Although the concept of demand feeding a new born baby might seem a little daunting to some first-time parents, most of us who chose this form of feeding usually learn quite quickly to respond to our baby’s cues. The recognition of a baby’s signal to breastfeed, whether to counteract hunger or as a source of comfort usually becomes quite instinctive. This is particularly true as the child grows older and their needs become more specific. I remember myself, by the time I was breastfeeding my fifth child the process was so automatic that the baby rarely cried and I would often be barely aware of feeding.

There is no need to uses coercive parenting techniques when it comes to demand feeding young children. The three main techniques of coercive parenting, namely “wheeling, bribing and bullying” (as describe by John Holt inTeach Your Own), are completely unnecessary when mothers look to their children’s innate nature and respond to their cues as their own instincts lead them to do.

Although they may not realise it at the time, these same mothers, almost without exception, embark on a regime of “demand learning” with their infants and toddlers. All children are born with an innate drive to learn about themselves and their families and the rest of the world. This drive is expressed through their curiosity and interest in things around them, their exploration of their physical environment, their repeated attempts to practise and perfect new physical skills and the expression of their desire for social interaction through speech and body language. Mothers support their children’s learning, as do fathers, by responding to their children’s cues, helping them to further explore the things they are interested in and encouraging their attempts at communication.

The concept that young children must be bribed and/or bullied into learning to walk or talk is absurd. Any parent will tell you that their children’s drive to master these skills, along with the parent’s loving support and encouragement, was all that was needed. Children provide plenty of feedback to parents about their learning, expressing delight, concentration, frustration and disinterest as clear and distinct messages. Parents who learn to respond to these messages quickly realise that children have different needs when it comes to learning. For toddlers and preschoolers it is generally deemed as perfectly acceptable for learning environments to be tailored in response to these individual cues. This creates a unique experience for each child.

As children approach the age of six, the expectation that they will continue to learn disappears as a lifetime of indoctrination about the school system takes over. Parents are taught from the time that they were children at school themselves that learning does not happen naturally. Many parents believe that children must be coerced into learning. Not only must they be coerced but many parents believe children must be subjected to such treatment for 1200 hours per year for up to twelve years. Curious, interested, enthusiastic children go to school at age six and disinterested, unmotivated, often stressed, depressed or disgruntled young adults emerge twelve years later. What happened in between is not a natural process and it is not inevitable.

If you spend some time with teenagers and young adults who were not subjected to the coercive learning environment of a school, you will quickly realise that they exhibit many of the characteristics that are so noticeable in young children. They are usually engaging, often passionately pursuing an area of study or project that has caught their interest and usually clear on what it is that they want to do — if not for life, at least for the immediate future. These young people were allowed to continue “demand learning” at home and increasingly as they got older, in their local communities and the wider world. They were supported by their parents who strove to provide them with opportunities and environments that stimulated their interest and respected their disinterest or desire to disengage with any particular activities. Their own innate drive to learn led them in many different directions, creating for each a unique experience from which they gained knowledge and skills for interacting in the world.

There is nothing miraculous about these parents. There is nothing more miraculous about these parents than those who learned to respond to their children’s cues to demand feed, or to the parents supporting their toddler’s efforts to walk or talk. Each parent is simply paying attention to their children and striving to meet their children’s expressed needs. There is no more need to impose a structured regime of learning upon an older child than there is to impose a structured schedule of feeding upon an infant. Reading lessons are as unnecessary as crawling lessons, as a child’s drive to understand is as strong as their drive to more around.

That is not to say that children can learn these skills in isolation. But rather they learn them in an enriching and varied environment, exposed to a variety of opportunities, with the love and support of their parents and communities. The advantage is that the learning experience becomes tailored specifically for each individual child. The advantage is also that the relationship between parent and child can continue to be based on love and respect, rather than upon coercion and control. Because, just as a child can be trusted to seek to breastfeed of their own accord, to meet their own nutritional and emotional needs, a child can also be trusted to engage in particular learning experiences to acquire the knowledge and skills that they will need during their lives.

In pursuing demand learning it is important to delight in what your child chooses to do, rather than dwelling on the things that do not interest them. It is important to trust that they will choose to learn, just as they chose to feed as infants. Demand learning allows an appreciation of the freedom to parent in a loving, responsive and respectful fashion as we discover the unique nature of our children and their passion for living.