My son wants to go back to school

My son wants to be popular and the center of everything and loves a crowd. He went to preschool and kindergarten and his only school memories are of him being the Mr. Popular center-of-everything and he misses that. I remind him that he was three grades ahead of everyone else and the school wouldn’t change his curriculum and he doesn’t care. He says he wants to help the other kids catch up to him.

This all sounds terrible to me, of course. I hate school. But I try to see it from his perspective. So here’s what I’ve done:

He is great at cello. So I have made a huge effort to get him into an elite group of kids for cello where they focus so much on music that there is not enough time to let school run your life. Then I let him add piano lessons – to help with music theory for cello. And when my son says he wants to go to school, I remind him that he wouldn’t have enough time left for practice and lessons to keep up with the other kids he plays cello with.

This strategy is behind the trend to take elite athletes out of the school system. Any kid who wants to go to school to be popular from sports achievements could see that it’s more rewarding to be outside of school competing in a group of special athletes. But it’s true of all things including ballet, learning new languages, and writing novels. (Another view of elite performance in the context of school: I was on one of the top high school debate teams in the country and we basically had a free pass to miss school whenever we wanted because of the constant interference with debate team.)

School is for kids who are not passionate. School does not allow for intensive learning because you have to cover the national curriculum. School curriculum encourages well-roundedness which is the opposite of becoming an expert. But notice how the idols of your children are invariably people who follow their passion with intense focus. That should give you enough ammunition to encourage your child to do the same.

Any kid who wants to go to school can be easily dissuaded by showing him or her the benefits of passionate learning. Each child has passions. If the child does not know their passions enough for you to talk about them, then you’ve got way bigger problems than that your kid wanting to go to school. You have a kid who has no idea who he or she is, and wants to go to school to get an identity.

The best argument to keep a kid from going to school isn’t “I won’t let you go to school” but rather, “You cannot be who you want to be if you’re in school.”

29 replies
  1. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “He says he wants to help the other kids catch up to him.”

    It’s unfortunate the public school system isn’t more flexible to allow “part time” participation for your son. In fact, I think they are just as inflexible as you are. So as long as both parties are inflexible and can’t work together, your son is torn and in the middle of the chaos. A situation he finds himself in and not of his choosing. It seems to me to be a situation that’s not really adequately addressed and solved from a child’s perspective. And your family’s situation is anything but special or unique. It’s a failure of our public education system.
    After reading this post, it seems to me your son’s personality lends him to be best suited and he would be most happy as an accomplished musician and instructor. He would be helping other people “catch up” while he continues to practice his talent and become more expert in it.

    • victoria
      victoria says:

      “It’s unfortunate the public school system isn’t more flexible to allow “part time” participation for your son.”

      I’ve known kids (gifted ones in all cases) to take 1-3 classes at a time in a number of school districts — in most cases, to do things like music programs and things that weren’t their strengths (e.g., a kid whose strength is computational taking a studio art class, or a writer taking a chemistry class to have access to a lab). I don’t know if Penelope has schools near her that would allow this.

      I don’t see why it would be all that different from, say, letting an unschooled kid take a community college class. And I don’t understand how one can simultaneously hold the ideas that kids are the best judges of how they should use their time and the idea that a kid can never choose to use public schools for anything. (It’s been the experience of the families I’ve known that if you make it clear that homeschooling is an option and the kids do go to school at some point, one thing homeschooling has given them is the ability to see right through the bullshit and take what they want out of the experience if it’s there to be taken. Some stick with institutional schooling and some don’t.)

  2. Judy Sarden
    Judy Sarden says:

    I like to regularly remind my kids of what they would be doing if they were in school. Like instead of having a leisurely breakfast with Dad at 8:30 in the morning, they would have had to catch the bus at 6:40 a.m. and would be sitting in a class with 25 other kids working on worksheets. Instead of going to the skating rink or the jumpy house or the park for a couple of hours for “P.E” they would have a 45 minute P.E. once or twice a week. They are keenly aware that the neighborhood kids can’t do anything during the week because of school, homework, projects, etc. So my kids have no desire to go to school, thank goodness. Plus they love having the ability to be involved in a variety of classes and activities because everything doesn’t have to be crammed in between after school and homework time. Of course, we probably have many more outlets living near Atlanta than you do, Penelope. I would think you have to be more creative because of your geography. All that said, I bet that if you enrolled your son into a school he would be ready to leave within a week, then it would become a non-issue.

    As for the premise that schooled kids lack passion, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I’ve been attending various private school open houses because I am curious about what value they provide at the tune of $25K per year. They always have student speakers at these events and in most cases I have been very impressed with the kids’ passion and ambition. Of course, I am sure they only display the most articulate kids with the best GPAs who are also involved in every activity imagineable. The point being that some schools may be able to accommodate the creativity and passion of advanced and bright kids. But I think it would only happen outside of class. The in-class drudgery would be the same as it is everywhere.

