So much of parenting advice is what you should be doing. But the hardest advice to take is what you shouldn’t be doing. Because it is actually more difficult to just sit on your hands and wait than to insert yourself where you think you can make a difference. Here are three areas where inserting yourself will just waste time and cause trouble:

1. Don’t get an SAT tutor.
More than 800 colleges and universities no longer require the SAT or ACT for admission. And 150 of those are ranked by as top tier by US News & World Report. Also, reports show that each year more schools make the tests optional. This means that even if you want your kid to go to a great university, he or she can focus on getting in for doing what is interesting instead of getting in via great test scores.

2. Don’t push to enroll in a magnet school.
Chester Finn describes, in his book, Exam Schools, how magnet schools create an atmosphere where kids are working around the clock to get good grades. They are kids who scored highest in their geographic area to go to the top school, and then they study nonstop to survive at the school.

The problem with these schools is that they can’t send everyone to Harvard. And, in fact, they have an unspoken agreement to select among their kids before the application process, so only a small handful of kids can apply to each top-tier school from an exam school. The school decides where you apply. And the competition is artificially tough to get into college because you are competing against all the smartest kids from schools that aren’t even in your district.

Meanwhile, kids who faced tougher times, in a school not nearly as prestigious as an exam school, get special consideration for hardship. So why bother working so hard to get the great grades? There is no reward at the end.

3. Don’t judge the interests of a high schooler.
The important thing is that a kid has interests. One of the most common problems adults face is that they don’t know what they are interested in. This makes sense: school doesn’t encourage us to learn that about ourselves. So if you have a kid with strong interests, don’t judge whether they are good or bad, because honestly, you don’t want our kid second guessing himself to please you all the time, do you? You want a kid who is confident enough in his judgment to experiment in his twenties. He doesn’t have to be right. He just needs to keep trying things, which requires self-confidence.

I love the story that Lawrence Tabak told about his son.

My son says, “You know that new game that I’m playing?”

I said yes, even though my knowledge of the gaming world is vague and inexact, picked up from occasional glimpses over shoulders and back-seat conversations.

“Well, I’m currently ranked No. 1.”

“No 1? In your league or whatever?”

“Not exactly.”

“In the country?”

“No,” he said, pausing for effect. “In the world.”

I didn’t know whether to be proud or appalled. 

Tabak surmises that his son does very little studying and plays video games instead. But eventually, his son scored an entry level job at a gaming company. Do you know why? Because people like to hire for drive and determination and passion. Employers don’t judge where you use those attributes in the past, as long as you have them to direct toward work right now.

And this seems like a good time to tell you that the range of contribution that a kid can make after years and years of playing video games is breathtaking. Video games are about planning and strategy, for example. And they’re about art. The Museum of Modern Art just put a bunch of video games in their permanent collection.

8 replies
  1. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    My husband and I are engineers. Folks think we are smart. I think we do OK. I think my kids are smart but not so much in a *My honor student … blah, blah, blah* kind of way but can think critically, read lots for the joy and fun of seeing/experiencing/knowing new worlds.

    My eldest (15 years old) is still mostly unschooling. He is currently enrolled in a new program offered by three local high schools – the Trades Academy. They spent the first 18 weeks learning about and rotating every three weeks between six topics – automotive, electrical, rough carpentry, finish carpentry, masonry, and welding. The next 18 weeks they chose two topics to study for nine weeks at a time. Next year they go to the local community college (to earn an AA or the first two years of an undergraduate degree) while working an apprenticeship.

    I can not tell you how many folks (teens and adults) have looked at my teen with scorn and incredulity in their eyes. How will he ever make his way in the world? How will he ever get into a good college? How could we as parents let this happen to our otherwise bright kid??

    We see a kid learning real life skills that will be important to him if he ever owns a car or a home. We see a kid who is earning a high school diploma and a college AA degree and/or two years of a four year degree debt free. We see a kid with real life experience. We see a kid who is successfully building his own room in the basement – legal egress and masonry, wiring, drywall and mud, flooring, built ins. We see a kid who thinks he wants to be an engineer learning how the world works in real time not just how a person thinks it might work.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That Trades Academy idea is so great. It’s so cool that it’s an organized program. I think so many of us fear that we will have to create our own Trades Academy for our kids. Because how else will they learn to be in the world? I’d love to have someone structure these opportunities for my kid so I don’t have to.

