When I was in college I had a hard time focusing on prescribed topics. I couldn’t handle the feminist reading of The Republic. Seriously, I could barely even understand the Cliffs Notes reading of The Republic.

On the other hand, I took an art history course and I become obsessed. Each painting we studied lead me to study fifty related paintings. I had to know everything. For my final paper I stayed up for days cutting out pictures to illustrate my points about the depersonalizing of the human form.

My professor wrote a note to me at the end of my paper that she couldn’t believe I cut up a book to illustrate my paper. “Do not cut up books!” she wrote. Next to a D.

I wanted to tell her not to worry. I had ten books on the topic. But whatever. I got a D and kept reading them.

So it’s no surprise that I drag my kids to the Art Institute in Chicago a lot. I grew up here with the Thorne Rooms. And the outstanding collection of Impressionist paintings.

I told my kids “It’s Seurat! Go up close! It’s all dots!”

They tried hard to get as excited as I am about art.

But really, I can’t say that the museum was a hit. By the time we were done with my tidbits about water lilies (Look! See how he lost his eyesight?) the kids were done.

I didn’t understand the core of the problem of my kids at the Art Institute until I started homeschooling.

Which brings me to this question I received a few days ago:

Hi Penelope,

I love math–I want to impart some of my love of math to my kids. You may disagree that math doesn’t need to be taught but it’s just that simple:  I love it. If possible I want to share my love of it with my children.

But I don’t know how. I have looked around but everything seems like it would bore my son who currently doesn’t love math.

So I need ideas, just a hook to enjoy something that I think makes life a lot more fun if you can enjoy it.


And, here’s my answer. Which I know because I know my kids would rather eat Art Institute food than look at Art Institute art:

Dear Jared,

Don’t try to change your kid.

“Impart a love of learning” anything is shorthand for wishing you could have kids who are more like you. And it’s usually evidence that the parent is not doing what they love. You probably feel special that you love math and you want your kid to be special.

You know the phrase those who can’t do teach? Nowhere is that more true than in the realm of pushy, overbearing parents. It’s the parents who are stuck in that rut of feeling like they are not fulfilling some mythic potential so they have to use their kids to fulfill their dreams.

Don’t force feed learning. You wouldn’t like it, so why do it to your kids?

Not everyone can love math. I love beach volleyball.  I think it’s elegant, like a dance. And strategic, like chess. And it’s very healthy and it encourages social relationships. But does this mean I should teach every kid volleyball even if they are not interested? Of course not.

I don’t think your son needs to learn math any more than he needs to learn volleyball. No child really learns things that don’t interest him, so why would you want your son to do that? Your son is smart and curious and will find his own things to love to learn. He doesn’t need to love what you love. If you want to do math, do it for yourself.


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21 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I think parents *should* introduce their kids to the things we love. However, we must watch carefully for signs the kids aren’t interested, and back off.

    My mom loves historic architecture and I spent many boring childhood afternoons downtown with my mom pointing out cornices and cupolas, balustrades and baseboards, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, blah blah blah. I was uninterested.

    That same interest managed to awaken itself in me about the time I turned 40 and now Mom and I talk.

    Neither of my parents are much into mathematics. My dad can talk a mean trigonometry game and my mom drilled me on my math facts (which never stuck), but other than that, nada. But then my 10th and 11th grade math teacher really lit up the subject for me, and it sparked a love of mathematics that led to me majoring in it in college. I loved every last minute of that study.

    On the other hand, I found photography on my own (seriously; I bought my first camera at a yard sale for a quarter) and have enjoyed it since I was nine.

    I think my point is that kids need to be introduced to things. Sure, let them explore and find their interests. But there are simply going to be things that they will never stumble upon on their own. We need to open up the world to them because they might not happen upon the thing that they will fall in love with.

    • cris hayes
      cris hayes says:

      Well said, Jim. This is precisely why I choose to homeschool (yes, it is an ever present tense verb, even 6 years in.) The school is a limited institution, made all the more so by the singular focus on GPA and college. The world, in contrast, is vast and open, making my job as simple as what you have stated. I think of it as throwing s#*t against the wall of their experience and see what sticks. The hard part is allowing for them to choose what truly sticks and letting the rest go, especially when you as a parent see value in it, academically or otherwise.

      PT’s reply offers a good antidote to being too caught up in it. For example, I really, really want my kids to take art classes. But they finally just told me, “Why don’t YOU take an art class, Mom, and we’ll watch you,” meaning that they would learn more (and more joyfully) from my example. Gotta love teenagers…

      • Hannah
        Hannah says:

        Great point! This may seem unconnected, but I was reading this article that is about behavioral economics (sort of)


        And the author stated “In academia you have to be right, in business you’ve just got to be less stupid, less wrong than your competitors.”

