"They'll learn it when they need it" is used by some homeschool families to delay teaching certain things. Does this work? And what happens when it doesn't?

“They’ll Learn it When They Need It” Doesn’t Always Work

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It’s common in the homeschooling community to hear parents say they are choosing to delay teaching their kids some educational element because they are of the belief their kids will learn it when they need it.

And sometimes that works out just fine.

But I wanna have a little chat with you before you haul off on the my kids will learn it when they truly and actually need it path.

In 5th grade, I discovered theater. Thus began my journey into I’m going to be on Broadway and I threw myself into the local theater system.

Now, seriously—I could sing and I could act…but I had no experience in dance. But hey, all I had to do was take some dance classes (because I finally needed them) and I’d be the triple threat that every musical theater wannabe wants to be.

Right? Right.

But growing up, money and time were tight so dance class wasn’t an option. I muddled through whatever dance steps were assigned in the local (and bigger!) theater shows and I did well enough to get by, but every so often a director would suggest taking actual dance classes.

I watched my other theater buddies faithfully trek off to dance class and I vowed, “I’ll catch up when I’m older. I will totally do this.”

Well, here’s the thing. They’ll learn it when they need it isn’t always true.

Whether I wanted to admit it or not, there is a huge difference between someone who has been taking dance since they were 3 and someone who started when they were 18.

Just because someone has the need, desire for, or interest in something doesn’t mean they have the immediate ability.

If desire or need equaled ability to learn, I would remember how to change oil. I would understand knitting. And I’d be able to read music and tablature.

Saying a child will learn it when they need it infers there is a shortcut of sorts, as in people who start off earlier really don’t need to start so early. And sometimes that’s true.

But sometimes it isn’t.

Might it be incredibly insulting to those who are struggling through a concept that your child will supposedly hop right in and learn simply because they finally have a desire?

Perhaps. Try talking to the parent of a child who truly wants to learn something and just. can’t. get. it.

Learn it when they need it also assumes ease—as in, if my kid wants it and needs it, they will either

  • a) pick up on it right away or,
  • b) be willing to struggle through it because they truly want it.

For some kids this might be true. For others, not at all. People give up all the time and wonder how things might have turned out if they’d pressed on.

The crazy thing? They’ll learn it when they need it isn’t used for every subject. Just tough ones.

The funny thing is that I most often hear they’ll learn it when they need it in reference to a) math or b) writing.

I’ve never heard anyone say, “I’m not going to play Mozart for my kid because they don’t need it right now.”

I’ve never heard anyone say, “let’s not do to this art museum/hiking trip/science experiment. My kids don’t really need it right now.”

Or, “this art/play/field trip is over their head. I’d better wait until later.”

We don’t tell a kid, “I know you love Greek Mythology but there’s absolutely no solid reason for you to learn it right now. Let’s wait until you need it.”

Nope, this learn it when they need it usually seems to be reserved for math and writing.

Since most of us are not second generation homeschoolers, I’m going to assume we all have a basic knowledge of algebra, how to write a paper, and other such things. When we say to a kid, “you’ll learn it when you need it” we forget what the kid doesn’t actually know yet. We forget our point of reference is completely different than theirs—especially if they’ve never been in public school.

Learn it when they need it? What do the kids think?


I will always remember sitting in a conference with a panel of homeschooled graduates who were talking about their experiences entering college. One girl admitted her mom had never taught her to write a paper, and explained she’d been told, “You’ll pick it up how to do it when you actually need it.”

When the girl got to college, she not only struggled with the changes that simply came with being in (gasp!) public college, she struggled with having to figure out how to write an actual paper—something her peers were either breezing through or at least had a reference point as to what the process looked like.

The freedom for homeschoolers to learn it when they need it had backfired a little bit for her. And she made it clear she wasn’t happy about that.

Will they learn it when they need it? What is our responsibility as a parent?

Now, I have no clue what my kids are going to grow up to be. But as mom, I feel it’s my responsibility to send them out of my house having a fighting chance.

I would feel horrible if one of my sons felt unprepared or at a disadvantage to his peers because of something I failed to put in front of him at some point in our time together.

Not everyone who is exposed to composition, algebra, etc., is going to excel at it or even like it. But there is a huge difference between having some sort of knowledge about it in your back pocket and needing it and having absolutely no clue.

You can’t say you want to expose your child to all that the world has to offer, and then conveniently neglect to show them certain things (like upper math or advanced writing skills).

It’s almost…hypocritical.