      Penelope

      • MoniqueWS
        MoniqueWS says:

        Your guys are a little younger than my big guy. I bet they have this kind of program at the local high school. My big guy says the kids in this program are primarily farmers kids. We have also found this kind of program for high school aged kids at the local community college in the summer. Kids go to a week or so of trades class at a time. http://www.linnbenton.edu/summeracademies

      • MoniqueWS
        MoniqueWS says:

        Thanks Mark!

        20 years ago when I married my husband the average age of machinsts in America was 54. It was bad. The older guys of course were all the higher paid guys but with no one coming up behind them …?

        Subsequently many machining/tooling jobs have gone over seas to China. The machining/tooling shops in America are few and far between. They are often still the better option though.

        Many businesses needing tooling go to China initially because the cost is less. Unfortunately the tools come back badly done and often out of specs. Folks like my husband then get paid to make it right – re-doing or going to China to oversee the work. It is good business for this family. It ends up costing American businesses a lot more money. They don’t care (ultimately they should and do). They hide the re-do work as maintenance costs. It appears the initial cost of the tooling is a good deal but when you add in all the *hidden* costs it is much more expensive. It is too bad the decisions are being hijacked by shoddy accounting. It is too bad we aren’t encouraging kids to go into the trades.

  2. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Hi Penelope! I like your picture. SimCity 2000 is amazing. I used to play SimCity when I was a child and a teen.

    At first, I just made cities out of the terrain the simulation gave me. Then, I would change the terrain before making cities. I would either copy the geography of an actual city or make more terraces, rivers, and waterfalls, which increase land value. Later, I would use tilesets from the internet to give my cities a different look, like ancient Roman, Gothic, or neoclassic architecture.

    But I always made sure that my cities had low crime and high health and education levels. In some cities, the citizens were so happy that they gave me parades.

    I learned HTML and built a website to share my cities and tilesets, but I had to take down the site when Geocities closed.

    I’m INFP. I like reading for fun. I usually read non-fiction books, news articles, and self-help blogs. I usually finish the books given to my parents before they would even touch it.

    I used to doodle as a child. In an art class, our professor asked us to keep a sketchbook as our notebook. I brought that sketchbook in all my other classes and drew the faces of my classmates and professors, the movies that we saw, and the cityscapes outside the classrooms.

    Unfortunately, I never majored in architecture, urban planning, psychology, or art. While I did not have an SAT tutor, I enrolled in a “magnet school” and was criticized for spending too much time on the computer and reading too much non-school books.

    I studied in a national science high school where almost everyone was a valedictorian in elementary school. I majored in engineering during my first year in college because it was technical and I was introverted. I shifted to foreign service when my family moved to Washington because my parents said that a social science major suited me more.

    When I came back home, I got my bachelor’s degree, worked as a writer and researcher for a few years. I liked writing and research as long as I have a boss who would provide me with direction, structure, snd feedback. But those jobs did not have growth and gave little pay.

    My family had a legal problem at this time. So I took a law school exam, passed it, quit my job, and went to law school.

    Fortunately, I will not have debt from law school. Unfortunately, I do not enjoy law school at all. I put off studying and reading my cases at the last minute. Recitation still terrifies me even though I’m already in my third year. I just want to master the law so that I would pass the bar exam next year.

    Anyway, I’m a good illustration of someone who did not take all her interests and personality to heart when choosing a career. With your blog, I am learning more about myself, my career prospects, and about life in general. Thank you, Penelope!

  3. Sara
    Sara says:

    JFYI, I went to a magnet school and the school most definitely did not decide where we applied. The advantage in terms of college admissions wasn’t that everyone was sent to Harvard but that the school had tons of resources to help kids figure out the best school for them. So kids went to an incredibly wide variety of colleges, much wider than most public schools.

    Anyway the benefits of a magnet school, in my view, aren’t the ones around advancement but around a smart kid being in an environment that nurtures them and being surrounded by excited peers.

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