How to be an overachiever and homeschool your kids

It’s funny that we have studies to show that the kid who can look at a marshmallow and not eat it will do better in life than the kid who eats it right away. But what about the parents?

I have a hunch that the parents who can let their kid look unremarkable as a child will end up having a more capable child as an adult. This is because adults who do well do things like fail, try the same thing over and over again, and don’t bother competing with their peers.  This makes sense to me because when I was playing professional volleyball, I always wanted to be the worst player on the court. That’s how I grew my skills the most quickly. The same would be true for kids—they should be in a setting where they are mediocre.

The New Yorker has data to back this up: kids’ brains develop better when they are the youngest in the class. If you get pushed to try harder and harder to keep up, you’ll learn more. Same principle as volleyball, or any endeavor.

This is hard for parents. I remember when my son was first playing soccer, he was by far the best on the field at age five. He played with eight-year-olds. The dads on the sidelines would always come to me and tell me to put him on the traveling team.

I didn’t tell people that my son was the best at everything he did. Because child prodigy-ness doesn’t last. It’s a sort of ephemeral thing that parents often would do best to ignore. The soccer coach confirmed this. He told me that my younger son has amazing field instinct and amazing body control, but other kids will catch up to him and then it’ll be about endurance and aggression and reading a team member, and we have no idea if my son has that or not.

So we didn’t just say no to travelling team. We quit soccer. After all, he can’t do everything.

Quitting soccer was not hard for him. He’s happy at the playground. Quitting soccer was hard for me.

I am an overachiever. I want my kids to be great at everything. I can’t say I didn’t relish the moments when those soccer dads realized that my kid could blow their kid away. I had to tell myself that there’s no point in my son being on a soccer field where he’s the best. It wastes his time.

I am pretty good at finding how my kids can be the best. It’s a muscle. But it’s one I have to let atrophy.

I had these exact worries when I started homeschooling. I’m always finding the coolest stuff, getting the best stuff, smartly navigating the world for my kids. So I felt like they were losing out because I was letting them stay home with me all day and eat corn flakes and play video games.

It’s a really big mind shift for a high achiever to do homeschooling. There is very little opportunity to enter the competitive zone, the zone of let’s-get-the-best, whatever that zone is that I love playing in. That’s not really for homeschool. So you have to learn to just be okay not getting the kids the best of everything, because the best the kids can get is right there with you.


20 replies
  1. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    And the kids who are best at everything, rarely have to try hard or learn to study. And they get cocky. When we have to fight for something-that’s when it becomes valuable.

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    I love this.

    Right now, there’s a post making the rounds on my favorite blogs. Essentially it’s a mother who discovered that these six words “I love to watch you play” just made a world of difference in how she relates to her daughter. Because it took the pressure off.
    Even mild praise is a critique on performance.
    And it’s pressure.
    But when someone says “I love to watch you do ….” it takes the pressure off. And it’s delightful. For everyone involved really.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a great phrase. And often I genuinely feel that way.

      Other times, I need a phrase for when my kid is talking about something I totally don’t care about and I want him to shut up so I can think.

      I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what to do when I’m sick of listening to my kids talk. I feel guilty. Maybe the thing I should do is focus more on the times I do enjoy the kids, and use phrases like “I love to watch you play…”


      • Courtney
        Courtney says:

        I highly appreciate your writing and perspecives Penelope, and currently I am thrilled to find validation in your remarks about need them to stop talking.
        Because it is entirely my fault that they chatter about EVERYTHING! If you come up with a good response please share.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        meh! my mom would go bonkers and tell me “ay ya callate Karelys! como hablas!!” and I’d laugh. Yeah, I knew I talked a lot. I also knew she made me feel comfortable to sort of brainstorm out loud. And I felt she was safe to tell her all the stuff that went on in my brain that I was afraid others would mock me for.

        My dad on the other hand would take an opportunity to teach me how to speak better. He would say “most details are important to you but not the person listening” or “be concise. Most people keep listening out of politeness (if they are polite) but they have spaced off or lost interest long ago” and “try to give a summary before your tale and then explain the rest. Like an essay.”

        It was hard to make my brothers talk. So the speech was different for them. For me it was always about editing editing editing what I wanted to say so that the message would get across right.

        I knew my mom loved me. And I knew that if I was annoying to her that loved me so much I was probably super annoying to anyone else that didn’t love me like her. So it was really good to learn that.

        I am still long winded. But I try to improve as much as possible.

        Your kids will be fine if you tell them: “I am annoyed that you talk all day long. Here’s how you can be a better speaker and capture people’s attention. Here’s how to be a better communicator.”

      • Kate
        Kate says:

        I too need lots of quiet time to think and be in my head. My daughter, on the other hand, needs to talk all day long. I realized recently that as an extreme extrovert, that is how she processes things (I wish I could insert the link here). That helped me be more compassionate towards her endless words, it helped me reframe it somehow.

        I still make her go to bed at a certain time, and I am completely honest with her that it is because I need quiet time to think, not because she necessarily needs the sleep. We also recognize that we have different needs (her for talking, and me for quiet), and she and I discuss that overtly, and try and give each other that throughout the day. She is ten and home-schooled.

