Childhood should be about discovering talents

Traditional school focuses on well-roundedness, but a well-rounded kid has no idea what their value is to other people or how to offer it up to a potential employer. It’s late in the game to help your kid to figure out how to be useful when they are 22 – they expect to be more independent from you at that point.

But early on, homeschooling parents can help a kid can identify what they are great at. And identifying it early opens more doors. There’s a relevant book by David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetic Talent and IQ (Brainpickings has a good review) that “goes beyond the familiar argument for the power of process, and he stresses the importance of early childhood experience in recognizing and cultivating the inklings of talent, and building the right framework for achievement.”

I see how nice it is that I already know what my younger son wants to do. But I see so many doors closing for my older son. He is good at learning Hebrew. Maybe I should teach him a real second language and not just a language to get a bar mitzvah. He is great at reading about science – he memorizes every book he reads. But I’m not sure he’s passionate about it. He loves his goats and takes care of them every day. But he doesn’t want to milk them or kill them, so I don’t think it could be a career for him.

When I was a girl, I tried lots of different things. Looking back, I wish that my parents kept me away from tap dance and figure skating. I did both for ten years. But I have absolutely the wrong type of body for that. I was never going to get anywhere in either of those arenas.

I would have been great at volleyball or basketball, but by the time I realized it, I was in high school and all the kids on those teams had been to specialized camps for five summers and I couldn’t catch up to them.

I don’t want that to happen to my son. I want to steer him better than that, before time runs out. I think that requires only paying close attention. But I also feel like it’s a race. Can we find his special talent and passion before he misses that boat?

But then I think about my life as a professional beach volleyball player. I competed on the beach volleyball tour against women who had been playing their whole life. I only picked up volleyball in college. I went to Brandeis – a Jewish school – where I was the tallest in the freshman class and the coach recruited me.

I played professional beach volleyball with much much less experience than the other women at my level. But I worked harder. And smarter. My process for practice was fanatically scheduled and meticulously planned. Which is another aspect of Shenk’s receipe for success: making practice a process that works.

So maybe if I teach my son the process of practice with violin then when we find his talent – even if it’s late – he’ll know the process for building a talent systematically and diligently. Maybe that’s the best I can do.

35 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Not everybody wants or needs to have a life where they’re great at something. Some just want to enjoy their days, raising their goats or whatever. Perhaps for them, some job that pays the bills is enough. They don’t even have to love it.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I agree, Jim. But because I’m a career coach, I see too many people who took that route and they are basically unable to make enough money to support a family at age 40.

      If you don’t have a specialty by age 40 you can’t compete in the workforce. You will always lose the job to a 25 year old, because a 25 year old who is not specialized is just as capable of doing the work as a 40 year old, but people like being working with younger people – they have an aura of promise and expectation to them.

      I see in your link that you’re a software developer. So you can always get work because we pretty much have 0% unemployment rate for software developers in this country. People who want to just enjoy their days and not worry about money need to marry a breadwinner. It’s too difficult to support a family with no one in the family paying attention to their long-term ability to earn money.

      So, I want my kids to be able to have a choice – do they want to be the breadwinner or not.

      And, in the category of feminism is bad for us, I want to add that married men who have jobs are much happier than men who are passing their days doing something they like while their wife works. Here’s the link to that:


      • Jim Grey
        Jim Grey says:

        Thanks for helping me refine my thinking. Of course, even the guy who wants to just (metaphorically) tend his goats needs to spend considerable energy and focus figuring out how to support himself and his family. He has to find something to be good enough at so that he can find lucrative-enough employment. You can’t do that working in retail or restaurants.

        You are right, I live in a land of 0% unemployment. Maybe it skews my view.

        • Kim
          Kim says:

          Fewer and fewer jobs are becoming available that can support someone who doesn’t “want or need to have a life where they’re great at something”, Jim. Today’s market requires that most people have specialized skills, in order for them to acquire a job that “pays the bills”.

          As Penelope pointed out, as parents, even if there were still these archaic jobs that didn’t require specialized skills, we want to be able to give our children the ability to choose. Those without specialized skills can not simply choose to acquire a job that requires it.

          Traditional school is not set up for the student’s benefit but for the teachers and their tax money, so a student may do “well” in school but may never acquire specialized skills that they need for a job. This is how school causes unemployment.

      • VM
        VM says:

        Hi Penelope,

        Have you considered exposing your older son to computer engineering and/or software development? As you put it to Jim Grey, there is “0% unemployment rate for software developers in this country” and your son exhibits many traits that I notice in software developers (I’m a HR Manager in Silicon Valley). This is what I’m seeing in your posts.

        “He is good at learning Hebrew. Maybe I should teach him a real second language and not just a language to get a bar mitzvah.”

