21 Mar Providing Guidance and Education

Recently I began reading one of my all time favourite books, The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss. For those who are not familiar with the book it is the story of a father, mother and four sons who are stranded on a desert island. It is written as a kind of journal from the father’s perspective and tells the story of how this family survived a shipwreck and managed to built a home on a deserted island. It has been a few years since I read the book and I am really enjoying the rediscovery of this amazing story.

While reading I came across an interesting passage which I felt compelled to share as I think it has some powerful implications for parenting and education.

First some context. The family has survived a severe storm and their ship has come to rest on a large rock near the coast of an unknown island. The ship’s crew abandoned them during the storm and they are alone. The storm has ended and the family is trying to find a way to get off the ship and travel to the island. Using some of the tools on the ship they have managed to build a makeshift raft using barrels and some planks. However, the raft is too heavy for them to move, so they used a crow to lift one end of the raft so they can put rollers under it. When they have finished this the following dialogue occurs:

“How astonishing, said Ernest (the second oldest son), that this engine, which is smaller than any of us, can do more than our united strength was able to effect! I wish I could know how it is constructed.

I (the father in the story) explained to him as well as I could, the power of Archimedes’ lever, with which he said he could move the world if you would give him a point from which his mechanism might act, and promised to explain the nature of the operation of the crow when we should be safe on land.

One of the points of my system of education was to awaken the curiosity of my sons by interesting observations, to leave time for the activity of their imagination, and then to correct any error they might fall into.” – The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann Wyss, Page 18. – Emphasis added

The piece right at the end of this dialogue between Ernest and his father is the interesting point which I want to ponder. This father has decided that the best way to educate his sons is to first awaken their curiosity through observation, then leave them alone for a while to ponder things, and then have a conversation and show them the correct way to do things. This is an amazing educational and parenting method. I see numerous practical applications of this method.

For example, when our children come to us asking about matters of faith we can respond to their questions with some interesting insights, and encourage them to ponder these things on their own, and then, after sufficient time, have a follow-up conversation and correct any mistakes they have made or answer any questions.

Or when teaching a new skill such as knitting, cooking, carpentry, animal husbandry, mechanics, etc. we can apply this method by showing them the technique, leaving them alone to accomplish a task, and than gently correcting any mistakes they may have made.

What I find so intriguing about this system of education is it encourages the children to be creative and inventive. It also enables the parents to gently guide their children rather than forcing a certain behaviour. When reading books on parenting the advice often given is that if we are a perfectionist or want a task done in a particular way than our children will not help around the house, because when they first try to do a task they will take more time, be messy, and the finished product may not look the way we want and we can often be critical. But it is more important than having something done exactly how we would do it, is the confidence that is instilled in our children when we teach them a new skill and affirm them in their efforts to learn, even though they may not have done it perfectly.

Using the method described above enables us to teach our children anything from basic household chores, to unique skills, or even the liberal arts. This method can be used no matter the subject or the circumstances, and I believe that it would be effective, because it gives our children the responsibility for their own education. We, as parents, are still involved in their education, as we should be as the primary educators of our children, but we take a more secondary role as a mentor or guide. We allow them the freedom to experiment with and develop a wide variety of talents and skills.

If you have never read The Swiss Family Robinson I would highly encourage you to give it a try. It is a great story and, I am now realizing, a very profound and well written book with numerous insights to reflect upon.