The problem with sending your kid to school and complaining about school is that you send the message to your kids that you are not the locus of control. That’s positive psychology talk that means you are doomed to despair. Positive psychology is sort of the anti-Freudian psychology. It’s the study of what makes people happy, instead of Freud’s obsession with what makes people sad.

I have approached positive psychology in the past from a workplace perspective—what makes people happy in their work? My understanding comes from Senia Maymim, my favorite positive psychologist (who also just wrote a new book, Profit from the Positive). She taught me that a key part of feeling happy in life is feeling like you can control things.

Ironically, she taught this to me while I was going through a divorce and terrified about what it was doing to my kids. I mostly focused on how I thought my ex-husband was nuts for thinking that divorce is even a possibility when there are kids. But Senia told me to model positive behavior—that I am controlling what I can control. The kids will feel more secure in their lives if they see me doing that and they will learn to believe they can do that.

This is a picture of my son taking his first test ever. He didn’t know what a test would be like, so he asked a lot of question. It turns out that the test was a joy, because his music theory teacher, Sarah Montzka, is a joy. He loves studying with her so he loved taking the test with her. And she let him dance around the room while he was thinking of answers.

At the end of the test he said to me, “I did great. That test was easy.”

I said, “You did great because you and Sarah work hard together to learn about music.” It’s my way of showing him that he can look at the world in terms of him controlling it instead of the world just happening to him. I learned that sort of talk from Senia.

The opposite of this is when parents send their kids to school and then complain about the school as if they have no control over what they do with their kids for eight hours a day.

In Canada, for example, a school banned playing tag and holding hands, and parents are outraged but they don’t take their kids out of school. They just complain. Which means they model the behavior for their children that they are not in control of their kids’ lives and all they can do is complain.

A big reason I took my kids out of school is because I’m very good at feeling like I can control my life, and I have spent the last ten years telling everyone how they should stop whining about their career and thinking it’s out of their control and instead take personal responsibility for where they are and what they are doing. So how could I not do that for my kids and school?

I really like Matt Walsh’s post about why he started homeschooling: basically he doesn’t want to keep complaining about school. He wants to take control of his family life and his kids’ education.

There are a lot of reasons to homeschool. So many parts of my life got better when I started homeschooling. But a big reason many people miss is that parents should model being the locus of control. It’s dangerous for parents to complain about school but continue to tell their kids that school has authority over their days. It’s dangerous for parents to complain about school but still run their family life around it. Parents have lots of ways to retain control. You can’t teach that to kids—you need to model it. And encourage it.


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42 replies
  1. TLH
    TLH says:

    I like this idea a lot, but i question how much of a difference “taking control” of something makes if we continue to complain about it anyway. This summer, I overheard a boy tell a group of kids he’d just met why he was home-schooled. “It’s so I don’t have to listen to any stupid teachers tell me what to do.” I thought it was sad that, instead of focusing on the positives, this was the message he had to share.

  2. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    I really thought at one point you would run out of things to say about homeschooling but as always this is brilliant! Having choices in life is everything.

  3. Sarah m
    Sarah m says:

    I was just thinking about this last night when hanging out with a group of my friends. Three out of five are teachers themselves in public school, with all their kids in public school. The other one is homeschooling but struggling and wants a break. I homeschool.
    In hearing about these families days I can’t help but think, and be grateful, for our life and that our family spends ours days so dramatically differently. We get enough sleep, we spend the evenings together eating and then outside (usually) walking around the neighborhood or reading together before their bedtimes, instead of doing homework, and I have free time during the day when my kids are happily engaged in something. I feed them three times a day, and I help them learn how to do chores around the house, but I feel I have so much more freedom and control of time. I’m not sure everyone is even ready to hear this, though. I didn’t say anything last night. I don’t know them that well. I’m not sure my idea would be well received.
    Sarah M

  4. rachel
    rachel says:

    Good reminder. And it crosses over into all aspects of life. I’m a problem-solver at heart, and complaining can be the antitheses of that if you’re not meeting goals.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Constant complaining is a trait that will make you more unlikable and it’s just bad time management.

