When Kids Refuse to Learn

We spent an enjoyable Mother’s Day up in Door County (yep, that’s where we used to live, but we still like to go there on vacation.) We had lunch at Al Johnson’s restaurant, where I go to get in touch with my Swedish heritage. We also played mini-golf at Pirates Cove, which my son always enjoys.

While we were there, I couldn’t help but notice a family several holes behind us. What caught my eye was the way the mother was teaching her youngest son, a boy of about five, how to play. She would grab him like a rag doll and jerk him into the proper position at each hole, then reach around him to hold his arms and direct his shots.

He looked really annoyed, and who could blame him? I’m sure his mom meant well, but I don’t think her efforts were having the desired effect. Whenever she took her own turn, however, the boy skipped around with his putter, teased his brother and watched his dad. His face only turned gloomy when he took another turn with his mother glued to him like a backpack.

Seeing her misguided efforts got me thinking about all the ways we try to teach our children. We may instruct verbally, we may demonstrate, or (rarely, I hope) we may grab their little bodies and lead them in doing the activity. While the latter is often resented, sometimes the first two options don’t work very well either. After all, when you have to keep telling kids the same thing over and over, you clearly haven’t taught them by talking to them. And demonstrating doesn’t always work either. I demonstrated how to do dishes so many times to my kids yet often found greasy plates in the dish rack the next day. (I imagine my kids work much harder at getting dishes clean now that it’s their dishes they’re washing!)

The fact is that kids are often not motivated to learn the things we want them to learn. This can result in frustration on their part and ours. Clearly the mother at Pirates Cove cut to the chase by physically manipulating her son into what she considered the proper golfing stance. Perhaps she’d already tried telling him what to do and demonstrating what to do and it didn’t work, so in frustration she turned him into a puppet.

Ultimately we have to ask whether it’s worth humiliating a child to teach him something. Would it have been the end of the world if he hadn’t played properly? Perhaps a few times of losing to the rest of the family because of his lack of skills would eventually motivate him to learn to play better all on his own. Or maybe he doesn’t really care that much about mini-golf; if he’s not a competitive child, he may never care to learn the proper way to play. If that’s the case, I hope his mother comes to accept that this would not be the end of the world. But I doubt it; she looked pretty serious about her mini-golfing to me.

So, how do you react when your child refuses to learn something you’re teaching them? Are some of your children more feisty learners than others? If so, what techniques do you use to teach them?


When people find out that I homeschool my children, they almost always say something along the lines of, “I could never do that. You must be a really patient person.”

Most of the time, I respond that I wasn’t patient when I started (my husband can vouch for that), but that my patience developed over the years. I don’t go into too much detail because I’ve discovered that most of these people don’t really want to know how to become more patient. They’re just grabbing onto the first excuse they can think of to explain why they can’t (read: don’t want to) homeschool their children.

But the question of patience is an interesting one. My mother-in-law has commented many times that she is amazed by my patience with my children. Please don’t be fooled by that; I am not always patient with them. In fact, in certain situations, I have to send myself into time-out so I don’t wring someone’s neck (usually that someone is a teenager).  But I do think that I have more patience than I once did, thanks to many years of trying to get my children to understand concepts and ideas because I want to help them learn. It is so rewarding to see the light go on when a challenging idea becomes understandable. That light won’t go on if I’m breathing down my child’s neck.

Early on, when trying to explain a concept to one of my children, I would start asking questions to make them think. But soon I’d find myself clueing them in on the answers right away because I got tired of waiting for them to say the right thing. Of course, they weren’t learning anything when I fed them the answer. The next time the subject came up, I could see that they didn’t know anything more this time than before I’d explained it. The answer wouldn’t make sense to them unless it came from their understanding, not my spoon-feeding method.

So I learned to wait for them to catch on. When they’d ask me a question, I’d answer it, and come back with a few of my own to make them think a little harder. Then instead of coaching them to the correct answers, I just waited. Sooner or later, they’d figure it out.

After we’d been homeschooling for several years, I was given a new opportunity for learning patience: our son Josh was born with Down syndrome. In most areas, it took him far longer to learn things than it had taken his siblings. He didn’t crawl until he was 1, and didn’t start walking until 21 months. He’d been in physical therapy since he was tiny, but I’m not sure whether he would have crawled or walked later without it. What I’ve seen with him is that he will not do something until he is ready, and in this way he is much like his brother and sisters. He is my graduate study in the School of Patience.

For example, he did not become toilet-trained until he was seven. We tried coaxing, training and occasional forcing him to use the toilet starting at age three. We bought him potty books and a video. We even tried bribing him with M&M’S®. But he wasn’t ready yet.

When he was five or six, he started using the toilet once a day or so. When he was successful, he would make the general announcement (“Poo-poo! Poo-poo!”), and cheering and applause would break out from every corner of the house. Still, it would be well over a year before he could go without diapers all the time (and probably two or three years before he stopped demanding M&M’S® after each successful bathroom visit).

What a golden opportunity toilet-training him was for teaching us about patience. Nothing we did spurred him on. But when he figured it out, the triumph was all his.

This concept also holds for children who are not mentally delayed or disabled. For example, when a teenager finally figures out quadratic equations, it’s his victory. Sure, Mom and Dad have answered numerous questions, most more than once, and each was a stone in the path leading up to the day when he figured out the concept. But he’s the one who succeeded in grasping the concept.