Homeschooling is awesome because we have the opportunity to show so much of the world to our kids. The world is big and wide and amazing—let’s make sure our kids get to experience as much of it as they can while we are in a position to provide the opportunity for them.

Yes, even math and writing.

"They'll learn it when they need it" is used by some homeschool families to delay teaching certain things. Does this work? And what happens when it doesn't?

Tired of the sugarcoated version of homeschooling? Read my book The Homeschool Highway: How to Navigate Your Way Without Getting Carsick.


9 thoughts on ““They’ll Learn it When They Need It” Doesn’t Always Work”

  1. Love your post so much I've shared it in a couple of places! I do think that if you (or your child) are overly stressing that maybe a subject or skill should be reconsidered until a later time. I do believe that a desired participation or interest will deepen the subject or increase the momentum of learning for our kids. That being said, what kind of parent-educators would we be if we didn't give them the tools to succeed? 😉

  2. I agree to a point. There are certain concepts that need to be postponed due to a developmental need. For instance, my little guy struggled with counting to 100. He just couldn’t wrap his little head around it. One year later he learned it in a little over 2 days because he was developmentally ready. There are those who will use learn it when they need it as a cop out. However, there are some who understand that it needs to be postponed until the child is more ready to learn the concept.

    1. thehmmmschoolingmom

      I agree with that. I think it’s different for every child and family, and I think if parents are honest, they can know if their child needs to wait or not. I think we know in our heart if it’s a cop out or not. 🙂

  3. I love the title of this post. It immediately grabbed my attention because I have lived it. My (premie) son did not take to eating solid foods when children normally eat solid foods. Most every person told me, he’ll eat solids when he’s hungry. I believed them. Trouble was, he had oral aversion, and it took him 2 years before he came to a place where he’d take 3 bites of food. It took A LOT of work. He finally learned to chew and swallow food At 3yrs. At 4 he can eat decent sized meal, but only a handful of foods. It’s a struggle to introduce new foods. Here’s my point… There are things that don’t magically happen. You’ve got to introduce new concepts to kids, expose them to less interesting things and maybe even require them to put aside the preferred activity to spend a period of time with a less interesting activity. Some really important skills may not EVER be developed if you don’t begin training your kids in it. No…it’s not fun. Yes, it’s a whole lot easier and peaceful to give your kid pancakes every. freaking.day. But that’s not healthy and it’s not doing your child any favors. I actually put away my child’s favorite toys and games on certain days. It’s not fun. Not for him and not for me. But he’ll do the spelling game he rarely touches the rest of the week. And he’ll find grouping his marbles by 4’s incredibly fun when his go-to favorite toys are put away. And you know what? It’s worth it because while my son loves playing with his marble run and yo yo, he ALSO can skip count by 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, 5’s, 10’s and 11’s at 4 yrs old beyond rote but through experiential playful learning because I put away what he was most interested in… To make way for something that minutely interests him. And early childhood world… I’m not apologizing for it. Some things in life aren’t interesting… And you know what? That’s absolutely ok. Loved your article… Thanks!!!!

  4. I’ve actually never heard the phrase ‘they’ll learn it when the need it.’ I have frequently heard the phrase ‘they’ll learn it when they want it.’ I feel my job is to enable my kids when they want to know something, and also to look ahead a bit figuring out what I can also show them based on what they want to know now. Even so, yeah, I suspect I’m going to miss something they’ll ultimately need, but that’s the beauty of life, things ebb and flow and everything winds up OK in the end.

  5. I agree exposure is great and necessary and we do need to be grateful for new and difficult tasks. And sometimes we need to learn something just to put our brains and wills into subjection instead of letting them run rampant.But there is also example after example of people (men often) who were total cut-ups in high school simply because they never saw the use of learning _____________. However, when they reached college and had a real-life reason to learn it, they learned it very quickly. Even with something like dance, a child who is motivated at 13 can still learn to be as excellent a dancer as a kid who had the privilege of dancing since they were 3. They will have to put major effort into it, but when there is a reason, the will easily follows. I think the premise it way too broad to stretch it across every student equally. Students are so individual and some have great gifts in math or writing or history or science or art or whatever, and some just have to work harder. But when they truly see a reason and are hungry for the rewards of what that knowledge will bring, oh, yes! They WILL learn it, and often in much less time that it would have taken otherwise. Good discussion!

  6. My mother once had a fellow homeschool mom tell her she believed children were like flowers and needed to be left alone to grow. My mother responded, “Yes, but even flowers need to be weeded!”?

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