        I think this is the primary value proposition for homeschooling (at least in my life). Through homeschooling, you have the opportunity to realize that your life has meaning and value, and you must not waste your life, but the bar for success is something other than perfection.

        I also agree that parents should make an effort to introduce kids to things that they think are life giving. Kids need to see adults who get caught up in the beauty and wonder of something greater than themselves. Just by actively demonstrating your love, you are teaching your child to love the same things as you.

  2. Cate
    Cate says:

    Well said. This should be read by every suburban parent. But I took a lot away from it. I’ve been coming to this realization with my 8 yo son, who has his own unique interests: archery, comic books, writing/coming up with stories… he doesn’t fit into the norm of boys = sports in our town and area. My aunt (mother of 4 boys) recently asked me what he was doing (meaning, sports) and when I said, he’s not doing anything right now, she had nothing to say. But I’m enjoying this freedom from pushing my son into things he doesn’t like just because everyone else is doing it!
    I’m lucky because he does love reading. I think that would be an interesting quandary for me – what if I had a child who didn’t like to read (it’s my life’s passion, essentially)? His father doesn’t read at all (my husband), yet is truly one of the smartest, most competent people I know, and I came to terms with that early in our relationship – so I think I would be ok.

    • Sean Crawford
      Sean Crawford says:

      Hi Cate. I dimly recall reading a short piece by story-teller Rudyard Kipling about a woman archer in a British colony in India.
      In my case, I got the other kids playing space-imagination games until halfway through elementary school, and then in middle school-junior high the social pressure was gone and none of us non-sport kids played any sports anymore.

  3. Lisa B. Sharp
    Lisa B. Sharp says:

    Great post! I needed this today. I was getting frustrated with my 14 and 13 year old. We homeschool and that homeschool parenting fear started to creep in. Thanks Penelope. I can calm down again :)).

  4. Kirsten H
    Kirsten H says:

    When I first read the title of this post, I assumed you meant “how to instill a love for X” in myself. That’s the hardest thing for me in homeschooling. If there is something I want my kids to know, I will introduce it and hope it sticks. In the meantime, I want to be encouraging and enthusiastic about supporting their passions.

    When I try to think along Penelope-ish lines of finding content experts to support my son (who hears a drummer different than mine), sometimes I have trouble even knowing how to start. The kid wants to build a Minecraft Mod. In order for me to help him get going, I’m going to need to learn a lot about a subject I don’t think is compelling at all. So from that place, it’s pretty easy for me to understand why he doesn’t want to hang out with me for an hour in the Matisse exhibit (that I went to yesterday with my mom, while he hung out with my dad).

    And to Jim’s earlier comment, just because he isn’t interested now, doesn’t mean he won’t ever be.

  5. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    My husband loves to fish and hunt. No one else in our family does. My older daughter loves to sketch, paint, and make enormous messes all in the name of art. No one else in our family does. My younger daughter likes to write, sing and play music–preferably the guitar. Jeff tinkers with the guitar and I enjoy singing, but neither of us enjoy it on a daily basis. My only son can spend 8 hours a day watching Minecraft videos or playing Xbox. He’s entirely alone in that regard.

    I am recently obsessed with grains and how they are linked to so many illnesses. I’m consuming everything about it online and off. My kids have a running joke that every time something bad happens it “MUST BE GRAINS.” Yes, they are mocking me (in love, of course).

    I like this post. While it would be fun to have more shared interests, I just get a kick out of watching them thrive in their own arenas–y’know, just as long as I don’t have to join in.

  6. Suzy
    Suzy says:

    I think you mean “prescribed” in the first sentence. “Proscribed” means “forbidden.” Otherwise, a great post!

    –Yes, thank you,

  7. karelys
    karelys says:

    One big fear I had before deciding to get pregnant was that I would try to use my kids as a way to fulfill dreams or goals or destiny that I didn’t do myself because of whatever the reasons.

    I tried really hard to do soul searching and make sure that wasn’t going to be my drive as a mother.

    It’s really scary sometimes to think “If I want to see xyz done then I have to do it myself.” There’s no safety net if you fail. No one will take up after what you’ve left off.

    I want my job being the main source of our income. I want to freelance and somehow figure out a way to form a self sustaining stream of income. But I am stuck and it’s hard to figure out how to do it and it’s tiring and confusing sometimes.

