How I decided to homeschool


This is an interview I did with Smatoos, a site that reviews educational technology for kids. 

SMATOOS: Could you give our readers a bit of background on why you decided to start homeschooling?

Penelope Trunk (PT): It was in the back of my mind even before I had kids, but my first kid was autistic and I realized I wasn’t the stay-at-home type so I put it on the back burner. But the more I wrote about careers the more it became increasingly clear that the only career problem people have is that they don’t know how to teach themselves and they don’t learn how to figure out what they like. That’s really the crux of every single career problem.

At the same time, I realized that school is a complete rip-off and totally stupid and not preparing people for anything. Then we moved to a farm and the schools near our farm are probably in the bottom 20% in terms of public school quality in the U.S. Then I started looking into homeschooling to see if I thought I could do it, and I was stunned to find out that all the big-picture school reformers are basically in agreement that the best thing for a kid is an individualized learning plan – we just can’t implement that in public schools.

Then it became more like – how could I keep my kids in school? There’s no evidence that says kids should be in school. It’s just a big babysitting service. So even though I really had no idea how I was going to homeschool, because I was the breadwinner in the family, I figured it’s just like breastfeeding – it’s totally inconvenient and an absurd burden on the mother, but it’s way better for the kid than bottle-feeding. To me it’s the same thing.

SMATOOS: Are there regulations and standards that you have to meet, legally?

PT: It varies state-by-state. Some states make it really difficult and some make it really easy. I do nothing, in my state [Wisconsin] I could lock my kids in the closet for 15 years and no one would check on me. But even in the really stringent states, it’s so easy for homeschool kids to learn curriculum – what the kids in school are learning. Because kids in school are learning about 25 minutes a day and the rest of the time they’re doing other stuff. It’s generally known, in the homeschool community, that if your kid does an hour of schoolwork a day they’ll be way ahead of the kids in their grade.

SMATOOS: How do you feel about college? Is it a worthwhile endeavor?

PT: I think you need a college degree to “play” in the world. If you don’t get into a top-ten college you should just go to a community college so you don’t spend any money. Every applicant to a top-ten school in the U.S. has high grades and SAT scores. So you need something that makes you stand out. So you’re much better off homeschooling, where you can take a whole year to study for the SAT and get a great score. Then they assume you would have gotten good grades, and you’ve got great extra-curriculars. So I really think that people are going to figure out that homeschooling gives you an enormous advantage in applying to those top-ten schools.

SMATOOS: We run articles on apps for kids with autism and special needs kids. Are there any apps or web programs you’ve found to be especially useful for your son with autism?

PT: Those apps are total BS. Smart kids don’t need to be taught how to read and kids with special needs don’t have to be taught how to read either. They’ll ask when they’re ready to learn. If you have an autistic kid who’s not asking to read they should not be taught how to read. My kid learned how to read using his Nintendo DS because if you want to beat the game you have to know how to read.

SMATOOS: Really?

PT: Yes. Any kid with even a close-to-normal IQ is going to ask how to read at some point and if the kid’s not asking, when it comes time to get a job they probably shouldn’t get a job that requires reading. They should work at McDonald’s. Because reading is fundamental to satiating our curiosity. There’s a wide range of research to show that you don’t need to teach kids how to read. New York public schools have been debating for decades, “Why do we even teach rich kids how to read?” We already know that if kids have two college-educated parents they don’t need to be taught how to read in school. The kids who do need to be taught how to read are those who have no stimulation at home. I bring this up just to say how insulting all those educational apps are, they’re totally stupid. World of Warcraft is a great educational app.

SMATOOS: OK, so you think these educational apps are really aimed at kids who are in a very traditional education system, they need to get the high grades, they need to get ahead, but that’s not something you think is important.

PT: I’m glad you brought this up. Let’s say we’re in a regular education system. In the U.S., to get into the top colleges you need a hook, not just top grades and SAT scores. So, for the parents who are following a traditional route and who are looking for their kids to follow traditional paths, their kid needs to be doing something outside of school that’s not schoolwork, because they need a hook – something that makes them stand out. So, the apps are especially damaging to the kids who are in traditional schools because they need that free time to do something that will help them get into college.

