Michelle Obama was recently quoted regarding the approach she and her husband use to teach their daughters about eating healthy food and exercising: “Kids emulate what they see.  You don’t have to make a lecture if you’re living it.”

Indeed. One of these days, we’re going to realize that what she’s saying is also true of learning other things (in addition to walking, talking, eating vegetables, exercising, loving, hating, and all the other things kids learn from adult without being told to learn them).  It’s not that there’s never a need for supporting the learning of certain things; learning comes more and less easily in different areas for different people.  But the drive to learn, the inspiration to take on learning something like reading or how to stay organized or how to treat others kindly, is much more effectively communicated by example.  As long as we don’t think we need a curriculum for walking and talking, it won’t make any sense to have a curriculum for other kinds of learning.  And it will continue to undermine the natural desire of young humans to be like the older humans who take care of them.

So why don’t kids seem motivated to work hard at some of the things we do model for them?  It’s worth considering that young people have the wisdom to see that some of what we’re working hard at isn’t serving us.  Some of the things we run ourselves ragged at may not be the building blocks for the kind of life kids are committed to having.  We can scoff at them about it, roll our eyes at their naiveté, or we can check to be sure they aren’t on to something that we’d be wise to consider. Do we have to do our bookkeeping by hand? Do we have to know the exact start dates of all the major world wars by heart?  Do we have to be unhappy in our careers to earn a satisfactory living?  Do we have to have jobs that pay more but also keep us away from our families?  These are not simple questions, of course, and they don’t have consistent answers.  But these are the questions that we tend to sweep under the rug, and our unwillingness to ask them can erode our credibility with kids.  They want to be like us, they want to follow our examples, but when they find that the example we’re setting doesn’t seem quite right, they tend to prickle.  And ultimately, it’s because they’re doing just what we want them to.  They’re looking for the best healthiest happiest life they can possibly build for themselves.