    In all of that I think that I want to instill entrepreneurship on my son from an early age so he won’t have to go through the same thing I am going through at 26. But what if he feels safer, stable, happier working for someone his whole life? some job that doesn’t use up his entire mental capacity so he can pour himself onto something else after hours?

    I have to be okay with that. And if I really want the entrepreneurial spirit in the family I have to do it myself. And that scares me. Because what if I can’t?

  8. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    This is a great great post, Penelope. I’m sure this is a question many parents have and thank you!

    Sometimes I worry if my kids are able to find out what they are passionate about, and what I can do to help them discover their passion. My 4-year-old boy loves Spider-Man and Transformers, and my 2-year-old girl loves her little mousy plush toy. I do worry if I shall get them to dance classes, or music classes and etc. to help them discover things.

    Is there something a parent should do to help their children discover their interest or passion? For example, by taking them to art museums like you do, or by taking them to dance or other classes, to get them to expand their experience?

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Your kids are a bit young. I dragged my son around every museum in Manhattan multiple times, trying to impart knowledge. Looking back, sheesh. They just need to play with the same group of friends and develop relationships.

      I would recommend trying age appropriate classes at museums or trial classes. I would also talk to the kids and ask if they’d be interested in certain things. Just pay attention to what they are doing and follow that. Make a doll together, have your son create his own superhero, just do things!

      Curious p, when and why did cello start? You introduced it?

  9. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    You know the old joke we have here in south Asia? ” When the mum feels cold, she makes the kid wear the sweater.”

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Bahaha! This cracks me up.

      Also, I had parents who made us wear bundles of jackets because they reacted a certain way to the weather and we just felt constricted and uncomfortable. It was a constant fight.

      I am a big fan of humility. I think it’s such an attractive character trait and virtue. And I am trying so hard to be humble and just let my kid be, let my husband be, and then let myself BE myself. After all, I think I am attractive to people because I bring to the table certain things that are foreign to their own persona,

      My mom is very funny in a way. When she’s shredding beef for tamales, without thinking, the shredded beef fall so organized in the platter. And it’s the same when she cuts onions and tomatoes. When she cleans the house. Just automatically everything falls in a rhythmic pattern with her.

      She’s also very constricted in her way of thinking. It used to bother me. Also I grew up thinking that I wasn’t doing it right until I could hit the notes she was hitting (in homemaking, wife-ing, and mothering). But realized that my inability to even write straight in the notebook with lines is because the brain wiring is different and it allows me to think differently than her and the rest of my family.

      I wish I could make my husband feel the warmth I feel when latin music plays and when dancing happens. But I can’t. However, I can make sure that I cultivate that side of me. Because it makes me happy. And it makes me more of the person I am who he fell in love with.

  10. David R
    David R says:

    My mother-in-law lives in Chicago, and takes the kids to the Art Institute frequently. I went with them on the last trip. The kids were most excited to show me the Throne Room.

  11. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I know you’ve said elsewhere that Z wants to have a girlfriend (so cute). I wonder if he knows that girls love boys that are able to go to art museums with them and not be too bored about it.

    I love the photo of him just surrendering to his boredom and laying on the ground, so cute.

  12. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Dear Jared,

    If your child doesn’t love math now it doesn’t mean they won’t later. Just leave them alone or you will kill any future joy. If they ask for math then give it to them. My oldest loves math, I did nothing to instill this in her, my middle loves reading, I did nothing to instill this either… each person is an individual thinker and doer, I would rather see a parent cultivate a child’s individuality then force their own passions on them. It doesn’t bode well…


    • MBL
      MBL says:


      “I would rather see a parent cultivate a child’s individuality thEn force their own passions on them.”

      This is one of my new favorite Freudian slips. ;) Build ’em up before you snuff them out.
      (Totally not going for grammar police. Just couldn’t resist sharing my chuckle.) :D

  13. Erin
    Erin says:

    Have you read On Beauty & Being Just by Elaine Scarry? Among other things, Scarry discusses the phenomenon of how one experience of beauty opens us up to perceiving beauty in more places. For example: walking through a museum, one might encounter a magnificent artifact of a vase and become smitten with it; henceforth, that person might see more beauty in commonplace vases. Conversely: one might hold a vase dear because of its commonplace beauty in her life; this familiarity and adoration also opens her up to a love of vases, that leads her to pursue museum exhibits of vases.

    Beauty. Affection. Passion.

    Beauty: the moment someone looks at something utterly Other than themselves, yet identifies with it. That experience, that BRIDGE, is the language of beauty.

    Affection for art or maths or vases is when a person allows a pursuit to open them up and change them. The more she digs, the more passionate she becomes.

    Passion isn’t something you can teach. Passion is something that finds you.

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