Parent denial reaches new heights with school sabbaticals

CNN takes a breather from world events this week to cover the upper middle class education topic of school sabbaticals. The article contains interviews with multiple parents who took their kids out of school for a short time. To Tahiti. To Iceland. To downtown Chicago. It can be wherever. But whatever it is, this is not homeschooling. This is something else.

And I think it’s crazy. You can look at the language the parents use to understand the underlying problem with sabbaticals. One mom says, “With work, school and the usual activities of suburban family life, all five of us were giving our best everywhere else. By the end of the day, we didn’t have much left for each other. I wanted to slow it all down.”

So she took her kids out of school for six months. I get it. I see why she would want to slow down and make more time for each other. I see that no one has time or energy for the family. But I don’t understand how you can admit that school does this to a family and then say that you are taking the kids out only for six months.

When a mom told her kids she was taking them out for seven months, her twelve-year-old son’s first reaction was trepidation that the sabbatical would prevent him from getting into the National Honor Society. The mom was appalled that he was worried. She says she has never even mentioned the National Honor Society. But the thing is that when you send kids to school, you don’t need to mention anything. School tells your kids what is important, and you, by handing your kids over for eight hours a day, implicitly endorse the idea that the school gets to decide what’s important.

Her son is right: he will be at a disadvantage to leave school for seven months and then go back. How will he make up the work? Most of school is linear. And college admissions views high school like a contest. It’s not fair that the parents tell the kids to pay attention to school measurements but also take kids out of the race when it matters so much to the kids.

Kathy Donchak—who blogs about downsizing and sends me so many interesting education tidbits—tells me that Acton Academy in Austin runs for eleven months so that private-school kids can take sabbatical all the time and still get in a full school year. To me this is just more evidence that parental disdain for school is running high, and parents are willing to pay extra to have freedom from the shackles of a school calendar.

So clearly the idea of sabbatical doesn’t work with school. Either you tell the kids school is good and you support them playing by the rules, or you decide school is destroying your family and you take them out. You can’t do both. It’s like having no religion yourself and telling your kids to choose one.

Did you read Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret? Do you remember that a central story line (besides two minutes in the closet with Phillip Leroy) is that Margaret’s parents cannot decide on a religion for Margaret so they tell her to choose. And that choice is too much for her and makes her feel lost with no community.

The same thing happens to kids who go to school but do not go with the full support of their parents. As soon as kids see that parents don’t support the school then the kids are stuck in the middle: miss a family outing to write a paper, or go to school looking like a negligent student? Both are bad choices, and the kid suffers because the parents won’t face the choices themselves.

33 replies
  1. karelys
    karelys says:

    Maybe you’re working on this already, maybe not. Writing a short book on the idea of why school is bad for family and putting it out there may have far more reach than a blog.

    Your blog is great and all. I don’t care to evangelize people. I just want to find what’s best for my family and go with it. But I don’t care to evangelize. Maybe I am selfish and I think that unschooled/homeschooled kids have an edge right now over the multitude of children vying for spots in colleges and they are all the same.

    I don’t want others to homeschool.

    However, making homeschooling much more mainstream is definitely going to change the fabric of our society. It will be perfectly normal to request working with flexible schedules for jobs that allow it. And maybe it will start shifting our society’s views on how important family is (all politicians say family is important. But no one actually does something that will give family the center spot).

    I see how splashy the blog posts that have very one sided views are. People call you names and are always signing how they are different and why it works differently for their family. But I feel like outside of this blog, sending kids to school is normal because no one has thought “hey, maybe there’s an alternative.”

    I, for one, know that the idea didn’t even exist until I read this blog.

    So maybe putting a short book out there and making lots of noise and driving traffic to the blog where there can be an actual conversation about the topic (but please if you get more money get a better commenting format. Like the kind where threads happen and people get a notification so we can stay on track with what’s being said and continue the conversation).

    The downside is that the comments will be flooded with randos that are mean.

    By the way, the website Jezebel has a commenting format I like. Most of the time people who are nice and actually bring something to the conversation get up voted and trolls and mean people just get pushed down and they get lost to the bottom of the comments.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      What type of commenting thread would you want? I can do anything, really. So I’m really open to what you think I should be using.

      The reason I have this current format is that I need a format that allows people to be anonymous. I get way better comments on the blog if I let people use something other than their name. The really intricate commenting software uses your Facebook info, and I think people don’t want that here — too much of it is too controversial for them to put on Facebook.

