In our house school is punishment

My son outgrew his violin.  It’s always a bittersweet time when we move up a size in violins.  I saved his first violin.  The whole thing is the size of an adult hand.  At the time, it looked just right for him and it didn’t strike me as particularly small, but the teacher told me, “Save this one.  It will be really precious to you later.”

At the time I thought that no part of the violin would ever be precious to me because it is so hard to practice violin with a three‑year‑old, but now I cherish the really tiny violin, and every time we trade up for a larger one I cherish the one we’re giving up.

So it was a bittersweet day when we brought three violins and six bows to the violin teacher to make a decision about which violin to buy.  Luckily, we’re still in the $2,000 range for violins.  A full‑sized violin will probably run us about $15,000, but I try to teach him now how important it is to take care of the violin and choose a good one.

So we spend most of the lesson evaluating the violins, including blind listening tests.

I want to tell you he was extremely grateful and had a good time learning about the difference between an Italian violin and a German violin, but to be honest, he bitched about it the whole time.

He said he hates violin.  He said he doesn’t want to listen to them.  He said he doesn’t want to have to be careful with his violin.  I should just get him a cheap one, and then he has a headache and a neckache and an earache, and probably he would have gone on but I told him to shut the fuck up and go to the car.

The violin teacher, Diana, said, “Don’t worry.  Sometimes kids are like this.”

But I felt really bad. The violin teacher has been completely amazing to him.  She’s been teaching him for five years and she has gone through so much with us.  She even got special training on autism to be more effective with him.

At one point last year I told him, “Fine, forget it.  Quit violin.”

But it turned out he didn’t want to.  I had called his bluff without even meaning to.  So we have a deal that he’ll practice 15 minutes twice a day and he won’t complain.

I should have made a deal that he won’t complain in violin lessons as well, but I’d need an infinite number of deals with him to not want to slam my head into a wall during violin.

So the violin teacher told me to not worry, it happens, and we got in the car and we headed towards gymnastics.  Gymnastics is also something he chose, and he loves his teacher, and he loves all the things he gets to do in gymnastics because he made the list of what he does, yet he complains about every single thing every week.

So I said, “You can’t do violin any more, and you can’t do gymnastics any more, and if you can’t pick something and try your hardest, then you have to go to school.  School is for kids who need someone else to pick what they’re doing, and school is for kids who can’t try their hardest so someone has to force them to try.  If you aren’t able to try your hardest, then you have to go to school.”

And he said, “You can’t send me to school.  I’ll try my hardest.  I’ll be better.  You can’t send me to school.”

I said, “Yeah, you’re going to school,” and then I got excited because I finally picked something he cared about.

Then he said, “I’m not following the rules at school.  What do they do if you don’t follow the rules at school?  I’m not doing what they say.”

“Then you go to the school for bad kids.”

“Well, I’m not going to follow the rules at the school for bad kids.  Then what do they do?”

“Then they put you in military school.”

“What do they do with the kids in military school if they don’t follow the rules, because that’s what I’m going to be.”

I said they put the kids in juvenile prison, and his little brother chimed in, “You can’t send him to school.  If he’s going to prison then I’m going with him.”

It was a bit of chaos, but I persevered.  I called the nanny and told her that we’re going to take him to school the next day and enroll him.  She said the school principal is going to kill me, and I said whatever.  It’s his legal right to go to school.  We live in the district.  She said there’s only two more weeks of school.  I said I don’t care.  It will have a great effect on him.

He cried for the rest of the day saying, “Please don’t send me to school” over and over, and I kept telling him if you don’t try your hardest and if you can’t pick what you want to do during the day, then you have to go to school because you aren’t managing yourself.

But as it turns out, he was becoming physically ill with the idea of going to school, and I was becoming physically ill with the idea of having to walk into the school district after I had taken my kids out of school to launch an enormous blog to talk about how stupid school is.  I didn’t think it would be good for anyone.  So I ended up giving in.

The nanny said she was not surprised.  My husband was not surprised either.

The only person that was surprised was my oldest son, but since then, he’s been really good at not complaining with the violin teacher or the gymnastics teacher. And it occurs to me that framing our decision to homeschool as a decision to trust him to pick things that he wants to do with his biggest effort is a good way to frame what real life is about as well.

