Awkward link between homeschool and prodigy

My friend Melissa was homeschooled. She loved horses so her parents gave her some schoolwork-type stuff and let the nanny take her to the barn and she hung out with the trainer all day helping take care of horses and doing some homework in between.

Melissa did very well in the horse world. She always had an expensive pony and she had a trainer, who was presumably charging the parents an arm and a leg for all-day horse homeschool.

I learned from Melissa’s experience that it’s really easy for rich, homeschooled kids to look very talented. Because Melissa came to our farm and bought horses and pretty much had no idea how to train a horse. She didn’t know that she didn’t know, because the trainer was with her all the time.

So I’m thinking, why not do that for my kids? I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with the false sense of accomplishment. If a kid works hard and loves what they are doing, who cares if there’s an unfair advantage of time and money because they are rich-kid homeschoolers? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many child prodigies are rich, homeschooled kids. I’m not sure which order things come in: the top-tier lessons, the all-day opportunities, the huge talent.

25 replies
  1. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with the false sense of accomplishment. If a kid works hard and loves what they are doing, who cares if there’s an unfair advantage of time and money because they are rich-kid homeschoolers?”
    Jealous people care and I for one think it’s an unhealthy attitude. Life is unfair so accept it and adapt as necessary. This morning I listened briefly to the author (Tim Harford) of the book ‘Adapt:Why success always starts with failure’ ( ) in a radio interview. I agreed with most everything he had to say and I think you will also as you’ve written about it here on your blog on numerous posts. I don’t think Melissa was given the opportunity to assume responsibility of the training of her horses and experience the resulting failures and successes. So while a false sense of accomplishment will build confidence, I don’t think it builds resilience and tenacity which I think also needs to happen at the same time. It’s the whole process of multiple failures and successes which interact together to build a solid foundation and develop character. As the saying goes – The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

  2. Lori
    Lori says:

    if you really want to do this right, i think you should aim higher than a false sense of accomplishment.

    a big part of successful learning is figuring out what you don’t know.

  3. Karen M
    Karen M says:

    I think that it’s a self-selection thing and has a lot to do with the fact the most public schools have little to no resources for dealing effectively with gifted children. My family fits the “rich, homeschool prodigy” model to a T. I never intended to homeschool my kids when they were born but by the time my oldest son got to Grade 2, it was painfully obvious that my local public school was unable to meet his needs. He is gifted in math and science but decidedly not gifted in writing and spelling. There are no private schools here in my very small town, so it was the only other option available to me. I am extremely fortunate that my husband’s small business was doing well enough to allow me to quit my job and stay home. There’s no question that economic realities dramatically influence the decision to homeschool or not.

    Most of the homeschooling families I know pulled their children out of public schools that were not meeting their kids needs. Very, very few had their children with the intention of homeschooling them from the beginning.

  4. Emily
    Emily says:

    My parents bought me a horse when I was 14. It was a year and a half old, untrained, out of someone’s backyard, and partially paid for by yours truly.

    I learned a lot. I trained the horse (mind you I had had years of lessons before they bought it – including experience with ‘green’ horses) and worked with him and ended up buying ponies, training them, and selling them throughout the end of high school and into college. Although I don’t work with horses on any more than a weekly basis now (I’m 26), I did start my own LLC at 19 to train and trailer horses and train riders.

    The moral of the story is: I always envied girls like Melissa at the barn. I spent a lot of time training and hardly ever won any blue ribbons – especially in those early years with the horse. But now, looking back, I wouldn’t trade my experience for Melissa’s one bit. I learned how to ride – really ride – and through this experience of riding and training my own horse from the ground up I really got the confidence I needed to tackle other projects. So sure, get them a horse. But get them lessons on how to train that horse. And send them to school during the day. I begged to be homeschooled, but I too am in the AS/nonverbal learning disability category – and I think had I not had the social training of school, I would have floundered. Even if I was bored :)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love this discussion. I think all the time about where should I put my money designated for “lessons for the kids”. I think the lesson money should be about opening doors for kids, but I can’t figure out how, exactly, to do that.

      When I was a kid I wanted lessons in everything. I wanted to try everything. My parents thought I was a dillitante and they made me stick to one thing. I picked figure skating and I had the total wrong body type for it (too big); when it got time to do double-rotation jumps, I just couldn’t get high enough off the ground.

      So as a parent I thought my job is to help the kid find the thing they’ll be great at.

