Last week I took the kids to Florida. My cousin had a wedding in Boca Raton, so we went for the wedding and stayed for a week.
We stayed at the Boca Beach Club, in Boca Raton, FL. It's owned by Waldorf Astoria, and it was just totally over the top in terms of luxury hotels. It had all the usual stuff—like mints on our pillow at bedtime, an extravagant buffet at breakfast, and a mini-bar full of five-dollar Cokes. But it also had a clientele of people who live in gated communities and use the Waldorf as their country club.
The women had super-tight tummies, huge diamond rings, and perfectly coiffed kids, and I couldn't stop thinking about how they were the prom queens who married the real estate moguls and insurance tycoons and now they are the in-club of adult life.
My six-year-old said to me: "Mom. Your shirt has a hole in it. You should keep that for the farm. You can't wear it here."
I started to argue with him. To give him a lesson about how appearances don't matter.
Back in our room I threw out my shirt.
And when the boys were sleeping on their 600-thread-count sheets, I started reading The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, by Alexandra Robbins.
Robbins is the queen of writing about how people fit in, and how fitting in destroys them. She wrote Pledged (sorority sister disgustingness) and The Overachievers (parents driving kids insane over Ivy League college admission). This most recent book is about the joys of not fitting in.
Robbins shows how high school is a time when people feel the most pressure to fit in. Due to the brain development of teens (they are literally crazy) and how kids are just then learning to separate themselves from their parents, the pressure to downplay one's unique qualities in favor of fitting in is unlike any sort of pressure that happens in later life. High school amplifies what is naturally a tough time in life into an obstacle course of forced conformity.
This book is full of great quotes like, "Conformity is a cop-out. It threatens self-awareness. It can lead groups to enforce rigid and arbitrary rules. Adolescent groups with high levels of conformity experience more negative behavior than do groups with lower levels of conformity."
Robbins makes the argument that parents should encourage their kids to be unpopular in high school. Popular kids do not do as well in adult life as the weird, nerdy, eccentric kids who are, invariably, unpopular.
The statistics to support these conclusions are convincing, ranging from psychology studies to lists of people who did well in business and were weirdos in school. Lady Gaga, of course, is the national hero of all nerds, and Robbins spends a lot of time describing Gaga's transformation from high school loser to Forbes' Richest Women. But Robbins also talks about hiring practices that focus on finding non-conformist employees. Yahoo, for example wants people who are "curious, energetic, value openess and want to live unbridled and unrestricted. They appreciate that life is huge. They don't settle for status quo–they want to grow." Obviously, Yahoo is not looking to hire the kids who were popular in high school.
One of the most striking parts of the book is when Robbins blames parents for wanting their kids to be popular. It's a messed-up goal leftover from when the parents themselves struggled in high school. Robbins previously wrote a whole book on parents who are selfishly pushing their kids to get into Ivy League schools to prove their parenting was great. And she shows that wanting kids to be popular in high school is driven by the same, narcissist, misguided parenting.
The book is a great argument for homeschooling. Probably the reason that Robbins does not make this logical conclusion is that she is too conformist. She writes books to make people feel good about their own decisions. She has written in the past to show that people who look like they have it all—the sorority girls, the Ivy Leaguers—really have an insipid, uninspired life; we can all be glad we don't have that. And this book tells all the people who thought they were losers in high school that they were actually the Chosen.
Increasingly I'm realizing that the books that are most persuasive when it comes to homeschooling are the books that don't even mention the word. If Robbins took the book to its logical conclusion she would tell all parents that learning independently of the high school environment would build the strongest, most socially savvy teenagers. But then she would lose her whole audience, because she'd invalidate everyone's schooling decisions for their kids.
People are scared of homeschooling. They take all the arguments for taking kids out of school and then draw other, less far-reaching and less obvious conclusions. But fortunately the research is all there. And books like The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth don't make being an outcast feel any better, but at least it explains why it should be OK.