      What do you think?


      • Sophie
        Sophie says:

        Keep this format! Some of us are Luddites and aren’t on Facebook – and I’d miss being able to add to the conversation here.

        Ps on the subject of tech, the mobile version of your site disappeared a few weeks ago. . .was this deliberate? It’s now quite hard to read on my iPhone.

        • karelys
          karelys says:

          I had to google Luddite.

          With the format we are talking about you don’t need a facebook/twitter. Only if you want to have everything together.

          It does give you notifications so if I comment on very old posts someone will get a notification and can respond if they want.

          So your luddite status is safe ;)

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Some of us aspie girls have a hard time with format changes… but it wouldn’t prevent me from reading, just maybe wouldn’t comment as much at first…maybe?

      • Jayson
        Jayson says:

        Just to jump in on the recommendations for comments, I’d say the number one thing (which is also on the jezebel site karelys mentions) is an in-place reply. It’s more intuitive. This site drops you down to the bottom, I know I’m not the only one to post to the entire thread when it was meant to be a reply to an individual.

        Second, not as strong an opinion here, would be an up/down vote system. This lets people +1 without having to actually write coherent sentences. Helpful for seconding comments or sorting out trolls.

        I’m not a facebook or twitter fan and my browser filters wouldn’t show them anyway.

        • karelys
          karelys says:

          Yes I forgot to mention the upvote feature. It’s not that people reward simple like minded thinking. Most people are actually very respectful and have something interesting (or funny) to say. But the up vote feature allows everyone to bury the trolls.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        Something like Kinja but just because of the part where you can still remain anonymous and sign up with your email.
        You have an account to the forum.
        With Kinja you can make your own little subglog but that’s too much. The beautiful part about it is that when someone comments under your thread you can a little notification (kind of like Facebook) and it’s easier to follow.

      • Bailey
        Bailey says:

        You may want to look into a reddit-type commenting system. They have a pretty intelligent ranking algorithm and I think it supports anonymity.

        You can read about their commenting system here:

        And there looks like there’s an open-source implementation of it here:

        But there aren’t a lot of example of that implementation so I’m not sure if it would fit your needs.


  2. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I think people are just getting so tired of the way things are. Go to school, get good grades, get a job, retire. There has to be more to life than this. I want more than this for my kids.

    You see it with work sabbaticals, people taking a year off of work to just live life, then re-entering the work force.

    Then there is the “gap year” after high school before going to college… more evidence.

    Now we have school sabbaticals?

    It’s the trickle down effect, people are starting to see that there is more to life than what we are being told, these sabbaticals are just a small way to reclaim control over our lives.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I think that high achievers will figure out a way to do the school sabbatical and still be part of the honor society or whatever.

      Then people will start losing the fear of breaking away from what’s normal and then…..gasp! why hadn’t we done this before!?

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Exactly! Or maybe the high achievers won’t even care about honor society when they realize there is more to life out there… :)

        • DB
          DB says:

          I love this conversation – agree that it’s so liberating to say, “wait a minute, I don’t have to do what everyone else is doing.”

          I don’t have to send my kid to preschool or school (although we might experiment with it – we’ll see when the time comes). I don’t have to work another 30 years until I retire at 65 – I can live frugally, make certain lifestyle changes, and retire decades earlier. We don’t NEED two shiny new cars, one 13 year old car is fine. I don’t have to relentlessly pursue a bigger house and a bigger career and more craziness. I don’t have to over-schedule my entire family and drive us all crazy – I can just say no, and have gloriously unscheduled weekends.

          It sounds simple but it’s actually a radical change of thought, and the siren song of The Way Everyone Does It is always in our heads – which is why I read Penelope and Mr. Money Mustache.

          • karelys
            karelys says:

            Sometimes I think a bigger house would be so nice! with lots of green grassy land for our kids to play in and … (just throw in whatever idyllic vision you can come up with).

            Then I look around and see that I can barely keep my own house straight (only 1200 sq. ft.) and look! it’s so nice to have such a tiny mortgage! and if I got a bigger house it’d be more to clean and more mortgage and more taxes even if we were mortgage free. And more repairs. And more work. And I am a bad caretaker of plants.

            So I stick with what little we have and keep it as little and simple as possible.

            When I was a kid (about 9 or so) my dad would always tell me that he who has many possessions is owned many times over by his possessions.