      Now I just don’t know. So I like the discussion here. So much time and money is invested in lessons, and it seems there are such unclear goals for them all around.

      Am I missing something? Do you guys see this issue differently?


      • Emily
        Emily says:

        Dilettante! Sorry. I am intensely bothered. I hope you understand.

        I don’t think it’s about riding lessons or skating lessons or anything in particular. Let’s face it – most kids aren’t going to grow up to be Olympians. It’s about the dedication and the practice. And finding something to which your kid can respond. I think it’s about soft skills – dedication, focus, attention – you know?

        Riding’s really good for AS/NLDers because of the movement of the horse and the attention you have to pay to your body when riding. It took me years to learn how to ride a bike, but horses were always natural and easy for me. In that sense it was a good fit. And I apparently was totally obsessed and begged my parents for lessons on a daily basis at 4 years old. (I ended up starting riding at age 5).

        So sure, you might be not ideally physically suited to ride or skate or whatever else. But it’s not really about that anyway. Later, your kid might find another sport suits them better (my brother switched from hockey to lacrosse – now he is being recruited by colleges). The important thing is that you find them something to do to instill in them the kind of discipline that’ll work for them long-term.

        The problems I see with homeschooling at times involve:

        1. Not enough social interaction – even if they have siblings, that’s not enough. They need to learn how to interact with strangers and with people who are not related to them
        2. No early intervention when the parent chooses to homeschool from the very beginning – if a kid has a learning disability or speech impediment, it’s not picked up by the screening and there is less access to social services except by the most savvy (I have seen this in kids who need speech therapy and don’t get it because the parents feel they can understand their child just fine)
        3. Limited exposure to things not in the child’s or parent’s interest or strengths – what if you’re terrible at math? Do you want your kid to be bad at math too?
        4. Fewer opportunities for collaboration/idea exchange with peers – related to #1 somewhat

        I hated school – but I’m glad I went.

        • Sarah
          Sarah says:

          I agree with you regarding the point of lessons, they are about learning dedication, not becoming experts.

          However, I completely disagree with you with regards to home education. In answer to your points:

          1) My parents were worried about social interaction, too. Turns out I actually learnt better social skills being home educated, because I met more people of varying ages and backgrounds. I was able to communicate with adults, as well as children. Maybe a greater effort would be required from parents of children with difficulties interacting socially, but I think if the parents are home educating for the right reasons (i.e. out of concern for and dedication to their child’s development) they’ll be inclined to make sure this is covered. I can’t really speak for home education in the US, but in the UK, an inspector comes regularly to speak to the child and ensure that all areas necessary to a child’s educational development are met.

          2) This goes both ways. How many times have we heard of parents who had to take things into their own hands because they knew something was wrong, but the school just dismissed it?

          3) My mum’s terrible at maths, and my dad’s work hours meant that he couldn’t always help me. So my parents talked to their friends and found one of them who actually had a maths degree and she helped me whenever I needed it (for free). My parents, and again most who home educate for the right reasons, were very eager not to pass on their incompetencies or difficulties to me. They didn’t.

          4) I agree with to an extent, but when I went to high school, I found that there really wasn’t as much collaboration as I thought.

          For the record, I loved school, but I’m glad I was home educated.

        • Latha
          Latha says:


          As a unschooler, I want to respond to your comments which are fairly common misconceptions among those who are not familiar with homeschooling.

          The problems I see with homeschooling at times involve:

          1. Not enough social interaction – even if they have siblings, that’s not enough. They need to learn how to interact with strangers and with people who are not related to them

          Contrary to the common belief, homeschooling families do not stay on the prairie homestead by themselves. They share the family’s life! Their social interaction is not limited to peer-age group. Especially in this country, where almost every city/town has a thriving homeschooling group that meets regularly. Even in the north-country college town where we live, there is an active homeschooling group involved in various collective activities ranging from library/park/swim days to chess club to even an annual drama/performing arts club community performance. Each of these activities brings together kids around their passions and not merely age and domicile. Moreover, these families do not restrict their interactions to the homeschooling community. For example, my son’s best fried is a public school going kid a year older than him. They met at a local activity when my son was five and his friend was six! My nine year old can engage in social interactions with people across various age groups, gender, race, cultural background you name it!

