How to Make Children Care about Learning

By Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D.

It’s summer. It’s the time to take time off from learning! Why should I care about how to make my children care about learning? We learn what we do. Period. What does this mean?

Question: When are we not doing something?
Answer: We are never not doing something. We are always doing something.

If this is true, then we are constantly learning. Every action is a source of learning. There is no such thing as a time for learning and a time off from learning. Instead, there are only different types of learning that correspond to different types of things that we do. There is only formal and informal learning.

If we learn what we do, then what we learn is a product of what we do. And most of what we do we do not do alone. We do it with other people. So, if this is true, we should pay very close attention to what our children do every day, as well as who they are doing it with.

There are many ways to get children to care about their learning – both the formal and informal kind. However, all of them boil down to a single thing: Genuine engagement. If we want our children to care about learning, then we have to care about learning.

But what does this mean? When we say that we care about learning, we often mean that we care that our children get a good education; we care that they get good grades; we care that they do their homework, etc. These, of course, are all good things. But to really care about learning is not simply to care about the tangible outcomes of learning. Instead, to care about learning is to live a life which is organized, at least in part, around learning.

To care about learning, we have to be involved in learning ourselves, and then involve our children in the excitement of our own learning! Here’s the idea:

1. Children learn what they do – and most often what they do with others.
2. Children generally acquire the values of their parents, just by participating in family life.
3. Children acquire the values of their parents through induction – as parents explain the reasons for the things that they do and value (see You Can Offer A Kid An Education, But You Can’t Make Him Care, in this issue).

If these principles are true, then it follows that most kids will learn to care about their learning if they participate with their parents in the excitement of real and genuine learning. The question then becomes, how can this be accomplished?

Teaching the Excitement of Learning

To teach children the excitement of learning, we must ourselves be excited and involved in learning. But how can we do this? How can we involve children in the excitement of our own learning? Such a thing is difficult for parents who are very busy and cannot spend long periods of time with their children. Such a thing is especially difficult for parents – and there are many of them – who may not themselves be all that excited about learning! How can such a parent involve children in the excitement of learning when he or she doesn’t necessarily feel it him or herself?

Identify what you are excited about. A parent doesn’t have to be a scholar to cultivate a sense of learning – either in herself or in her child. Where do you start? You start with what interests you – no matter what it is. What do you enjoy thinking about and doing? It would be surprising if you didn’t want to learn more about that area of your life. Start with that. Expose your child to the excitement that you have for this area of your life. It could be gardening, Dr. Who, the Italian renaissance, fixing an automobile engine, social activism or whatever. It’s not so important what you do – what’s important is showing your excitement about it. Your excitement tells your child: “It is important to cultivate something important in your life. It’s important to be excited about something.”

Broaden your horizons. Once you identify what excites you in your learning, try to broaden your horizons. Try out new areas of learning. Watch a documentary about a topic that may interest you. Go to a museum, regardless of whether or not you think you’d like it. Read a book and talk about it with someone. Go outside of your comfort zone! After all, if we want our children to go outside of their comfort zones, we have to be willing to do this ourselves.

Involve children in family activities organized around interesting topics. This is simply an extension of “broadening your horizons”. Once you broaden your horizons, involve your children in activities that interest you. Go to a museum, regardless of whether or not you think your child will like it. Read a book with your child and talk about it with her. Watch a TED talk ( Help your children move outside their comfort zones! After all, if we can move outside our comfort zones, well, our children can too! We can use our own personal struggles as an example to our children.

Involve children in family activities organized around their interests. You may be surprised at my last suggestion. I suggested involving children in family activities designed by you. That runs against the grain of the way we often think about learning. Most of the time, we are told that if we want our children to develop a love of learning, we should organize activities around what interests them. And yes, this is an important idea – that’s why I’m suggesting it here. However, we have to learn to develop a love for learning. This means that learning about things that we may not initially think are interesting can, in fact, be interesting! But organize activities around your children’s interests (e.g., play “Apples to Apples” together) as well as around yours (e.g., play “Scrabble” with your kids).