In my last article I talked about various techniques that can help to motivate our home schooling children to learn. Eventually, of course, our students should be motivated by knowledge itself, or by the end to which knowledge is ordered, God Himself, but often as he moves to that goal, there are intermediate steps. I mentioned some of the techniques involving material rewards, like stickers, and some involving immaterial reward, like praise. The effectiveness of this last motivation depends on something else, however.
A young woman once stopped at our house on her way to Thomas Aquinas College. She was a lovely, young lady and I was very impressed with her conversation and values. She had attended public schools for grade school and high school. After we had had some very pleasant conversation, I was bold enough to ask her how she had turned out so well. I said that I didn’t think there were many public schools that turned out such morally strong students. She thought about it and said that she didn’t think the public schools were really responsible. She said that her father had always done religion with her. They read The Sinner’s Guide together, and discussed it. She remembered that as really significant in her formation.
Then she said, “Also, I just didn’t want to disappoint my mom. Once, in my high school years, I was late coming home. We had a curfew and we were expected to keep it. This night, when I got home late, my mom looked over the top of the stairs at me as I came in and said, ‘Mary, why did you do it?’” Mary’s eyes filled with tears as she recounted this to me. She said, “I was never late again. I didn’t want to make my mom sad.” Praise from her mom would make a real difference, if Mary was that concerned about pleasing her mother.
So, praise can be a real motivation for children in acquiring the habits that will lead to wanting knowledge for its own sake. But to have praise be motivating depends on your relationship with your child.
Another motivation, short of desiring the good of knowledge for its own sake, but moving even closer to that goal, is wanting the company of another learner, as a learner. Many, probably all, children want friends, but what I am thinking of here is the enjoyment children have in having company in the very pursuit of truth. Many times I have taken advantage of this desire in my own children. But it requires a time commitment on the part of the mom.
When one of my children was really dragging his heels through math one year, I realized that he needed more from me than simply encouragement. He needed my presence. We moved math to the evening, when I had uninterrupted free time, and we sat down together to do it. We had the book between us, and we each did the lesson, one problem at a time. We raced to see who could get each answer first. Then we would compare answers. If they were the same, we would go on to the next problem. If they were different, we would go over the problem together. We really had fun, and I sure improved my math skills. My son improved in every way. He was more cheerful, his math improved greatly, he learned better how to stay on task, and he developed habits, in all of those areas, that stayed with him, even after I stopped doing the lessons. It worked so well for us that for several years I would just plan to spend two or so weeks doing math with him at the beginning of the year, and then again in February, which is always a hard month. A number of the mothers to whom I have suggested this have also found it effective.
Similarly, one of the moms in my program was anticipating a difficult time with Latin in 9th grade. She asked me if I thought it was really doable for her. She had had some Latin, but it was years ago, and her son wasn’t that eager to undertake the harder, high school Latin program. I told her that I thought it was eminently doable, if she was faithful. If she would make it a priority to work with, or to supervise, her son each day, I was sure she could succeed. At the end of the year, she told me she had been faithful, that she had worked with her son every single day, and that they had both enjoyed the year and her son had done very well with his Latin.
That’s my own experience. Once one of my Latin scholars said to me, “Mom, I’m not sure how much I like Latin, but I sure like doing it with you.” I consider that a highlight of my home schooling career.
I think companionship in achieving knowledge can be a real motivation, and it fits with the nature of knowledge, which is, after all, a common good, that is, a good that is not diminished by being shared. (Private goods are goods like my shoes, which I can only have if you don’t.)
Now, there are some additional considerations I would like, briefly, to touch on. People being what they are, environment can make a big difference in their motivation to work. For example, people enjoy a little variety. We had a ‘you pick’ shelf in our house. On Thursdays my child’s list had a ‘you pick’ item. Then he knew that for 30 minutes or so he was supposed to read or do something from that shelf. I put things on the shelf that I wanted him to read, but that I didn’t have included in the regular curriculum. At one point I had, among others, a book on brain function, a book of manners, a book on bridge building, an art history book, a couple of Latin readers, an history activity book. The student knew that there would always be something interesting on that shelf, and I gave him the opportunity to pick among the various subjects. That gave him something to look forward to each week, and helped him get through other subjects that he didn’t find as interesting.
One of my friends had a child who needed to work on multiplication facts. The student was getting really tired of flashcards, and would complain whenever the mom brought them out. The mother decided to try a variety of drilling instruments. She had her daughter use wrap ups one day, Calculadder drills another, a computer program a third, and the flashcards only once a week. The child’s attitude toward drill improved tremendously, and so did her knowledge of the multiplication tables.
Another friend introduced a “fun” day each week. Both she and her children were experiencing burn-out. They weren’t enjoying school. She made sure they had art on “fun” day, and did a catechism bee, where each child drew a number that corresponded to a catechism question from a hat and then tried to answer the question correctly. They kept track of points and saw who won. They worked on their nature journals, and listened to music. Everyone, including mom, looked forward to “fun” day.
Now, all of the suggestions I have discussed in this article and the last, those that had to do with material external motivation (stickers), and those that had to do with immaterial motivation (praise and companionship), were made by some home schooling mother who found they worked for her. Looking them over as I was preparing this series of articles, I realized that though they were different, there was one common ingredient in them all. The mother was the common ingredient.
The mother was involved in every successful technique. The mother’s presence, and her attitude, said more to the children than any single thing she did. The mother, in each case, was involved, and cheerful, and interested. She brought joy and enjoyment to her home school.
Do you remember the place in the Little House books where Laura goes to live with the Brewsters while she is teaching? She says, after spending a week with the unpleasant Brewsters and then going home to her own house, “Laura had never noticed before that saying, “Good morning,” made the morning good. Anyway, she was learning something from that Mrs. Brewster..” Laura was right, and it is worth remembering. Your attitude is the attitude communicated to your children. Your presence at the table or in the classroom, shows how important you think your children’s education is, and how important you think they are. When you pay attention, your children pay attention, and when you don’t, they don’t.
The bottom line is that if we want our children to be cheerful and cooperative and interested in learning, we need to be cheerful, and pleasant, and interested in them and in their studies.
There is no more important work in the whole world than raising children, and there is certainly no more important work for each of us than raising our own children, those souls that God has entrusted to each of us. Mothers bring their children into the world, and then they help them all along the way to the next level of life. Moving our children to an appreciation of the truth, first through external motivations to learn, then through the development of virtuous habits and finally to an appreciation of the truth in itself and for its own sake, is a gift and an opportunity God has given us. Let us thank Him, and do that important job to the best of our ability.