38 replies
  1. karelys
    karelys says:

    omg! I carefully pick what I want to do and then complain the whole way through it!

    And then I realize that there are hard parts to every process. Like picking and feeling that you picked right. Then doing it and putting a good effort in it. Then maintaining focus and knowing it won’t last forever.

    I made a great case as for why we should forget about a front lawn and plant a garden instead. I planned it and I got my husband excited about the idea. Well, it’s taking a while to put everything together and sometimes I lose focus of what the point was and I feel like everything was horrible. Like my neighbors’ lawns are so perfectly manicured and someone comes to cut them every week. I think “I could’ve just paid someone to do that” because I forget I think it’s heresy to spend so much time and money on something that’s just for looks and has no actual tangible reward (like eating a good tomato).

    Then I think, “shit! I am tired of going against the grain all the time! I want to blend it so well. But then blending in makes me feel suffocated :/”

    I make sure to make a mental note that homeschooling will have its hard days just like cooking a meal from scratch can seem too much work for nothing. That I could just run to the Taco Bell drive-thru and then just put up with my stomach hurting and my skin breaking out.

    Whatever, it’s part of my process. But complaining gets annoying to both my husband and I. Then I am embarrassed because I am all gun-ho about my ideas and the process kills me.

    I said to my husband he should practice golf to shoot for the US Open in a couple years. It seemed like a great idea. Golf is perfect for him. Or he’s perfect for golf. I don’t know.

    Then he says “can you watch Murphy so I can go practice?” then I whine. I forgot discipline would include both him and I.

  2. Steph
    Steph says:

    I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only parent that says, “shut the fuck up”. I tend to use the phrase, “I’m entitled to $16,000 of daycare for you”. That usually sorts things out quickly. My 9 year old is a fan, so it will be good for him to hear that Penelope says the same things.

    • cortney
      cortney says:

      it’s not really necessary to go as far as “shut the fuck up” in most cases. i remember many of the instances when my mom launched into verbal assaults, and how i lost respect for her over time. they’re probably quiet because they know you are nuts. your kids will be adults one day, and they’ll remember these things. it’s not going to feel great when they never call you and enjoy holidays away from you. at least, that’s one way things could go.

      • Gwen
        Gwen says:

        Yes. I remember the few times my parents cursed at me. More than that, I remember very vividly the times when they guilt-tripped me with lines like “If I hadn’t been paying for that for you, I could have a sports car by now”.

        Now I’m a very high achieving adult who picks bald spots into my own head with stress and ends up crying and small every time I’m around my mother for more than two days. I moved to a different continent two weeks after finishing high school.

  3. Cristina
    Cristina says:

    I loved the violin.
    And I hated it.

    I hated it every now and again, in an inconsistent way, and sometimes I tried to refuse to play, especially if my siblings were watching TV or playing outside.

    My mum said I could quit as long as I hated it every day, out loud, for month.

    But invariably, there would be orchestra practice, which was fun, because it meant swapping notes with a cute boy when the conductor wasn’t looking, and we stayed friends throughout high school. And I loved the shared experience of making music, if not the lonely minutes practising (I’m ENFJ, so I need others for excitement).

    I never hated the violin enough to quit, and I secretly I liked it when I played well. I just hated the boring bits, which for me were aspects of technique.

    I didn’t complete my Bachelor of Performance, we moved interstate. And I don’t play now. But I still love music.

    I love that it taught me rhythm and timing and improved my tonality, that it helped me with math and languages, which I adore, and that it introduced me to a world I felt comfortable in, surrounded by musos. I loved jazz violin, an elective later on, and the fact that the scales I had practised let my fingers dance across the strings confidently, having fun with the others, and branching out.

    Here’s a clip of my friend
    I remember him comforting me when I was crying after a violin teacher smashed my confidence and love of the instrument one lesson. Look at him now, as backing muso for Kasey Chambers (look her up – she’s big in Australia) :

    Then look up Gotan Project. Man that is cool.

