at any rate we know with certainty; that no teaching, no information becomes knowledge to any of us until the individual mind has acted upon it, translated it, transformed, absorbed it; to reappear, like our bodily food, in forms of vitality. Therefore, teaching, talk, and tale, however lucid or fascinating, affect nothing until self-activity be set up; that is, self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.”
Before I was a mother I had visions of feeding my children nutritious meals for their bodies and curating elaborate lesson plans for their minds. Little did I know that agency would shatter all my hopes and dreams: I couldn’t force my children to enjoy foods they weren’t craving and I couldn’t force them to internalize information they didn’t desire to know. I suspect I’m not the only parent who has occasionally felt that agency was more of a curse than a gift, but if we want to truly become a master teacher we need to understand and work with agency, not against it.
Everything we do is deeply rooted in the principle of agency, especially education. Knowledge first comes from a desire to know, or a question posed by the mind itself. When your mind is open to learning, you have experienced something in your life that sparks a question. You desire an answer to that question. You seek learning by study and by faith, and when you find the answer you apply it and therefore remember. It has become knowledge. This is the only way people truly learn truth.
Bribery and coercion from a parent/teacher may seem effective, but they are only short-term solutions. They only create a desire for a reward or to avoid a negative consequence, they do not create a genuine desire for knowledge. The child is not truly utilizing their agency; they are not motivated by a desire to learn. Russell M. Nelson stated this of the important role that desire plays in education: “I believe that in the pursuit of education, individual desire is more influential than institution.” (Where is Wisdom? October 1992)
REMEMBER: You cannot make your children do something against their will. You cannot make them want something they do not want. You cannot make them learn something they do not want to learn.
Agency is not just a religious concept, it is a truth proven by modern research. When people feel they have control over a situation they are less stressed, and therefore happier. (see The Self-Driven Child). Developing our children’s sense of agency is not an educational frill or some new-age idea. Children who doubt their competence set low goals and choose easy tasks. When they face problems they lose concentration and start doubting themselves. Children with a strong belief in their own agency work harder, focus better, are more interested in their studies, and are less likely to give up than children with a weaker sense of agency (Skinner, Zimmer, Gembeck, and Connell. Individual Differences And The Development Of Perceived Control). This is because agency is based on the idea of strengthening a person’s will, not breaking it.
The Way of the Will
“There is a power within you, your own will, which will enable you to turn your attention from thoughts that make you unhappy and wrong, to thoughts that make you happy and right. And this is the exceedingly simple way in which the will acts; this is the sole secret of the power over himself which the strong man wields.” (Charlotte Mason, Volume 1, 326)
When you think of a “strong-willed” child, what do you imagine? Maybe a toddler throwing a tantrum or a rebellious teenager. Interestingly, what you are actually envisioning is a weak-willed child. Mason said “this apparent determination to go in one way and no other, which is called willfulness and mistaken for an exercise of will. Whereas the determination is only apparent; the child is, in fact, hurried along without resistance, because that opposing force which should give balance to his character is undeveloped and untrained (v. 1, p. 321) So, what is the will? I love the way Mason describes the will as “ the controller of the passions and emotions, the director of the desires, the ruler of the appetite… character is the result of conduct regulated by will.”( v. 1, p. 319)
A child who throws tantrums or rebels against their parents is at the mercy of their emotions and appetites. Their will has not been developed enough to self-regulate. This determination or rebellion against authority is also called counter-will.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld describes counter-will as “ an instinctive, automatic resistance to any sense of being forced. It is triggered whenever a person feels controlled or pressured to do someone else’s bidding.” (Hold on to Your Kids, p. 74) When you understand this truth, your child’s behavior and resistance to school may not be so mysterious after all.
Counter-will is manifested in a variety of ways: ‘no!’ from a toddler, ‘your not my boss’ from a young child, or body language from a teenager. At any age it can come out as disobedience or defiance, passivity or procrastination, or doing the opposite of what is expected. Counter-will is a natural part of development, but it will come out more often if the relationship between parent and child is strained and the parent is attempting to control too much of the child’s life. We cannot expect our children to be obedient if they are not attached to us, and a strong will is required for the child to alter his own behavior to adhere to our demands. Charlotte Mason observes that “Obedience is valuable only in so far as it helps the child work towards making himself do that which he knows he is asked to do. Every effort of obedience which does not give him a sense of conquest over his own inclinations, helps to enslave him, and he will resent the loss of his liberty by running into license when he can… it is his own will that is compelling him, and not yours… Let him get into the habit of managing himself, controlling himself.” (v. 1, p. 328)
Thy Will Be Done
A strong will, or the ability to self-regulate is essential for a happy, successful life, and it is up to the parents to teach this skill. Dr. Morrell, author of Introduction to Mental Philosophy, considered it to be the most important part of education; “The education of the will is really of far greater importance, as shaping the destiny of the individual, than that of the intellect.” If there is one Christlike attribute we should be teaching our children it is to be strong-willed.