    I visited one school that is starting to implement a process called Design Think. The presentation in the design think class was very impressive and had all the parents ready to write a check right then and there. But the more I thought about it, many homeschoolers implement the DT philosophy at home, we just don’t use a fancy name for it. Take a look at this for those who are not familiar with it.

    Anyway, I am rambling, but if you aren’t near any of those schools that tries to do homeschooling at school, I am pretty sure your son would change his mind quickly once he got there. And who knows, he could learn something from the experience.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You know what’s so funny? I, too, try to remind my kids what they’d be doing in school on a regular basis, and my youngest son doesn’t believe me. He just can’t believe it would be that bad or else why do so many people go?


      • Jan
        Jan says:

        Or maybe he could be right?

        My homeschooled kids wanted to go to school, so I sent them. Three of the four love it. The other one is back homeschooling. Choice is a beautiful thing.

  3. Neia
    Neia says:

    In Florida we are allowed to use the school system in a flexible way. As a taxpayer I can use certain resources and in the future they will be able to participate in sports at the high school level.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      I didn’t know that about Florida. That’s good news. Hopefully school reform around the nation includes more flexibility to accommodate more families in the future.

  4. Jeanice
    Jeanice says:

    Completely agree. My son talks about wanting to go back to see his friends. I never want to talk badly about public school around him so I instead remind him that it will be boring (because it was), that he won’t get the science he craves and loves and does all day at home, nor the programing, ornithology, history… and on and on.

  5. Daphne Gray-Grant
    Daphne Gray-Grant says:

    My three kids (triplets) are all in university now. We homeschooled (unschooled) all three of them until grade 10. Over the years, we had periodic lobbying from the kids about the “benefits” of school but managed to hold it at bay with a homeschooling group I founded. We had about a dozen similar-aged kids who got together for activities once a week. (I also decided that a 10 year old doesn’t have the ability to figure out what’s best for him or her.)

    As our homeschooling group fell apart in later years (more and more of the kids started going to school) the lobbying from my daughters, in particular, became too intense to ignore. One of them went to the local public school, starting in grade 10, and she thrived. The other wanted to go there, too, but we wouldn’t let her because she wouldn’t have fit in well. (She has a genetic disorder and looks a bit different. Also, she’s very sensitive.) We sent her to a very small private school.

    My son, who is intensely musical, never felt such an urge, and he stayed at home the entire time. In the end, I think each kid made the right choice. But they were 16 before we allowed them to do that!

    I can’t remember the ages of your sons, Penelope, but looking at the photo it appears he’s in the 10-13 age range. Still too young to decide!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really appreciate hearing the stories of how each of your kids took a path of their own. It’s so hard to see what’s coming when you home school. It seems there’s a much more predictable path in school.

      My son is eight! So he’s too young to decide that school is best for him, but really, it’s only because I hate school so much. I think that even though I say I’m unschooling and letting the kids do self-directed learning, blah blah, I push them pretty hard to do what I like. I think it’s impossible not to. It’s the nature of being a parent.


  6. mh
    mh says:

    I think our family has a couple of safety valves that keep the advantages of homeschool front-and-center.

    First, my kids have 19 cousins. We’re the only homeschoolers, so my kids hear a LOT about school, and very little of it is tempting.

    Second, my kids play sports and have science clubs during the day. All those daytime friends are homeschooled, and that is very positive.

    Penelope mentioned music, and that’s a big plus, too. Around our house, you won’t find a school that lets a child take a break from social studies to go play piano for a while. Or to go play LEGOs, for that matter.

    We see those school buses go by and we say, “Those poor kids.” It’s sad to see compulsory-schooled kids on field trips, staying in their tight little groups and moving along at the same rate as the class, tuned out and bored. This is their chance to be away from school, but they are still so stifled.

    Our neighborhood kids in compulsory school are rarely free to play after school. All their activities are crammed into those few short hours, and they have homework. My kids see how much time going-to-school requires.

    Homeschool is freedom.

    • Judy Sarden
      Judy Sarden says:

      mh, love the breaks our kids get. Since my kids are young, they get long breaks to play. I love hearing them incorporate their academics into the fantastic worlds that they create. Sometimes they are so involved with the fantasy play du jour, I just let them play for hours. I love the creativity. I can’t imagine stifling that and taking it away from them.

      We see kids on field trips when we attend arts programs. It is so sad! Its clear the teachers are not enjoying the experience because its two of them trying to keep almost 30 kids together. Its also clear most of the kids couldn’t care less about the program – ballet, symphony concert, art museum day, whatever – because its just a day to get out of prison, er, school. My kids always comment on the drastic difference between the schooled kids and the homeschooled kids. The schooled kids are always rowdy and clearly don’t care about the subject matter. While the homeschooled kids (and their parents) always seem to actually want to be there. I dare say they even enjoy the experience.

      Before I started homeschooling I used to be so impressed with schools that took regular field trips. My perspective on what the kids actually gain from those field trips has totally changed.