    But if you see nothing else, watch this video with your son, and think about how inspiring it is that brilliance can be developed in suburb after suburb in Venezuela, where children from low socio-economic backgrounds are given the opportunity through the El Sistema musical revolution to fly beyond the limits imposed by family circumstance:

    There is so much to be inspired by in the world of music, and it is natural to wax and wane along the way. For me, it was a path worth walking, and I hope your son finds inspiration through the choices and lives of others to find reason to continue playing, and keeping the music a part of his life.

  4. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    I absolutely agree with that upside of homeschooling: learning to pick what you want to do with your biggest effort.

    The downside of this is that most jobs come with bosses. Even if you pick a job you want to do, there is usually a lot of work that you don’t want to do. Or that is being done poorly, and you’re not allowed to fix it.

    I don’t feel like homeschooling prepared me well to be an employee…because I always want to be the one in charge.

    After a student has been trusted by his parent to manage his own education, NOT being trusted by a boss to manage his own job is frustrating.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Becky, here’s another way to look at this issue.

      If you really want to be your own boss, you start your own company. And homeschooling totally prepares you for that.

      But if you like stability and security then you can’t start your own company. And if you like high stability and security, you probably also can’t have high intersetingness if you want to get paid.

      So most people who want high stability and security and high interstingness hate the workplace. I don’t think this has to do with homeschooling or not homeschooling – I think it’s how we are born.


  5. Heather Bathon
    Heather Bathon says:

    I love this post. Not the least to know I’m not the only homeschool who says ‘f**k’ in front of her child (which she records, on a pad, and reports to my husband nightly). The other day I told her she was a ‘f******g jerk’. For some reason I’m still too old-school to actually write it online.
    I’m actually going to memorize the progressively punitive steps you threatened your son with Penelope, in the hope that I get a similar result.

    • Brynn
      Brynn says:

      What Penelope described has worked very similarly in our household. When my son doesn’t try at something which we have put massive amounts of effort in and he claims to want, placing him in school is the threat. I often use the phrase, “My job as your parent is to create a functioning citizen. You can function by yourself and be self motivated here at home, or I can place in you school where you learn to follow. Either way works for me. Figure out what works for you!” I can’t tell if it is actually the idea of school (which he greatly doesn’t want) or how exasperated I am when it finally comes to this. Whichever it is, it snaps him back to reality and works well.

  6. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    I have said, “You better shape up or I’m going to send you to school” more than…a few times to my three kids. They have never been to school (for all they know it could be one giant party at the beach) and yet they still say, “No! Ok, Mom. Ok, we’re gonna get serious!”

    • mh
      mh says:

      I have said, “You have to pick. Either you treat us like you’re happy to be around us, or you have to go to school. Homeschool isn’t for practicing being obnoxious. Go to school and treat your classmates and teacher lke that.”

  7. Confused
    Confused says:

    I’m surprised to be the first to have a negative reaction to this post. All parents have bad days, frustrating moments, and say things in the heat of the moment we wish we could undo. But you seem proud of swearing at your kid, and given what you’ve said about your abusive childhood, I can’t understand why you think it’s okay.

    You also seem way more invested in your son pursuing learning the violin than he is. My understanding of your homeschooling philosophy is that you’re trying to empower your children. But threatening a child with going to school because that’s the place where less adequate children are sent as a punishment seems really damaging.

    • Heather Bathon
      Heather Bathon says:

      I hear you completely on the swearing thing, even though I do it. It may be a bit of a cultural or generational shift. My parents never swore in front of my sibs and me growing up, but they spanked us. I don’t spank but I do swear, even though my husband never does and we don’t allow our daughter to.
      My mother, after we were all safely into adulthood, started swearing in front of us and seems to relish it.
      I don’t approve of my swearing in front of or at my child and yet, I seem to allow myself to do it. Sometimes I feel that I will lose my ever lovin mind if I don’t.

  8. redrock
    redrock says:

    My mom used the same approach, just not with violin but piano. It was incredibly important to her for some reason that I take piano lessons while I liked it but was not crazy about them. In a fit of anger she threatened and screamed at me that she will cancel the lessons – to me this was not about piano lessons but her threatening to withdraw her love. How could I dare not to like doing something she so much wanted me to do? I begged her to let me continue, despite the lessons themselves not really being that important to me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is so disturbing. I have talked to a lot of people who say that as kids they could not distinguish between the instrument and their parents love. This makes me very self-conscious about making the kids practice, and telling them they can quit.

