Have you ever noticed how many experts there are in the world?
Even an hour spent on the Internet makes it clear that experts are everywhere: some are experts by virtue of their life experiences or training (I value the first more than the second; how about you?) and others are self-proclaimed experts. After all, it seems like nearly everyone has a blog these days where they share their “expert” advice.
Then there are the women’s magazines, which proliferate around checkout counters across the land, with blaring headlines declaring “Your Body: Advice from the Experts!”, “How the iPad Can Release the Genius Inside Your Child” and “50 Ways to Please Your Man!”
Everywhere we go, it seems we’re surrounded by experts. Their proclamations can make us feel unprepared and diminish our confidence, particularly when it comes to parenting our children.
Our childhood school experience also contributes to this feeling. We grew up with the common wisdom that we should learn to read in kindergarten or first grade, achieve perfect penmanship in third grade and master algebra in eighth grade. The expected age for attaining these milestones was established by (you guessed it) so-called educational experts. To make matters worse, children who don’t conform to those ages are labeled: if they read before kindergarten, they’re “gifted,” and if they haven’t picked up algebra by 9th grade, they’re “delayed.”
It’s very hard to break free of reliance on experts when you’ve grown up hearing so much from and about them. We don’t realize how we’ve been trained to rely on others instead of ourselves. But once we become parents, we have an ideal opportunity to become experts instead of relying on them, because we know more about our children than anyone else does, and that knowledge grows daily.
Ultimately, this becomes an issue of trust: are we going to trust some “expert” or our own instincts, experience and common sense?
Trusting yourself as a parent isn’t always easy, but that trust can be developed early on. In fact, every time you bump up against someone who tells you you’re parenting the wrong way, you have an opportunity to develop trust in your own judgment.
For example, when our first child was a few months old, we left her with a well-meaning relative for a few hours while we went out. The next day, I learned that this relative had given our baby a cookie. Yes, it was a soft cookie, but our child had not yet begun eating solid foods (at that age, her sole nourishment came from breast milk). So I asked the relative not to give the baby anything to eat except the bottled breast milk I provided when she babysat our daughter.
This didn’t go over well. The relative, though childless, was a nurse, and believed that based on her experience and training, she knew best what our child should eat. But it was our job as the baby’s parents to make such decisions. I felt strongly that she wasn’t old enough to eat solid foods (and once she was, we weren’t going to start with cookies). Being faced with opposition only made me stronger, and helped me learn to trust my instincts with my child.
Still, trusting my parenting instincts did take time. Some time later, even though my eldest had learned to read with minimal help from me at age four due to her own desire, the common educational wisdom that children should be reading by a certain age intimidated me enough that I tried teaching my middle children to read once they turned five . But I soon gave that up because of their resistance. Giving up was an indication that my parenting instinct muscle was becoming stronger. What I finally learned is that when each child was ready to read, I wouldn’t have to do much more than answer questions and provide reading materials. It turned out that the “experts” were wrong: the child is not supposed to learn to read at age five or six. The child is supposed to learn to read when he or she is ready to do so.
As we discover from experience that our children learn without our coercion, we develop trust in their instincts as well as our own. Instead of forcing them to take piano lessons or join the soccer team, we encourage them to make their own choices. If those choices turn out to be the wrong choices, we don’t criticize them, but instead help them see that failure at something is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they learn that failure brings them one step closer to success by showing them what doesn’t work.
Sometimes our now-strengthened trust in our parenting instincts collides with the trust we’re trying to develop in our children’s instincts. One parent, frustrated with his ten-year-old’s reluctance to master physical skills such as riding a bicycle and turning a cartwheel, decided that she was never going to learn the physical activities commonly learned in childhood without being pushed, literally. So in frustration he threw her off a pier, thinking that she would learn to swim out of necessity, as some animals do. However, she didn’t come to the surface and had to be pulled from the lake, sputtering and choking. She knew she wasn’t ready to swim, but his reluctance to trust her on that almost resulted in a tragedy.
The stakes don’t loom nearly as large when it comes to homeschooling, but it’s still very important that we learn to trust ourselves and our children instead of the experts. It alarms me when I see articles about how to homeschool our children written by “educational experts” who have never taught their own children. I’ve even been to workshops at homeschool conventions presented by childless people. Some of the homeschool curriculum programs and online schools now advertised widely are run by people with no parenting experience, much less homeschooling experience. These “experts” will not only make you feel inadequate if you let them, but they’ll charge you plenty of money to lead you in the wrong direction.
But if you trust yourself and your child, you can be discerning about such resources and advice. You can assess them to see if they’ll work for your children and for you. And if you find them wanting, you can stop using them without a moment’s concern. Given the enormous and ever-growing homeschool products market, having confidence in your instincts and your children’s ability to learn will save you a lot of money and time.
Ultimately, learning to trust ourselves and our children will make teaching them more efficient, and enjoyable for us and them. It will also help us develop good lifelong relationships with them. And while I’m not denigrating the experience-based advice being shared by true experts, I think being able to ignore the self-proclaimed experts whose advice comes from solely from their training (at best) is a big plus all by itself.