Preparing Our Kids for a Challenging Future

by Barbara Frank

Our economy is in shambles, with millions of people out of work and even more overcome by debt they can’t repay. But don’t worry; over at the White House, the president and his cabinet are working hard to find a way out of this economic mess by creating jobs somehow. However, they’re having trouble, maybe because only 20% of them ever had a job in the private sector. All they’ve got to work with is the theories they’ve learned from books and professors.

I don’t mean to pick on one group of politicians. Both political parties in this country are filled with elected officials who have made careers out of being politicians. They’ve got resumes packed with degrees and political positions. But real life work? Not so much.

The great leaders of our past had backgrounds of real-life challenges and experiences to draw from. George Washington was a self-employed surveyor who later fought in wars. Theodore Roosevelt was also a soldier, as well as a police officer, hunter and author. Abraham Lincoln grew up in poverty but became a self-taught and self-employed lawyer. Harry Truman worked as a farmer, a bank clerk, and ran a men’s store: not as exciting as being a war hero, but he understood real-life economics because he lived it.

No wonder things are getting worse instead of better. Our leaders today are armed only with book knowledge and political experience, they’ve had little education in real life. So who’s going to get us out of this mess? Looks like it’s going to be the next generation: our kids.

And how are they being prepared for this challenge? On weekends, they’re scattered on soccer fields, some kids chasing the ball while the rest chase them, or in the case of the three-year-olds, stand and stare at the sky while their parents yell from the sidelines, “Run, Riley, run! Don’t just stand there: go after the ball!” Do you ever wonder how that’s preparing them for the future?

During the week, they’re herded into buses so they can spend each day trapped in classrooms, where they’ll get a good dose of indoctrination along with watered-down math courses and remedial reading for all but the smartest. John Taylor Gatto’s studies reveal that the American school model that’s been used for over 100 years was originally devised to create a docile workforce for the nation’s factories and large businesses (you know, the ones that are now moving overseas). Do you ever ask yourself why we’re still using such an outdated model of education?

When you see kids sitting in restaurants and at family gatherings, not speaking to or even looking at anyone because they’re texting their friends or surfing the Internet, do you ever wonder how they’re going to cope with the challenges of the future if they can’t even take their eyes off those little screens?

And when you see the pressure they’re all under to go to college (whether or not they’re college material), and the debt they’ll have to accumulate to attend, and the decreasing likelihood that the degree they may earn (only 50% graduate within six years) will help them get more than a median-wage job, do you wonder how they’re going to be able to solve the problems we’ve saddled them with when they’re stuck in the debt-slave lifestyle?

This is scary stuff. It’s bad enough we’e handing our kids’ generation a legacy of debt and economic troubles, but we’re not even equipping them to deal with the fallout. Instead, we’re not only sending them out into the world unprepared, but financially strapped with their own personal student loan debt before they’re 25.

So what can we do?

The good news is that homeschooling is the ideal way to prepare our kids for the future. The mere act of taking them out of school (or not sending them in the first place) frees them to learn what they need to know in a way that’s efficient and personalized. It lets us provide our kids with the specific skills they’ll need to thrive in a world that’s much different from the one we grew up in. But if homeschooling parents don’t give their children the opportunity to learn those skills, their children will be no better off than the kids now in the public school system.

Simply choosing to homeschool is not enough. How we homeschool our children will make the difference between kids who are prepared to take on the challenges of the 21st century, and kids who aren’t.

Now, I don’t want to say there’s a right way and a wrong way to homeschool our children. There’s so much variety among children (and parents) that successful homeschooling always involves a unique mix of what the child needs and what the parent wants him or her to learn. But there are specific things we can do (or avoid) that will help us raise children who are prepared to tackle the problems we face in the future.

For one thing, we don’t have to replicate school in our homes. School was designed for the old reality, the one where we were preparing kids to willingly sit at a desk or on an assembly line for one company for 40 years. That’s not reality anymore, so why prepare our children for it?

Perhaps I’m preaching to the choir here, but think about it: are you replicating school at home? Do your kids sit in desks for long stretches? Do you make them raise their hands to answer a question? Don’t laugh; many parents do this, especially when they first begin homeschooling. I did it myself the first year we homeschooled; my kids sat at the kitchen table while we did bookwork for specific time periods. They were four and five then. Silly, I know, but “school” was all I knew at the time, thanks to my childhood experience. I soon figured out that there was a better way.

Maybe you don’t do school at home: good for you! But do you send your children to co-ops and other organized classes? That’s school, too, you know. In co-ops and classes, your kids are treated as a group: a herd, really. When you’re part of a herd, it’s hard to have your individual needs met and your individual questions answered. We can’t expect our kids to grow up as individuals who actively seek learning if we put them in situations where they learn to identify themselves as part of a herd, passively waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do next.

