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Finding Success

Finding Success
Life Learning Children Can Define it on Their Own

By Wendy Priesnitz

School is said to have many purposes, including socialization and enculturation. (I think that, in reality, it’s mostly about being a place for kids to go during the adult working day, but that is a different issue.) For many people, school’s main purpose involves preparing kids to become a “successful” adult. And, of course, the flipside of that is many people’s concern that lack of school equates to lack of success in adulthood.

That concern is ill-founded for two reasons. One: some of the world’s most financially successful people have little formal schooling. Two: the definition of success is a very personal one.

Financial success and status are the main concern of those who worry that kids who haven’t attended school won’t be prepared for adulthood. If you were to persuade those people to dig a bit deeper, they might expand the definition to include happiness, career satisfaction, becoming active citizens, and other more esoteric things. But being a financially functioning adult – i.e. supporting self, family, and the economy – is the biggest component of most people’s definition of success. I’ve written in earlier articles about my belief that life learners are well prepared for this sort of success...if they want it.

Of course, not everyone frames success in terms of money. According to a definition often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, to have succeeded is “to have laughed often, to have won the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to have earned the appreciation of honest critics, to have endured the betrayal of false friends, to have appreciated beauty, and to have left the world a better place, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition.”

School doesn’t teach most of those things. Nor does it teach what Stephen Downes – a senior researcher for Canada’s National Research Council and a leading proponent of the use of online media in learning – thinks leads to whatever definition of success one might have. He says the route to success means knowing how to:

  • predict consequences
  • read
  • distinguish truth from fiction
  • empathize
  • be creative
  • communicate clearly
  • learn
  • stay healthy
  • value yourself
  • live meaningfully

School doesn’t do much about those things either.

However, young children are good at being successful on their own. They laugh a lot, are self-regulating and self-confident. They appreciate beauty, are creative, and learn easily. They ask incisive questions and constantly experiment. But all of that can be turned off by well-meaning adults trying to prepare them for “success.” They can be made to feel self-conscious when they don’t appear to achieve the gold star prize of outwardly-defined success. And then the destination becomes all-important and the process irrelevant.

My adult-induced neurotic perfectionism has taken me many years to overcome. In school and at home, I learned that being successful is good, and that non-success – aka failure – is bad. Failure comes with shame and ridicule, rather than being a simple step in the learning process. Fear of failure is paralyzing. It makes us focus on trying not to fail. We become passive and avoid taking risk. We hold ourselves back from living fully and, ironically, from opportunities for “success.”

And that brings us back yet again to the respect and dignity that are such an important part of autonomous parenting. If our children are living life on their own terms, rather than trying to meet someone else’s expectations, they will be successful. Over and over again.

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s founder and editor. She is the mother two adult daughters who learned without school in the 1970s and ‘80s, a life learning advocate for over 40 years, and the author of thirteen books, with a couple more in process.

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