NOTE in 2013:

This is an old page. 1992 version of it, in my defense, with its old link working (thanks to The Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive).

I sent a link to it in the summer of 2013, in some discussion, and Marta Pires wrote this note:

I was reading this page and came across the word "teach" (I will teach them...). Would it make sense to rephrase that sentence, in light of what you now know will help people unschool better (ie, not using the word "teach")?
Marta's right. I haven't used the word "teach" for a long, long time. The original was published in a local New Mexico publication in 1998, and (as I noted in Moving a Puddle) "It was filler; I had a full article elsewhere in that issue."

So fifteen years later, I will say that Marta is right. And everyone knows kids usually can find information more quickly on the internet than their parents can. But a long time ago, in 1998, this little article said something worth considering.

There's a 2014 update and comment below.

What you can do with your dictionary and encyclopedia...


Never tell a child "Go look it up." Parents, teachers, friends and countrymen, how would you like it?

When a child wants to know why flowers have a scent, they want someone to say "To attract bees" not "GO LOOK IT UP."

"Go look it up" tends to mean "I don't know" or "I know but I'm not going to tell you." What's the advantage of that?

Either a child will opt NOT to look it up (and the trust in the parent will erode a little) or he will, under duress, perform this task which might be difficult for him, or might take so long that he doesn't care anymore (and the trust in the parent will erode a little).

I'm NOT saying to discourage kids from looking things up. I never said not to show kids how to look things up. I mean don't treat it like something parents won't do, parents don't have to do, but that kids do, or that kids have to do, because they are powerless kids.

Encyclopedias should be alluring, not forbidding. Dictionaries should be a playland, not a dark, scary place you dart into for one thing and slam shut behind you. If you believe they ARE fun, you should look things up in front of your children, often, and with enthusiasm. That will teach them how to use reference materials, and will make them want to do so, because they will see it as something useful and enjoyable that adults do. If you believe dictionaries and encyclopedias ARE dark, scary and forbidding, why on EARTH would you send your children there?

by Sandra Dodd

Here's a place to practice looking things up for fun!
(When this article was written, I had a link to an online concordance of classic books.
Both the encyclopedia AND that are outdated now.
I recommend or another search engine of your choosing.)

October 2014 follow-up:
This is something I wrote in 1998, as a filler article for a local parenting publication. It’s old, but can be squinted at from 2014:

/aradicalthought [that's this page, before I added this]

Some adults have the idea from school or parents that there is virtue in looking something up, and sloth (one of the Big Sins) in just asking. There might be the ghost of that in you—voices saying “they need to learn to do that without you.”

They WILL learn it, and can learn it without damage. :-)

My husband’s spelling continued to improve when he was in his 20’s and 30’s, because he wrote letters to me when we were living in different towns, and event announcements for a club we were in, and because of programming and needing to be more precise. His spelling is great now, but it didn’t quickly in his youth, and he balked at schoolishness sometimes (being one of the mathish lefthanded type, another indication sometimes that spelling bees aren’t likely to be a hobby of choice).

When he and I were young in our 20’s, we made a deal that if I asked a math question he would just answer it without pressure, teasing or any lesson, and if he had a spelling question, I would just answer it. As the years passed, his spelling got better, and I got better at quick calculations than he was. Still, if it’s ratios or interest or odds, he’s the source. If it’s plain arithmetic or plane geometry, I’m quicker because I just do it without thinking which type of formula might be needed. When he needed help making a star on cloth, with a compass and protractor, I reminded him how very quickly and he did it.

That early agreement not to tease or shame made our partnership better before we ever had children, and so we extended that same courtesy to them—all they needed to do was ask. It helped with unschooling before we even knew we would have a baby.


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