My younger son wants to go to school. I won’t let him.

It’s clear to me that he has no ability to understand why school is crushingly terrible. I mean, most adults can’t even see it.

The reinforcement kids get about school is incredible. The ads on TV talk about how important it is for kids to succeed in school. All the sitcoms make school look totally fun because all the plot twists happen there. People ask children what grade they’re in, like your school grade defines something important.

So I decided that there is no way to ask a kid to decide whether to go against all of this and leave school. Some kids love school and some kids hate school. But none of that means that school is better for the kids who love it.

In fact, I think school is worst for the kids who do the best. Because if you get used to being told you are smart and good for learning what someone tells you to learn, then it’s a rude awakening when no one gives you gold stars as a young adult. And it’s a rude awakening when no one tells you what to do as a young adult.

The kids who do have the hardest time transitioning out of school are those who are most successful and comfortable in school.  The worst case is the kids are too scared to leave school. They try the real world, hate all the jobs (who doesn’t hate entry level jobs, anyway?) and they run back to school to get some advanced degree in liberal arts that wastes time and money and gets them no closer to a job.

The other problem with kids who are good at school is that people tell them they are great and they begin to think they can do anything. It’s a trick, really. Teachers tell kids who are easy to deal with that they’ll do great in life because it’s in the teacher’s interest to have well-behaved students. These kids graduate and people have been telling them their whole life that they’ll be great and then they have an internal crisis because they never feel like they are living up to their potential.

Megan McArdle takes on this topic in her book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing is the Key to Success. She points out that when kids go to school, sail through their classes, and receive praise for being smart, they are learning that “being smart is not about overcoming tough challenges. It’s about finding work easy.” 

I took a picture of this sign at our local Chinese restaurant. In the rural Wisconsin area where I live, going out to dinner is special, and everyone wants food that’s familiar. The Chinese family that owns this restaurant is so smart. It’s the only Chinese restaurant I’ve ever seen that serves fried cheese curds. This is a great example of how you need to be able to solve problems when there is no right or wrong answer. If your kid loves school, your kid loves the idea of solving problems in a world where things are black and white. But no adult lives in that world, not for very long.