It’s scary to think that if you don’t send your kids to a classroom, there won’t be thirty other kids telling your kid all about what’s available in the world. It’s scary to think it’s your responsibility now. But the truth is, it’s not that big of a responsibility.

1. Cultural exposure in school is limited.
Schools in the United States are a melting pot. Everybody learns what it means to be a child in a United States. It starts with the Pledge of Allegiance and ends with everybody dressed the same at graduation.

In between, your kid is exposed to the socio-economic demographic of your school’s tax base. The United States is no longer segregated by race, but by income and culture. Kids who surf don’t go to school with kids who spend their afternoons in museums.

So, schools are already culturally limiting.

2. Families are also culturally limiting in a similar way.
Most of us marry someone who was raised in a similar way to us. Few of us travel far to find a mate. Those of us who marry someone very, very different from us tend to raise their kids in one cultural predominating, which is, of course, culturally limiting.

A child with no cultural limitations has no identity.

3. Cultural limitations benefit a child’s education.
The faster you make a child comfortable with the parameters of their existence, in terms of time and space and culture, then the child can explore better. Kids who grow up in meth trailers become adults overnight, because childhood is about exploring within the parameters that adults set. Cultural limitations provide this for well-developed children.

So when you worry that your kids aren’t being exposed to enough, it’s a red herring. This is another way we rationalize putting kids in a room with thirty of their peers and scant adult supervision. We tell ourselves that exposure to other people and other ways of doing things are good. In fact, you get more of that at home than you do at school. At home, a kid can read about anything they want, they can learn anything they want, they can explore anything they want.

My son has a strong interest in being a stylist. The world of being a stylist is so foreign to me that I didn’t even know that there was a difference between being a stylist and being a clothing designer. There is nowhere to buy clothes within two hours of our house. And there is no way that he was influenced by exposure to style in our family, except to be horrified by some of the choices I’ve made.

Yet he still figured out that he wants to be a stylist. He still figured out that Old Navy that has cooler clothes than the Gap. And he still figured out that if he wants to buy really exciting clothes, he’s got to talk to Melissa.

Recently, Melissa set up an opportunity for my son to participate as a stylist in a New York photo shoot.

It was so far out of my element that I covered my eyes at some point, like when he directed the model to look like she was petting a sheep.

This is a great example of how, if you grant kids the freedom to learn what they want, their parents’ experience is much less limiting. This is also a great example of the power of mentoring. My son is around adults enough to determine what is special about each adult and talk to that adult accordingly.

First, he established rapport with Melissa by buying her outfits that she would never want to wear and then he refused to dress up clothes unless she picked them out. By the time Melissa was setting up photo shoots for him, my son had mastered the first steps of getting mentoring in a world completely outside of any experience I could have given him.

11 replies
  1. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    Wait, the last paragraph is a bit confusing for me. Can you expand?

    He buys Melissa clothes she doesn’t want to wear. Then he refuses to wear clothes unless she picks them out. And this is the start of a good mentoring opportunity.

    I am trying to understand what went on so I can translate it for myself with the people I come in contact with.

  2. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    “The faster you make a child comfortable with the parameters of their existence, in terms of time and space and culture, then the child can explore better. Kids who grow up in meth trailers become adults overnight, because childhood is about exploring within the parameters that adults set. Cultural limitations provide this for well-developed children.”

    This strikes me as so true. My kids have navigated living in Asia without too much angst or trauma because in our household we lived like Americans. Our kids had a strong cultural identity inside the home, so they were able to appreciate and enjoy Asian culture without feeling totally confused and alienated. Good thoughts!

  3. JT
    JT says:

    Most likely your son wants to be a stylist because he watches that TV show about a stylist. That is part of the education he is receiving, which includes unlimited videos and a 4 hour drive in the car.

    I’m not saying this is wrong or right, just pointing out that this idea did not come out of the blue. There must be something about that show, or that stylist, that he admires.

    A NYC kid might have been taken to the Museum of Natural History every weekend; he might decide to be a paleontologist. It depends on the things they are exposed to in the environment.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      I grew up frequenting hands-on science museums with my scientist parents.
      And I grew up to be a…fashion designer?

      Penelope’s son has a lot of agency over the shows he watches. The point is that he picked up the stylist thing on his own and decided to explore it.

      Which is the opposite of regular school.

      • Jane
        Jane says:

        I am surprised Penelope is encouraging it. She recently wrote that parents shouldn’t encourage their kids to be lawyers or academics because there are “no jobs.” How many jobs are there for stylists?

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          The difference is the risk. For a lawyer, you’re $150K in debt when you get out of school, so if you can’t get a job at a law firm, you can’t get out of debt. For an academic, you spend four years of your life extending your academic life while everyone else is learning how to operate in the work world, which means you can’t compete when you enter the work world because you’re too old with no relevant experience.

          If you want to try to be a stylist, and you fail, there are no long-term ramifications. You just go do something else.

          People should be able to try lots of careers to figure out what they want. Going into huge debt or giving up a huge amount of time for a career you’ve never even tried is too high risk.

          Penelope

          • Jane
            Jane says:

            You can spend three years getting a law degree, or three years trying to start a stylist business.

            You can spend $150,000 to get that law degree, or spend that same money starting your stylist business (inventory, a store building, computer hardware and sotware, advertising, marketing, etc)

            Both ventures involve that investment of time and money. But I bet there will be thousands more lawyers hired in 2020 than there will be stylists. The same is true for academics–there will be many more job opportunities for PhDs than there will be for stylists.

            I mean, how many people use a stylist, compared to the number who consult a lawyer at some point in their lives?

            So I really don’t understand why you think that starting a stylists business doesn’t involve any time or money. It involves a lot!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh, thanks so much for letting me know, Leah. I had no idea. Blah. So annoying when stuff breaks…

      Penelope

  4. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    “In between, your kid is exposed to the socio-economic demographic of your school’s tax base. The United States is no longer segregated by race, but by income and culture. Kids who surf don’t go to school with kids who spend their afternoons in museums.”

    I am wondering what Penelope imagines to be the cultural and economic difference between kids who surf and kids who go to museums.

    I’m pretty crap at surfing, but my brother and my niece are great at it. He’s a college professor and I think she’s been to a few museums. I’m much better at skiing, but that’s probably because I live in New England rather than California like them.

    My boy spends most Friday afternoons at the MFA, but this Friday we’re skiing instead(we have successfully deluded ourselves into thinking we’re having fun again).

    Such an odd comment. Is this something remembered from social cliques at school thirty-five years ago?

    I find the biggest problem with culture and schools to be that of the kids, not that of the adults. The culture mobs of children create always looks like lord of the flies. I think my children are better off learning my adult culture (however limited) than having to play the role of Piggy in an unaccountable band of savages.

  5. Mel
    Mel says:

    The mentor thing kind of stresses me out. I always wanted a mentor, but have no idea how to get one. And I really want my kids to have mentors, or at least people other than their dad and me that they can go to for help we can’t give them. But, I can’t mentor them in finding a mentor :)

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