        Learning to code is like learning another language. However, the real meat behind being a good developer is having an engineering mindset, but this is something you need to explore with your son. If this seems like a potential track, you may want to consider hiring a math tutor, with experience in Computer Science or Engineering, to serve as a mentor/guide. He would get a lot more with a tutor or self study than he would taking classes in school.

        “He is great at reading about science – he memorizes every book he reads. But I’m not sure he’s passionate about it.”

        My husband is actually a software developer. When he graduated college 15 years ago, he knew one or two languages well enough to get an entry level job. Now he is proficient in many languages that he learned himself from reading technical books. I am always amazed at his ability to just read a book, get it, remember it, and start applying it (the expertise however comes with practice). This is not something I would be able to do, but perhaps your son could?

        As for passion, there are so many options for software developers to explore. Perhaps he could find something that drives him in one of these areas — video game development, robotics, aeronautics, medicine, social media, automation, telecom, philanthropy?

        Another thing to consider, I have noticed that environment instead of specific job task is a major motivator for many people. For example, working in a small start-up with a specialized, driven, and innovative team that provide opportunities to learn could provide much more satisfaction to someone vs. holding the “perfect on paper” position at a different type of organization. A career in software is flexible enough where he could find a place that works for him.

        “He loves his goats and takes care of them every day. But he doesn’t want to milk them or kill them, so I don’t think it could be a career for him.”

        I agree with you on this. Perhaps it indicates a passing interest in or the potential for a casual hobby involving pets or animals. In Silicon Valley, many smaller software company’s have an open pet policy :) But joking aside, if he is good about the details but does not have the desire the execute each step, perhaps Project Management in software might be an option?

        Just some food for thought. My son just turned one and I am already constantly thinking about how to best give him an opportunity to find and nurture his talents.

        Thanks and love your blog!

    • Jayson
      Jayson says:

      It’s fine for people to lead a life where they enjoy doing things that make them happy. But a parent should strive to allow their children to make that a choice by allowing the child to have a strength or specialty that gives them a path toward finance success.

      There is a large difference between working at a job that pays the bills because one wants to rather than because one has to.

  2. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    Its ability vs. talent. Like his ability to memorize books, but is not necessarily passionate about it, and also memorizing isn’t all that a useful talent.

    That is the irony of adult life, ability vs. talent. The talent part may not bring in money, and the ability/skills part might not give any fulfillment.

  3. Julia
    Julia says:

    You don’t utilize summer camp enough. This is because it’s too much like school? Whatever. You should. Take a vacation with your husband

    Let me help with Midwestern camps

    Son 1 – Concordia
    Son 2 – Interlochen

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really like this comment. So straightforward. And you know my sons. And me. And I really appreciate that. Julia, you are a good type of person to take advice from.

      My first instinct is to tell you why I can’t do this. But I am trying to stop going right to no. I go to no so fast. Instead I am googling Concordia.

      Thank you.


  4. Catherine T.
    Catherine T. says:

    Yes!! We took my son out of school in 8th grade. He is now in 9th, and it turns out he has a stunning mechanical/electrical aptitude. He has rebuilt our two vintage pinball machines. We’ve just discovered that there’s a local business that needs exactly that skill, so we’re going to arrange an internship. We never could have done that if he were still in school — in fact he never would have discovered how much he loves tinkering.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      That is such a neat thing to hear. This is just on thing that I love about homeschool, internships at a young age while others are in classrooms. Very cool.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love hearing this, too. You inspire me to keep my eyes out for internship possibilities. I think the tendency is to wait until kids need to support themselves. And by then, of course, it’s way too late for an internship.


    • mh
      mh says:

      That is absolutely great. My son has similar interests and we have thought of something like an apprenticeship situation for him. We have concerns over child labor laws – even a volunteer work situation can run afoul. I am still working on this.

      Please keep us posted on your son’s situation and the procedural aspects of making this work — you will be helping me and other parents.

  5. Mariana
    Mariana says:

    Penelope, your older son will not feel passion with science by just reading about it, he has to ‘make’ science. Some paths, like music, are easier to find early on, because there are a lot of established ways to practice it. Usually you only get to practice real science in college, before that it is what I would call a homeschool challenge: you really have to set your own path, no Suzuki classes around to help.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh, this is so helpful. Thank you. I think you’re right. I hate that you’re right because I like structure. I wish there were Suzuki for paleontologists. Thank you for giving me a kick in the pants…. I’m thinking.


      • Mariana
        Mariana says:

        I wish there were ‘Suzuki for scientists’ too. For my toddler, who is probably an INTJ/ISTJ, like me.
        Well, at least the science ‘market’ seems bigger and easier to get in then the music market…

    • LInda
      LInda says:

      I much prefer reading about science than doing science. I had to get a MS degree and work as a research assistant for years to sort that out. So it depends on the person. Doing science involves a lot of manual labor, manipulation of databases, writing of papers and grant proposals.

