Be Careful What You Teach (It Might Interfere with What They Are Learning)

In this podcast: Janet responds to a question from a caregiver who says the family she works for is interested in teaching their son ABCs and other lessons. The child is sometimes disinterested and refuses to participate, and she wonders: “Is there a respectful approach to teaching children?” Janet responds with an alternative perspective on early childhood learning that focuses on providing the best foundation possible for children to develop their innate abilities and a lifelong love of learning.

Transcript of “Be Careful What You Teach (It Might Interfere with What They Are Learning)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a question about doing learning activities with our children, like teaching them the ABCs. Here’s the interesting email I received:

“Hi Janet, I’m wondering, is there a respectful approach to teaching children, say, their ABCs or doing any learning activities? I work as a nanny, and the family I’m currently with is very interested in their son’s learning and development. Sometimes he’s happy to go along with loosely structured learning activities, and some days he’s disinterested. I’m wondering, is it best to end an activity if he’s not showing interest-slash-refusing to participate, or come back to it later, or what? I wouldn’t want to teach him to give up on things, or that he just needs simply to offer a little resistance and then he gets what he wants. I really like the respectful approach and use this approach as much as possible. Any words of wisdom for those of us who use this approach as a nanny would be very much appreciated. Thank you for any advice.”

Okay, so what I’m going to suggest would apply to a nanny in this situation or to other kinds of caregivers of children, and to parents. What I’m going to suggest is an alternative. While there may be a respectful way to do these learning activities with children (I’m sure there is), the question I want to pose in return is: are learning activities the best way to help children learn? You can probably guess that I believe they are not, and I’m going to talk about why in this podcast. But mostly, I want to offer an alternative to teaching children their ABCs and directing them in learning activities.

What this nanny says is that the family is very interested in their son’s learning and development. Most of us as parents, or nannies, or early childhood teachers are very interested in learning and development. And then she says that sometimes this boy is happy to go along with loosely structured learning activities, and some days he’s disinterested.

So what this nanny is asking about is what to do when she can’t garner interest from the child she’s working with. And she doesn’t say how old this child is, but some days he’s disinterested, and sometimes he’s even refusing to participate. She’s concerned that she’s going to teach him to give up on things, or that he just needs to simply offer resistance and then he gets what he wants.

The problem here is that the activities she’s doing are actually not aligned with, and complimentary to, early child development. And that’s why she’s getting the sometimes frustrating results that she’s getting.

Children are born with these amazing learning abilities and they’re actually able to stay with their interests for a very long time. But when we try to impose our interest in their learning, and what we believe they should be learning, it’s often a mismatch. It’s similar to trying to put up curtains on windows of a house that hasn’t been built yet. They’re still working on the foundation.

Skills and knowledge that involve rote memorization are actually the easiest thing for children to learn when they’re ready. But in these early years, they’re developing a very important foundation that will serve them throughout life. It’s a foundation of higher-order learning skills that go way beyond memorization. They’re learning how to learn, and they’re learning about themselves as learners. The best message they can receive is that they are trusted, that we understand (and research shows this) that they are the learning experts.

It is an innate ability that they have, and it is all done through play. And that isn’t to say that this means we now have to find fun, playful activities that are teaching our child these little specific details, these symbols for ideas like amount, weight or letters. The foundation of learning is about using all of our senses to explore amount, weight, gravity, comparisons. To analyze, have theories, and so much more.

Children need to focus on what those symbols represent. And they will naturally do this through play, through play that might not even look like anything to us. It might look like they’re just messing around or sitting there staring into space. But this is actually the important stuff.

So what I would propose to this nanny is to help these parents appreciate the incredible learning that their child is engaging in every moment. This learning that goes way beyond adult-directed activities. Learning that goes deep because it is meaningful to that child. Just like for all of us, when we take a course that we’re very interested in, we learn quickly and we learn deeply. We can sustain attention in that kind of learning. We don’t refuse it or stop. We can be insatiable around it. Those are the experiences that young children need to have in this crucial window of time, the early years, building the foundation for that house of learning.

So specifically, I would encourage this nanny to cultivate this child’s self-directed learning, which is the same as cultivating his self-directed play. Because to devise successful learning activities, we have to understand how children actually learn. So our job can be setting up a safe play area where they are free to be explorers, and letting our child be the master of this one area of life. And then letting go of the results.

