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When parents say, “my child is not self-directed,” they seem to be implying that self-direction is some trait that only a select group of people have. The truth is a little more complicated. All people have a level of self-direction, even at a young age. In fact, more likely at a young age. Just look at little kids and how totally self-directed they can be. Little kids know exactly what they want to do. They’ll go play with one thing for a little bit, move on to something else, to something else. They don’t ask what to play with next, they just follow their impulses to fulfill their needs. This is really the natural state of things for everyone.
The good news is that this little kid self-direction is the beginning of big kid self-direction. Big kid self-direction is when you choose to do things but also consider the consequences and context of your actions. Big kid self-direction requires self-discipline, working toward goals. Big kid self-direction might require doing things that don’t always feel good or that aren’t always enjoyable (like math).
But big kid self-direction is not like being double-jointed. It’s not like some people have it and others don’t. It’s a skill that can be developed with practice. To say your child can’t attend a self-directed learning cooperative because she isn’t self-directed would be like saying she can’t take swimming lessons because she can’t swim. Self-directing is something you have to work at, not unlike swimming, or writing, or riding a bike. But you can only acquire the skill by actually doing it. The ability to self-direct doesn’t just appear one day and you are suddenly able to do it.
The thing that parents often struggle with is really trusting their children, and letting them actually practice self-direction. In fact, many parents can fall into the trap of having their children become well-practiced in the opposite of self-direction. If we’re not careful, we schedule and plan every minute of their lives and impose all kinds of expectations and demands on their energy and time. And then when they have a minute to spare, and they play some video games, we think, “They need structure. All they want to do is play video games!” It stands to reason that if you have little control over your life, when you do have a moment to yourself, it’s not going to be spent writing a novel or teaching yourself Russian or practicing quadratic equations. You’re going to want to chill out with your friends and video games. And why would you direct yourself in any way when you know your parents have got that part of your life covered?
The point here is that kids need to be trusted. They have the beginnings of the skills to make a life for themselves, but we need to let them practice those skills. At The Learning Cooperatives, we see the development of big kid self-direction happen all the time. For many kids, when they arrive, they have been so long out of the practice of self-direction, that it does take some time to remember how to listen to themselves. But over time, they begin to make important, informed choices about what they want their life to look like and start to put things into practice. They start to structure their time and to effectively use it how they see fit. They begin to do something because they see its importance or its connection to a greater goal. They even spend time doing something they hate, like math.
[Photo By Hferee – Own work, File:Delaunay_Voronoi.png (Nü es), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17061949]