My kids are still fairly young (12, 10, 8, and 6), so we are still in a phase where I am better at most things. I can beat them at chess, I can run faster, I can single-handedly beat my daughter’s basketball team (a sport where height is such a huge advantage), and I am generally better at fixing the car, the house, you name it.
And while I can tell that they are definitely going to surpass me in several areas some day, I still tend to feel that those days are a long way off. The reason I probably feel this way is because, in most areas, we are still teaching them. So it’s hard to imagine it being different.
Until a recent experience…
A couple of weeks ago, I challenged my daughter to a Rubik’s cube race. While I’m making good time and working through the 2nd layer, I hear the fast clicking that tells me she’s gone into auto-pilot on the last layer. I asked her for a rematch and once again I hear the click-click-click as she finishes in about half the time it took me (it’s taking her around 45-50 seconds). I fully expected to lose, but not to be crushed repeatedly.
At this point, she kindly advised me, “Dad, you just need to practice more. I’ve solved it around 30 times already today.” In my head, I am thinking, I’ve created a monster… How do I get more of this? How did this change from me teaching her, to completely self-motivated learning beyond my control? I felt the need to deconstruct this experience.
A Little Background…
A few months ago, my son brought home a Rubik’s cube from the store and it kicked off some fun learning in our house. (Read more about that here). When it came our turn to do a family presentation at our homeschool coop, I suggested we have some fun and talk about our new obsession. The grand finale for our presentation was an exciting race between my daughter and a LEGO Mindstorms cube-solving robot that my son and I had built from instructions we found on Mindcuber.com.
Halfway through the live race between robot and human child, the robot’s batteries died. It was totally my fault – Kris had suggested we replace the batteries that morning, and afterwards she lamented, “Too bad the presentation didn’t go well.” And I said, “Are you kidding! That couldn’t have been more perfect! Did you see how all the kids crept closer and closer to the front of the room during the presentation and how the abrupt ending left them hanging and hungry for more.” They were hooked.
Now, just a few months later, kids at this school gather in groups to race each other during lunch. Many have moved on from the standard Rubik’s cubes to speed cubes designed for racing. Not only have a large number of kids gone out and learned to solve a Rubik’s cube, they have become very competitive and are making each other better. I hear each week about who the new record-holder at school is, and my older kids come home motivated to work hard and improve their speed.
At this point, I plan on buying myself a speed cube, like the one my daughter uses and insists is faster. I am also getting ready to order this book for them (the recommended go-to book on speed-cubing) to help spur them along.
The Key is Inspiration
Since this experience, I have been reflecting on the other ways I have seen my kids gain confidence and forge ahead on their own. What is it that kicks that motivation to the next level in certain areas but not others? When I look at other breakthroughs they have had over the years, I see a similar pattern. The key to getting them to that next level is to inspire them. A few examples come to mind:
- My 12 year old has been taking piano lessons for about 6 years. Even though she has always enjoyed playing piano, for the first couple years it was so difficult getting her to practice for her next lesson. Then one day after seeing the new Muppet movie that came out in 2011, I decided to look up the chords to the very catchy Life’s a Happy Song. It was very simple on piano and I showed my daughter and she played it all week. Her work ethic and attitude towards the piano was forever changed that week – I think it was as simple as opening her eyes to the fact that she could play any song in the world (not just the ones she was assigned). Now, whenever she hears a new song she wants to learn, she is quick to go hash out her own version on the piano.
- Our 4th and youngest child is very athletic. I have slowly initiated each of our kids into the world of running and each of her 3 older siblings have run 5k races with me. She just turned 6 and I have not pushed her beyond the kids 1k races since she is still pretty young. Her siblings sometimes run with me enthusiastically, but often I need to coax or bribe them. Just this week, she asked if she could go running with me. I was very reluctant and reminded her that the last time we went running, she cried and complained that it was sooooo hard and she was sooooo hot (we live in Texas, so it does get pretty hot I have to admit). She continued to nag throughout the day, but I think my resistance actually helped her to want it more. Several hours later after I took her for a run and recruited the 3 siblings to come along. She did amazing – she ran with ease, she told stories, she had a great attitude, and I could tell that she was determined to prove she was a big kid and ready. I told her I was so impressed and that she could theoretically finish a 5k since she just did a 30 minute run with us. She quickly asked, “Tomorrow? Can we do a 5k tomorrow?” She can’t wait, because in her mind she is fully inspired.
How to Inspire a Love of Learning
I will always be experimenting and tweaking my theories as each of our kids grow older and as we see their different personalities emerge. Here is what I see working so far:
1) Your full participation and enthusiasm is very contagious. It has been shown that the biggest factor for whether your kids will grow up to love reading is if their parents love reading. This is true not just for reading – it translates to other things you are passionate about.
2) Peers also hold a huge influence. This is no secret. If you can inspire the whole group, the effect is going to be much more powerful.
3) Inspiration is difficult to push. I have learned many times in life that people will love something so much more if their mind arrives at the idea than if the idea feels forced on them. They need to really want something to pour their hearts into it. And very importantly, things need to start out fun. I know I have often hindered my kids’ interests in activities and school subjects by pushing too much too early.
4) Seek out inspiring examples from videos and books. We are all inspired when we see someone that we can identify with accomplishing great things. Before we take on a new project, I like to watch several Youtube videos with the kids to get inspired by the amazing things other people have done. (We did this when we learned about Rube Goldberg machines and when we decided to create our own Lego Mindstorms robots).
It is so powerful and efficient when children move from being taught to being fully inspired. From a place of doing only what they are required to do to a place where they have taken off to new heights. The key here is to win their hearts and minds and inspire a love of learning.
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