  3. karelys
    karelys says:

    PS. I saw something awesome this weekend.

    I think this was a taste of what homeschool or unschooling can be like. I have a one year old that is almost walking but not quite there. I decide to keep the livingroom open and as pared down as possible. I wanted to make sure that our house is a house for the family not just a place to hold my decorations or things I find interesting. I wanted to make sure if that if in the winter someone wants to kick a ball there is no worry that things will break, therefore making everything feel constricted.

    Anyway, I was doing yard work and I left my child on the grass checking on him once in a while. We live on a very peaceful street. He got bored of not having constant attention and then decided to use his little car and push it around so he could walk.

    I was so excited!

    So essentially, if I get out of the way and let my kid be frustrated and bored it will push him to problem solve.

    He got stuck at the end of the drive way and beginning of the street. He had to figure out how to maneuver the jeep so he could continue on. He was mad. Then once he figured it out his face lit up and he continue to walk onto the street. He had so much fun and the next day he was much more self assured.

    I think this is a lot of what homeschooling looks like. And it’s super tempting to go there and unstuck the toy and make sure to rail the child back in so he won’t go to the street. But instead of doing that I just made sure to create a safe place for him to play, at a distance, and not rescue him every time the toy got stuck. I know for a fact he grew cognitively and in his confidence.

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I can attest to the difficulties of high achievers trying to change their thinking when you homeschool. It is very frustrating!! It feels unnatural to just say nothing because my whole life I’ve pushed myself hard in everything and so has my husband.

    But then I think back and realize that my parents never pushed me to do anything, it is something I was born with. So I have to trust that my kids will have some sort of instinct inside of them that will give them perseverance and “grit” because I don’t want to be a helicopter parent or tiger mom. But it is hard. There has to be a balance somewhere… ?

    Maybe I should let my husband read this one because he is someone on the executive track and has a very difficult time not pushing.

  5. redrock
    redrock says:

    So, you are a kid and you do something quite well, have some talent for it, work on doing it well, run on the soccer field, or tennis court, or play chess a lot – and you shine. Your peers and other parents, and the coach notice you are doing well – and then because it is not good to be at the top of your game, and the top of the class, the decision is made to discontinue this activity for you. I doubt many kids appreciate this (assuming they like what they are doing) – why then should one try to be good at anything if the reward is to stop the activity?

  6. redrock
    redrock says:

    … and please note I am not talking about the weird desire to have a child prodigy, or a kid genius or a world class dancer at the age of 3.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      When it comes to five-year-olds, a kid who is far and away better than his peers at one sport will be way better at most sports than his peers. (Because it’s a result of faster brain development, early coordination, etc. Other kids catch up and then the differentiators are more lasting – like body type, endurance, drive, etc.) A kid cannot do every sport, so there will be sports he gives up, even though all the dad’s on the sidelines get excited.


      • redrock
        redrock says:

        I actually was talking more in general terms – not directly about the soccer example. There have to be choices made… no argument here.

  7. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I think this is one of your better arguments.

    Parental ambitions are probably one of the most common and persistent emotional problems for children.

    I think one of the ways that overachievers manage not to oppress their children is by realizing that them becoming their best as adults isn’t something that happens when they’re children. And trying to make them be the best as children might actually get in the way of them being their best as adults. They need to try things, do things they’re good at and things they’re bad at, succeed and fail, and figure things out for themselves.

    It’s like a treasure hunt for pieces of their adult selves, and we as parents don’t know where these pieces are hidden.

  8. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    This sentence right here is the one that got me: “I have a hunch that the parents who can let their kid look unremarkable as a child will end up having a more capable child as an adult.”

    I think you’re absolutely right and try to parent with this in mind, except I’ve never said it so succinctly. And actually I consider myself this way. I really don’t excel at any one thing. I am a jack of all trades, master of none type of person. I am perfectly fine if none of my kids really kick ass at school or sports or whatever it is. I’m more concerned with their character, their independence, and their skills and desire to learn. If I can raise them to be competent, independent, happy, healthy adults that can successfully take care of themselves, I will be happy. No traveling team or Ivy League school required.

  9. Chris
    Chris says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I totally get the point that kids and adults improve more when they’re stretched to their limits, so I understand that being the best player on the field could hinder his progress, but this line made me sad:

    “…there’s no point in Z being on a soccer field where he’s the best. It wastes his time.”

    I would agree with a statement like that if I was a highly competitive parent who wanted my son to be a sports superstar, but that sure sounds a lot like trying to force my kid into fulfilling my own dreams and expectations rather than enabling him to choose his own path.

    Shouldn’t the point of having your kid in soccer be because he has fun playing soccer? And if he enjoyed playing with those kids, why make him quit?

    I feel like I missed something here. Was he no longer enjoying soccer? Did he ask to quit?

  10. Katie
    Katie says:

    Oh wow, I am just recently realising that this is me. Writing it so well has been helpful for me to read.
    My kids are bright and I really want them to learn perseverance and to love learning but I too often end up trying to make them do dumb useless work just because they can or because I’m too scared not to make them do it.

    Gah, I’ve got more to learn than my kids do

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