Give Your Child the Gift of the “History Habit”

If you're like me, you hated history when you were young, but as an adult you've come to appreciate that there's a lot more to history than there seemed to be based on the way we were taught. Sadly, however, because we weren't properly taught history as children, putting together a good history program for our kids can be tortuously difficult. We have to struggle just to understand history ourselves, let alone teach it. If only our own teachers had given us the gift of the "history habit" when we were younger.

Imagine how much further along we would be if we'd acquired that basic knowledge we are struggling to build now back when we were seven years old. Imagine being fascinated by history's true stories then, instead of twenty or thirty years later. Imagine being fueled by lasting impressions of the past, armed with a foundation of historical knowledge, and buoyed by a desire to learn as you make your way through life. That's the history habit, and it's a gift every person should receive as a child, instead of having to fight to develop it as an adult.

Sadly, even fewer people develop the history habit than its more famous sibling, the "reading habit." The simple reason that most adults don't develop the history habit is that they don't learn to love history when they are still young, and then they learn to hate it when they are in high school.

Most schools don't teach history to young children. Elementary grade children are taught "social studies" instead. But social studies present the range of human experiences in a disconnected fashion, typically jumping from journalistic topic to journalistic topic, culture to culture, and continent to continent in a seemingly random manner. When asked what they are studying, students in social studies classes answer, "I don't know."

Social studies do not help kids develop an interest in history, and they don't prepare students with the basic knowledge they need to learn more history when they are older. Consequently, when students get to high school, and they are bombarded with the material from 1000-page textbooks, they are forced to cram it into their heads without ever having developed an appreciation for it, and they almost universally come to see history as a perverse kind of torture inflicted on them by uncaring adults! Hardly anyone actually learns history this way. Certainly, nobody learns to love it by this approach. At best, students learn to master the art of rote memorization, so that they can pass the test.

To be properly prepared to weather a typical high school history class, let alone to emerge into the world as historically-minded adults, students need years of prior history instruction in the same material at increasing levels of abstraction. In other words, students already need to have acquired the history habit, and to have taken advantage of it to see history as a relevant and exciting subject.

Of course, if you're able to homeschool your child through high school, you can help him or her avoid what passes for history in high schools these days, but the real point of teaching your children history at a young age isn't so that they will be ready to endure bad textbooks and curricula. It's about giving them knowledge and the sustainable motivation to make history a part of their intellectual life as an educated adult. Here's how you can put your child in this advantageous position:

  1. START HISTORY EARLY - The most important way to give a child the history habit is to start history instruction early. The earlier kids start learning history the more natural it is for them to do so, the easier it is for them to become habituated to it, and the better prepared they are to learn the more complicated material they will have to tackle when they're older. The most important thing at this early stage, however, is to get them hooked.
  2. KEEP IT UP - In addition to starting to learn history when they are young, students needs to learn it repeatedly over the course of their education. Repetition is not only key to memorization, it helps understanding. Going back over the same material they learned a few years ago helps students reinforce the "history habit," because they experience the satisfaction of recalling historical facts, and they begin to make connections that they could not have made the first time around. (Fortunately, most homeschooling curricula are designed to allow you to cycle through the same material at different stages of learning.)
  3. THROW IN SOME FUN - Two words: Toga Party! I just went to one to honor a young man's fight against cancer, but do you really need a reason to have a toga party? There are so many simple and fun ways like this to reinforce the history habit as children are growing up. Toys, puzzles, and games (including video games) that have a history component are plentiful. Of course, the easiest thing to do is to turn on the TV! You'd be surprised how many channels beyond the obvious ones incorporate history into their programming. Spike, a "man's channel," is running a series about great warriors through history that a lot of older students would love. Whenever the Travel Channel goes abroad, or even when it stays in the US, there's plenty of history to be found there too. (To leverage this resource most effectively for learning try to match up your programming choices with what your child is studying.)
  4. TRAVEL THROUGH TIME - Find local attractions that are of historical significance, and if you can afford it, get out of the US! I recently traveled to see an operating hundred year old Cotton Gin in Burton, TX---only an hour from Houston, where I live. There are attractions of this sort throughout the country. Certainly, Civil War re-enactments abound. But beyond that, do whatever you can to jump overseas. Plan a trip to Rome, Athens, or Paris at least once in your kids' education. And get them involved in the planning. Putting together a family vacation to see famous historical places is a great homeschooling project!
  5. LITERATURE - Everyone knows this one, but I'll stick it in here anyways. Match up your literature with your history. Studying Rome? A Triumph for Flavius is great for younger kids. American history for junior high? Carry On Mr. Bowditch is terrific. Studying Revolutionary France in high school? You can't do better than Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three for students that age. There are a thousand options, from D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths to Asterix, from Cyrano de Bergerac to Inherit the Wind. Great historical fictions helps develop the reading habit and the history habit at the same time!
  6. WHAT NOT TO DO - Rote memorization is the surest way to kill a burgeoning history habit, so ignore what the Well Trained Mind says on this one, at least for elementary grade children. There is plenty of time for students to memorize key individuals, events and dates once they understand why history matters and they enjoy learning it. Memorization should not be a priority for students of history until they are older, once it can be a proper complement to what they already understand. (The one exception to this rule is geography. The memorization of geographical place names, which is highly relevant to understanding history, is inherently a rote activity. It should be started as early as possible.)
  7. IT'S NEVER TOO LATE - It's possible to develop the history habit at any age. I'm proof of that! Which doesn't mean it doesn't get more difficult as students get older. I've had to fight for over fifteen years to get where I am. If you have an older student, and you're having trouble with history, here's a few tips that might help. First, try to find some way to tap into your kid's values. Show a sports fan how a favorite team's record is a kind of history. Show a music lover their favorite's artist's influences. Second, talk about the value of history abstractly. Discuss the instruction, insights, and inspiration that you have gained from history and work on finding more together. Third, don't worry about covering it all. It's better to do only American or Ancient history well than to do a lot poorly.

Developing the "history habit" is a journey you can take together with your homeschooling students. If you can transmit lasting knowledge of history to them as you grow yourself, then you'll be giving yourself a gift at the same time as you'll be passing it on to them.

Scott Powell is a historian living in Houston, TX. He is the creator and teacher of HistoryAtOurHouse, a homeschooling curriculum for students from 2nd to 12th grade. Follow his blog at for more posts about acquiring and passing on the "history habit." This article is from Mr. Powell's column for the Home Educators Resource Directory. Check it out at:

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