Never Too Late

Holt’s first two books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn, are thoughtful accounts of the typical experiences of children in school, and of how their learning is affected by pressure, assessment, and coercion. Those books helped me think about learning in a new way. I had a lot of clichés and platitudes in my head, things I assumed were true but hadn’t really thought about – that children need to be taught, they need to be made to learn, and if they fall behind they might never catch up. Those old dictates didn’t survive Holt’s acuity and insight.

"Children do not need to be made to learn to be better, told what to do or shown how. If they are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than anyone else could make for them." ~ John Holt

In 1979 Holt wrote Never Too Late. It is his account of learning to play the cello as an adult when it was commonly thought to be too late to learn. The L.A. Times called it “A delightfully subversive book” and it truly is. Holt not only tells his own story, he leads the reader to make connections to all kinds of learning, and to consider the things that will help or hinder it. He reminds us there’s no time limit on learning, and that later doesn’t mean never.

Along with the myth that a child will learn everything in school, and its companion fable that a child must go to school in order to learn, is the idea that there is some window of time for learning, and a child who learns slower or later will be behind forever. Anyone over forty who uses a smart phone knows that’s not true. We didn’t learn about digital assistants, mobile payments, GPS navigation, or apps in school. The truth is: a thing can only be learned after it’s been discovered to be useful, necessary, fun, or interesting - and that can only be determined by the learner.

Homeschooling parents know that kids don’t need to be in a school building with a certified teacher in order to learn, but many still think they have to get all the information into their child at the right time. They still feel that learning to read at age eight is essential and learning later dooms a child to future failure. But the timelines for learning are for the benefit of the school, not the children. Inside that system, being a late reader (or slow or disinterested) is a problem. It gets you a label, and embarrassing and harmful interventions. Outside of school, reading at twelve is no more a handicap than learning to drive a car at eighteen instead of fifteen. Outside of school measurements and comparisons aren’t meaningful.

I remember thinking that time was short and I somehow needed to get all the right information into my child before it was too late. Two sweet things happened around that time. I looked at my little boy and all the puddles he was jumping in, all the caterpillars he was befriending, all the rocks he collected, and all the shows he loved on TV and I really noticed how much he was engaged with his world. Even if I didn’t know and couldn’t name the things he might have been learning, I knew he was filling up on the world in a way that was meaningful to him. I stopped thinking he needed a teacher and instead tried to make his world as wide and as interesting as possible. I helped him explore. I became his Outfitter. I supplied him with the things he needed to get into the world in whatever way he chose, and I helped him do it safely and joyfully. I didn’t try to teach, and I didn’t try to control his learning; I just tried to keep up. It was about this time I started reading John Holt.

My son has grown up. He learned to read, neither early nor late, but when he was ready. He learned to drive, but waited until he was eighteen to get his license. No one is assessing now whether he’s behind his peers. He learned to use power tools and play the piano. Most of the learning my son will do in his life is yet to come. It will happen without me, and without a curriculum, and he’s ready.

“If Nature has waiting for me up the road some kind of impassable barrier, she has so far given me no clear signs of it. I am full of hope.” ~ John Holt, Never Too Late

Deb Lewis is the mom of grown up, always unschooled Dylan, and wife to David. She lives, works, plays and learns in Montana.