Now that we understand what the will is and why it is important, how do we help our children develop a strong will? Current research on the developing brain tells us that the prefrontal cortex–responsible for self-regulation–is very sensitive to stress. When a child lives in constant, toxic stress their brain is negatively affected, making it harder to self-regulate and make smart decisions. Creating a loving, positive environment is the first duty of parents. Your child may be impulsive and mischievous right now, but nurturing your attachment and staying positive is laying the foundation for self-regulation in the future.
In her sixth volume of education, A Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason instructs parents how they can teach their children to strengthen their will.
“Children should be taught (a) to distinguish between ‘I want’ and ‘I will.’ (b) that the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts away from that which we desire but do not will. (c) that the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting. (d) that after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its wok with new vigour.”
Teach your child to immediately think of something interesting, exciting, or entertaining when they want to do something they know they should not.
Choice and Accountability
I have tried this technique with my own boys and it does work, as long as the thought is something they find interesting and they are getting close to the age of accountability. Most children start to show glimmers of self-regulation starting around six years old, and by nine it should be full-functional, thought not fully developed. I believe this is why a wise, loving Heavenly Father does not hold children accountable for their “sins” until they are eight years old. It is wise to start teaching your child how to strengthen their will and give them a chance to feel the consequences of their choices at a young age, but do not expect immediate results. The more your child exercises the skill of decision making and learning from their mistakes, the better they will become at it. So give them opportunities to make their own decisions, even if you know they will fail (see The Self-Driven Child). Ask them questions to see the flaws in their thinking; suggest and assist them in outlining the pros and cons of each choice.
You cannot–nor should you try– to control your child’s behavior. Obvious exceptions are if the child is putting themselves (or others) in danger. Instead, you should give your child the tools to strengthen their own will and manage themselves. The purpose of parenting should be to strengthen and direct your child’s will, not break it. Success in higher education and self-education relies on the principles of sense of agency and a strong will.
As a parent, you worry that you won’t teach your children enough. You worry there will be gaps in their education. But you can’t possibly teach them everything there is to know in the first eighteen years of life. The most debilitating learning gap is a lack of desire. The most important skill you can teach your child is how to learn and to find joy in it. If you can teach your children how to ask questions, seek answers by study and by faith, and to apply knowledge you’ve taken care of any gaps they will have in the future. The first eighteen years of education should be the spark that ignites a voracious life of learning.
How can you balance self-education with structured lessons? Here are a few simple ways to step back and allow your children to learn on their own:
- Remind yourself what you have control over. You control what is presented in lessons and when they are given. Children are responsible for if they retain information and how much. The next section, “Teacher’s Role” will go into more detail in this area.
- Let your child make mistakes and learn from books. “Moralizing all men resent; from experience they learn without a murmur.” (Edward St. John) When you share stories from your life or books, avoid lecturing, over-explaining, or moralizing. Let the characters’ actions speak for themselves and give your child the joy of discovering truth on their own. When your child encounters a problem, help them find the answer. Embrace natural consequences and allow your child the blessings and knowledge that come from making a choice (whether good or bad). Do not rob them of something they have earned.
- Let the children play! Play is when children experiment, practice, rehearse, and learn. Daily lessons put ideas into a child, play draws them out. Allow children plenty of time to play and engage in self-chosen projects. Charlotte Mason recommends the whole afternoon (5 hours) be dedicated to unstructured time for this purpose.
- Allow time to ponder. Just like our bodies need time to digest food, our minds need time to digest information. Rich dialogue, plots, and questions need a lot of time to comprehend. Read the book or do the activity then allow time for your children to ponder what he has learned. “When we ponder, we invite revelation by the Spirit. Pondering, to me, is the thinking and the praying I do after reading and studying in the scriptures carefully” (“Serve with the Spirit,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 60).
“In the grand division of all of God’s creations, there are things to act and things to be acted upon. As sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we have been blessed with the gift of agency—the capacity and power of independent action. Endowed with agency, we are agents, and we primarily are to act and not only to be acted upon…”
David A. Bednar
*Teaching in the Savior’s Way | part 4 (read scriptural examples as well)
*Seek Learning By Faith | David A. Bednar
*Where is Wisdom? | Russell M. Nelson
The Self-Driven Child | Intro + Chapters 1, 3, 5, 6
3 Nephi 27:13
How can I change my teaching methods to let my children discover truth on their own?
Which activities I need to give up to allow my child a few hours each day of unstructured time?
How can I strengthen my child’s will instead of breaking it?
Why is agency a principle of education?
How did Jesus nurture agency and self-education in the people he taught?
Develop the habit of ending a lesson without speaking, lecturing, or explaining. Instead, listen to your child’s observations, questions, and explanations (i.e. narration)
Critically look at your curriculum: does it have worksheets, multiple-choice quizzes, and projects assembled by the teacher? Replace these methods with narration, open-ended questions, and projects chosen by your child.