  7. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    He has been attending this cello group and still says he wants to go to school. So, he has a need that isn’t being fulfilled (even with the group) by his current situation. Ignoring that need will ensure that he won’t be ‘who he is meant to be’ school or not. Is there anything else you are doing to fill that need at this point?

  8. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    I’m so happy you did this blog post! As you know, we’ve been trying to figure out the best way to handle our older son (10) who really wanted to go to school this year for the first time. Now that it’s ski season he’s realizing the trade-off he’s making to go to school. He told us today that while he enjoys being around the other kids at school, he wants more time to follow his passion. So we are also going to make a huge effort to get him up on the mountain as often as possible!

    Thanks for your blog- I can barely pull myself away from reading here. You’ve given us a lot of insight and I thought I knew everything there was to know about homeschooling!

  9. Sara
    Sara says:

    Penelope, I enjoyed this blog *so much more* when you weren’t completely obsessed with telling everyone why they should be homeschooling.

    Lately I see no flexibility in your posts, no understanding of the fact that bright, talented, passionate children can in fact find school environments in which they thrive. I sometimes have the sense that you are protesting too much, that you are desperately justifying the decisions that brought you to this point.

    I hope everything works out well for you and your kids, but I really have no interest in following your blog anymore.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think every parent tries to find justification for why they choose what they choose for their kids. It’s just that we’ve normalized the justification for school and it’s completely counter-culture to talk about justification for not-school.

      You don’t need to read a blog about justification for school. You are barraged by that every day. I think we all read to teach ourselves to see things in new ways, and that’s why writers write as well – at least the good ones.

      This blog is about me learning to think in new ways. So you aren’t likely to read anything about why school is good. I’ve been hearing that for 45 years.


      • scifi
        scifi says:

        Yes, but her point was that lately you’ve been spending less time talking about various positive aspects of your homeschooling experience and more time in broad sweeping arguments about why all schools must be horrible by definition.

        Your most sweeping arguments tend to be your least interesting posts, because generalizations are less thought provoking than specific examples. This post is interesting; your post generalizing about “rich parents” (as if they are all the same) is not.

  10. D.S.
    D.S. says:

    Sounds like you have done a great job of teaching him to know his own desires and assert them in an articulare way to those in authority over him.

    Maybe let him try summer school at the public school?

  11. Amy K.
    Amy K. says:

    Is there a way to get your son in to a steady, highly social environment that isn’t school? It’s so unfortunate that your local homeschool groups are so unwelcoming.

    We joined cub scouts after years of resisting because of the whole homophobia thing, and fears of yet more commitments. I regret waiting so long. The group is welcoming and there are two-mom families, and they are respectful of parents’ time. My kids really enjoy the camaraderie.

  12. Adriana Zoder
    Adriana Zoder says:

    I will put this in my arsenal of skills if my kids ever ask to go to school (they are 3 and 6 and have never been to school). I recently wrote a post about socialization and a public school mom told me I was “extremely offensive” and I sounded “defensive” of my decision to homeschool. So I appreciate your response to your reader who is protesting this post. Homeschool apologetics are hard to come by. We need more of them.

  13. Crimson Wife
    Crimson Wife says:

    My oldest wants to go to public school because she knows she’d be able to coast academically in a way that I will not permit her to in our homeschool. If we had the $$$$ to pay for an academically rigorous private school I’d be fine with her attending, but we’re middle-class so that’s way out of our budget. I’m definitely not going to indulge her desire to be lazy.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Attagirl, Mom.

      My son tells me I’m “too strict” and that regular teachers don’t care how you do your work. (I had mentioned that his numbers and labels were really crammed together on a technical drawing he did.)

      This, from the pre-teen who routinely demolishes his robots and technical inventions in order to make them better and better.

      So I pulled out the instruction booklet from a recent LEGO set and just pointed to the nice spacing of numbers and parts for assembly.

      I figured there’s no point in me TELLING him that there are higher-quality ways to present visual information; he’s steeped in LEGOs and K’NEX and Snap Circuits and Erector Sets, right? I only needed to show, not tell.

      Too strict, honestly.

  14. Khadija
    Khadija says:

    I went through the same thing. My son is a great extrovert. We fought like cats and dogs about public school for a few years when he was younger. Because he stayed in homeschool he has been able to travel all over the world: France, Germany, Turkey, Canada, Italy, The Netherlands, etc. He was even able to help chaperone a tour guide to Turkey. He is a senior this year and is looking forward to college.
    Follow your gut and remember that kids ask for things that are bad for them all the time. If I only had a dollar for all of my friend’s kids who said they wished they could go to homeschool!!

    More than anything, I wanted my kids to be able to THINK for themselves. I didn’t want to shutter them out of life like a lot of people might assume. I didn’t want them to be part of “groupthink.” Follow your heart and maternal instinct and I don’t think you can go wrong. :)

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