This is especially true for small children. I wince when I hear about homeschool groups setting up preschool classes. A homeschool preschool class is an oxymoron! During the first few years of life, children are learning who they are. If they’re part of a herd, they’re going to think they’re sheep. Is that what you want? If you want sheep, you might as well send your children to school.

Once homeschooled kids are older (14+) and accustomed to self-motivated learning, a class here and there won’t hurt most of them. In fact, some will enjoy the classroom experience; if they’re college-bound, a few community college or co-op classes will be good preparation. But using classes and co-ops as a homeschooling method is not going to produce kids who think for themselves.

Some parents unknowingly replicate school at home by using a curriculum that requires kids to learn only from books and workbooks, with the occasional topic-related, hands-on activity for variety. This, too, is school. I realize that some kids are workbook kids who love this kind of thing. But the majority of kids don’t. Why would you use the same method for all your children unless they’re all alike? Using one method for all children is what schools do for convenience because it’s the most logistically sensible way to handle large quantities of children, but it rarely produces kids who pursue learning.

This is important because in the new economy, people who are curious and who willingly pursue learning will be the most employable, the most successful at self-employment and the most likely to help solve the formidable problems we face. Futurists tell us that our kids will likely have multiple careers because of rapid technological change. They’ll have to willingly learn new skills in order to remain in demand. And they’ll be more likely to pursue additional learning if their desire to learn has been fed, not snuffed out by school or school-like homeschooling.

Raising Eager Learners

The new economy is a completely different environment from the one our parents and grandparents knew, the one that’s disappearing. It’s no longer the norm for someone to work for one company for 40 years by doing what they’re told and behaving themselves so they can be rewarded with a gold watch and a nice pension. The length of the average job has already dropped to a little over four years.

Workers are laid off on a regular basis. Entire industries become obsolete and disappear, or simply move to the other side of the world where labor is cheaper. Change is coming at us more rapidly than ever, and those who are willing to adapt to these changes by learning new skills will thrive.

To raise children who eagerly learn new skills, we need to give them the opportunity for free exploration, hands-on learning and real-life experiences where they learn to fail. This isn’t easy for us as parents, because we weren’t allowed to learn this way. We went to school, where we were told what to learn, and we had no choice in how we learned it. But we must do better by our children, because they need to be prepared differently than we were.

Free exploration is important for people of all ages, but in our society it seems that only babies are allowed the privilege. They crawl everywhere, chew on new items they discover, and absorb every experience like the little sponges they are. But before long, they’re sucked into the world of school, where their learning is “guided.” Goals are set by educators, and free exploration comes to an end.

How sad and how unnecessary! It seems like we’ve taken a step backwards when it comes to early education by taking away children’s freedom to explore and learn. Today, two-year-olds are put in preschool, but when I was a child, we were free to learn through our play until age five or six. (The public school I lived next to didn’t even offer kindergarten.) And for generations before us, children didn’t go to school until they were older. Among American pioneers of the 1800s, children went to school sporadically if at all. But they learned what they needed to know while working with their parents to set up homesteads in an unfamiliar environment. Pioneer travels were the ultimate free exploration.

Homeschooling gives children the time and opportunity to learn through free exploration, if their parents don’t force them into the public-school-method learning mode. The children of today who are free to read what interests them, explore computers, and learn about the world by visiting museums and other sites of interest will be tomorrow’s eager lifelong learners.

Hands-on learning is the primary way babies learn, and used to be the way everyone learned. But the pervasive influence of school turned us toward attending classes and reading books as the preferred way of learning. (There’s nothing wrong with reading books, but some subjects cannot be learned by merely reading about them. There’s a huge difference between reading a recipe and actually baking the cake.) And of course, since schools contain large numbers of children, hands-on learning experiences are minimized because they’re so cumbersome.

But this is another area where homeschooling shines. Homeschooled kids can learn with their hands every day. They bake, paint, build and create whenever they feel inspired. Logistics don’t allow this to happen in school. Think about it: there’s a big difference between the mess created by a couple of siblings finger-painting and 35 school kids finger-painting. So finger-painting happens at home a lot more than it does at school, and it’s usually initiated by the kids’ desire to finger-paint, not a directive on the teacher’s lesson plan.

Kids who work with their hands all the time not only learn better, but also become accustomed to being creative. If there’s anything we’re going to need to solve our formidable economic and technological problems in this world, it’s creativity!