Now imagine if each time he’d asked his parents a question, they’d responded with a sigh, or worse, with anger (“How many times do I have to explain this to you?”). That would have discouraged him from asking any more questions, and it would have taken that much longer for him to pick up the concept. Or, he might never have figured it out. How sad if he was just one question away from understanding, but was afraid to ask that question.

Some kids need to ask more questions than others, and that can be very wearing on the homeschooling parents who spend their days coming up with the answers. It’s important for us to remember that each question brings the child closer to the point of understanding. Allowing him to reach that point, no matter how many questions it takes, is something that can’t be done in formal school, because the logistics of teaching a group don’t permit it. That’s one of the reasons homeschooling is so successful: the child can move at his own pace, with the support of an adult who will answer his questions and patiently wait for him to “get it,” so that he can move on. A classroom teacher can’t possibly do that with a roomful of students.

The longer you homeschool, the better you get at patiently answering the same question many times. You also get better at waiting for the answers to questions you’ve asked in order to make your child come to a certain conclusion. Your patience in such matters greatly benefits each of your children.

I wish I could tell you that the patience you develop over years of homeschooling translates into more patience in other areas of your life, but I can’t. Ask my son Peter, who had to keep me calm throughout 90 minutes in line waiting for him to get his ID at college registration ($26,000 a year, and they can only afford one ID machine?). Or you could ask those people who drive in front of me at 10 mph below the speed limit; I’m on them like a cheap suit. I guess it’s going to take more than years of homeschooling to make me into a totally patient person.

(Excerpted from The Imperfect Homeschooler’s Guide to Homeschooling. Learn more about this book HERE.)

Knowing When to Back Off

Sometimes new homeschooling moms ask me when they should teach their kids to read, or when to sign their children up for music lessons. These moms naturally have a lot of questions, and many of them are “when” questions.

I think one of the most important questions a homeschooling mom can ask is when to back off, because sometimes we moms are so eager to do everything right that we overdo it.

For example, let’s say your child is learning how to subtract fractions, and it’s not going well. You can see that he’s coming close to the point of losing it. You try to explain the concept in a different way but he’s still not getting it. Instead, he’s getting teary-eyed.

No matter what the “experts” say about what grade a child should be in when he learns how to subtract fractions, if you’ve got a child on the edge, you need to back off. He might not tell you this in words, but you know him well enough to see that he’s hit the wall. Trust your knowledge of your child. Take a break from fractions for a while. You can always come back to it later.

Knowing when to back off doesn’t just apply to a child who’s overwhelmed by his schoolwork. Sometimes, we need to back off when our child is enthused about something. Years ago, I recall getting all excited over my kids’ enthusiasm about frogs. It started when they found a frog in the basement window well and requested a container to put it in. I gave them an empty coffee can, and they caught the frog, named it, carried it around in the coffee can, and showed it to their friends. They gave it some grass and learned it wasn’t interested in grass. They put a little water in the can in case it got thirsty. They were really into this frog.

Being a proactive mom who couldn’t wait to capitalize on their newly discovered interest in frogs, I brought home a stack of library books about frogs, expecting them to pore over them in their excitement over their new pet. But they ignored the books. So I had them sit down with me so we could read about frogs. And you know what? That pretty much extinguished their interest in frogs. I didn’t even get a chance to do the art project about frogs that I found in one of the books. In fact, I had to let the poor frog escape from his coffee can after his young captors forgot about him.

Over time I discovered that I had to let my kids learn freely instead of jumping in and turning an interest into a learning experience. This wasn’t easy for me. My own reaction to something new that interests me is to investigate it by reading about it. But I needed to let my kids learn in their own way. I had to learn when to back off.

You can see where we often need to back off even though our intentions are good. But what if it’s not a matter of intentions but instructions? For instance, the guide to the curriculum we’re using has a timetable that’s been tested by the experts. We won’t complete the curriculum by the end of the year unless we stick to the timetable. And yet life keeps intervening, and we fall further and further behind, until it becomes obvious that we’re never going to finish this curriculum in time.

What to do? We could:

  1. institute seven-day-a-week school in order to catch up (that’ll go over well, won’t it?)
  2. cut out something else that the kids are doing to leave more time for the curriculum.
  3. just back off of the curriculum.

You knew I was going to pick #3, didn’t you? Remember, curriculum is meant to serve you; you’re not supposed to serve the curriculum. When you fall behind on a curriculum, something is wrong. The timetable might be too ambitious for your family. You might want to stretch the program over a longer time period, or combine lessons where possible. Or perhaps it’s just not the right curriculum for you and your kids.

It’s OK to admit that, by the way. Yes, I know you spent good money on it, but most of the time, you have no way of knowing how a curriculum will work for your family without actually trying it. Also, the curriculum might have been written for actual schools, which are very different from home schools. Such programs are more appropriate for captive audiences (i.e. schoolrooms) than people having a life.

Whatever the problem is, back off of the curriculum and come up with an alternate plan. Expect that this will often happen to you when you homeschool. If you’re not already a flexible person, you will become one!

Of course, backing off isn’t something that comes naturally to most homeschooling moms. We’re used to being proactive when it comes to our children’s education. But if we can become aware of situations where backing off is the smart thing to do, we’ll see that homeschooling becomes easier for us. And that’s always a good thing!

(Excerpted from Stages of Homeschooling: Enjoying the Journey (Book 2), just published by Cardamom Publishers. Available HERE for $4.99.)