How a Book Can Change Everything

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I have a lot to say in this post – it’s almost difficult to know where to start!

Firstly, after paring down my books (yup, I know I keep going on about it), I found that something interesting happened. I left 5 books on my bookshelf to read and I have been reading them – almost every day!

Prior to the clear-out I would read maybe half a book every couple of months and never finish anything. In the last week I have finished one book without being distracted by anything else and now I am half way through another.

So I guess point 1 of this post is that reducing choice makes choice easier, and that easier choices seem to mean greater focus on the task at hand.

The book I am currently half way through is called How Children Learn, by John Holt. I bought it ages ago and had been meaning to read it as an insight into DS1’s behaviour as he can be such an enigma to me – he’s smart and fiercely independent, but can also be almost impossible to engage with when he isn’t happy or when he’s bored (seemingly more and more of the time).

This book is excellent. It talks mostly about children under school age (like mine), and reading the author’s objective observations about their behaviour has totally transformed the way I see my own children’s actions. Suddenly I can see with so much clarity why they behave the way they do.

I am only half way through, so I can’t really review it with justice, but point 2 of this post is that I think this is an amazing and worthwhile book to read.

The effect of this book on me over the last few days has resulted in one of the best days as a mother that I have ever had.

To explain this in a little more detail, I’d like to compare some aspects of a typical day in our house with the day I have had today.

A typical day

DS1 spends a lot of his time trying to physically wrestle DS2, which inevitably starts with hysterical laughter and ends with tears. At various points in the day DS2 will demand huge chunks of my time and affection by screaming and wailing. DS1 ignores this and plays alone. After freeing myself from DS2, if I suggest playing anything with DS1 he isn’t interested and will say No to every idea I can come up with.

As soon as I need to do anything independently (like stack the dishwasher, or make food), DS1 and DS2 start fighting over the closest toy. Neither of them can be appeased with substitutes and it almost always results in meltdown from the one that doesn’t get to have the toy in question (or from both if I just take the damn thing away because I’m so fed up with it).

Sometimes I feel like I split them apart and try to explain sharing 100 times every afternoon. I often despair because I don’t seem to be able to engage DS1 in any activity any more – he just doesn’t want to play or do anything with me :-(.

By the time they are in bed I often feel as though I have clawed my way through another terrible day and all I can do is hope that it might be better tomorrow.


After a couple of hours of reading last night, I woke up this morning and couldn’t wait to see the boys. I couldn’t wait to see them behaving in ways that I had recognised in the book with my new knowledge about what they might be thinking or trying to achieve.

I have paraphrased some things from the book in parenthesis.

I got DS1 to prepare most of his own breakfast (little people want to do what big people do). He was bright and chatty and sat really nicely at the table. After we got back from the supermarket shop and once DS2 went down for his nap, I waited for DS1 to suggest a game or activity and I willingly jumped right in (take the opportunity to play a game when it is presented). I didn’t try to lead or guide the play, or end a game so I could get something done around the house, I just followed his approach.

Amazingly, this started with hide and seek, and killing monsters (me, actually), but then it soon changed to us as a team killing an external monster, then settled down into putting out fires. Then he wanted some activity time and asked for things I normally have a very hard time getting him interested in. We played with a dice (don’t explain or teach, just follow the child’s lead), letters, did some colouring and threading (don’t teach or test) and then eventually it settled into him becoming absorbed in pretend play with a dumper truck and cars and lego while I just sat next to him on the floor.

We played for almost an hour and a half without any moaning, indecision, boredom, misbehaviour or refusal to be involved.

And I didn’t instigate any of it.

And then the really big deal of the day – we went upstairs to get DS2 up from his nap. This normally results in lots of wrestling and screaming over toys until they “get used to each other” again.

Today DS1 shared out his cars with DS2 and they took it in turns to send them down a ramp. They are 3 and 1.

Did I say that they took it in turns??

I didn’t step in, I didn’t guide them, I didn’t do anything at all apart from set up the ramp on the initial request.

It could be coincidence, it could be the start of a new phase, but I think DS1’s patience and willingness to share with DS2 was a direct result of having just had a huge chunk of patience and openness and willingness to play from me.

I found the afternoon took more effort – it is harder with 2 – but we played at having ‘tea’ in the garden (with cups and water), for as long as they wanted. Then DS1 spent some time playing alone while I read to DS2, but today there was no anger or provocation in his playing.


Right at the end of the day there was some wrestling, but because I felt so relaxed and happy about how the day had gone, I didn’t get stressed about it and DS1 didn’t persist with being overly rough.

Both boys went down like a dream at bedtime.


I am so grateful to have had today, even though I know there may be a big part of it just being a lucky day, because it has taught me that I don’t need to worry so much about getting my kids to do things.

I just need to play with them, without criticising, teaching or trying to make it logical.

I just need to play exactly how they want to play, because playing is how children learn.

4 thoughts on “How a Book Can Change Everything”

  1. Rose! I have been a part time nanny off and on for the last fifteen years (for the same family) and I can relate. I’m so happy for you! My best days with the kids are when I turn off my ringer and just play with them. They learn by interacting with me and with each other. If they have a question I can’t answer, we look it up on YouTube or Wikipedia. I get more stressed out (and unlovable) when I have an agenda… Your boys are adorable. Go you, Mama! Love reading your posts (as always). Cheers!

  2. “don’t explain or teach, just follow the child’s lead”

    I just had a light bulb moment! I think I know now why my kids (mostly the 8 year old) complains and complains about family activities. Because I am such a control freak. No wonder they complain a lot! LOL

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m going to look this book up in our local bookstore 🙂

  3. Thanks everyone – I too am a bit of control freak, so have found it really difficult when DS1 refuses to listen to the way things are ‘supposed’ to be done. I just want to teach both of them everything, but on reflection that might actually be the root of the problem in our house. I’m just so glad I finally got around to reading the book and wished I’d picked it up and read it the day I bought it (about 6 months ago!).

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