    • rachel
      rachel says:

      Although, complaining here about the school system is only to justify homeschooling, it seems. I think the solutions to improve the schools is seperate and apart from the homeschooling issue seeing as many parents are not fit to be homeschoolers. People with poor parenting skills are looking for a place to put their kids. For people with poor parenting skills, school isn’t a worse option than being at home.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I find it really condescending to say that many parents aren’t fit to be homeschoolers.

        The issue is not who is the ideal parent, because no one is. The issue is who is the ideal person to spend the day with a child. And of course, the parent is. It’s so incredibly absurd to me to say that an eight-year-old, for example, is better or with a teacher than a parent. The teacher doesn’t love the kids, the teacher doesn’t have a long-term bond, the teacher can’t give one-on-one focus.


        • rachel
          rachel says:

          Schools are a direct reflection of society today.

          Homeschoolers take their kids out of the equation because it’s in their best interest.

          The generalization that all parents should homeschool as the better option isn’t fair to the kids who want to go to school.

          • Caralyn
            Caralyn says:

            You’re now addressing a different issue now: kids who want to go to school. Your original comment was regarding parents who can’t homeschool because they suck as parents and teachers would be better suited to take care of children, to which Penelope responded. You’ve responded to Penelope’s comment with “it’s not fair to take kids out of school because they want to be in it.”

            What, exactly, is your point?

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        rachel, the first sentence of this post is “The problem with sending your kid to school and complaining about school is that you send the message to your kids that you are not the locus of control.”
        So, I disagree with your first sentence – “Although, complaining here about the school system is only to justify homeschooling, it seems.”.
        I don’t think homeschoolers need to justify homeschooling based on the school system. The school system is constantly referred to on this blog and other homeschooling blogs because it’s far and away the most prevalent form of education in this country. So, by default, it is the benchmark to which homeschooling is measured and compared.

        • rachel
          rachel says:

          I agree. That probably wasn’t clear.

          When I say “justify”, homeschoolers find themselves explaining why they homeschool on a regular basis to people who don’t understand homeschooling. And the state of the school system today is a good reason to homeschool.

          Penelope’s first line: “The problem with sending your kid to school and complaining about school is that you send the message to your kids that you are not the locus of control.”

          I think there are parents who are fully aware that they are not the locus of control and rely on school to make up where they lack. They are saddened and disappointed the school system is failing in that regard.

          The school system reflects the same lack of control that many parents feel, which is distressing to parents who don’t know what else to do.

          • Mark W.
            Mark W. says:

            Thank you rachel for the clarification and the reality of the problem. It’s ironic and sad that these parents, who most likely went to school themselves, feel they are not the locus of control to at least some degree. That is, the degree to which they felt confident enough to homeschool their kid if they felt and the kid felt it would be the best decision for them. I think schools will and should be present as an option. Let the schools themselves succeed or fail on their own merits. In other words, let other forms of education compete on a more equitable playing field. I think there are kids who want a structured learning environment and there are other kids who are stifled, bored, and “tune out” while being lectured in a classroom. In summary, I’m in favor of having choices that work best for the family and the kid has a voice that needs to be heard and respected in that family.

  6. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I like this post because it fits well with our decision process coming to homeschool.

    Complaining about things that are within your ability to fix as a prelude to fixing them is one thing. You might find people who agree, you might help yourself define a solution in dialogue. Complaining can have value.

    But with school you eventually realize that the underlying problems are things you cannot change. They’re not failures in execution of the school system; they are part and parcel of the scheme. Then there is no point in belaboring the issue. Just leave and take your life back.

    • mh
      mh says:

      “Complaining about things that are within your ability to fix as a prelude to fixing them is one thing. You might find people who agree, you might help yourself define a solution in dialogue. Complaining can have value.”

      This right here is why I started a neighborhood toy co-op, and why I am just *this close* to launching a private homeschool library co-op. One more snotty remark from a public librarian will tip the scales, I think. I surely have books enough and there are plenty of homeschoolers around.

