Homeschooling is about creating good habits

I was reading through a collection of articles defending conventional school, and I was stunned by this one, in Consider Magazine. Because it says that education is not about accumulating facts but accumulating habits. I was so happy to read this because it gave me a  new reason to homeschool.

The key to education is letting kids choose what they learn. Yes, my family has tons and tons of video game time. But the habit I’m developing in my kids is to recognize what they like to do, try hard at something, and do things that engage them. Sometimes it means video games. Sometimes it means changing outfits four times a day and dancing in the living room.

If education is about accumulating good habits, then I feel really good about homeschooling because it’s hands-down better than school. Here’s why.

1. Homeschooling develops the habit of engagement. The  more people engage in their work, the more fulfilling their life is. This research comes from the very famous book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. But it’s also true for kids. It’s telling that Sesame Street and the video game industry are the most adept at getting kids engaged in new material. These are the arenas where we spend money on engagement. Schools are distracted with problems like busing and teacher strikes and have no resources left for something as fundamental as how kids engage.

However we all know that if schools did conduct research on engagement we’d find out that lecturing to kids is a showstopper. Of course people learn more if they are not being lectured to. At the very least, even kids who learn best from listening will want to do it in an environment where everyone is enjoying themselves, which of course cannot happen in a classroom because at any given time, the majority of kids in a classroom will not learn best from listening.

So the habit we teach here is to tune out. The habit we teach is that it’s okay if you are not engaged. Fake it. Do the best you can. This is acceptable and don’t demand change.

This habit is enduring. Most adults have a difficult time finding fulfilling engaging work. Because they did not develop the habit of looking for this as a kid.

2. Homeschool develops an internal locus of control. One of the most important habits to teach a kid is to view the world with a sense that he or she can influence what is happening. Positive psychologists show us that this is one of the keys to happiness – having the outlook that you control your destiny. This is called locus of control. And we know from research that kids who develop a strong internal locus of control do better as adults than kids who don’t.

Positive psychologists have also discovered that you can teach this to kids by practicing. However school specifically discourages developing a sense of internal locus of control. School teaches kids that they need to just accept whatever people put in front of them.

School teaches kids that what their needs are is secondary to what the school’s needs are. This starts really early with, “Can I go outside and play?” answered with, “No, wait for recess.”

So it’s true that education is about building habits. But the most important habits kids build are those that you cannot build in traditional school.

3. Homeschool develops perseverance. We know that grit and determination are keys to creating a happy life. The most expensive schools in New York City, like The Riverdale School, have formally halted the state-based testing models in favor of proven techniques for developing grit and determination in kids.

It’s about trial and failure, of course. But failure when you are doing something someone else tells you to do is radically different from failing at something you want to do for yourself. When we talk about learning from failure, we almost never talk about failing at stuff someone else told us to do. The only thing we learn from that is to not let other people run our lives. You learn that once or twice. You don’t need it over an 18 year education.

So helping kids develop a habit of perseverance requires helping kids figure out what they want to work hard on. School teaches kids to work hard at what they are told to work hard on in order to get adult approval. But the core of perseverance is that approval comes from within.

Developing a habit of grit and determination is internal. And school is not about internal drive. This reminds me of a great story my friend Melissa tells me about homeschooling. She was homeschooled in grade school and then she wanted to go to high school to see if she could do well. She enrolled in all honors classes and she started doing the work.

She met with the teacher after school to ask questions, and the teacher told her it’s not on the test. Melissa said, “That’s okay, I’m just here to learn.”

The teacher started to hate Melissa. Melissa was annoying and didn’t play by the rules. The teacher constantly told Melissa that if she didn’t do certain things she would not get a good grade, and Melissa constnatly said, “That’s okay. I’m just here to learn.”

Eventually the teacher became a close friend of Melissa’s. But what the story shows me is that school is not set up for kids to develop internal drive. School is set up to control kids with grades. School wants kids to get in the habit of liking that. And that’s the worst habit of all.

13 replies
  1. Courtney
    Courtney says:

    I feel a little like you could publish this article with “Montessori School” substituted for each instance of homeschooling and it would still work. Although Montessori still values traditional endeavors, if a kid’s passion is video games they would be out of luck. I enjoy reading what you write, I have been thinking about school options since I was young, and now that I have a 3 year old and a 1 year old, it sort of looks like we are headed to public school anyway. A sort of progressive touchy feely elementary school in a high performing district ( though not as high as you would require, for it to be “good”). My reason is mostly that I am pretty sure the kids and I need some space, in order to still like each other at the end of the day. I worry about my ability to manage my temper and be a good and loving mom if I never have time and space to myself. And I am terribly, terribly disorganized, and prone to depression and similar. So I have a very hard time trusting that home with me full time is the best place for them (although I am a stay at home mom, and we do spend lots and lots of time just playing, right now). School was a disaster for me, and my husband thrived (ISTJ for him, INTP for me :-P), so we are giving it a chance and seeing what works for our kids.

    What are your thoughts about this sort of school: ? We have visited and like it there quite a bit, and it is affordable, so I think that is our fall back if school doesn’t work for one or both of our children.

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    My house has those colors your walls have, yellow and blue.

    I was stunned by how you explained homeschooling in the last post. Education for the love of learning and not so much to get to a point.

    Of course I want my kids to be employable and yadayadayada. But working so hard to earn a job that sucks the time and the ability to dabble in whatever interest they have….I don’t know. Some jobs pay so much and it’s supposed to yield a better quality of life but then there’s really not much time to actually enjoy your life.

