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Did Einstein’s Mommy Worry?
By M. Jeanne Yardley

Did Einstein's Mommy Worry?I’m sure there are life learning parents who never doubt what they are doing. I think I even know one. But the fact is that most of us torture ourselves with second-guessing. We want to follow the kids’ lead, but we worry that they’re not leading anywhere. Will they ever learn to read/write/multiply/do quantum physics or whatever? Will they grow up feeling they’ve wasted a lot of time in idleness? Will they wish we had pushed them harder?

That’s always the big one for me: whether to push, and if so, how hard. We who have been through conventional schooling know from (sometimes bitter) personal experience that we can be forced to perform beyond our expectations. In retrospect, we might be grateful for having been made to try something difficult, or even sorry if we were not dragged kicking and screaming past the point of no return. We might also have nightmarish memories of having failed under the same kind of pressure. Are we better or worse for it? If we don’t force our home learners to reach beyond their grasp, will they be better or worse off?

If you want theoretical answers to these questions, John Holt and Alfie Kohn, among others, can outline the philosophy and research supporting intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation for you. But if you’re like me, nothing calms those niggling doubts as fast as cold, hard evidence about real people. And, while it’s always great to hear about successful modern-day life learners, whether you find them down the block or in an article in this magazine, it would be even better to get a more long-term perspective on whether parental expectation leads to success.

Maybe we can get find this longer view by looking back. After all, even though we may feel as though we’re pioneering in our families and communities, home learners abound throughout history. Some of them have accomplished great things and become household names. Maybe you’ve seen the lists: Alexander Graham Bell, Agatha Christie, Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, and so on. We know these people did not wind up spending their entire adult lives playing video games, or the equivalent for their time. Did they come to their achievements of their own volition, or did their parents (in historically adjusted terms) turn off the tube and force them to study/invent/write? I mean, did Einstein’s mommy worry about whether he was working hard enough?

Funny you should ask. According to biographical and autobiographical writings (the sources we have to rely on from this distance), Einstein’s parents were almost obsessively concerned with some aspects of his early education. For example, they sent Albert at age three or four to navigate Munich’s busiest streets alone, secretly monitoring his ability to be self-reliant. They also hired a tutor, hoping he could jump ahead and enter school at a higher grade. Not that it did any good; he was at best an average student and even dropped out for a time during high school. But an uncle and a family friend introduced him to science, which he studied on his own and at his own pace. His parents did not push him to greater achievement in this field; in fact, his father urged him to abandon the “philosophical nonsense” of theoretical science and to apply for a “sensible trade.” The younger Einstein resisted, however, and the rest is, as they say, history.

So the short answer is “yes, but.” Yes, his parents tried to motivate him and direct him, but he needed to go his own way to develop the ideas that changed modern science. As an adult, Einstein wrote, “The same work may owe its origin to fear and compulsion, ambitious desire for authority and distinction, or loving interest in the object and a desire for truth and understanding, and thus to that divine curiosity which every healthy child possesses but which so often early is weakened.” Agatha Christie

Keeping that “divine curiosity” alive and well is obviously the vital component to successful life learning, and the parents of many greats did a superlative job of encouraging their children’s development. Young Roosevelt, for example, was fortunate in having an altruistic father, who not only responded to his various interests by providing learning opportunities and resources, but also advised him to build up his mind, to compensate for his frail physique. The self-taught Coward, lured by his father’s passion for music, had his mother both to find him acting parts as a child and to resist attempts on various fronts to send him to school. Christie escaped the generally accepted resident governess (“and certainly my mother was much better fun”) and, although she took various classes, had lots of time to learn on her own how stories work. Her childhood, like the others’, was so different from today’s mainstream that one biographer felt compelled to justify the freedom Christie enjoyed: “In an age when we have confused meditation with idleness, the idea of leaving a child alone with a book, or just alone to think, seems almost sacrilegious.”

These are textbook home learners, the ones where the formula obviously worked. From what we can tell, their parents didn’t push them, but instead supported them and allowed them the freedom to explore their interests. Hearing their stories both inspires and reassures: in our mind’s eye, we see our eclectic lifestyles somehow producing, if not future household names, at least future confident, well-rounded individuals.

But remember Einstein’s worried mommy and daddy? Others on our list had parents who misunderstood them. Franklin’s father took him out of school for financial reasons and tried energetically to find him a trade – any trade -- that would keep him from running away to sea, not realizing for several years that “bookish” Benjamin, who learned to read so young he could not remember being unable, was best suited to a writer’s and publisher’s life. Similarly, Churchill’s father failed to interpret his son accurately. Completely distracted by politics most of the time, he happened to notice Winston’s collection of lead soldiers and jumped to the conclusion that the boy should be heading for the military (Winston having earned a reputation as a dullard at boarding school, in spite of what he called the teachers’ “large resources of compulsion:” “where my reason, imagination, or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn”). The irony is that the younger Churchill wanted nothing more than to follow in his father’s own footsteps and read up on his political career in newspaper reports sent to him by his almost equally busy mother. He later wrote, “I would far rather have been apprenticed as a bricklayer’s mate, or run errands as a messenger boy, or helped my father dress windows in a grocer’s shop. It would have been real; it would have been natural; it would have taught me more; and I should have done it better. And I would have got to know my father, which would have been a joy to me.”

