When The Happy Child meets the Big Yellow Bus


“What’s my spelling mamma?” Re asked me a few weeks ago. I remember him asking me the same thing last year, but I didn’t want him to think of letters as mere symbols; besides I didn’t think there was any rush for him to learn the alphabet (and I still don’t). I was enjoying him being a child –singing, dancing, doing things with his hands, painting, pretend-cooking, building stuff.

School made me nervous. It still does. Of course, children love numbers and letters, but we don’t know what they are thinking when they play with them. We are all too eager to box them as “Knows 1-100” or “Can read five-letter words” or some such. We love it when we outsource our kids to the ‘big yellow bus’ or the ‘big school’. It’s as though we are eager to homogenize our kids.

Re eventually learnt to write his name on his own, perhaps from his teacher, and every once in a while, he writes and shows it to me. Now he can count numbers, recognize letters and each time he does it, he looks at me for approval. Slowly, but insidiously, he was becoming part of the system. The system that trains kids to look for affirmation and productizes children, pretending to teach them, so that they all fit into neat little boxes and stay like that until they fit into society.

Coincidentally, Re’s first year of formal ‘learning’ also coincided with my first year of formal ‘teaching’. Much as I love working with my teenaged kids and treating them to new literary experiences, words and ideas, I still flinch when I am asked what I teach.  Every time I enter a class, I wonder, “Am I really teaching them something? Or am I just holding their hand while they are learning?” I prefer to think it’s the latter, and I hope my students think the same too. A few were concerned that I wasn’t talking about ‘important’ things like ‘grammar’ and ‘tenses’ and various terms they thought they needed to know about. At the end of the term, I asked them how they felt. “Awesome, Akka, we had fun!” they said. My heart was full.

Once a week, I also take a class with the preschoolers and it’s a whole different experience from the older kids I work with. They are more open to telling me what they want to do and directing me to do it. Last week, they wanted to fly. We spoke about wings and flying and soon, they wanted to make their own planes. I asked them to draw theirs on the board. The drawings were amazing, but what startled me was that each child wrote their name correctly in the plane they drew. They were almost proud of it.

Perhaps writing one’s name is a signifier of the fact that you are on the road to education, that you are climbing the first steps of literacy, that you are trying to fit into the world of grown-ups,  that you are trying to belong. It made me sad. I could see the natural child in them diminishing already. And this was not even a mainstream school!

I thought I was going cuckoo, but I found the articulation for what I felt when I started reading The Happy Child: Changing The Heart Of Education. In this thought-provoking  book,  Steve Harrison ventures outside the box of traditional thinking about education. His idea is: Children naturally want to learn, so let them direct their own education in democratic learning communities where they can interact seamlessly with their neighborhoods, their towns, and the world at large. ‘The Happy Child’ suggests that a self-motivated child who is interdependent within a community can develop the full human potential to live a creative and fulfilling life.

I was recently on a parenting talk show on television where one mother proudly declared that she had enrolled her son in playgroup at 10 months; another said learning the alphabet was the most natural thing that happened to her children.  I felt out of place for crying hoarse that children have no business to learn the alphabet at age 4. Something was seriously wrong with the world, I thought.

I asked my students what they would really want to learn if they could choose. I got some delicious answers. Life-hacking. Doodling. Carpentry. Water-color. Origami. Ballet. Ventriloquism.  Cooking. Astronomy. Designing a room. Being a performance artist. Stand-up comedy. Story-telling. Writing (ah, at least I am somewhat relevant, I thought)

One of the necessary evils of teaching is that sooner or later, you have to put children in boxes and label them. Writing reports makes me uncomfortable. Putting a child in one box just ensures that unless they do something drastic, they are stuck there, and even when they do, it is always for the parents or their teachers, never for themselves. I wonder why aren’t children ever asked to rate teachers? If learning is a direct result of all teaching, why are we rating the learners and not the teachers? It’s the same feeling I used to have whenever some prospective employer asked me for my resume. I used to think, “Well, you want me to work for you, so may I have your resume too?”

But in the end, if children truly want to learn, there is no teaching, as Steve Harrison points out. When there are enough questions, the answers are not important.  If only we as adults learn how not to choreograph our child’s learning. Because every child, if left to explore can discover his/her passion May be that’s the only way to create a happy child.

Please email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com if you’d like to share your thoughts.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 12th January, 2015)



10 thoughts on “When The Happy Child meets the Big Yellow Bus

  1. Hi Lalitha,

    You will also enjoy reading some books by John Holt especially how children learn , how children fail, escape from childhood.

    My dilemma is that it seems too much to keep my toddler at home all the time and sending him to any school is bound to cast him into the stereotypes that school will reinforce.

    How are you reconciling this gap ?

  2. I just love your thoughts on the subject of education. I am 30 now and still trying to come out of the boxes that system has put around me. At times I felt so disheartened because everyone around me seems to know what they want to do and I’m still figuring it out..

  3. Lalitha, I feel exactly the same. If I had my way around, I would have tried to innovate the art of home-schooling. Hate the stereotypical way of mechanical teaching. Sky is not always blue and grass is not always green.. How will my child be any different from your’s if all that we are doing is feeding their minds to think alike?

  4. We are born to be learners and unlearners. Our brain is wired in a way that it is taught only to learn. Every creature born is born to learning and life – What is “your” part of the “education is not somebody else. Our ultimate goal is to become a reflection of the universe – CREATE. Everything else is maintenance. The child’s learning is one such and what we enjoy doing and we choose to become are social situations , or a choice perhaps. But learning is inside us. May that is also the same reason Why we learn to chew, to bite, to walk, to run , to leap – learning a language and numbers are mere tools for organization and classification. As we evolve we think to beyond organization and classification … The child in us always learns, evolves,revolves, transforms


  5. Your article was quite thought provoking. I realized that though I wanted my son to not bother about systems that we have created and tried make the learning process fun for him I did let him explore and learn what he wanted to for about a year but for the past few mths I have myself been caught up with the systems that this world has created and “learning should be fun” element has got faded away.Sometimes when we as parents get stuck in that mad race to meet certain parameters created by this world(Numbers, alphabet writing etc etc) we are actually not helping our kids tap their potential….

  6. Pingback: The kids are okay. The parents need some happiness shots. | mommygolightly

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