There Is No Such Thing as “Falling Behind”

Cedric was a warmhearted, perceptive, and dynamic homeschooled boy who began attending Champ Libre when he was eight. Super creative with a sharp mind, he could converse as easily with adults as with kids. He had a flair for drawing, cooking, and arts and crafts and excelled in athletics, particularly gymnastics, skateboarding, and snowboarding. 

However, by age nine, Cedric still was not reading. 

Ninety-nine percent of parents would have pulled Cedric out of Champ Libre and rushed him into school, scared out of their wits that he would never learn to read. Cedric’s mom did not. She stayed grounded in the faith that her son DID want to read and that he would do so when he decided the time was right. 

Had Cedric’s mom panicked and thrust him into school to get him to read before he was ready to, the exact opposite might have happened. Cedric may have buckled under the pressure to perform. He may have been ridiculed (even bullied) by his peers, and even degraded by some teachers. He might certainly have developed a complex around reading that would result in a deep aversion and hatred of the activity!

As a result of all this, Cedric’s self-esteem might have suffered a critical blow from which he might never recover. And who knows, due to all the pressure, criticism, and judgment around his “reading dis-ability,” Cedric might have eventually developed some kind of nervous or anxious dis-order.

Learning Comes Naturally to Kids

Like learning to walk or talk, skills like reading and arithmetic don’t have to be taught. Children will naturally find their way and learn quite perfectly on their own. As John Holt so accurately puts it in his legendary book How Children Learn:

“If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” Suppose we decided that we had to “teach” children to speak. How would we go about it? First, some committee of experts would analyze speech and break it down into a number of separate “speech skills.” We would probably say that, since speech is made up of sounds, a child must be taught to make all the sounds of his language before s/he can be taught to speak the language itself. Doubtless we would list these sounds, easiest and commonest ones first, harder and rarer ones next. Then we would begin to teach infants these words, working our way down the list.

When the child had learned to make all the sounds on the sound list, we would begin to teach him or her to combine the sounds into syllables. When s/he could say all the syllables on the syllable list, we would begin to teach her the words on the word list. At the same time, we would teach her the rules of grammar, by means of which she could combine these newly-learned words into sentences. Everything would be planned with nothing left to chance; there would be plenty of drill, review, and tests, to make sure that she had not forgotten anything.

Suppose we tried to do this. What would happen? What would happen, quite simply, is that most children, before they got very far, would become baffled, discouraged, humiliated, and fearful, and would quit trying to do what we asked them. If, outside of our classes, they lived a normal infant’s life, many of them would probably ignore our “teaching” and learn to speak on their own. If not, if our control of their lives was complete (the dream of too many educators), they would take refuge in deliberate failure and silence, as so many of them do when the subject is reading (or math).”

Overcoming Deep Conditioning

The fear of falling behind comes from our life-long conditioning around school. Many adults believe that it is impossible for a child to learn anything outside of school. Forget that schools in their current form have only existed for only 150 years (and were imported from Prussia, by the way). For millennia before that, and for most of human history, kids like Plato, Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, and Galileo learned just fine.

Parents who choose to send their kids to democratic schools or follow a self-directed learning method at home will confront the “fear of falling behind” often during their child’s educational journey. Many will abandon the quest and opt for the false security of school, not understanding the core differences between “schooling” and “education” and not realizing that those terms are not one and the same.

As Ivan Illich describes in his profound book Deschooling Society

« Equal educational opportunity is, indeed, both a desirable and a feasible goal, but to equate this with obligatory schooling is to confuse salvation with the Church. School has become the world religion of a modern proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age. The nation-state has adopted it, drafting all citizens into a graded curriculum leading to sequential diplomas not unlike the initiation rituals and hieratic promotions of former times. The modern state has assumed the duty of enforcing the judgment of its educators through well-meant truant officers and job requirements. »

Self-directed education puts the child squarely in control of his or her learning and how they manage their time. It takes “control” completely out of parents’ hands, and that can be a frightening proposition for many. 

When you think about it, how much math does the average adult use or need in their everyday lives? The answer is not much more than grade 8 math, material that can easily be learned throughout one’s childhood and early teen years.

The fear of falling behind is at its root an irrational fear seeded by those in institutional power, not unlike other fears propagated by the media and society at large such as the fear of getting “infected” and the fear of impending global doom.


Exactly Where He Should Be

Today, at age 11, Cedric reads as well as anyone else his age. It happened almost instantly. One day, he just decided he was ready to read, and started reading more and more. Now he is an avid reader, and it is impossible to tell that he was barely reading only a year ago. 

Most parents never doubt for an instant that their newborn child will one day learn to walk and talk on their own. One child may learn to do those things at ten months and another at two-years-old. But by the time they are both 14-years old, you can’t tell which one learned first. 

The same holds true for reading, writing, and math. Kids are programmed at a deep genetic level to learn. It’s hard-wired into their biology. We don’t try to dictate to trees when they should bloom or what kind of fruit they should give us. The same applies to children and the skills they eventually acquire. 

A child may not have an affinity for math or science just yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t grab onto those subjects at some point in the future and blaze new paths in those fields. We need to have the confidence in them that they know exactly what they need at this moment.

Most young adults have no idea what they “want to do with their lives” by the time they reach university (myself included!). It’s because they weren’t given the space and freedom to discover what really moved and impassioned them when they were younger. For the sake of “not falling behind” in subjects deemed worthy by society, we sacrificed learning about what really moves and inspires us and the passions that lie deep in our hearts.

Parents who courageously embark on the path of self-directed learning don’t want that to happen to their kids.