          2. No early intervention when the parent chooses to homeschool from the very beginning – if a kid has a learning disability or speech impediment, it’s not picked up by the screening and there is less access to social services except by the most savvy (I have seen this in kids who need speech therapy and don’t get it because the parents feel they can understand their child just fine)

          Interestingly, if you look at the experience of homeschoolers, a number of homeschooling families made their decision to homeschool because they did not get the necessary positive attention and response to the needs of the children. Most homeschoolers believe that parents do not only know the children intimately but that they are their advocates. I agree with you it is probably class mediated but you will find that most homeschooling families are not from the inner cities! More and more homeschooling families consist of highly educated, middle class parents.

          3. Limited exposure to things not in the child’s or parent’s interest or strengths – what if you’re terrible at math? Do you want your kid to be bad at math too?

          This is an area that a number of homeschoolers struggle with – not because they are not good enough. Like Penelope said in an earlier post. If the parent is a life long learner, there is nothing to prevent them from learning with their kids, or researching for appropriate resources and opportunities. Many public schools are willing to take in homeschooling children for various classes. Free resources in the library and on the internet are astonishingly abundant. I believe that just with KhanAcademy, an entire curriculum from K-12 can be supported at home. That is just scratching the surface of what is available. But what is required is for a parent to suspend their anxieties and preconceived notions, engage with their child intimately to understand their needs, and be creative and resourceful in identifying and developing opportunities and resources to support the development and passion of their children.

          4. Fewer opportunities for collaboration/idea exchange with peers – related to #1 somewhat

          As I answered in response to the first question, at work or anywhere in the real world, we do not engage or collaborate with only peers born between certain arbitrary dates. In fact, I would say that on the contrary, homeschooling children will be far better prepared to collaborate with people of all ages and other factors because they have not been conditioned to spend a majority of their waking hours only with their age group peers!

          I apologize that this message is of blog post length but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is emerging research about the efficacy of the homeschooling movement that requires book length posts:)

          • Emily
            Emily says:

            I am actually familiar with homeschoolers. I’ve met a bunch. My parents considered doing it with us. But we didn’t – and I think a LOT of it had to do with the issues I’ve already elucidated.

            I know two homeschooling families with delayed children who opted to homeschool because they thought it’d be better for their kids. Nope. Sorry. Didn’t work out that way. My best friend’s a speech pathologist and is horrified with the kids’ speech. It’s absolutely impossible to understand these kids and they will require years of speech therapy.

            And maybe there are better homeschooling resources now – groups and so forth – but when I was growing up, homeschooling was something you did with your children because you didn’t agree with the values set forth by public school and in fact were probably very religious and disinterested in opening your kid up to other ideas.

            Another thing – I’ve found that previously homeschooled adults are more “selfish” and impatient and less interested in what other people have to say. I do think that the world is a group-oriented place, and there are social rules one must follow in order to get places. Without a thorough understanding of those social rules, I think kids can suffer later on.

          • Lori
            Lori says:

            Emily says: “I’ve found that previously homeschooled adults are more “selfish” and impatient and less interested in what other people have to say. I do think that the world is a group-oriented place, and there are social rules one must follow in order to get places. Without a thorough understanding of those social rules, I think kids can suffer later on.”

            Again, this is just a complete ignorance about the way kids are homeschooled. Hs’ed kids work in groups *all the time*. They take classes, they go to co-op, they are in 4-H and scouts, etc., etc., etc. — hs’ed kids can have *more* opportunity to work in groups in a meaningful way than public-schooled kids.

      • Latha
        Latha says:

        As an unschooling family, our philosophy is to live and learn. As long as I can afford it (and time/schedule is not a problem with us, since we have all the time in the world (no school!), he is welcome to try as many activities as he likes and I can afford and pursue or not pursue them beyond the point of his initial interest and curiosity.

        I think this whole prodigy thing is now overrated and over reported. Gift/Talent vs motivation, passion, and effort. As an unschooling mother, I focus more on the latter than the former. I want to help nurture and support my son’s passions and I trust that when he is internally motivated, he will put in the necessary effort.

        I look at my role as a combination of facilitator and cheerleader. As a facilitator, I focus on three key things: identify and provide resources; help him to reflect on his experience and make choices; and connecting the dots between various aha moments and help him create an abstract picture about learning. As a cheerleader, I provide him unconditional support, energy, love, and support for following his passions.

