Teaching the difficult child

Part of my foray into blogging about homeschooling is learning the rules for building traffic on this blog. So I’m playing around with SEO. To be honest, I hate SEO and I think it’s the territory of teenage boys in clothes they never change, charging companies thousands of dollars from their parents’ basement.

Not that I don’t like those kids. I admire them. I just can’t compete with them.

But one thing you learn if you focus on SEO is how mainstream America thinks about homeschooling. So I searched to figure out what headlines do well with homeschooling parents, and this one came up a lot: “Teaching difficult child”. So I used it.

But I think the title is BS. Kids are not born difficult. Difficult environments make kids difficult.

1. Forced curricula makes kids difficult.
Forced curricula is inherently disrespectful of a kid’s innate curiosity. And it’s been proven over and over again that people do better if you cater to their strengths instead of forcing them to push through their weaknesses. Yet forced curricula does the opposite—telling kids to learn topics they wouldn’t choose for themselves.

2. Locking kids up makes kids difficult.
In a scathing article about high school, Jennifer Senior writes in New York Magazine that teenagers are much more capable of managing themselves than we give them credit for. Treating them like incapable numskulls in school actually makes them behave poorly and then makes us feel good about locking them up.  Kids would develop much more even-keeled if we let them operate autonomously, outside the school environment, according to psychologists Joseph and Claudia Allen in their book Escaping the Endless Adolescence.

3. Medicating kids makes them difficult.
To be clear, my older son is medicated for anxiety. So it’s not that I think kids are born without problems. But I think the idea of a difficult child comes after the idea that kids are there to accommodate the lives of parents. My kids are never difficult unless I ask them to do stuff that is boring to them. School is incredibly boring to most boys. Which is why so many boys are medicated for ADHD.

Don’t tell me boring is acceptable, expected, part of adult life. There is no model for adult life where we think boring is good. No adults want to be bored. So why tell kids they need to learn to accept being bored? As adults, we decide what we want from our days and we put up with things we don’t like in order to get what we want. Kids don’t need to learn to be bored. Kids need to learn to identify what they want so much that they’d be willing to be bored to get it.

So the difficult child is the child who is being asked to do things that aren’t right for that child. Maybe the child needs medication. You know how you can tell? If medication improves the child’s ability to cope. The Week reports that 40% of kids medicated for ADHD don’t stop showing signs of it in the classroom, and then they get categorized and difficult and unmanageable.

But if you take a kid out of school then there is little chance that they will need medicine in order to cope with playing all day. Some kids will. Those are the ones who need medication. The New York Times quotes Dr. Michael Anderson attacking the issue head on: “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the environment so we are modifying the kid.”

So if you have a child who is difficult, take the kid out of school. Let the kid do whatever he or she wants, and watch what happens. It’s much easier for parents to call a kid difficult because if you call the environment difficult, you have to remove the kid from the environment, and that means no more free babysitting.

25 replies
  1. Carole
    Carole says:

    That last paragraph packs quite a punch! You say outloud what my people pleasing personality keeps inside. :)

  2. Alice Bachini
    Alice Bachini says:

    “no more free babysitting”: the real reason people don’t want to face the realities of the school system.

  3. redrock
    redrock says:

    I kind of like boredom. When the brain is not incessantly asked to process input from the outside, it is all of a sudden able to process better and thinking takes over. Always having something entertaining going on, always listening to music, always requiring the excitement of a video game, or life as exciting as a video game prevents the brain (or at least my brain) from reaching its potential.

    • Sean
      Sean says:

      I wouldn’t call being disengaged from constant inputs being bored; as an INTJ, I’d likely call that being content. :)

      But being bored is engaging in that that is dull, repetitive, or tedious. Life almost certainly will have periods of boredom, but that doesn’t mean we should seek those times out! ;)

    • mbl
      mbl says:

      Interesting, I don’t think of down time, or a respite as equal to boredom. I think of boredom as lack of interest in what you are doing. That is a signal to change what you are doing, to push through if it must be done, or get creative.

      I think P is talking about the boredom of sitting though an entire school day in which the child has no input. Sure they could ‘fake it til they make it,’ but that goes against the grain of what our bodies and brains are telling us. It can be necessary “As adults, we decide what we want from our days and we put up with things we don’t like in order to get what we want.” But the boredom in school is forced and there is no acceptable remedy. The art of unschooling challenges PS as the only means to a certain end. And even the desirability of that end.

      In school a child may resort to daydreaming, reading, doodling, telling jokes, or pitching a fit in response to boredom. None of those are allowed. Out of the school setting, there are myriad options, including daydreaming, chilling in a hammock, swinging at the playground–things I view as neither stimulating nor boring.

      I just finished reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain and am in the middle of The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. The gist is that an introvert can be happy as a clam in her own world even if she looks bored and lonely. So, if you wouldn’t mind, please don’t try to get her to “have fun.”

      I started this post a few hours ago, so sorry for any repetition from my fellow IN Sean.

      Redrock, I totally agree that “When the brain is not incessantly asked to process input from the outside, it is all of a sudden able to process better and thinking takes over.” But conclude that school hinders rather than facilitates this process. Maybe they should install bathtubs and showers in classrooms for Eureka! moments. :D

  4. karelys
    karelys says:

    You once said that in the farm you spend days with the same clothes. And Melissa said “in the farm there are no bad hair days, just bad mail days.”

    So if you have a basement camp out there and charge companies loads of money.

  5. Julie
    Julie says:

    Some days I really miss that free babysitting for my “difficult” child. But it is definitely not worth the price to her.

    I have found your number two point to be so true. My fifteen year old is more than capable of planning her academics and managing her time. She needs almost no help from me. It was an interesting transition from public school student to autonomous person.

