Usually, when parents call my tutoring service, they say their child needs help with a particular subject or set of subjects. The subjects parents most often identify are English, Math and Science. There are many reasons why students should be having trouble with these three subjects. Only one reason concerns me, here. My experience tells me, if parents are seen to take an interest in an activity when their children are young – better still, if parents include their young children in activities of parental interest – then their children will pursue the subjects connected with these activities with interest and relative ease. Of course, my experience also tells me that the converse is true.

When first introduced to a student having problems with English, I ask the parents how many books they have in their home, whether on not the books they have are displayed for easy access to children and how many of their books are age appropriate to children. I also inquire as to whether or not weekly visits to the public library are part of their family activity. Almost invariably, the answer is that their home has few or no books and that trips to the library are not a family tradition.

When asked, parents whose children are having difficulties with science allow that there are no books about science in the home, that they do not watch science programming with their children on television or the internet, and that they don’t take their children to the local museum, science centre, public aquarium or zoos. Likewise, I learn that children having difficulty with math never see their parents express an interest in mathematics. Neither are these children included in activities requiring that their parents do math (as when parents tally or pay monthly bills).

Long before Maria Montessori incorporated the insight into her pedagogy, educators knew already that children are highly motivated to do what their parents do and to be included in adult activities. It has also been evident to educators down through the ages that when children are not allowed to participate, over time, their motivation diminishes. If parents do not engage in an activity or do not allow their children to engage in it with them, the likelihood is that their children will not become interested in it and will engage with it (say, at school) only with difficulty.

My point is that, for the most part, a child’s education requires parental participation. In traditional societies, this point is taken for granted. As a matter of course, many societies see girls as young as four joining their older female relatives in the performance of the most difficult and intricate of domestic tasks. In many of the ancient Greek city states, it was a common place for boys, from the age of seven onwards, to accompany their fathers through every aspect of their working day, participating when instructed to, always watching to learn how to do what they saw the adult men doing.

The facility of this traditional principle of child education is equally evident today. If parents want their children to read well, they should be seen to read themselves. Parents should make reading materials readily available so that picking up a book or magazine becomes a common place of the household. Most important of all, parents should read to their children and listen as their children read to them so that their children will experience reading as an adult activity in which all family members are included.

For math and science, the same practice should apply. When my grandchildren come to my house, the eldest, who is eight, demands my math notes for tutoring university students so that she can copy the formulae from them on the white board in my office. That my granddaughter does not understand what she is copying is beside the point. What is significant is that she sees the mathematical symbols as part of an adult activity and feels that she can share in that activity and its importance. After Sunday dinner, the same granddaughter takes me into the laundry room where we make chemical concoctions using laundry soap and fabric softener. Of course, we are only playing at chemistry, but play sparks real interest. Lately she has been asking if we couldn’t set up a science room with a dedicated shelf and workspace for “real science stuff.” Obviously, a trip to Mastermind is in order.

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