Young children have to conform to a lot of things that we decide, but learning through play can be a territory that they own completely. And they deserve to own it, because they are the experts at this. They need to be active in their learning, not passively receiving or following along. They need to be the ones that are creating, designing, initiating, sustaining. They can be trusted with this job.

Then when play is cultivated, we can learn how to be in observer mode, in sensitive observation mode, and we will learn everything we need to know about that child. And the way to share that with someone else is to be the observer, and to write down what that child is doing, what we see, and help the parent to appreciate the amazing things children do. Much more amazing than being able to recite an alphabet or a succession of numbers.

So write down what you see. “I noticed he was interested in the rug. There was a flower that he was following with his finger, and then he went over to the other side of the rug where there was a similar flower, and he seemed to connect those two ideas.”

Or, “He had that ball that’s actually been in his play area since he was tiny and he never noticed it before, and today he was rolling it, and watching it, and bouncing it off the floor and other objects. He seemed to be doing an intensive study of that ball. I noticed he used it in actually 20 different ways.” And then listing those.

This is how children develop a long attention span. This is how we give children the edge when they do enter a structured learning environment at age five or six. They get to go into that with confidence in their active learning, and with a lot of experience with how to master concepts and ideas. And a sense from the adults around them that they are accepted and appreciated for who they are. Those are things that we can give children that last a lifetime.

So after offering that alternative, I want to talk a little about the reasons that self-directed learning is better than adult-child teaching.

Number one: It (1) distracts children from, and can even undermine, these amazing, innate learning skills. Alison Gopnik expressed it this way, she notes in her studies that “babies as young as eight months old demonstrated astonishing capacities for statistical reasoning, experimental discovery, and probabilistic logic that allowed them to rapidly learn all about the particular objects and people surrounding them.”

And then she warns, “Sadly, some parents are likely to take the wrong lessons from these experiments, and conclude that they need programs and products that will make their babies even smarter. Many think that babies, like adults should learn in a focused, planned way. So parents put their young children in academic enrichment classes, or use flashcards.”

“Instead,” she says, “Infants and toddlers need plenty of open-ended play time to be able to build the brain synapsis necessary for higher learning abilities.”

So those products and learning activities that we try to impose on children take precious time away from them building the brain synapses that they need as lifelong learners.

Number two: (2) by teaching we can impede instead of foster, skills like sustained focus and attention span. Again, I’m amazed in the observations I’ve done in my classes and of my own children, the long attention span that children display when they’re following their own interests. But when they have to follow ours, it’s seldom anywhere near as long that they can sustain that attention.

One of my popular posts is called “Baby, Interrupted” and I go over other specific things that we might do as parents that actually foster a shorter attention span in our child. We’re interrupting their interests and trying to direct them to our own.

And we want learning to go in deep. These little shallow things, these memorizing things, again, are just the tip of the iceberg. By focusing on those activities, we might be threatening the gold the children already have coming into this world. Their interest in mastering everything about it. We learn deepest when we are able to discover it ourselves.

Piaget has some famous quotes about that idea. He says, “Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. On the other hand, that which we allow him to discover by himself will remain with him visibly for the rest of his life.”

I think a lot of us can relate to that, I know I can. When I have a problem I can’t figure out on my computer, I can ask one of my children or someone else to come and fix it for me, or just show me what to do. Or I can do what I don’t always do, believe me, which is figure it out myself. But guess what helps me in the long run? Figuring it out myself. Because the computer becomes a little less intimidating to me, and now I can do it myself. I don’t need someone to show me. And I will remember that solution forever because I discovered it.

Similar to the way that I use this app, Waze, to get everywhere now. I’m very dependent on it. But what happens is, I don’t really know how to get places. And when I’m traveling, especially, and I don’t know the area, it helps me so much to actually have a jog around or, if I have time, to try getting around with just some basic directions, or finding it myself on a map. Then I learn that area. When I’m using Waze, I never really learn how to get somewhere. All it does is make me more dependent on Waze.

So it makes a difference, and it especially makes a difference in these early years. Because again, this is the crucial foundation that children will draw on in everything they’re learning for the rest of their lives.