  6. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    Great post. Your posts often make me question what I believe, or, as this one does, gets to the heart of why I believe something. Sometimes I feel something is right but have difficulty self-searching and understanding why, and you often put that feeling and those reasons into words and I just think Yes! Thats exactly it!

    Thanks for sharing your voice.

  7. JT
    JT says:

    With all due respect, isn’t forcing your kids to practice their instruments a form of forced curricula? How come that isn’t inherently disrespectful of their curiousity and choices?

    • mh
      mh says:

      Speaking for just my very own children, and nobody else’s, my kids relish the time they get to play their instruments. “Forcing” the kids to practice is nowhere near the reality in my house.

      I have an eight-year-old who plays piano, and I have to set a timer to get him to stop so someone else can play. I set the timer for an hour. He usually wants two or three slots per day. We also have a keyboard with headphones, and the kids will play/practice on that when we need a quieter house.

      Mr. Piano will say things like, “Can you believe I just played that sixth measure perfectly? Isn’t that amazing?” We all agree it’s amazing…

      It’s like saying I am “forcing” the LEGO child to build insanely complex robotic inventions. It’s like saying I am “forcing” the drawing child to spend a couple of hours every day out at the park or the backyard doodling, sketching, and capturing his impressions. (I also do not have to “force” the child to stay up past bedtime with his closet light on, drawing and drawing. He does this on his own.) It’s like saying I am “forcing” the happy chef to make us YET ANOTHER meal. It’s like saying I am “forcing” the swimmers to swim. I’m not — they are like little otters. ALl I have to do is give them the time and place … and they do their thing.

      Have you ever seen a girl absolutely crazy, crazy, crazy about horses? If she spent 2 or 3 hours per day around horses, would she have to be “forced” to do that?

      “Forcing”… It does not compute for me. The children are pursuing what they love. They are relatively cheerful about completing other educational pursuits, and they have lots and lots of time for their interests.

      JT, I’m curious about what your children have to be “forced” to do. Clearly you must have a reason for bringing it up. The idea behind compulsory school is that children MUST be segregated by age, kept within walls, and taught things against their will, and then their home life MUST be disrupted with homework assignments. It may amaze you to hear it, but most adults would rebel against such a situation. Who can blame traditionally schooled children from behaving eactly as adults would behave? Bored, disruptive, and unccoperative.

      Homeschool is freedom.

      I apologize for this lengthy and somewhat argumentative reply, but I am worried about you as a parent and/or teacher. Your concept of “forcing” children is … distasteful to me.

      • JT
        JT says:

        Penelope has mentioned many times that she has to force her kids to practice, at least sometimes, surely not always.

        My question was, isn’t forcing disrespectful of the kids choices (as curriculum are)?

        Why force music but not math?

        I ask this because she has mentioned many times how she has to argue with the kids to practice (presumably not always, but sometimes)

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        MH, That is such a great description of forced learning vs self-directed learning. You give great examples. Thanks.


  8. MC
    MC says:

    “Kids don’t need to learn to be bored. Kids need to learn to identify what they want so much that they’d be willing to be bored to get it.”

    This is excellent.

  9. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    Oh my gosh!! This is amazing. And so true! You are going to inspire so many parents with this article.

    Don’t ever stop telling the truth.I’m speechless Penelope!

  10. Susie
    Susie says:

    There needs to be far more discussion and awareness about the disastrous effects schooling has on boys. Thank you for doing your part. Please write a book or two on it!

  11. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    So true. My nine-year-old had to see the school counselor a few times and we were called in to talk to her also. We got the talk about our child doing “odd things” in the classroom. They made us feel like he was a little looney. I eventually learned he hated the work they were doing in school. He now learns at home and I don’t see any problems in him, aside from occasional nose-picking! :)
    Today we went to a furniture store and the sales person was amazed by him. She kept telling me how he seemed like a teenager and how he sounded so smart, etc.. Now, this is actually news to me because I see him every day and he just seems normal to me. But it just goes to show how a once-labeled kid in the right environment can blossom!

  12. Shawn
    Shawn says:

    I love how you took a keyword for SEO and made an article an honest approach on a subject that many people would have written fluff about to attract people to your site. You are a truely admirable blogger. Keep it up!

  13. JT
    JT says:

    What if the child’s “difficulty” comes from an unstable home environment? How will keeping him home make that better?

  14. Kris
    Kris says:

    When my son started complaining about going to our local public school, one of the things that he complained about was that it was “boring!”. So I went with him for 2 months and guess what it WAS boring! And while I was there I noticed it was pretty ‘thin’ on adult supervision during recess. So we home school now….and occasionally that’s “boring” too…we’ve added 2 days a week at a co op program which works great. Homeschooling has allowed me to have conversations with my son that I might have missed otherwise. Conversations like -“mom, I have music playing in my head all of the time, and do you know I I keep the beat? I keep it with my teeth!” wow….that’s a memorable quote. It is very sad that so many schools do not encourage and nurture the joy of learning.

  15. terese hilliard
    terese hilliard says:

    When I was in High School (graduated in 1975) we were given the opportunity to have schedules more like college students. We had “modular scheduling” which gave each class blocks of time (30-90 minutes). We then had blocks of time (mods) between 30-90 minutes to do what we felt was best. we had open campus, a smoking lounge, and freedom. I graduated 6 months early because we could gain extra credits by taking more classes. The experiment was ended because so many kids did not take advantage of the experience. But I loved it. I don’t know how my kids survived their High School experiences. My youngest has Aspberger’s and I home schooled the first two years of High School, but he begged to go to High School. It was hard, but he made it because he wanted to “make a point” and “beat them at their own game.” High School is a ridiculas waste of time, and I wish more kids had parents that realize this fact.

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