Your kids may not have accomplished as much as you had hoped this summer. Don’t feel guilty; forget summer slide guilt. They may be learning way more than you think. A big thanks to Jay from Life & Whim for sharing these great insights.
Photo Above By Annie Spratt
As a parent in today’s push and prod culture, in which it feels like other people’s kids are pursuing college-level curriculums while mine are busy in the yard making mud pies, it’s hard not to feel guilty.
Am I giving them enough?
Am I exposing them to enough?
Am I challenging them enough?
These feeling are particularly acute this time of year, as we begin to start thinking seriously about getting the kids back to school. We live in Michigan, so our kids don’t go back until after Labor Day, but we’re getting a jump on the process of shopping for back-to-school clothes and supplies, and getting the kids back on some semblance of a schedule in preparation for the early morning school bell.
The realization that summer has zipped by, as it always does, is stress and anxiety-inducing because, for many, well-laid plans formed in early June went wholly unfulfilled. These plans centered on having kids working on reading, writing, arithmetic, science, and foreign languages over the summer. By honing these skills over the summer, the thinking goes, kids can continue advancing academically, avoid summer slide, and get a leg up on learning.
But then life happened.
Workbooks and learning apps went unused, with time spent instead on the beach, riding bikes, and running through the sprinkler. And every August, many parents feel like failures because summer was “wasted” and, rather than getting ahead, they fear their kids have fallen behind.
Now, every situation is different, and certainly, time spent in front of the TV or an iPad is rarely time well spent, but I think that many parents are way too hard on themselves about the progress—or in their minds, the lack thereof—that their kids have made over the summer.
Perhaps I feel this way because I’m rationalizing. I’ve probably been too inattentive to my own children’s academic advancement (at least in the traditional sense) during the summer months. But the more I think about the issue, the more firmly I become convicted that, while summer is undoubtedly a time for kids to learn, it’s a time to learn differently.
Kids Learn “Differently” In The Summer
I’m knee-deep in a great book, an autobiography by Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman called Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (affiliate link). It’s an easy and insightful read about a brilliant and quirky man who, at a young age, became a key member of the Manhattan Project team in Los Alamos. He was a genius and a jokester, not unlike Benjamin Franklin.
While the memoir delves deeply into Feynman’s life as a physicist, it also captures his curious and inquisitive nature which led him to passionately pursue subjects such as biology, Japanese culture, safe cracking, music, gambling, and Mayan hieroglyphics (among many others!) during his lifetime.
There is a passage from the book, almost an aside as Feynman describes his time spent as a student at MIT and Princeton, that I think is highly instructive about how we, as a society, should think about education today.
While lamenting how many of his fellow students were skilled at memorizing theorems and formulas, Feynman observed that they were unable to solve problems through the application of their knowledge.
Feynman wrote: “I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way— by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile.”
In other words, they knew a lot but could do little with it.
This is a weakness of our modern day education system as well. We teach kids to memorize but not necessarily to understand. We tell them what to know but not how to understand and apply that knowledge.
This is by no means a critique of schools and teachers—there’s only so much that can be expected in a classroom full of 25 students. It’s simply a realization that wisdom and insight cannot be nurtured in an environment focused on memorization and standardized testing.
Author Seth Godin has strong feelings about what we should be teaching our kids. He thinks it boils down to two key things: (1) teaching kids to lead, and (2) teaching them to solve interesting problems.
In his education manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams (PDF), Godin poses a question which suggests that, some 80 years after Feynman’s observation at Princeton, we still haven’t cracked the code on nurturing wisdom and insight in our schools. Godin writes:
Will the next generation know more facts than we do, or will it be equipped to connect with data, and turn that data into information and leadership and progress?”
I think the point that Feynman, Godin, and many others are making is that intelligence is not a zero-sum game. It’s not an objective to be achieved. Rather, it’s something developed throughout a lifelong journey.
Intelligence can’t be measured by a letter on a report card, a number on a standardized test, or a dean’s signature on a diploma. After all, in the age of Wikipedia and Google, is it that important to memorize all of the facts and figures that one must to become a good test taker?
Summer Encourages A Growth Mindset
I believe the most intelligent among us are those who readily acknowledge their lack of understanding, not those who put on an air of sophistication in order to prove their intellectual superiority to others.
To “know it all” is to be ignorant, because once you know it all, you believe there’s nothing left to learn. It’s the difference between what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed” and a “growth” mindset.
Individuals who believe their talents can be developed through hard work and good strategies have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset because they worry less about looking smart and instead put more effort into learning.
Wisdom is the result of curiosity. It’s a byproduct of humility.
Intelligence—as measured by understanding and application, not memorization—is a process of growth over a lifetime.
This process of growth is something that parents can teach and nurture. And, for kids, there’s no better time than summer break to begin that journey.
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A Time To Be Curious, Carefree, and Grow
Now, all of this is not to say that parents who diligently continue their children’s formal education over the summer are doing anything wrong. Just the opposite, in fact. Of course, it’s important for kids to learn the skills and memorize the information that will help them achieve in school. You have to play the hand you’re dealt.
But just because you may not have followed through on grand plans to mandate math exercises and Spanish tutoring for your kids this summer, it doesn’t mean you should feel guilty about it.
Summer is a time to explore and discover, to be curious and carefree.
It’s the time for kids to read for fun, without any expectation. If kids learn to love reading for leisure, they’ll acquire knowledge and wisdom despite themselves.
It’s the time for kids to explore the wonders of science, but not with a nose in a textbook. A Lake Michigan beach is a great place to learn geology while hunting for stones and other small treasures. Biology is best studied on fishing piers and forest trails.
It’s the time hone math skills—no calculators necessary. There’s no better place for kids to learn how many pints are in a quart than a u-pick raspberry farm.
It’s the time to gain an understanding of business and finance but not in the way these topics are taught in school. Basic principles of marketing, budgeting, and profitability—not to mention interacting with other people—are best learned through trial and error working a lemonade stand on the street corner.
Say Goodbye to Summer With a Smile
While we’ve tried to keep our kids plugging away a bit at formal learning this summer, we’ve definitely prioritized experiential learning.
I’m sure our oldest daughter has gotten something out of the spelling lessons we’ve had her working on, but I bet she’s gained far more from her experience learning how to make friendship bracelets at summer camp and teaching others how to do it. After all, in the world that our kids will live and work in, it’s not skill acquisition or rote memorization that matters most. It’s the experience of learning how to teach a skill to others that leads to growth.
It’s the end of summer. School has started or soon will. Your kids may not have accomplished as much as you had hoped this summer. Don’t freak out. Don’t feel guilty. They may be learning way more than you think.
Meet Jay Harrington — Life & Whim
Jay Harrington is an author, reformed-lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and along with his wife Heather runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his family in Traverse City and writes weekly about living a purposeful, intentional, and outdoor-oriented life on his blog. Find them online here: Website | Facebook | Pinterest | Instagram
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