The pathos in these stories is enough to put fear and trepidation in any parent. What if we are just too busy to figure out what they might want to do and our kids are unable to articulate it themselves? Will the window of opportunity be closed forever, because we as parents are not perfect people?

There’s worse. Some of the people on our list encountered real domestic challenges to their budding passions. For example, Bell reported that, when he showed an interest in botany, his father insisted each specimen had to be properly mounted and annotated with its full scientific name and thus “spoiled the whole thing for me.” More seriously, Edison’s father could make nothing of his son, who “seemed wanting in ordinary good sense,” and, besides complaining about his endless questions, publicly thrashed him in a (fruitless) attempt to cure him of his dangerous pranks and experiments.

These parental attempts to mold young home learners show extrinsic motivation at its worst – and they make us cringe with guilt, even if we’re not given to humiliating our children in public. How often have we erred on the side of too much involvement in our children’s explorations -- and then found ourselves alone with an assortment of expensive equipment that we rushed out to acquire just before the kids tuned out? Again, we worry about chances lost and windows closed, through parental error.

And yet, in history, as we know, even these victims of misunderstanding and interference went on to great things. They recovered from their early frustrations and, one way or another, found their way to the passionate interest that made a difference in the world. Franklin, once settled as a printer’s apprentice to one of his brothers, was challenged by his father to learn to write well, and ultimately went from journalism to politics. Churchill used his free time while in the military to teach himself political history from books his mother provided, to the point of writing out his own responses to past parliamentary debates. Bell’s mother encouraged him to develop his own talents, while his father, still heavy-handed, set him practical problems to solve, leading him eventually to his innovative combinations of electromagnetism and sound. Edison’s mother, an unusual woman in her time for her knowledge of good literature and history, engaged his volatile intelligence by reading to him and, one fortuitous day, showing him an elementary book of physical science. Later, when explosions in his basement laboratory distressed his father, she defended his right to experiment. “My mother was the making of me,” he said. “She understood me; she let me follow my bent.” If the window slammed closed early on for these life learners, it obviously didn’t stay closed for long. (Big sigh of relief from anxious present-day parent!)

So what can we conclude about Einstein and the others? Did their moms and dads make them successful by pushing them to achieve? Some of these parents tried hard to motivate their kids; some simply allowed the children to go for it; and some even tried to push their children away from their natural interests. Apparently, the way their parents tried to make them learn does not explain their success; they dove into their particular area of interest whether pushed or not. So we can’t make a simple connection between the great achievements of certain home learners and this aspect of parenting – in fact, that question is a non-issue.

But wait. Maybe we’re just asking the wrong question. If parental pressure didn’t make them into high achievers, what did? When parents discouraged them, where did their persistence in pursuing their interests come from? The thread through all the stories that answers these new questions is the part played by adults in these home learners’ childhood experiences. Involved mothers, fathers, uncles, and others helped them to find their niche. Einstein’s uncle and boarder talked to him and showed him science books; Coward’s mother got him to auditions when he wanted to act; Christie’s mother filled the role of governess; Franklin’s father devoted his attention to the matter of his son’s trade; Edison’s mother spent hours each day reading to him; Roosevelt’s father helped him further his early interests. Even the isolated, lonely young Churchill had a nanny who mothered him all her life, continuing long after she had ceased to be a family employee. Caring adults who were genuinely available and attentive clearly made a difference.

But even more significant, I think, is that these home learners found themselves in the company of role models. They had parents who were actively engaged in life, even if they weren’t particularly successful in their pursuits. Churchill, Bell, Einstein, Coward, Franklin, and Roosevelt, in particular, grew up with adults who were committed to a lifework of their own. Surrounded by politicians, scientists, musicians, humanitarians, in other words, by people pursuing their dreams, they could see motivation in action. Their role models were by definition motivating themselves, demonstrating the very kind of internal incentive that leads to great achievement.

So the kind of motivation we want for our young life learners is already around them. Our children, whether they’re hiding behind a game controller, buried in a fantasy novel, or focused on bugs in a jar, are learning about the drive and ambition of the adults in their lives. This aspect of their education arises, simply and inescapably, out of being based at home and in the real world. Bottom line: we don’t need to worry about pushing our kids; we just need to let them see that we push ourselves.

Jeanne Yardley and her family live and learn near Cambridge, Ontario, Canada.

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