The Today Show just featured homeschool parents who put six kids in college before the age of twelve. These parents are a terrible representatives of the homeschool movement. They are just as bad as the parents who homeschool so they can intellectually isolate their kids from views that differ from their own.
I’m unhappy to see that mainstream media is obsessing over these parents. But I’m equally unhappy to hear that people think this is a victory for the homeschoolers. This family is not proof that homeschooling works. It is proof that self-absorbed parents pop up in homeschool environments just like they pop up in all other family environments.
Here’s why I think it’s terrible for the kids that that they are in college at by age 12.
1. Kids need to play with peers when they are young. Every piece of education research in the world says this. And it’s not just advice for stupid kids, this is for all kids. In fact, my son who has autism was in a New York City classroom at age three where all the kids could read, and the teachers expressly forbid the early reading because it’s so detrimental to the social part of brain development. Those kids were forced to learn how to do pretend play because it’s so essential to child development.
2. If kids love to learn, they don’t need college. Let’s say that all the kids in this family love to read and memorize and learn new things. Why do they need to go to college to do that? What is the benefit to them? Have they not heard of the Khan Academy?
Pre-teens don’t need college-level dialogue with students twice their age because those kids look at them as circus objects, not as equals. And if the kids want access to teachers, they can email the teachers. Surely the teachers will answer any question that is not readily available online. Which is, probably, none. If the kids want one-on-one attention from a professor, they can get a tutor.
3. Child prodigies typically have emotional crises when they get older. This is because everyone says to a prodigy, “How old are you?” Because our culture fetishizes child prodigies. But there comes a point in someone’s life when the answer to “How old are you?” is not interesting. Then the kid who has been special for being young is no longer special for being young. Then what are they special for?
The work of parents is to prepare a kid to feel special regardless of their age because that is so fleeting. Melissa owned a business when she was ten. She was on Oprah at age 12. She finished high school at age 13. When I met her, at age 23, she had no idea what to do with herself because she wasn’t special anymore for her age.
4. People who specialize in dealing with prodigies hold the kids back. My son takes lessons with a cello teacher who is a magnet for child prodigies. There she is up there in the photo. Gilda Barston. I adore her.
Here’s what she does: She forbids the kids to learn music she doesn’t assign because if they learn too much of the cello repertoire, there will be nothing left for them as they get older. She tries to slow down their memorizing of songs—in a similar way to the teachers in the classroom slowing down the process of learning to read—so that my son can savor the moments of learning each new part of the music and he has space to feel music in a way music relates to his heart.
The way to a care for a child prodigy is to help the child to experience childhood. The prodigy will be great if he is meant to be great. But he can’t intuitively protect his childhood from adults who want to steal it.
5. The media misunderstands homeschooling. This family of pre-teens in college is not proof that homeschooling works. This is proof that if you want your kids to win at the game of memorizing to get into college, you can win better if you take your kids out of school and do it full time because school is really inefficient at winning the game they are supposedly playing. But homeschooling is about taking your kids out of the test-taking environment and respecting the fact that kids only have fifteen years to be kids, so they should be kids.
6. Parents misunderstand childhood. It is not a time when your kids are emissaries to the world to show the world how great you are as a parent. Childhood is for exploration. There is no point in teaching kids to stick to rigidly linear paths because linear paths don’t work in adult life. And there is no point in celebrating your child’s prodigy in a way that will encourage people to ask, with an impressed voice, “How old are you?” Because this is not a long-term plan for someone who will be 20 and 30 and 40 and 50.
7. Full disclosure: At one point I dated the youngest doctor in Illinois. He was gorgeous and brilliant. He worked in the emergency room, and in between patients, almost every night, he had sex with nurses. He broke off three engagements and moved to a state where he knew no one. And he’s worked the emergency room night shift for the last twenty years because that’s a lifestyle that is most likely to allow for avoiding social engagement.
I miss him. He was so exciting to be around because he was so smart. But he was unable to sustain connections with anyone over long periods of time. It wasn’t interesting to him.
You have noticed, at this point, that I think the key to a happy life is one that includes good relationships. This is not a controversial conclusion. Yet the odds of someone who exhibits signs of autism and who’s a child prodigy coming up with good adult relationships is relatively low. My life has been full of these people, and I study them obsessively.
It pains me that society celebrates kids who have obvious signs of autism in a way that precludes also getting the kids help. It pains me that we say homeschool works if kids can memorize more than public school peers. I’d like to see our culture acknowledge that kids who exhibit early signs of autism need help learning to socialize in productive ways. I’d like to see our culture stop celebrating kids for their age relative to their accomplishments instead of for their core personality.
One of the great things about homeschooling is you can take our kids out of an atmosphere where learning is a race with an end goal and external approval. I don’t want homeschooling to be represented by parents who steal their kids’ childhoods by putting them in college by age 12. You shouldn’t want that either.