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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Spark and Fuel: How to Help Your Child Learn without Resorting to Compulsion

How can you truly facilitate your child’s learning? More important than what to do is what not to do.

First, what is learning? Learning is the accomplishment of a cognitive improvement: either new knowledge or a new skill. All improvements are made for the sake of the better pursuit of purposes.

Now here’s the key for not getting in the way of you child’s learning. Never force your child to acquire an improvement that is for the sake of a purpose that is not yet her own. Don’t force them to learn something while using the lame teacher excuse of, “trust me, this will come in handy later.” The child should never have to try to acquire a new improvement (knowledge or a skill) only for the chief purpose of appeasing you or anyone else.

You can compel study, but it will be a grudging study, and it won’t stick. In fact it will counterproductively foster an aversion to the subjects that are forced upon the child. Later in life, once the obligation to appease a parent or instructor drops out, so too will the pursuit of study. This is why so few graduates of the American school system become devoted autodidacts once they finally pass through their 16-year gauntlet of compulsory scholarship.

Little Autodidacts

Your job is to provide the spark and the fuel, not the fire itself.

Children are natural learners. Unbidden, they hungrily seek new knowledge and skills from early on. There is no danger in a free child not developing a love of learning, so long as they are not trapped in a stimulus-impoverished environment. What truly endangers the spirit of learning is the threat of being crushed by forced study. As Maria Montessori stressed, adults are more likely to impede learning than foster it: especially given the currently backward learning philosophies that currently reign.

The chief role of the parent in the child’s learning process is not that of a home-based schoolmaster, but that of a provider and a playmate. Provide and play, every day, and watch as your child eagerly teaches herself.

Your job is to provide the spark and the fuel, not the fire itself. Present pursuits to your child in a way that elicits her voluntary interest. Instead of forcing your child to acquire improvements for the sake of purposes that are not yet her own, you inspire her to develop her own purposes by sparking her interest in something new. Then you fuel the flame that you sparked. Offer to show her new improvements (knowledge and skills) that will help her achieve those goals, along with useful materials. Only then will she truly, deeply, and gladly pursue a course of learning that you think will benefit her. Your role is to inspire ends, not to impose means.

Friendship Instead of Drills

Take learning to write, for example. Don’t put a workbook in front of her, and force her to slog through its exercises. Instead, try suggesting a correspondence between her and one of her older cousins or another pen pal, even before she can write at all. Read to her what her friend has written; make it interesting like you would when reading a story, with humor, commentary, and funny voices.

At a certain point, the flame of learning will become a wildfire.

Then offer to transcribe her response for her, making sure she can see what you’re doing when you handwrite the letter. As long as you’ve previously refrained from sheltering your child from diverse social situations, your sociable child will leap at the chance; no coercion necessary. This will spark her interest in long-distance, written communication. This will have become a purpose of her own. This is the “Spark” stage.

Then comes the “Fuel” stage. The flame will grow with every exchange, as the long-distance friendship blossoms. Feed the flame by gradually offering to show her how she can help you write the letter. Children love to mimic beloved adults, so again, she will leap at the chance, after having watched you compose so many letters; even if it’s just to, at first, write a single word. Again, no coercion necessary.

Eventually, as she gets the hang of learning to write, and she sees the bright promise of the independent pursuit of her own goals emerging on the horizon, you can provide her materials (sample letters, books, and yes, even voluntarily-used workbooks), and begin to step back as she teaches herself.

At a certain point, the flame will become a wildfire, expanding so rapidly that it increasingly finds its own fuel, growing ever less dependent on the fuel supplied by you.

Help your child grow into a self-driven, curious, passionate, happy human being—not by being her taskmaster, but by being a helpful guide to the wonderful opportunities that abound in this marvelous new world in which she has found herself.

  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in-chief of He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including (see his author archive),,, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.