If you leave kids alone they’ll be on the computer 100% of the time, especially boys. So the issue is, instead of looking at what’s educational, look at what’s engaging. What we need to teach kids is how to use the computer to figure out what they love to do. Because the biggest problem adults have is they can’t find a job they like. The reason for this is that they’ve been taught to use the computer to get good grades instead of to use the computer to find out what they like to do. So technology is absolutely essential to raising a child because the child’s going to be working on the computer, unless they’re a carpenter or something. Technology is a tool for self-discovery – for starting the process of self-discovery so you can use it throughout your life and find out what kind of work it is you want to do.


26 replies
  1. Bec Oakley
    Bec Oakley says:

    Hmm. That last line about using technology as a tool for self-discovery really triggered a mindflash for me. I know you’ve said it before, but maybe not quite in the same way? Thanks!

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    sometimes I feel like you live in a reality that is very removed from a lot of people’s reality. I feel that my personal problem (and other people’s) is not finding out what I like and what’s engaging and how to be a self learner but how to bridge that over to making money so I won’t have to be stuck in a job that is soul crushing and time consuming.

    You talk about kids with college educated parents and how they will learn how to read on their own. I wonder if your reality is different because you moved in a more affluent environment growing up and that makes a difference. I am really not sure.

    Can you address this point? Can you talk about how to bridge over to making money once you figure out what you like but have no idea how to turn it into a money making life experience?

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      Something intrinsic to the human spirit is the need to contribute to the whole of humanity, or to some higher purpose or community. Once you allow yourself to realize that your deepest desires are not to just enjoy activities all day but to make a difference in the world alongside those things, then the bridge between interest and work starts to appear.

    • lhamo
      lhamo says:

      Maybe we can help you figure it out here in the comments, karelys. What do you like to do and why do you like it? What skills/talents/interests of yours does it engage? Maybe there is a way to think outside the box a bit and find a career that has enough of what you like to make it an ok way to spend several hours every day, even if it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when someone asks you what your dream job is.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        For starters I am an INFJ and I do pretty good working by myself. I don’t need to the workplace environment to keep motivated, I am inner motivated when work is engaging. I am a self learner. And I want to work for myself or telecommute so I can stay at home with my brand new baby. Also, I want to homeschool in the future.

        I started my studies in Psychology but I am unsure what I’ll specialize in. Mostly because I see a problem with the typical way counseling is done. I think most of the emotional and mental healing/growth for me has come from doing other normal day things that I HAVE TO DO and it gives me a way to apply coping skills to get over depression/anxiety/fear/etc. So I’d like to figure out a way that I can do something different.

        Right now, since I am still healing from birth I was thinking I should start a service to take care of postpartum moms because it is so dang hard to just figure out how to be a mom for the first time (I bet even harder once you have one kid and then a new one) and all your family, though willing to help, has to work. But this would probably have to be targeted at moms with a better financial situation and I have no clue yet how I’d go about it. Then I get scared and think “what if no one wants to hire me? what if they are not interested? what if no one can afford this in my town?” which is probably dumb because people pay their share of the hospital birth costs (which are way higher than home birth, which we chose and are paying out of pocket).

        At some point I don’t really care so much what I do for work as long as I am earning a paycheck from home really. I’ve learned that as long as the job is teaching me new things and they relate to everyday life I will be interested. My interests include cooking, sewing, and thinking. I am an idea person but I am so used to not cultivating that side of me that when an idea pops up I am so pessimistic I squash it down. And I convince myself it won’t work (see above).

        • Mark W.
          Mark W. says:

          I’m still thinking what you said here karelys.
          However, this statement jumped out to me – “But this would probably have to be targeted at moms with a better financial situation and I have no clue yet how I’d go about it. Then I get scared and think “what if no one wants to hire me? what if they are not interested? what if no one can afford this in my town?”
          These questions are what I consider to be normal but you’ll never know the answer/outcome without actually proceeding forward, finding out for yourself, and failing until you’ve honed onto something that works for you. So it’s risky and many people won’t proceed far enough if at all. Planned and managed risk if done correctly will most likely yield rewards. Think small, measured, and consistent steps to get to your goal of working for yourself.