      This is a difficult part of parenting for me.


      • redrock
        redrock says:

        it certainly depends a lot on context – the same thing from the outside is not always truly the same in terms of feelings and impact.

      • Cynthia
        Cynthia says:

        Sometimes parenting is like walking a tightrope. The hard part is holding the rope and being there to catch them when they fall.
        I have seen both sides of this issue with my son. And I feel that he can determine how much he really wants something or not. The joy of parenting is to take the blame regardless. After the heat of the moment, when he is calming his body and brain, we check in. These conversations never have heat just love and respect.
        Finding one’s way in never easy.

      • Hazel
        Hazel says:

        The threat to march him down to horrible school/jail seems like threatening to withdraw your love too. I got into power struggles with my older son too and tried threats and bribes and anger. Lots of unpleasantness. Best thing was to describe how he made me feel when he was negative or whatever I was upset about, lay out what I saw as the consequences of the (bad) choice he was making, and then let him live with his choice and ask for help when he realized it could be helpful.

        Penelope, you are such a proponent of learning from mistakes. Maybe allowing your son to make some won’t be any worse than swearing at him and making threats that you don’t carry through with. I know it was fear that my son wouldn’t survive making his own decisions led to a lot of unnecessary conflict. With my second son his dad and I were both more relaxed, we saw that what seemed like huge looming milestone mountains to climb with our first were more like bumps in a long road.

  9. Candi
    Candi says:

    Had almost the same exact conversation about school with my son. And that was just yesterday. He responded the same exact way, “I won’t listen, then what? Where do they send you?” Funny to read the same conversation, only different mother/ son. It had to get big and blow up before changes were made. Magically, the next day, no complaints about anything. Sometimes a reality check is in need.

  10. Sister SIster
    Sister SIster says:

    I think that swearing is just another form of words to use for added emphasis. It can be overdone and lose it’s effectiveness if not careful. Swearing is not going anywhere, and I’d take a guess that most adults do it. Unless every other word coming from someone’s mouth, I also doubt if people really pay that much attention to it…unless in certain settings.

    I rarely swear, and I swear even less in front of my kids (but there were the times when I broke my toe on the bed and dropped my favorite glass bowl and broke it). This isn’t so much that I object to it as it is that I’m too lazy to want to teach them when/where it would not be appropriate for them to use it if they picked it up. I homeschool, so I don’t have to worry about them picking up too many words that I don’t want to “screen”. I can hear what’s being said during most interactions at the parks/pool since kids rarely whisper. Anyway….I think there is a HUGE difference in swearing in front of kids and swearing AT kids. Telling a child that they’re a “$%$% dam idiot” is on a whole different level than telling a child “go to the $$^% car”. Even just using those terms in themselves aren’t abusive. It would have to be taken in context to make that call. Is swearing just a normal part of the person’s vocabulary? Are the majority of comments and actions made to the child supportive, helpful and loving? Or are they meant to demean or hurt? I think that is where the abuse comes in. If you have spent a whole week listening to the hormonal attitude of a 13 year old, while doing your best to give them positive feedback while steering them away from negative behavior and you tell them to stop being a ^**^% asshole after they slam the door or roll their eyes for you having dared told them to pick up their room, then I don’t consider that abuse by itself. I think calling it that is just a knee-jerk reaction from being conditioned to viewing swearing as “bad”

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    You and your son had a bad day picking out a new violin. That’s unfortunate but it was good for both of you to let each other know where each stands. It was high drama but sometimes that’s what it takes to communicate. What’s fortunate for both of you is to have Diana as both a teacher and a friend. I reread the post you did about her. I love that post and this post is further proof that she is amazing.
    It’s hard for me to know from here why he’s complaining so much. It’s not just about the violin as you mentioned he was also complaining about gymnastics. You applied the band-aid to stop the complaining by telling him he would have to go to school if he didn’t straighten out. However, I have a feeling this band-aid is a short-term fix. I hope you and he are able to determine the root cause of his discontent and get beyond his need to complain about any of his homeschooling activities.

