Early in 1982, John Holt began to write a book about how children learn to read and write and count at home—with very little or no teaching. Around the same time, while listening wryly to expansive promises from politicians to pour more money into the schools and extend greater federal authority and control over education, he had (only half-jokingly) proposed another book, to be called "How to Make Schools Worse." Being by nature optimistic and constructive, however, he had given up the notion of a polemic and focused more and more on the very nature of early learning, as it takes place in the everyday lives of small children. By the spring of 1983 he put into words exactly what this new book would be about:
The book will be a demonstration [italics his] that children, without being coerced or manipulated, or being put in exotic, specially prepared environments, or having their thinking planned and ordered for them, can, will, and do pick up from the world around them important information about what we call the Basics.
It will also demonstrate that "ordinary" people, without special training and often without large amounts of schooling themselves, can give their children whatever slight assistance may be needed to help them in their exploration of the world, and that to do this task requires no more than a little tact, patience, attention, and readily available information.