    I think we are discovering this with me staying home and our family living in a tiny income. It’s scary. I waste so much time because I am so used to having an outside force cramming a schedule on me. I used to think of my days off as time when I didn’t want a schedule at all. And now that I don’t have an office schedule and nature dictating what I do (nursing a new child) my days seem like a big swath of time where I could get everything done (a lie) or I don’t know what to do (I feel paralyzed not knowing what to choose first).

    Slowly I am coming to the scary realization that we don’t need that much money to be happy. It’s scary because 12 years of public school and some more at college taught us that this is what it’s all about. And I believed it. And now I gotta change my rhythm to be internally driven without need of outside schedules.

    I am excited for my child. I am excited he’ll get to experience something different.

    • Sheela
      Sheela says:

      Thanks for that, I am coming to the same, slow realization. Along with the gradual dissipating of nearly every assumption instilled in my by 23 years of elite education. Like the assumption that those 23 years were the best education I could possibly have gotten… true education started with sleepaway camp at age 12, when I was finally released from captivity, allowed to figure out what I liked and who I liked and what I was all about.

  3. Julie
    Julie says:

    I have friends who teach here at the university and they get driven crazy with all the “Will this be on the test?” questions during their lectures. The Melissa story made me laugh out loud. I imagine her as very happy and sort of perky, “That’s Ok. I’m just here to learn.” And the teacher is thinking that she is just a weird, annoying homeschooled kid who needs to get with the program.

    I started homeschooling my child in seventh grade and it has been really great to see her shake off the ps lessons you describe. After almost two years of homeschooling she has let most of it go. It has been much harder for me to do the same.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      indeed, I totally agree that the “is this going to be on the test” is rather annoying – definitely drives me up the wall. However, it is possible to break this habit, and it is usually pretty much gone by the fourth year of college and in graduate school. On the other hand, having students who come always for extended periods after class is great – but not always. It is, even though it is fun, incredibly time consuming. After working for 8-10 hours the prof might just not be up to more discussions.

  4. Amy
    Amy says:

    Maybe it is more the parents who are driven by grades than the students. Will it ever really matter that my son has a “C-” instead of an “A” in 8th grade algebra? He “gets it” very well, but we’re just not into doing the extra worksheets every evening to get a better grade. He puts extra effort into projects that interest him, but even with that, we look at what he’s accomplished and got from the project more than if it earned a “good grade”. Keeps our family much happier.

  5. Natasha
    Natasha says:

    I LOVE the line from Melissa. I was that kid and the teachers hated me too.

    Thanks for your blog. It’s the lifeline I need some when I find myself second guessing this home school thing.


  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I read the following article yesterday at Fast Company –

    It’s an unpublished interview done by email in 2009 from Ronaldo Lemos (Project Lead, Creative Commons Brazil) of Aaron Swartz (Reddit and RSS co-founder). He’s been in the news lately since he died tragically of a recent apparent suicide.
    The following Q and A really rang true to me regarding education and learning –

    Q -You did a lot of important things at a very young age, could you describe a few of them? And how do you see and would explain that? Talent, inspiration, curiosity, hard work? Is there something that you would think that other kids who would like to follow your steps should know?

    A – When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. I kept being curious and just followed my curiosity. First I got interested in computers, which led me to get interested in the Internet, which led me to get interested in building online news sites, which led me to get interested in standards (like RSS), which led me to get interested in copyright reform (since Creative Commons wanted to use similar standards). And on and on. Curiosity builds on itself — each new thing you learn about has all sorts of different parts and connections, which you then want to learn more about. Pretty soon you’re interested in more and more and more, until almost everything seems interesting. And when that’s the case, learning becomes really easy — you want to learn about almost everything, since it all seems really interesting. I’m convinced that the people we call smart are just people who somehow got a head start on this process. I fell like the only thing I’ve really done is followed my curiosity wherever it led, even if that meant crazy things like leaving school or not taking a “real” job. This isn’t easy — my parents are still upset with me that I dropped out of school — but it’s always worked for me.

  7. Lori
    Lori says:

    homeschool has the *potential* to develop these habits. but many people homeschool in a way that does not. and i don’t just mean boxed curriculum. to develop a habit of, say, engagement requires doing something you care about *and* being supported so your work is meaningful, challenging, and self-directed. not too many people are doing that.

    simply homeschooling doesn’t solve these issues. it takes homeschooling in a particular way.

  8. Anna
    Anna says:

    Education has really become so much about control rather than learning. It’s no wonder so many kids don’t do well and/or can’t remember anything they “learned” in school. It’s because it is not a happy environment where they can feel free to learn. They are told what to do all day, while competing with other kids under peer pressure. I really believe that kids learn better when they are in an environment where they can choose what to learn, without any pressures or barriers. That’s why I have chosen to homeschool my kids as this will be the best method for the to really learn, while still socializing with all kinds of people, of all ages, instead of spending all day in a classroom interacting with kids their own age only.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    A quote from an article by Paul Tough in the WSJ ( ) adapted from his recent book – How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character .

    “What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years of life. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as non-cognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us often think of them as character.”

  10. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    “Most adults have a difficult time finding fulfilling engaging work. Because they did not develop the habit of looking for this as a kid.”

    My friends and I talk about this all the time. We are in our 40’s and headed back to work after raising our kids but it’s taken a long time to figure out what we even want to do. I thought it was the time out of the workplace but O’m thinking we never really knew.

    Great Article P!

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