        There are various things he has tried and abandoned. There are various things he has tried, loved, and kept up. For example, he took tennis lessons for a year and abandoned it. On the contrary, he took fencing lessons (because he was interested in Star wars and learned that the actors went through fencing lessons) and loved it. He has stuck to it for over three years, has fenced competitively and wants more training. We live in a hockey obsessed small college town and there are not many local resources for fencing. So I am looking (and saving for) fencing camps in the next year.

        He hated taking swimming lessons when he was little but then when he was ready, he taught himself how to swim and absolutely loves to swim but with no interest in getting further training or diving or whatever.

        He is a gifted artist/musician. I don’t say this lightly. He composed and wrote his own song and performed it when he was only seven. Similarly, last year, he had a couple of his art pieces listed for a charity auction at a local gallery and the buyers loved them. However, he has so far not been interested in entering his art work for competitions. So I don’t push it. We were fortunate to find a local professional artist/musician with whom he has explored various forms of art. Even though he is very good at sketching and painting, he has pretty much abandoned them but focuses on making 3D objects, toys, action figures (his own characters etc.).

        He plays chess biweekly with the local homeschooling group and is excellent at it but does not want to compete and I am fine with it. I am glad that he enjoys the camaraderie with kids of various ages and gets to hang out with them. As much as he is good with chess, it is only a social activity for him, at this point.

        Even though I know his interests etc. I treat them as a moving target, an evolution rather than a path-dependent given trajectory. So every semester, before I schedule his lessons, I always ask him which ones he wants to do and he has consistently wanted to continue fencing, art, and music.

        I hope this helps somewhat.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I think so many people believe that paying for lessons on something is a waste if the kid won’t become an expert or will eventually make money off it. Like if it were a college degree but for kids.

        I think that if the parents are smart about it they can teach the kids about the world and how life works and even “playing the game” on breaking rules but knowing rules first (you wrote about this).

        Kids who have the priviledge of having lessons paid, or partially paid can learn a lot about themselves.

        Sometimes, even when you love something very much, motivation is gone, burnout sets in, people make you angry, your emotions are all over the place, etc.

        I think that if I can I will be there for my kids (in paying for lessons) and try to use those lessons in whatever they are doing to help them arrive at their own conclusions in those areas. They are going to need them anyway later in lfe, better they learn early.

        Also, I think people in corporate america or their own companies are more successful when they know how to deal with defeat, or fear, or tiredness but slowing down is not an option at that momment.

        So if your kid wants to play cello and you can pay for go ahead and teach him other things through it, not just music and notes.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        The following quote was from your fairly recent post titled – ‘This is the new, reliable me’ – “Ed says that startups are not small companies, they are experiments. You ask questions and try to find answers and as you know more you pivot more until you are asking and answering such sharp questions that you do begin to have a little company. That is the time when you grow so fast, or sell, and then you’re no longer a startup.” Substitute startups with kids and small companies with adults. Use the lessons to help your kids to learn more about themselves and you to learn more about them and their abilities. It’s a journey that needs to be flexible with many pivots. It’s just an idea that may work for your family.

      • Karen M
        Karen M says:

        I don’t think that you need to stress about this as much as you seem to be doing. Yes, it is partly about helping your kids find out what they are good at, partly about helping them develop certain skills and partly about opening doors for them in the future.

        My kids are homeschooled, so I choose their activities with the idea of filling certain gaps that may exist with their public school peers. My boys play baseball, so they understand the dynamics of being part of a team. They take art and theater classes because I suck at those things and can’t teach them, they are in scouting for the social contact and practical knowledge they get there and they take judo and swimming lessons for the exercise.

        They enjoy all of these activities but I would let them quit anything that they weren’t enjoying. The only thing I have pushed on them against their will is golf lessons and I tell them flat out that they have to learn the game so that when their future bosses ask them to play in the company tournament, they won’t embarrass themselves.

        That said, I don’t think that a kid who has an organized activity-free childhood is going to be negatively impacted as an adult. The only real goal that I set for myself as a parent is to give my kids a happy childhood. The rest is just details.

  5. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I’m not sure that aiming to give your kids a false sense of accomplishment actually makes sense. The whole point of accomplishment is learning how to achieve it (hard work, tenacity, dedication, etc). That’s why we learn so much from our failures – they teach us how to achieve. If you give your kids a false sense of accomplishment, it means they won’t experience the failures necessary to succeed, and therefore will be ill-equiped to deal with the hiccups in life.

