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Author: Chitra Iyer
Published on:
April 29, 2022

Can Parents Walk the Talk of Child-Led Learning?

Child-led learning is not just a buzzword - it has real potential to create the kind of people who are valued as 21st century adults. Unfortunately, most parents indulge in double-speak when it comes to letting children lead their own learning, and end up confusing their kids about what they can or cannot do with it, in life.
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I recently heard this TED radio hour podcast called “The antidote to hopelessness” featuring author Jason Reynolds, best-selling author and three-times National Ambassador for Young People's Literature at the US Library of Congress.  

What I liked about his story is how relatable his journey has been. 

You would expect that he was a genius prodigy kid, for all he’s achieved in life. For example, I was reading about Praggu the chess prodigy from India who was the Under-8 world champ – yes, under EIGHT not 18!! I could not help looking over at my 8 year-old as he rolled around with the dogs on the wet grass, and wondered - really- you can win a chess world championship at that age!?

Anyway, back to Jason, here is what was really striking to me as a parent.

His mom, who he says always believed he would ‘do’ something, had this night-time mantra for him and his siblings. It was: ‘You can do anything’. (So far so familiar, right?!)

But when the time came to fly the coop and he announced he’s going to go off and be a writer, the same mom was unable to stop all her fears from rising up. Understandably, she was afraid when her child picked a career that could potentially be financially and emotionally ‘unstable’. 

And I thought to myself: you could be a middle-class parent in India, and it would still be the same. Even today, in 2022.

I tell my kids every day that they can do anything. I expose them to movies where underdogs manage the impossible. I buy them books where strong characters hold their ground against all odds. I tell them stories of great people who were ridiculed and sidelined before the world saw and felt their amazing power. I tell them to believe in their intuition. I’m sure many of you do too. But if one of them tells me I want to go off and be a yoga instructor in an ashram in the southern hills, I’m not sure how I will respond.

Of course, once Reynold’s mom is convinced that he is a ‘success’ i.e. validated by public and business opinion, and financially stable, she says to him: 

“I’m glad you did it your way. The hardest part about being a parent is that you raise your children to not be followers, but you never take into consideration that means one day they won’t follow you. And in that moment, you either have to stand on your word or you will be made a hypocrite”.

This is the heart of what I’m talking about in this post. 

That despite her fears and misgivings, she let him be who he felt he had to be. She didn’t stop him from trying to be a writer. And sure enough, that faith, that he would get through, he would find his way, despite the hardships, was enough to let him spread his wings, fly higher than she ever thought possible, and touch the sky.

Also read: 5 Ineffective Study Habits We're Ditching This Year

Do Parents Walk the Talk When it Comes to Children Leading Their Learning Journey? 

Is child-led or child-centric learning just a trendy term that schools throw around in their marketing brochures? Or is it the right of the child - one that begins in the early years at home? And what does it take for parents to walk the talk on child-led learning?

In childhood, we say we want our children to be innovators, game changers, leaders. Yet, in so many small ways, every day, we control and direct and suggest every step of their learning journey. 

The truth is that the average kid doesn’t control their own body, mind, emotions, or their own time. We tell them what to wear, what/ when to learn, what to feel, how to spend each waking hour. 

Already, the child starts to lose their sense of agency. 

We want them to be able to set goals, regulate their learning, and be resourceful. Be problem-solvers, innovators, out-of-the-box thinkers.  

But in some future life. Not today, not now.

Today, for 14 to 18 years, they are rewarded for not questioning the status quo. For not being different. For not swimming against the tide. For doing as they are told and being good, obedient kids.

Tomorrow, in life, in the world of business or any profession, from art to sports, they will be rewarded for thinking differently; for breaking the rules and smashing ceilings; for demanding more; for being unreasonable.

Is it any wonder that most of the average kids will grow into average adults? 

How can we expect kids to unquestioningly play by every rule we set for them today, and then somehow turn into fearless game-changers in the future?