      In my experience, homeschool moms have interesting perspectives on putting together materials that make for vibrant learning — why not lend them when we’ve finished? For example, when we studied Ancient Rome, we bought a HABA block kit that created a free-standing arch. This is excellent, but it probably cost $40 — other families could certainly borrow it and get value from it. Similarly, my stuff on the Silk Road could use some rounding out at higher grade levels… I think this is a pretty good idea.

      So come on, you Public Librarians… just give me a reason.

  7. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    This is why parental rights are so important and are a hill worth dying on. Without those rights, we lose the ability to make the best life for our children. Just look at Germany and Sweden.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I am curious – pretty sure you refer to the fact that homeschooling is illegal in some countries. But do you think none of the adults in Sweden or Germany are happy, inquisitive, interested in many different things because, independent thinkers because they don’t homeschool? Or do you think everybody in Sweden and Germany lives horrible doomed lives? Have you ever lived in any of those countries?

      • Hannah
        Hannah says:

        I have, in fact, been to Germany as well as most of Western Europe, several countries in Asia, and Canada. I lived in Austria for a time and India for three years. So, yes. I have friends all over the place. I don’t think that everyone in those countries live doomed lives. That’s silly. I think they don’t have as many parental rights as we do and I know several German families who would dearly love to homeschool their children–teach them as they see fit, yet are unable to do so without going to prison. Hitler outlawed homeschooling in Germany, you might find it interesting to know. What I am saying, and saying quite clearly, is that whenever the state has the last word on who can teach children, everyone suffers.

      • Hannah
        Hannah says:

        One additional thought: I referred to parental rights as being vital, and did not, in this case, mention homeschooling. This is because the real issue is not whether a family decides to homeschool. The real issue is whether a group of people is allowed to make the choice to do so–or to go to public or private school–if it is the right decision for an individual family. Germany and Sweden do not give their citizens the right to make that choice for their OWN FAMILIES and that it a crime. Perhaps homeschooling isn’t the best option for a particular kid. Fine. That, again, is beside the point. The point is that parents should have the right to make that choice, along with their children, for themselves. It is not a question for the state to decide.

        • Hannah
          Hannah says:

          Final comment and I will be done, promise! I find it strange and ironic that a fetus in its mother’s womb belongs to her such that she has the right to end its life if she deems it best for her or the fetus. But when the baby is born…the same people arguing for that right often turn around and suggest (even if subtly) that the child no longer belongs to her but to the community and to the state. How incredibly odd and hypocritical.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            I grew up in Germany and my parents had much more influence on my life then anything happening in school. Many of my friends went to private school, so, you can actually choose to go to another school. But experiences differ, and I also think there are some issues with the german school system, which is markedly different from the US system.

            As to the historical perspective: the “allgemein Schulpflicht” is a lot older – the first mention of a general attendance requirement for children with respect to school started in 1592 in same parts of Germany, Prussia followed in 1717. The Weimar Constitution included the requirement to attend school in 1919 for the whole country for at least 9 years. There were some changes during the 3rd Reich, but the law as it exists now has been around for longer. I am not saying that I support the law against homeschooling – I am just giving the historical perspective here.

  8. Gretchen Powers
    Gretchen Powers says:

    Matt Walsh has twin BABIES. They’re not in school yet. He didn’t start homeschooling….he pontificated about why he *will* homeschool He just runs off at the mouth like he knows something. He’s a true charlatan!

    • Hannah
      Hannah says:

      For what it’s worth, I’ve homeschooled three children for eight years. Matt’s essay was spot on about the reasons many people I know are withdrawing from the school system. You don’t have to be currently homeschooling to know that the public education system isn’t best for kids.

