After a few episodes of the Passionate Homeschooler podcast and talking with authors, experienced teachers, and especially parents, a common theme keeps appearing in each conversation. Young minds, it seems, will approach their studies in one of two ways. They can painstakingly engage with the objects of their study like a scientist, considering every detail and nuance, constructing a context, and ruthlessly resolving contradictions. Or, they will try to find a single answer to a question put before them, and consider the matter settled without need for further review.

For the student, many factors can influence the choice of which approach to take, such as interest level (you’ll focus more on subjects of interest to you), the fear of disapproval (you might care more about what the teacher wants to hear rather than focusing on the facts of the subject), or even physical issues that can affect cognition, such as fatigue (if you’re too tired, you might not be capable of focus). But regardless, it’s still a choice. In her novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand writes:
That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.

To date, the parents I spoke to expressed the desire to build an independent spirit within their children, and to enjoy the process of learning. Because it IS a process. It’s not an automatic switch that you turn on, granting you with the one true answer. Knowledge of anything requires thoughtful consideration, an acknowledgement of context, and above all, a period of independent focus.

So, how do you foster that in children? The parents I interviewed either created an environment in which the process of learning was respected and treated as a fun journey, or they took their children out of the environments in which the journey was

short circuited. Traditional classrooms, for example, if they have an emphasis on conformity and social cohesion, can be destructive to an independent minded child to find joy in their own learning journey. The flexibility of a homeschool, along with the parent’s ability to focus on their own child’s needs, can be just the thing that can build the right learning habits for a successful thinking student.

Character, as the quote above puts it, is a choice. But it’s a choice built on habits that, for most people, are formed early in childhood, habits that come from a lifetime of choosing whether to think and focus, or to stop thinking and go out of focus. Every child is different, but parents can be on the lookout for this basic choice and try to make the best possible environment to foster thoughtfulness. It could be encouraging or rewarding focused interest. It could be making them aware of the consequences of thoughtlessness. But the parents I spoke to said that most of their kids naturally gravitated toward independent minded focus anyway.

In the end, perhaps the best approach might be to just get out of the way.