  12. CJ
    CJ says:

    You know Penelope, I still come back and read your blog because I see it as an amazing resource. You direct me to links and authors less obvious on the unschooling scene- i.e. The mother MD article was just wonderful you posted about the other day. I enjoy your direct writing and your children are beautiful.

    Not sure if anybody else said this already, but threat parenting will always backfire on you. I read MarkW above and couldn’t agree more about it being temp band-aid. Also, it is in fact abusive to tell your kids things like that you will send them places for bad kids implying they are bad. You are shaming them and making them feel insecure. Shaming and threatening (not hitting, not cursing, not forgetting to feed them a meal) are the direct methods to create angry, self-loathing, narcissists as adults. Oh, and they will resent the FUCK out of you when they are men. Research this to wild abandon, please. You can lay out consequences without threatening or shaming. It can be done. You say time and time over that homeschooling makes independent people out of our kids which will make them better prepared later. I couldn’t agree more. So, why are you making him do violin and gymnastics? He needs to choose what he loves if he is to be independent. You are making him do what YOU want him to do. And, this is exactly what schools do. You have to trust him. You have to trust him. You have to trust him.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You know, I think a lot of what you say is right.

      It’s really hard to be a perfect parent. So sometimes I have to just write when I’m a bad parent. There’s nothing else to do, right? Sometimes I’m good and sometimes I’m bad and I’m always trying to be better.


      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        I think, as you apparently do, that in this case you were a bad parent. I wouldn’t presume to judge you for this. I have also been a bad parent. I have even made the exact same threat: “If you don’t do X, I’ll send you to school! Military school!” It sucked. It was stupid. All the ex pos facto rationalization I can muster won’t fix it (nor does it, I’m sure, fix it for you).

        The difference between you and folks like me is that we don’t blog about it when we’re bad parents; we keep it to ourselves. I might make catty comments about other things you say, or point out when your links or arguments fail, but being a bad parent every once in a while is par for the course, and one would be foolish to judge you for it.

        I’m wondering about your boy and his violin lessons. Do you think part of the problem is that he is conscious of not being as musically talented as his little brother?

      • mh
        mh says:

        Penelope, there is no such thing as perfect parents.

        Can you find it in you to apologize, then say “Initially, I thought my response should be…, but now I think this instead?”

        My tricky Myers-Briggs parenting trick is to ask the T’s “What do you think we should do the next time?” and ask the F’s “What do you feel is the right way to go?”

        You probably already do that.

      • CJ
        CJ says:

        I hope you come back to this stream. I didn’t realize you replied, but I want you to know that I am not saying you are bad. Not even a little bit. We are human Penelope. That means we fail….and A LOT. I am in no way close to perfect either. What I know I share with you- because I have been reading you awhile now- is that I am harder on myself than you or anyone can be and I know you are always striving with your kids and your life too. I screw up every single day. But I, and you are awake at the wheel. We care. We are trying. I am sharing info with you just as you share with me. I know how narcissism grows because that’s my parents and I want to help you avoid it like a plague- because I really see it like a disease we don’t want.

        because of you, I learned that I am an ENFJ. So you KNOW there is no hyperbole in my belief that 1. I can and will change the world and 2. I want to help anyone I care about to live their bliss. No bs.

        You are more than good. And I know this because you care so much about the trying and it’s in earnest. I know I am good because I try so hard too.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      It’s lovely that you start the comment with compliments!

      I wonder if kids can ever escape this pressure.

      It happened to me when my dad would tell us to, essentially, leave all our emotional attachments to and in Mexico because we’d move. Then he’d say “I want to make sure you guys choose this too. I don’t want to force you to move and then you’ll resent me and blame me if you’re unhappy about it.”

      But to me it was like those words were just a shell. Like I HAD to agree with him. Same with all other “suggestions or advice” he’d given us. It didn’t feel like advice, it felt like we had to do it or else…

      I am not sure kids can ever skip this until they grow and know the difference really well because approval = love at this stage. Kids are self-centered so they think everything revolves around them and happens because of them (parents being angry, happy, etc).

      • mh
        mh says:

        parental approval = love at this stage

        That’s a thinker.

        I think parents tend to over-approve (verbally) of their children, complimenting every little decision and glimpse of talent and praise, praise, praising.