My goal is not to make us feel guilty. I also appreciate that factors such as daily schedules, school uniforms and time tables are out of our control. We have to adhere to it as part of the system.

But isn’t it all the more reason that parents need to take the lead in giving their child true leadership and empowerment opportunities at home?

At home, can we not let them have the sense of being able to make their own decisions about the things that affect them? 

Not some curated, parent-approved, fail-safe version of agency, but true agency! So that when the time comes, they have the self-belief to soar into the sky and stay there without burning out?

When we say we want them to be leaders, are we willing to start by letting them be leaders of their own life, of their own day, today? 

Can they choose what kind of leader they want to be? 

Can they choose their own mistakes? Or will we tell them it's not in the curriculum, that they are wasting their time, that all that matters is the exams, that we are here to save them from making the same mistakes that we made?

Raising an effective learner is not about trying to shape a specific outcome. 

It's about empowering our children with the skills and techniques they need to succeed on their own terms. 

Even science tells us that despite our best intentions and efforts , while parents do influence how children turn out, we do not have control over who our kids become. 

Also Read: 4 Simple Ways to Build the 4C Learning Skills at Home

How can parents be more mindful of what they influence?

Children must be taught how to think, not what to think. Margaret Mead.

Just as we cannot imagine what jobs our kids will do, we also cannot imagine, fully, what they are capable of. 

As Reynolds says of himself, he was no scholar or prodigy in school and college. He was a mediocre student and almost failed out of college in freshman year. But he believed in some things about himself, and he wanted to go out there and ‘put it to the test’. 

Along the way, he put himself into places and situations where he would meet the kind of people he admired. He took the small, difficult, real steps one has to take when one has big, audacious goals. He made things happen for himself: that is such an important learning skill.

Probably he imbibed this from his mom, without her even knowing it. All that time she was struggling to make things happen for her children against all odds, they were watching her, learning how things get done, how to make things happen for yourself when no one has your back. She changed her own game, and they grew up watching her do it! 

What is the Parents Role in Helping Children Learn Better?

Our job as parents is not to control or micro-manage or create parent-approved and risk-averse learning experiences. Our job is to expose them to diverse learning experiences; and observe, discuss and reflect with them about their experience so that real effective learning occurs.

How does this look in real life? Let’s take an example. If your child shares an idea that you think is impossible or improbable, resist the temptation to offer advice, opinion or alternatives. 

Instead, engage to better understand where the idea is coming from, encourage them to build their case. Encourage them to think of the goal or purpose behind the idea, and to critically examine if there may be alternative ways to do it. Ask them to detail their strategy to achieve this (improbable) goal. 

If the child still insists on going ahead, that is when we as parents need to ask ourselves if we can walk the talk on letting them be their own leaders, of standing by them even when they fail.

Of trusting their process. Or as Jason’s mom puts it, 

In that moment, you either have to stand on your word or you will be made a hypocrite”.

When children lead their learning, they are better equipped to own their failures and mistakes too. 

Our job as parents is not to help them avoid failure or avoid the mistakes we ourselves made (despite our own parents micro-managing us!) but to learn how to learn from mistakes and failures. 

To walk the talk, let's start by creating a positive learning environment at home. An environment that facilitates the child’s natural curiosity, their eagerness to explore things and question things. An environment that creates both - opportunities to learn, and the freedom to learn it their way. 


In the words of the great educationist Peter Kline, from his book "The Everyday Genius"

"The key to education is adapting teaching to the way (children) naturally learn. 

Derived from the Latin 'educere' (education) means, "to lead out from". 

The task, then, is not to impose learning on the young, but to lead out from their infinitely resourceful minds those things that will best serve the emerging creative personality. 

Observe the emerging design. Try and make out the image this newly forming mind is offering to show us. Expect nothing - but await expectantly!"

Also read:

5 Mistakes We Make With the Home Learning Environment

Don't Fall for These Myths and Misconceptions About Growth Mindset

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