  6. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Don’t worry too much about not specializing at age 11. He can develop three or four or more separate interests, and figure out how to monetize them later.

    When I was younger, I never stuck with anything for long enough to become an expert in a subject, or the best at a particular sport, but I became super good at learning new skills, so I could always keep up with my diverse friend group.

    It turns out that my weird personality traits rather than my interests that have made me a lot of money. The three constants of my childhood/adolescence were connecting one house number to the next using math, creating maps of everything, and telling people what to do.

    As a job, I’m a BI Analyst, so I find patterns, create new processes using a process map, and tell people how to run their business.

    Also, I fully expect for my technical skills to be obsolete within months of leaving the workforce to raise my kids, so I might have to come up with a new career later on, but that’s fine with me, I get bored when I do the same work over and over.

  7. Kim
    Kim says:

    I recently had a “conversation” with my mother. She wanted to know why I had taken so long to finish my college degree. See, I am the type of person who doesn’t do things just to do them. If there’s no goal, I won’t do it. The “well-rounded” education was set up for school order, certainly not for my benefit. I couldn’t have succeeded in college because I was not good at anything. While the ideal is that you can just pick up any job to pay the bills, as one poster mentioned, there are very few jobs that do pay the bills where you don’t specialize.

    All of the kids who were great at math and science just sat there drumming their fingers during English and history. It never occurred to me that it was a waste of time for them.

    One of the reasons we homeschool is so that our kids won’t be stuck living at home by age 22, just trying to “find” themselves because their entire schooling was a bureaucratic waste of time.

    Traditional school and its unrealistic, impractical well rounded education system is the cause of delayed adulthood.

  8. lyndap
    lyndap says:

    Talent will only take you so far. It’s the process of working hard and working through barriers that allow you to grow. If you learn that early in life, you’ll be further ahead of most. I have three kids but only one understands this and has learned to work really hard to get the things she wants. That may be her talent, the ability to work hard and overcome obstacles. What she lacks in naturally gifted abilities she makes up for with sheer determination…(She’s the one who taught herself to ride her bike after she took off the training wheels.) My other two kids have relied on their natural talent to get them to a place where it’s now time to work and they don’t know how or want to work(not sure which). Which one do you think will have more choices later in life? I’m betting the one that works hard and climbs walls to get to the other side.

  9. Jay Cross
    Jay Cross says:


    I love this, and would only add that ALL parents should focus on helping kids identify their talents, not just homeschoolers.

    For example, when I was nine years old and I wanted something from my mom (a sleepover, a party, etc.) I would craft an actual written proposal stating why I should get it. Never threw a temper tantrum. Never cried. Always a proposal.

    My favorite was when we were the last family on earth to have AOL dial-up. I did an Internet traffic analysis to how slow our connection was and offered to pay the contract termination fee out of pocket and supervise the DSL installation myself. A month later, we switched.

    Some of my proposals were absolutely terrible — and I didn’t always get my way — but my mom always encouraged me to keep writing them. In hindsight, those silly letters were forming the brain connections and self-confidence that made me a successful writer in my 20’s.

    Also, Penelope, your older son is an INTJ right? I wouldn’t worry too much about his developing a passion. My guess is he will stumble into it seemingly by accident and everyone will spend the rest of his life saying “oh, of course he became an ____.”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Jay, you’re right that all parents should do this. I am about one little inch away from changing my blog from homeschooling to education and I think your comment is the one that pushes me over the edge.


  10. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    I don’t know…I was kind of pigeonholed into the arts because I was “creative” and good at drawing and art as a kid, but looking back, I wish I would have been pushed more in STEM things…and not just because of the lucrative job thing, but because I am really more interested in science and technology now than making things look pretty or cool… I didn’t know much of what was out there when I was even in H.S. because my blue collar parents sure didn’t know. Imagine if they homeschooled me…I’d have been even more screwed.

    • Isabelle
      Isabelle says:

      Or maybe you’d have spent a couple years doing art stuff for hours and hours each day, realized it wasn’t actually THAT interesting to you, and found something else to explore. Like, maybe, science.

      I can guarantee my parents are just as “blue collar” as yours and I would have THRIVED in an environment where I could follow my interests, despite being “good” at school and a pretty ideal student.

  11. karelys
    karelys says:

    Every time I read this blog or the career blog I end up so stressed out.
    I learn a lot of interesting and applicable things but I end up so stressed out. It’s like someone is pointing out that once I’ve achieved that elusive “being at peace and happy” point in life then something here rattles me. I think “omg! If my child’s childhood isn’t about specializing then he’ll be a 40 year old that can’t support a family!!! the horror!”