        • lhamo
          lhamo says:

          What about something that would link up the psychology/support side of things with your interest in food –like a post-partum meal service that helps new mom’s eat optimally for their own recovery and the health of their baby? You could offer several different types of support — actual meals and/or cooking lessons for moms who want to switch to a healthier, more natural way of eating, or more virtual support via a blog, etc., which you can eventually spin into free-lance articles or books. The connection between food and psychology is profound, so lots of room to explore there. the blog format also provides a place for exploring your more tentative ideas, and if you have a supportive readership maybe that will help you get away from the tendency to squash your own ideas.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      As lhamo said, maybe we can offer you some suggestions with more specific questions from you.
      I would also recommend “spreading your net” and getting various opinions from multiple sources while still reading this blog, of course. Many times your ah-has will come elsewhere at moments that are least expected.

  3. Jana
    Jana says:

    I love how your mind works! I completely agree with all of it! It takes an extremely confident parent to choose to go against our modern society and not to teach their kids to read.

    “What we need to teach kids is how to use the computer to figure out what they love to do. Because the biggest problem adults have is they can’t find a job they like. The reason for this is that they’ve been taught to use the computer to get good grades..”

    This is sooo true! Makes me so happy that I homeschooled. It was scary because I thought I’d mess them up but they both are passionate about life and learning. You can’t teach that so I’m not taking any credit.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Honestly, I have spent nearly the whole ten years that I’ve been a parent being totally under confident. I kept not trusting my instinct and looking to other people for approval.

      The first time I have really felt confident is when I started homeschooling. Not at the very start. But now, with a year under my belt, I really do think that trusting myself in homeschooling has seeped into other areas of my parenting as well. I am more confident. And that’s definitely good for my kids. And me!


      • lhamo
        lhamo says:

        You should print this out and put it in your “yay, me!” file. It has been really wonderful to watch your confidence and your relationship with your boys grow over the past year.

  4. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    This comparison reminds me how throttled I felt breastfeeding.

    “I figured it’s just like breastfeeding – it’s totally inconvenient and an absurd burden on the mother, but it’s way better for the kid than bottle-feeding. To me it’s the same thing.”

    Yet I could not deny my children that benefit. It was maddening for a “doer” (albeit an introverted one) to sit and sit and sit, and I took an “inferior” job to be home most of the time.

    When it seemed my whole life was on the alter of my children, I imagined the alternative–bottle hassle, babysitters who will never be quite “mom” or “dad,” driving away from them on my way to do some stranger’s bidding. It always set me straight.

    I do in now with home-schooling. They’ll be fighting and uncooperative. I’ll daydream about the days of working (alone) and in the *clean* house (alone).

    Then I flash to what they had to do for those solitary moments to exist: their insanely early, harried bus rides, their chaotic classrooms, their recess (or lack of), the classroom politics, the snarly comments overhead by staff (I volunteered a lot).

    It was just a job to them. These children, however, are my legacy and my life.

    Breast-feeding’s long gone. In ten years, home-school will be a memory. I’ll have another thirty years to make my mark elsewhere. It’s all worthwhile.

    • MoniqueWS
      MoniqueWS says:

      I think about how what I am doing IS some of the most important work in my life – growing a child into a loving, smart, caring adult human being. I don’t get paid in gold but in golden moments. My 15 year old doesn’t want to learn how to drive for several reasons and one of the biggest one is so he and I can still have lots of time to talk to one another.

  5. CJ
    CJ says:

    I know it isn’t the nicest comment to add, but I get all gitty-silly-happy inside when you tell other people how stupid institutional school goals can be!!!