Why Your Child Needs to Fail

If we want to prepare our kids for the new economy, we must let them learn to fail.

Fail? Failing means getting an F. Why would we want our kids to learn to fail?

Our own public school experiences taught us that failing was bad. That’s unfortunate, because the best inventions in the world have come about because of failure. Thomas Edison (the inventor with a record 1,093 patents to his name) once said:

“I recall that after we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed ‘to find out anything.’ I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way. We sometimes learn a lot from our failures if we have put into the effort the best thought and work we are capable of.”

Our world desperately needs innovators to help us solve our problems, yet we coddle our children so they don’t have to feel the sting of failure. Today’s parents write school papers for their kids so they don’t flunk the class; they take over the building of their kids’ Pinewood Derby cars so they don’t lose the race. How can kids figure out what works if we don’t let them find out what doesn’t work first?

In school, kids are taught to avoid failure. But homeschooling parents can give their children the opportunity to fail, and the time to try again and figure out where they went wrong by letting them have real-life experiences where they learn to fail. If their bread fails to rise, they don’t get an F in baking. But they do see the difference in the loaves that result, and they learn to remember the yeast next time they bake bread.

Homeschooled kids also have all the time they need to figure out problems. If they’re getting hung up on a long division problem, they don’t get a red F on their paper, nor are they urged to finish up quickly because math class is almost over. Instead, they can take their time and keep trying to solve the problem until they come up with the correct answer. This gives them confidence in their ability to tackle a problem and stick with it until they solve it, and also teaches them that failure is merely part of the solution process.

Our world needs persistent problem-solvers. Homeschooling is the ideal training ground for them because it gives them the opportunity to learn that failure is something to learn from, not something to fear. It also helps them become confident problem-solvers as well as persistent ones. This is just more evidence that homeschooling is the very best way to prepare our children for a challenging future.

College is a Tool, Not a Goal

We’ve seen that preparing our children for a challenging future means not replicating school in our homes. It also means giving our children the opportunity for free exploration, hands-on learning and discovering the upside to failure. These are important components for raising children to thrive in the rapidly changing 21st century.

But just as we no longer teach our children to use the slide rule or achieve perfect penmanship because they’re not necessary any more, there are some things we may not need to do to prepare our children to thrive in the 21st century. One of them is to push our children to earn a college degree.

Not attending college is a touchy subject, especially for homeschooling parents. Back when homeschooling first hit the public consciousness, there were many naysayers who didn’t believe that parents could teach their children well enough for them to succeed in life. Here’s the gauntlet those critics of homeschooling held up: “How will homeschooled kids ever get into college?”

They got their answer when homeschooler Grant Colfax was accepted to Harvard; years later, when he and his homeschooled brothers had all successfully completed college, there was more proof. And when some suggested the boys were simply products of excellent genetics, their father pointedly noted that two of his boys were adopted.

Since then, college has become the holy grail for most homeschooling parents. A home-educated child with a college degree is proof to friends and family that this homeschooling thing works. So to suggest that most of their kids probably won’t need to earn a college degree may seem almost sacrilegious to some. But looking at college graduation as a badge of honor doesn’t necessarily help our children.

The push for college in society as a whole over the past 40 years has ignored the fact that many kids are not cut out for college. They may not be book learners, or they may have gifts that are better served by on-the-job training or tech school. Evidence shows that forcing all kids into college has resulted in a low graduation rate (only half of all college students graduate within six years) and a lot of dropouts hampered by large levels of student loan debt racked up during the time they were in college.

Even young people who excelled in college are finding that the high-priced degree they earned is not much help in the new economy. If they can find work, it may not be in their field of study; it may also pay less than they expected to earn. This can result in real hardship if they took on a lot of student loan debt, which can almost never be discharged through bankruptcy, leaving them with a burden of debt that could weigh them down much of their lives.

The fact is that most of the job growth over the coming decade as predicted by the U.S. government does not require a four-year degree, and college won’t be necessary for most workers (I’ve included those statistics in my new book, Thriving in the 21st Century.)

This doesn’t mean that we should discourage all of our children from going to college. Those with the smarts and the desire to have careers that logically and/or legally require advanced education (physicians, scientists, etc.) should certainly be encouraged and helped to attend college. But the idea that every young person can and should go to college makes no sense in light of the changes in our economy. We parents need to be brave enough to buck the trend and look at each of our children as individuals, determine which (if any) will likely benefit from going to college, and then help the rest figure out the best way to proceed so that they’ll thrive in the 21st century.

(Thriving in the 21st Century: Preparing Our Children for the New Economic Reality is now available! It’s packed with ways to prepare your children for the future. Learn more HERE.)

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