    My background is one where there isn’t a whole lot to brag about. No security. But I felt safe. And then I didn’t. And then I did. It was a lot about focusing on what was important. Like health. My dad always insisted that we were wealthy because we had health.

    I worry so much that our health will fail and that no money in the world will be able to buy our health back. My father-in-law died of cancer. To me, they were rich. And all the superb health insurance and all their money didn’t buy him more time with us. We’re still grieving after all these years.

    I am thinking I may need a break from the blog then play catch up. If my kid never achieves the ability to pay for a family and him and his wife have to work in tandem, I guess it’ll look a lot like my husband and I.

    We all want more for sure. But it’s taken me a long time, a lot of unlearning in my adulthood so I could learn to be happy. And now that I am, I don’t want to undo it with worrying about how I’ll never be wealthy and all that.

    I like this post because it made me uncomfortable and then it revealed to me how wealthy I feel everyday because I have crossed off the list a lot of things I’ve deeply desired since I was a child.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:


      I love your honesty when you post and I hope that you continue to visit the homeschool blog.

      I just wanted to encourage you to keep being happy.

      I know you dearly care for your son, and if you want to homeschool there are many ways to make it happen. Some people start homeschooling after regular school and over summer before they finally move to full time homeschooling. Some people homeschool in the evenings after they work because for the moment both parents need to work, and they eventually get themselves to a point where they can live on one income down the road. Or they transition to working from home.

      In my homeschool group there are families with kids that are under two years old that are part of it. I think maybe you could try to find a homeschool group nearby that you can join and maybe they could help you with ideas or maybe just to get to know some real life homeschool people. :) Trust me, we are very eager to help out.

      Anyway, I appreciate your perspective and hope maybe this will encourage you a bit.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Karelys, I just wanted to concur with YesMyKidsAre… I, too, love the honesty of your comments. Not just in this instance but so often your comments stand out for their raw honesty. So thank you. You make all of us think harder and feel more.


  12. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    How much is decided by chance versus parental orchestration…vs parental convenience. My kid does taekwondo all the time because they have a good after school program, it’s in the neighborhood, I trust the people, etc. I guess if it was ballet or something l wouldn’t have chosen that because I think its too girly and not a culture I care for, but I never really thought, wow, taekwondo is so perfect. Though, now we’ve discovered there are many beneficial aspects to martial arts…focus, confidence, discipline, mind-body connection…it kind of fell into place by chance. Is is going to be a career maker? Probably not. Who knows? But maybe some good lifelong skills will come from it?

  13. Jason Leavitt
    Jason Leavitt says:

    This post struck a cord with me. I’ve done fine in life, but I wish there was someone there early who could have nudged me in a different direction based on what my talents were rather than let me just do whatever I wanted. I wasted a lot of time pursuing things I had no business pursuing. There’s a fine line there…allow someone to pursue their interests and letting them believe anything is possible…while also being realistic.

  14. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I was a software engineer, now I’m a housewife/mom, and I come from a family of doctors. Having a strong interest in & compassion for living creatures and the ability to easily memorize large quantities of technical material scream ‘doctor’ or ‘veterinarian’ to me. Although most of the doctors I know say I made the better career choice. Perhaps your oldest son could do some filing or office cleaning for the local large animal vet, working up to a ride-along?

  15. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I don’t see any reason to worry about specialization with a kid. We’ve got the three Rs down and the rest is fun. I think more about developing interests, skills, sports, and hobbies that will continue to make him happy no matter where he goes in life.

    I didn’t know what I was going to do for a career as a kid. I didn’t know in college either. I didn’t even know in grad school. But I had a great, fun, remunerative career anyway. And now I’m a happy stay at home dad while ny wife enjoys a career equally unrelated to her studies.

    The wisdom my kids are benefiting from isn’t a push toward early specialization but the opposite. Homeschooling is a jailbreak. They can spend more time having fun and learning on their own terms. No professional advice I can give now will be relevant in twenty years, but music, theatre, skiing, etc. will still be fun and fulfilling.

    If they discover special talents, that’s nice. But if they don’t figure out what a good career will be for them until they’re thirty that’s fine too. It worked fine for their parents. I always say go ahead and waste your youth, because it’s not nearly as much fun wasting middle age.

  16. Cassie
    Cassie says:

    This posts perfectly illustrates how much of an ENTJ you are.

    You can’t believe your parents didn’t put you in activities that could lead to a goal.

    I love that.

  17. Stacie
    Stacie says:

    I think parents often fear “missing the boat” or worry that their child is going to miss opportunities if they don’t __________.

    But I think when we realize and trust that our kids (and ourselves) will eventually end up where we are supposed to be exactly when we are supposed to be there we make less decisions out of fear and are able to better listen to our kids and see with more clarity that a “missed opportunity” may simply just be another step along the best path for our child (or ourselves).

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