The third reason that self-directed learning is better than adult-directed activities is that, without meaning to, (3) we can teach children that they need to step it up and perform for us for us to be interested in and appreciative of them. It can become a part of our relationship, that children feel they aren’t really enough, things they’re interested in aren’t that important, and that they need to be able to do things that they don’t feel able to do yet, in some cases. And then they get the smiles, then they get the good jobs and the kudos, and that appreciation that they long for.

But again, if we see differently, if we see the way Magda Gerber saw, and I see after cultivating play with my own children, and then seeing how beautifully this foundation has served them as students and adults… You can’t buy this kind of learning in an activity book. And it has the other benefit of giving our children that confidence in themselves as capable people who are interesting as they are, for their interests and their agendas, not only interesting if they can conform to ours.

The fourth point I want to make, (4) children behave better when they feel accepted and appreciated as they are, when we have that basic trust in them. Magda’s first principle, basic trust in the child, as an initiator, an explorer, and a self-learner. Feeling trusted and appreciated for who we are eliminates a lot of the stress that we can feel, and therefore helps us to be at our best more of the time as young children. It’s that relationship of safety and trust.

The last point I want to make is that letting go of those learning activities, those things that we want to teach, letting go of that fear that somehow if my child doesn’t know these, what are again very small details in the scheme of things that children will easily learn when they’re ready… But that fear that we might have if our child doesn’t learn this, I’m not doing a good job, they’re not going to be able to succeed in school… Those are messages that I know from parents are getting passed around a lot these days, and it concerns me… that toddlers need to be in classes and learning activities need to be created for them.

If I had a magic wand, I would use it to (5) eliminate all that stress that parents have around this, so that they could trust, so that they could enjoy their experience a lot more. As Magda Gerber said, “Do less, enjoy more,” and, “Be careful what you teach. It may interfere with what they’re learning.” She also said that.

So letting go of that as part of our job, that we have to teach children all these things and make sure they’re up to task… There are several studies showing that knowing letters and numbers and how to read at a very young age might give a child an edge in the first year or two of school, but then it all evens out. But if we give our child this edge of being able to reason, and experiment, and understand probabilities and be critical thinkers and engage for long periods, retain what they’ve learned because it’s going in deeply… That’s an edge that, unfortunately, with other children it doesn’t even out. That is a lifelong edge that we can give children.

And then, the other organic way that we teach is through caregiving tasks where we communicate and we give language to things. Where we teach children all about their bodies, and what food is, and all of these different words that we’ll use will be meaningful to children. So following their interests, and giving language to those, taking advantage of caregiving opportunities, dressing, bathing, mealtimes, diapering, as times where we are more directive.

Some people I know that I work with, they really want to teach, and that’s a time when they can. And it can still be organic and important to the child, because it’s about what’s really happening to their bodies, and our relationship with them.

There’ll be specific numbers and words, of course, that we’ll be teaching in these experiences. There are hundreds of opportunities in a day when we’re communicating respectfully with a child, where we can say, “Here’s three snaps on your shirt. Let’s snap those. Okay, we’ll do this one, one. Do you want to help with that one? Two, three, we did it.”

Or, “You want a second serving of that vegetable?” (Yeah, we wish it was the vegetable!) And then when they’re done with that, “Do you want a third?” And all of this can be authentic and respectful. Never pushy. Children feel the difference.

So do less, enjoy more, trust more. You’ll be amazed. We need to give ourselves a break from all this performance pressure we might feel.

I hope some of that helps. This is a topic that I’m passionate about. It’s one of the most valuable things I learned from Magda Gerber and have appreciated in every moment that I’ve been able to spend with children. So I hope it makes sense.

At last! I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand  and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! Check out all the details at ♥

And by the way, if my podcasts are helpful to you, you can help the podcast continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes. So grateful to all of you for listening! And please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

And both of my books are available on audio, please check them out. Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and

Thanks again for listening. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Your truly amazing and inspiring. I strongly share your views as an early childhood teacher. Thank you!

  2. I have listened to your podcasts, your book and I love to read these blogs! You have helped me become a much better parent, more relaxed about many aspects of parenting that were hard for me before. Thank you!