        It seems insincere. When I hear (especially) my own parents overpraising my children, I find it somewhere between eye-rolling and off-putting. I try to change the subject.

        This is where I agree with the more traditional Judeo-Christian approach to child raising — children are naturally flawed/sinful/bad and must be trained and civilized, taught self-control, humility, and mindfulness.

        As a culture, Americans are much better at teaching math than mindfulness. And we’re not that good at teaching math.

        Anyway, if parental approval = love, then what happens to that child’s personality when their is no boss approval/spouse approval later in life? The depression/self-absorption spiral kicks in, and it’s sports cars and defaults all the way down.

    • Anna Louise
      Anna Louise says:

      Agreed, however, with some kids they pick something they want to do but it’s not long before they’re sick of it and want to move on. I am careful to avoid long commitments because my son gets fed up so fast. The only thing that holds his attention is FRIENDS. He stayed at a school far too long, went happily every day even though the school was a terrible fit and two of the teachers were foul, all because he had great friends there. Same with summer camps….he happily goes to the one where he has a friend. He’s an extreme extrovert ENFP with inflexible/intense/willful Asperger tendencies, as much of an oxymoron as that sounds.

      I am very interested in reading more about how to homeschool these boys who get fed up quickly, don’t occupy themselves extremely well, are willful and intense, and in my son’s case, who have very high social needs. I’m tempted to send him to Boys and Girls Club for 3 hours a day – they’ve got kids, gyms, robotics station, etc. It’s self-directed learning and free play.

  13. Mary Kathryn
    Mary Kathryn says:

    So much truth here. I used to give a little speech to my students each year. I called it the Three-Self lecture. I told them they needed to be Self-Controlled, Self-Disciplined, and Self-Motivated. If they didn’t do those things, somebody else would come along and control them, discipline them, and TRY to motivate them. I asked them how nasty is it to be controlled and disciplined by somebody else, and they all agreed, yeah, it’s so much smarter to do it yourself. This is all so accurate. Not only is school for kids who can’t do those things themselves, school eventually turns kids into people who can’t do that for themselves either.

  14. Jani
    Jani says:

    I am a piano teacher and have students who complain through the lesson, as well. Usually, if I can tease them (gently and appropriately), and get them to loosen up a little (joking, laughing, talking), the complaining drops to a minimum. I also keep my lesson structure loose. Sometimes we spend a few minutes talking about school, or nonsense, and I think they appreciate the brain break because when we get back to work they are usually fully engaged with the material again.

    All that aside, I have a student I am potentially taking on who has Aspergers, and would love to know what kind of training your son’s violin teacher sought out in order to be more effective as a teacher. Do you know? Or does anyone have any suggestions?

    Thanks :)

  15. brenda
    brenda says:

    Great lesson for kids and adults, one that I have to keep re-learning: Choose, and then choose your choice. It sounds trite, but the message is true.

    Then there’s this: “So most people who want high stability and security and high interestingness hate the workplace. I don’t think this has to do with homeschooling or not homeschooling – I think it’s how we are born.” Yep, that’s me. I have to remind myself frequently that the high stability and high security of my work are things that I chose, and I would probably feel adrift without them. That said, I hate the controlled environment of my work. I try to keep a lid on the complaining, as my husband gets tired of it.

    Finally, in regards to CJ’s comment, I have to mention that when I was in high school I wanted to do a theater internship and my mom totally threatened me that if she saw any change in me at all from being around “those people” she’d make me quit. She didn’t like “theatre people”, and she didn’t trust me. The threat was very scary to me, even as an older teen. Kids do equate their parents’ approval of what they are doing with love. I didn’t take the internship because I was afraid my mom would throw me out of the house, and still resent that I didn’t do it.

    It does not sound to me that your son hates the violin or gymnastics, he just likes to complain (attention seeking? something?). I think you framed his options beautifully, bringing us back to choosing the choice, and it seems that he’s doing that now.

    Great post.

  16. Brooke
    Brooke says:

    I get what you’re saying- the complaining seemed excessive- but surely we should all be entitled to a little complaining? After all we chose to be parents and we certainly feel entitled to complain! :)

Comments are closed.