On John Holt and Parenting

My earlier forays into homeschooling literature left me favouring classical education, because the goal (knowing, connecting, and explaining) was so sound. Classical education, by dint of its name, sounds rigorous, prestigious, and all the adjectives you’d hope your child would be so that others, far from questioning your choice to homeschool, are awed into silence.

Thus my knee-jerk reaction to unstructured homeschoolers (also known as unschoolers or deschoolers) was to scoff. The approach didn’t sound rigorous or useful at all. Still, unschooling has varied interpretation and application, so I decided to read up what unschooling meant to the father of the term, John Holt.

John Holt’s book Teach Your Own (ed. Pat Farenga) certainly left an impression, both positive and negative. The worst of it is that the book begins on quite a negative tone; he’s quite anti-school and assumes most adults do not like children. (EDIT: He may not have had any children of his own. This would explain some of his more wildly negative stances and odd child-worship). The positive is that many of his opening statements made me think, “Preposterous!” but then I would read more on his thoughts and think, “That’s downright observant,” such that I’ve decided to break my response to the book into three separate blog posts: on parenting, teaching, and on homeschooling.

I address parenting first because it is closest to where I am currently in life. Two points stuck in my mind: 1) the choiceless “Okay?” and 2) the value of silence.

The Choiceless “Okay?”

Holt makes this observation:

When adults want children to do something – put on coats, take a nap, etc. – they often say, ‘Let’s put on our coats, okay?’ or ‘It’s time to take our naps now, okay?’ That ‘Okay?’ is a bad thing to say… it suggests to the children that we are giving them a choice when we really are not. Whatever people may think about how many choices we should give children, children should at least be able to know at any moment whether they have a choice or not (91).

Holt, J and Farenga, P. (2003). Teach your own: The John Holt book of home schooling. Holt Associates.

The funny thing is that, had I been thinking more about my toddler earlier, I might have cottoned on sooner. You see, when she wants to nurse, she looks at me and says, “奶奶 (milk); okay!” and proceeds to lift up my shirt whether I want to or not. The same goes for anything else she wants: animals, YouTube (i.e. animals on YouTube), to see pictures of herself on the phone, or ice cream. “公雞 (rooster); okay!” and she expects a rooster to start crowing on my laptop.

This isn’t to say that the automatic “okay?” is a terrible evil, but I am more conscious of when I am giving a command versus when I am actually offering a choice. I can see applications for this in the classroom, too, because offering a false choice might not jive well with students, and I certainly found (especially in the UK) that making a command sound like a question weakens the teacher’s voice considerably.

EDIT: Almost a month since I have read Holt’s book and still this point sticks. He may or may not have had children, but this thought has given me the benefit of considering how the toddler might perceive our communication. The drawback is that I overthink the “okay” part when it does slip out, to great personal annoyance. There’s also the argument that since language is in constant evolution, the vernacular “okay” shouldn’t necessarily denote actual choice, but that’s for another debate.

The Value of Silence

There is something to be said for knowing when to stop talking. Holt shares a brief anecdote about realizing how much he was nagging his three-year-old daughter when she made a mess, and his ensuing thoughts:

As parents, we can simply SHUT UP! If we can sit back and listen to ourselves, we can hear how much negative harassment we throw at our kids. If a parent would seriously and objectively listen to what he says (through his child’s ears), he would be appalled and could probably with some effort of change that kind of “No” (88).


Where I grow frantic with worrying speed (usually when something spills and the toddler is in the process of smearing everything everywhere), I begin to speak faster and faster, and the increased speech produces more stress for everyone involved, myself included. Solution? Stop, breathe, and… keep breathing. I am proud to say that I have already made a few situations better in the past month by shutting up and taking time to think.

Indeed, this echoes what Proverbs says,

It is foolish to belittle a neighbour; a person with good sense remains silent.

Proverbs 11:12 NIV.

I mean, replace “neighbour” with “child” or “student” or “person” and the whole thing still stands. What strikes me most about Holt’s teaching is how much he preaches kindness and respect to children. While I thought these were things I knew as a teacher, my experience as a new parent reveals that I still have a long way to go.

More in the next post on John Holt and teaching!


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