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “Technology is a tool for self-discovery …” –

    The tool reference reminds me of yesterday while I was assisting one of my brothers in putting up foam board insulation (prior to re-siding) on a wall of his house. As I was nailing a foam board to the sheathing with a hammer in my hand, I told him that everything looked like a nail. So, yes, technology is a tool with the emphasis on ‘A’ because sometimes we forget to check out our other tools that may be more apt for whatever we’re trying to accomplish.
    As a side note with another reference to technology yesterday, he says – “We’re not trying to launch the space shuttle here” – while we’re aligning one of the boards prior to nailing – which is a common phrase used among his co-workers and then wonders how that works anymore because we’re not launching space shuttles anymore. Maybe this is an example of self-discovery without using technology and yet thinking about technology.

  7. nirmala
    nirmala says:

    I am a parent of child with aspergers age 4.i live in india.confused what to do to do home schooling.

    • MoniqueWS
      MoniqueWS says:

      If possible get your eyes on almost any book by John Holt especially Teaching Your Own or Learning All the Time.

      How Children Fail (1964; revised 1982)
      How Children Learn (1967; revised 1983)
      The Underachieving School (1969)
      What Do I Do Monday? (1970)
      Freedom and Beyond (1972)
      Escape From Childhood (1974)
      Instead of Education (1976)
      Never Too Late (1979)
      Teach Your Own (1981; revised 2003 by Pat Farenga)
      Learning All the Time (1989)
      A Life Worth Living (1990), edited by Susannah Scheffer

  8. Lisa K. Stahley
    Lisa K. Stahley says:

    I have been reading this blog since its inception, and while I don’t have kids yet, I’m definitely on board with homeschooling.

    My one concern is actually about sports…if you have a child who is very talented at a team sport that is played at the college and professional level, but don’t send them to high school so they can play and get scouted…how would that work when trying to get them into a college and onto a team?

    Has anyone really addressed this? Would it be worth it to home-school until high school and then subject them to all the things you were against?

    I feel very conflicted, but I wouldn’t want to deprive an athletically gifted kid (should I have one) of the opportunity to play in those settings.

    • Bryan
      Bryan says:

      The rise of club and travel teams has made this pretty much moot. If your child is good enough to play a varsity sport at a major college (i.e. one that scouts for talent at all), chances are that there are non-school-affiliated regional teams as good or better than the best high school teams, and more likely to attract scouts.

      And by the way, I recommend resisting the temptation to try to over-plan. If you don’t have kids yet, you’re at least 5-6 years away from even having to commit to school, or homeschool, or unschool. Five years ago, would you have predicted the major factors in your life this year? I couldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with preparation, but as they say, no plan survives first contact with the progeny.

      • Lisa K. Stahley
        Lisa K. Stahley says:


        I’m glad to know that non school affiliated teams are getting scout attention. I was a musician, not an athlete, so I’m trying to learn what I can now in order to make good decisions at the time. As for “over planning” I think there’s a difference between knowing what my goal is (homeschooling) and taking steps to get there (career adjustment) and planning every second of my future child’s life. It’s likely that my partner will be pregnant in the very near future, so these are things that need to be thought through in my opinion.

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      On the chance you have an athlete,

      who *wants* to do that same sport for years and years,

      and who stays healthy and injury-free enough to proceed to college…

      I’m sure you’ll find a way for him/her to play.

      To count on a sport to get a child through college? I wouldn’t count on college athletics. Maybe they’ll be phased out by then–all sports in minor leagues, like baseball. Maybe colleges will be about generating ideas by then.

      • Lisa K. Stahley
        Lisa K. Stahley says:


        I never said anything about using athletics to “get” my kid through college. My question was regarding depriving them the option to play at a high level, should that be their passion / talent. I also think that the idea of college athletics being phased out anytime in the next 30 years is extremely unlikely. Colleges and their athletic programs have too deep and rich of a history and too much hold in our society for them to be phased out in this generation.

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      Check out NCAA eligibility for homeschoolers and read forums by parents trying to work with “approved courses.” It’s not easy.

    • Cathy S
      Cathy S says:

      Most states have laws that state that homeschooled children can play on sports teams in their local school district same as any public school child.

      • MoniqueWS
        MoniqueWS says:

        *… same as any public school child* is often right. Schools can impose all kinds of rules and hoops to jump through that have nothing to do with your homeschooling values.

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