School is a competition where winners get nothing

You already know that everyone learns differently.  You already know that each kid has different interests, and you know that kids learn at different rates.  So you know, intuitively, if you set up school to be a competition, it will not be close to a fair fight.

You won’t have all the math kids competing against each other in math and all the artists competing against each other in art.  You actually have the math kids competing in art and the art kids competing in math, because the idea of school is not only competitive, but also pushes the idea of well-roundedness.

1.  Testing gives people a way to rank kids.

2.  Report cards give parents a way to rank themselves based on how well their kids learn.

3.  School measures IQ not only with testing, but by setting up discrete subject matter that requires basically one type of IQ.  For example, school does not measure emotional intelligence.  Only the intelligence to memorize facts.

The best way to extract your mind from the hamster wheel of competitive schooling is to look at the chart that the Atlantic published about how parents in different countries describe their children.

Most parents in Australia describe their kids as happy or easygoing.  Parents in Italy describe their kids as well-balanced and even-tempered, and parents in the Netherlands say their kids have a long attention span.  Parents in the United States overwhelmingly describe their kids as intelligent.

Ironically the traits that parents in other countries use to describe their kids are actually the traits that help people succeed as adults. But the traits that American parents obsess over are traits that actually have no correlation to happiness or success in adult life. The American school system effectively translates parent concerns about their kid into a daily routine that focuses on those concerns. Which would be great if the concerns correlated to success or happiness.

United States parents are alone in their need to tout their kids as having a high IQ.  It doesn’t take a high IQ to recognize that parents are overly invested in their kids’ reflection on themselves.

Telling people about their kids’ kindness and happiness will help the kids to see themselves that way.  Telling people about how easy their kid is to deal with, which is what people do in Spain, will reinforce the idea between a parent and child that their relationship is thriving.

You don’t need to wait for schools to change their focus to something that actually matters in children’s lives.  You can change that focus yourself by taking your kids out of school and emphasizing what parents in other countries emphasize, which is what makes a good person instead of what makes a smart person.


21 replies
  1. karelys
    karelys says:

    So far the people that are with my son for long periods of time are all Mexican. And they end up talking about how the kid is hilarious and so easy to be with.

    Now I see what’s going on.

    Right now all babies tend to be hilarious because they are like little drunk friends trying to work their way around. But hopefully my son will believe this because being funny and making people feel good makes people more willing to embrace what you stand for since they like being around you. And hopefully he will grow up to be a very kind man. Kind and very wise.

  2. Betsy
    Betsy says:

    I noticed when I was a teacher that I described my kids by how funny they were and how well they treated their peers. Unsurprisingly, I describe my own kids the same way. And by how nosy they are – but both of my kids are REALLY nosy so it’s worth mentioning.

    Maybe this is because I started in gifted ed and realized that intelligence is a vague and difficult to define quality because there are so many kinds of intelligence.

  3. Julie
    Julie says:

    Why are American parents so hung up on this though? I agree that we are. People in other countries/cultures send their kids to school. Are their schools so very different? Do they not use grades or do testing?

    I am thinking this is a sort of a new thing. I don’t think my parents’ generation worried about it much. I wonder if it isn’t that they believed intelligence was something innate and we have been sold the idea that early “enrichment” is going to raise our kids IQ’s. I remember when we looked at music lessons and seeing posted at the music school an article about music education being correlated with higher test scores, especially with math.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I am thinking all this will be linked to the Arms Race and STEM education, and competing. Also, rise of technology to compete with other countries.

  4. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    Wow. I never considered that parents in different cultures would differ so greatly in the manner they describe their children. I need to think about that more. I typically think of my children as fun. I realize that to others they may not be as fun as they are to me, but personally, I think they are a blast, and I hope I send them out into the world with the understanding that making people smile and laugh is both a blessing and a gift.

    This year in our homeschool cooperative it was obvious that there were kids who excelled in some areas, and not so much in others, but when you listen to them talk amongst themselves, or describe each other, it is never academic-centric. My kids describe people by how they make them feel. “So and so is so funny…” or “So and so is crazy…” followed by a story.

  5. Julianna
    Julianna says:

    I think you look up studies to back up what you already think. In this case, this author of this Atlantic article has done the same — and you followed.