    My current predicament is about whether or not I should teach my child to swim. I come from a family of lifeguards, sailors, and swim teachers. Hence, I thought that learning to swim would be natural for my kids. While other parents have enrolled their children in swim lessons, we have just tried to enjoy the water and keep it fun. A few months ago, my 3 year old came out of her room and announced, “Momma, I think I can swim now! I can go in the deep water!” I smiled and was supportive and excited, but in my head I was worried too. She is the kind of strong-willed girl that would probably just jump right into a pool without a grownup because she was suddenly that sure she could do it.

    Here we are three months later and I just don’t know what to do. She loves the pools but refuses to try and swim or practice floating, and after reading your post I am wondering if I am doing the wrong thing by trying to “teach” her. I am feeling confused about how to teach my kids to do hard things, while also letting them go at the pace that they need.
    She enjoys shallow wading pools. Do we stick with those until she’s ready? Do I enroll her in swim lessons if she is resistant and says she doesn’t want to? Do I let her wear a floaty or a life vest so she can enjoy the pool even though she can’t swim and the “experts” say it makes it harder for them to learn later on?

    I want her to swim, and I want her to be safe around the water. She is very stubborn and if she doesn’t want to do something, like take a swimming class, she will absolutely not do it without lots of screaming and shouting. Swimming classes here say that is par for the course with many kids when they are learning. How do I help my kids learn to do hard things that take practice, while still respecting who they are and where they are at?

  3. Christina says:

    I loved this episode! But why should self-directed learning have to end at age five or six? You point out that even as adults we learn better this way. Shouldn’t we be advocating for a similar approach in “traditional learning environments”? It seems as though doing away with curriculum, and supporting young people’s natural inclinations to learn would be optimal. Not everyone is ready to read at age 5 or manipulate fractions at age 9, just like not everyone is ready to walk at 12 months. Waiting and trusting and supporting seems like the best approach at any age.

  4. I’d love an update to this article now that my first grader is in school, but still at home due to covid. Our home environment has always encouraged child led play and learning but I’m not sure how to balance that with her schools curriculum intruding in our home. She has live video lessons 7:45 – 10:45 am daily with assignments, quizzes, and tests. I’m definitely struggling with how much do I allow her to choose to participate and complete her schoolwork or trust her to play and learn what she needs when she needs to or force her to follow the school led curriculum and schedule.

  5. Oh Janet, thank you so much for this article!!! I’m a teacher of 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 year olds and I have been feeling such pressure to “teach” letters, numbers, etc. to my kids. I know the research of play but was beginning to question myself because other teachers are complaining that the kids that go to their classroom the next year don’t know the things they think the kids should know. I really needed this reminder to focus on learning through play!!! I truly appreciate your articles. Thank you! Jaime

  6. Mary Marie says:

    I really enjoyed this podcast and certainly do feel that self-directed play is incredibly important for our kids. Sometimes I do need a little reminder to focus on the more organic learning opportunities.

    On the other hand, I am not sure the “do less, enjoy more, trust more” approach applies to my three year old daughter who has additional needs. Of course all children are different, and all additional needs are different but I am wondering what your opinion is of this area surrounding special needs. My son who is sighted will develop if I leave him to engage in self-directed play, however, my daughter who is totally blind, I’m afraid will not develop if I do less and don’t offer some more adult directed activities. I even feel guilty when I observe her doing nothing or playing with the same toy for hours in what seems like a bored way. She just isn’t motivated to move onto another activity if I do not intervene.

    1. Thank you, Mary. Your question brings up a lot of questions for me. What kind of activities does your daughter seem to genuinely enjoy engaging in? How does she indicate to you that she’s bored in these situations? “I even feel guilty when I observe her doing nothing or playing with the same toy for hours in what seems like a bored way.” Does she have other options at those times and is choosing that same toy? Generally, children with disabilities do need more intervention, but I would still err on the side of trust for the interests she demonstrates.

  7. This philosophy deeply resonates with me, and is how I approached my boys’ early childhood years. They are now in 2nd and 5th grade, and as the public school doesn’t follow this philosophy in the least, I can’t shake the fear that I’m damaging them by sending them to school. How did you reconcile these beliefs with your own children?

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