      • Gretchen Powers
        Gretchen Powers says:

        It may be true that you are homeschooling and that you thought his essay was spot on. I am just making a clarification. For what it’s worth, my opinion (because that’s all any of this is…) is many homeschoolers overstate the “problems,” don’t want to actually work *with* the schools and the teachers, and are just maverick types who think they’re so much smarter than everyone else. Or else they live where there are, indeed, shitty schools. Our public schools happen to be great. We live here because of the schools. The parents here get involved. I’m so over the broad stroking comments against public schools.

        • Hannah
          Hannah says:

          Ok, and this is not meant to be inflammatory, but why do you read this part of Penelope’s blog if you have such disdain for homeschoolers and such faith in the public schools? This is a place for discussing homeschooling and the ways to make it work.

          • Rachel Rigdon
            Rachel Rigdon says:

            Obviously, one of the most crucial political issues that relates to this blog is the protection of parental rights. I’m frankly surprised Penelope hasn’t publically added her voice to the national discussion. The reason many (thoughtful) homeschoolers do not push for tax breaks and write-offs, for instance, is because we want to continue not just “modeling” control and personal agency for our kids but actually legally exercising it! Spot on, Hannah.

        • Kirsten
          Kirsten says:

          I’m genuinely curious — how long do you think parents should be asked to “work with” a school if a child is failing to make progress in, for instance, math? Or say a group of parents agree that a new curriculum is a step down from a previous one? A month? A year? Five years?

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Let me get this straight. You complain that you dislike the broad stroking comments against public schools but then go ahead and use broad stroking arguments against parents that homeschool. I won’t point out the logical fallacy used here but will point out the glaring hypocrisy.

          • Gretchen Powers
            Gretchen Powers says:

            I did say “many”…not ALL. And this is the rhetoric I read on blog comments. How horrible the schools are and how the parents swoop their kids out and make it all better. How about being involved the whole time, no swooping in needed? Kids don’t fail to learn overnight, it takes months of things not happening that are supposed to be happening. A parent can’t just send their kid to a public school and think they’re learning, parents need to help with homework, and actually see what the child is learning…and if they’re not, they need to help the kid themselves and work with the teacher. It’s not rocket science. If you want to homeschool that’s a choice but public schools can work—it takes involved parents.

        • Eric
          Eric says:

          “Our public schools happen to be great.”

          How nice for you that de facto residential racial segregation in America is working out so well for your family. So your (unexamined) privilege has allowed your kids entry into one of the few “good” government daycares, and you assume that’s the norm. Brava, Gretchen Powers, I can tell your kids are going to turn out so awesome, and with so much empathy just like mom.

          • Gretchen Powers
            Gretchen Powers says:

            It’s far more privileged to pull a kid out than to dig in and work within the community and the school to raise the level for ALL kids. The point is the school is great because parents are involved and demand it. When the parents who care and are apt to demand quality pull their kids out, what hope is there for the ones who are left. Don’t privilege check me if you’re homeschooling!

          • mh
            mh says:

            Wait, wait.

            Pulling my kids out is a privilege? Sacrificing my goals to stay with demanding youngsters is a privilege? Putting my money where my mouth is, that’s a privilege?

            How then am I to understand my duty as a parent to be sure my family is educated and self-dependent?

            Just exactly who is responsible for these kids, anyway?

            Me? (My husband and me, the parents?) or society?

            Lookit, you can be all pie-in-the-sky all day about school reforms and making a difference, at best — AT BEST! — school reform might take a generation. How does that help kids today? How long do you think parents are willing to wait?

            We live in a world where you can get your coffee 1200 ways, but you are expected to choose from *possibly* up to 5 types of education for your child. (Public, private, public charter, homeschool charter, homeschool). What’s more important?

            Warehousing children is the default option for far too many families.

            Raising the bar for educational expectations is what I am doing by homeschooling my kids. In ten years, guess who will be at a disadvantage? Non-homeschooled warehouse kids.

            You want to make an educational difference in the lives of every kid? Acknowledge that schools serve primarily as a social service delivery center and that >>education<< is best obtained away from schools. Make school optional for every kid, lower the minimum age for wage earning, and let education dollars follow the kid, not the real estate market.