    Those charts are not on a standard scale. Only 6% of Americans describe their kids as “intelligent” (this is “overwhelmingly”? its sounds about right to me). Far more Australian and Spanish parents describe their kids as “intelligent” (looks like 9 and 10%). And really about everything you write is wrong according to the study this article sites.

    You need to look past the shiny colors sometimes.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      Perhaps what PT meant to say is that being able to read charts or understand a study has nothing to do with success…

        • Commenter
          Commenter says:

          It could also be a matter of passing down our vocational experience, biases, and limitations to our children. Obviously, the ability to read charts or understand a study is irrelevant to success as a journalist.

  6. Carla Hinkle
    Carla Hinkle says:

    But I’m not sure what that comparison is worth. All those countries have the same school model as the mainstream US. Many even have state-sponsored daycare & kids spend even longer days at school than in the US.

  7. Lizarino
    Lizarino says:

    I love your blog.

    This morning someone complained in an online group about their child’s principal’s overly harsh punishment for running in the hall… I told her she should homeschool. Another mom complained that the school wouldn’t customize for her profoundly gifted child… I told her she should homeschool. Another mom fretted and begged for advice because her highly gifted child refused to finish the last two weeks of school at an expensive private school because he hated it and was bored to tears… I told her she should homeschool.

    It may not be helpful advice or the advice they wanted to hear, but I find myself either linking an article to your blog or quoting you in some way to help make a point. Mostly because I agree with you, but also because you have a blunt way of putting things that I appreciate.

    Another great post by you.

    I’m not sure about the data, we are left to assume quite a bit from the infographic (what was the sample size etc), so to Juliana’s point maybe the rest of the categories were so small that they were not included in the results, but we would only be assuming since we can’t find any other information other than what is presented. Regardless, for US parents it wasn’t just intelligence, it was also cognitively advanced, and asks questions… which seems redundant so we could lump those together and the percent would be 19% for the US, then it would be “overwhelming”.

    • Ben
      Ben says:

      Wait? “Asks questions” is a thing you’d consider a bad thing for parents to highlight? No. I disagree.

      And to the pats point, lump this categories together and you get something similar to Australia. I assume Australia would be much higher since they don’t even chart things less than 6%. The us seems to have a far broader number of responses if highest is just 8% – and is Asks Questions, a good thing in my book

      • Lizarino
        Lizarino says:

        I wasn’t saying any of the categories were bad… I was pointing out that those three categories were redundant… basically saying the same thing but in different ways, like this sentence. Not saying any of them are good or bad!! Sorry you took it that way.

  8. mh
    mh says:

    It seems like our family mostly discusses how soft the children’s skin is. This is intergenerational. All children are clever, but MY children are soft, Soft, SOFT. It’s a luxury to touch their little arms. I am talking SOFT.

    Yes, you can tell when older women have children, can’t you?

  9. Sue Patterson
    Sue Patterson says:

    Very interesting. When we brought our kids home from school, we often commented on how compassionate and how courageous they were. We focused on following our passions and how that takes us wherever we need to go. And that’s what they incorporated into their being.
    Thanks for helping me see this as well as the introduction to how other countries deal with kids/learning too.

  10. Rani
    Rani says:

    Dear penelope,

    Love your blog! Read it a lot :)

    It’s funny to read that dutch people would say that their kids have a long attention span. As a teacher (almost) i must say i hear that a lot on the playgrounds between parents.

    But what i hear from/discuss with parents is negativity, insecurity, a ‘need’ to obey to schools and the crowd.

    I can see that the children (students.. I may néver call them children) are overwhelmed, tired, grumpy, drugged up and just not kids anymore. And i have to work with them and besides that; No Child Left Behind has came in, in our country called; ‘Weer Samen Naar School’ (going to school together again; translated).
    Just an excuse to put our whole nation under medication, treat them like lab rats but still expecting them to do well in school.

    It’s just not logical and it should be better! But nobody is doing anything about it. I wanted to become a teacher to make a change and do some cool stuff with the kids and have a good time. So little i can change.. While i’ll try my damn best. I’m not feeling valued, already now, and im only 19 years old. School is a rotten workfield and not a positve place for most children. But i like to work with them so much.. It brings joy to my days.

    But i will never let that jungle take over my children if i’ll have them. Over my dead body.

    In Holland/the Netherlands we may smoke weed all day, take drugs, have social security, join the army at 17, stand behind a glass window as a hooker but we can’t teach our own kids.

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