    Personally, I think the point of lessons is to enable children to explore interests / talents in more depth than they can with the most readily available resources. I don’t think it’s as much about opening doors for / keeping doors open as it is about teaching children how to find a door and open it themselves. I mean, isn’t that what independence is all about?

    • Emily
      Emily says:


      Do you know what would have been great here? If the blog was actually written by homeschooled kids, and not some helicopter parent!

      Cute blog – but I really think that children need to learn independence if they’re going to succeed, and homeschooling them can be a way of mollycoddling them.

      I will admit that I had incredible educational opportunities where I grew up (both in public school and in private school) and so, of course, your mileage may vary. I don’t know anything about rural school districts or homeschooling for rural kids.

      • Zellie
        Zellie says:

        Homeschooling can provide opportunities for being extremely independent. It all depends on the parents. There’s time for kids to learn to cook, grow food, do laundry, make their own research projects, start businesses, and to be in situations with other mentors where they are seen and reflected through someone else’s eyes.

        My observation of homeschooled kids of a support group within 30 miles of a city is the kids are self-starters and problem-solvers. It would be great if these kids would do the writing for people to read on the experience and results of homeschooling.

      • Latha
        Latha says:


        I picked the blog to show that there is a great deal of opportunity for homeschooled and unschooled children to work in teams. Even if you were in a private or public school, your robotics team is always going to be accompanied by an adult! In this case, it is a parent. The same thing done by a teacher would be yeoman service but when done by a parent, it is called helicopter parenting! That only reveals your bias.

        I wanted to provide a link to a number of unschooled teens’ writing.

  6. Robin
    Robin says:

    It makes me sad to hear about taking lessons in a particular thing with the idea that it is only worth it if you can become really good competitively.

    I am a figure skater. I took it up as an adult and I do have the gift. However, I skated with lots of teenagers who did not have natural talent or the right body type and they still enjoyed their skating experience. What I saw was a group of young adults learning about discipline and building foundational skills. They learned poise and conquering nerves through the testing structure. They learned to take constructive criticism and to support their fellow skaters at test sessions and competition. It was a wonderful way to learn life skills and NO ONE was going to the Olympics. Their parents understood that and valued what they were getting for their investment – healthy and happy kids engaged in a sport they loved. The coaches did a brilliant job of getting the “prodigies” out into the skating world with other, more talented kids to keep the little stars’ talent in perspective.

    Putting your kids in some kind of activity for the sheer joy of doing it is a life lesson in and of itself.

  7. Erin
    Erin says:

    My parents were also of the “pick something and stick with it” school, but within reason. My mother insisted I continue piano until I finished high school because she knew I loved music, and piano gave me a good grounding in music theory, which improved my overall musical ability. They also encouraged my brother and I to try lots of things, though. Josh played soccer and baseball. I took dance for a while(even though I was terrible). We both took some extra art classes, and Josh went on to take private lessons for a while. I was in the school choir and on the academic team. Josh was in a scouting program and on some kind of robot building team. We did whatever was interesting and affordable as long as everyone had time for it.

    In the end, neither of us found our life’s calling in an extra-curicular activity, and by the time we hit high school, we had dropped almost everything except the music. Instead, those activities helped us learn who we were. They helped us build social skills and a sense of discipline. Practicing an instrument helped me learn how to take a project apart and tackle each piece. The daily discipline of rehearsal taught me how to build a routine. Being in groups taught me to work with people and, eventually, to lead.

    I think the “extras” are supposed to be about broadening your kids horizons. It’s about gaining confidence and learning to move in the wider world. I value the symphony concerts, museums, ballets, and library visits that my parents made time for as much as the years of piano lessons or the professional level flute they bought me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for the comment, Erin. I like the idea that taking lessons teaches you about yourself even if it does not teach you to be a prodigy, or whatever.

      My other blog, of course, is all about careers. And the biggest problem people have in their career is not knowing who they are or what they like. I think that is so essential as part of the learning process of growing up. But it’s not really a focus. There is no subject of “who am I?”


  8. Kate Nonymous
    Kate Nonymous says:

    If you want to give your kids a false sense of accomplishment, why teach them anything? Just tell them that what’s important is within them, and call it a day.

    Kids in the U.S. feel great about their math skills. The problem is that they’re not very good at math. They’ve got a false sense of accomplishment. Is that what you want for your kids? I’ve never gotten that impression.

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