            Let's start openly saying that school is great for teachers and administrators and well-meanng women, but that it underserves children. Let's start saying that children deserve more than a standardized school experience.

            Let's open up childhood. That's the path of freedom.

            I don't think that's elitist and privileged. I think it's common sense. If children are important, then for heaven's sake as a parent you must give them something better than compulsory school.

  9. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Isn’t it a weird feeling when the music teacher assigns homework or gives a test? I was horrified the first time but ended up feeling happy as my daughter really enjoyed the work and does well. She started writing her own music after her first month of piano. I like reading all the studies that show how learning to play a musical instrument as a child helps you later in life. It helps me get through the days where music practice makes me reach for ear plugs.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes. The test was weird. Especially because she teaches him largely one on one, so of course she knows if he’ll pass the test. But he wanted to go to a class for theory and he has to officially pass to get into the class. It’s interesting to me how intrinsic testing is to classroom learning. That you can’t teach a bunch of kids at once without testing to see that they have common knowledge. I think we cannot get rid of testing in schools because we can’t get rid of group learning in schools.


  10. mbl
    mbl says:

    I think that your “locus of control” argument as being key to a non-sucky life is spot on. But I would approach it not from the parents need to model it argument since a lack of modeling can be a strong motivator for children as a “what not to do” model. However, kids have practically no recourse even when they come up with great solutions that the schools can’t/won’t agree to because “then everyone would want to.” The lesson of learned helplessness can be far, far more damaging to a child.

    For me, one of the main tragedies of school is that while “character building” is now a selling point for many schools, such a key trait as self-advocacy is completely shut down. A truly shocking number of super bright teenagers who value their own time exercise their desire to have control by dropping out and getting a ged, which in and of itself is a totally insulting joke.

    • mh
      mh says:

      There are some child problem behaviors that look like they tie-in directly to the teacher keeping psychological control of the classroom. The one that always springs to mind is tattling.

      There is an epidemic of tattling children everywhere we go. I think it must be that teachers want the children to come to them with every little problem to solve, because it keeps the teacher in control.

      These little problem behaviors, like calling out and interrupting and tattling, used to be squashed in schools because the object was to teach children self-control.

      It seems like the new object is to teach that the school is in control.

      The tattling gets so bad around cousins, firends, etc, that even my adorable but oblivious sixth grader will notice it.

      • Nicole
        Nicole says:

        @mh, you are so right about the tattling epidemic. I think it is because schools don’t teach proactive social skills – the teachers are burned out, have too many kids to manage, and they end up inadvertently rewarding tattling behavior, so it continues.

        When a kid comes up to the teacher and tattles about something innocuous, the teacher should respond with “So what can you do to help Thomas make a better choice?” And wait for the tattling kid to come up with their own solution, such as going back and telling Thomas you didn’t like what he did.

  11. Cassie
    Cassie says:

    This is pot on!

    When my girls were in school (we homeschool now), I often felt an overwhelming resentment about me and my husband’s lack of control over how our children were spending their days. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that we were entrusting perfect strangers (no matter their credentials) to the care and education of our girls. And then to think that these strangers could also tell us how to conduct our time outside of school with ridiculous homework assignments, as if it wasn’t enough that they ran their lives for six hours a day. Indeed, we were “running our family” around school. There were many, many days I’d feel sick to my stomach, something gnawing at me telling me that things had to change. Then on the night before the first day of school one, our little girl asked us not to send her back. She challenged us to explain why she had to go to school when she was already living and learning just fine at home. And in that moment our daughter helped us take control.

  12. Jonelle Lantier
    Jonelle Lantier says:

    Great post, Penelope. I myself am a fan of positive psychology- it’s the one of the few schools of thought that focuses on the positive and leading a much more fulfilling life! And I second your point on behavior modelling. Sometimes parents don’t realize that kids can pick up a lot of cues and habits from their behavior. And merely complaining about things happens to be one of them. I love how you’re modeling positive behavior for your children to follow.

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