          • VegGal
            VegGal says:

            I agree, last year we moved our family of 5 from a 2400 sqft home to a 1200 sqft home that has no mortgage. Every now and then I wish I had the before house because it was so new and nice and big, but then I pay my bills while staying at home with the kids and I realize this is way better. Not to mention like you said the house takes almost no time to clean, and the cost of the new siding that is needed is affordable.

  3. Kelsey Langley
    Kelsey Langley says:

    At a Girl Scout retreat yesterday, another mom (SAHM with a teacher-husband) was picking my brain about homeschooling. (Does anyone else feel they have to tread lightly around teachers or teacher- spouses?) She explained that if they have something better to do- whether it’s a trip out of town, to the pool, or shoe shopping- she just doesn’t send her kids. She basically said that what they are doing is more important.

    I couldn’t help but think the SAME thing that you’ve posted. Why attend public school if you’re going to half-a$$ it? If you recognize that what you’re doing at home is more important, why not go all out? Not believing in school as a parent means that school won’t mean anything for your kids.

    Karelys- I agree that I don’t want to be an activist for homeschooling. My reason is different though… And might sound equally as selfish. :) I simply don’t want to argue with people. I don’t enjoy stepping on people’s toes on how they raise their kids, and I don’t pretend to have the parenting- thing completely figured out. I have the “I’ll raise mine, you raise yours” mentality with strangers. I just keep the second half of that thought “…mine will just be better because we homeschooled” to myself for the sake of not arguing. :) It’s funny how curious people are though. Everyone knows someone who homeschools nowadays.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      Kelsey, I don’t have to step lightly around teachers. I find that about half the people I know who homeschool either are teachers, were teachers, or are married to teachers. Sometimes I think nobody knows how bad our schools are more than teachers do.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I agree about the teachers. I think that while lots of teachers are defensive, most realize that school is really stupid and they are frustrated to be a part of it. Still, it’s uncomfortable talking to one about school until I know which camp they fall into.


      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        A teacher is actually the one who made me think I should homeschool. She got her Masters from an Ivy and was a public school teacher for many years in a wonderful school district. When I asked her years later where her kids were going to school she told me she homeschooled her kids. I left it alone at that but continued my obsessive research into which school my kids were going to get into.

        After the failings of an awesome private school I started homeschooling. Then I started meeting teachers and college professors who were homeschooling their own children everywhere. It’s like *I* was the one hiding under a rock because I wasn’t considering that option even though it was available and clearly in front of me. Now I can’t go anywhere without running into someone who either homeschools or knows someone who homeschools, even Santa Claus slipped and said he homeschooled his kids before he had to cover quickly in front of all the kids.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Yeah me too!

      I just don’t care to argue with people. It doesn’t energize me (my husband gets a kick/high out of it thought).

      I just figure that I’ll find what fits us best. If people are nice and polite to us cool. If not, oh dear, I have ZERO problems cutting people off my life when they are toxic to us.

  4. Weschool
    Weschool says:

    This. Is. Awesome!! We parents need to step up and make a decision… We can’t just put our children in the middle of our half-butted attempt at redeeming ourselves for shirking our responsibilities. This article post needs to be picked up by every newspaper. Get the message out there. Seriously. I love how you pull things together.

  5. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    Brilliant. And all I remember about, Are you there God it’s me Margaret, is that we passed it around underground in 5th grade and that Margaret was happy that she got her period and that all I did was cry when I got mine.

  6. Bailey
    Bailey says:

    It’s like people are sticking their toes into the water, but are afraid to commit. The idea that school is important, regardless of whether it is actually effective for a child, is so ingrained that we have trouble challenging it. Despite the short-term (and overall ineffective) nature of these sabbaticals, it at least means that families are realizing that something needs to be changed about the way their children are being schooled. The children may be hurt by seeing the lack of parental support for the current state of schooling, but maybe it will encourage them to question the choices they make with their own kids someday.

  7. Mary
    Mary says:

    Penelope, as a teacher for 30 years, I have to disagree with you here. I think if the parents have a good and specific plan for some reason they want to take kids out of school it can provide an invaluable experience. What would not be good would be to take kids out of school without a VERY specific purpose and time frame, and way to do things. One example was the English family who took their kids out of school in order for the whole family to sail around the world for a year on a yacht. They sailed from England in to the South Pacific and their boat was sunk by whales. They went through a horrific survival experience lasting about six weeks in a small dingy (read “Survive the Savage Sea”). I wouldn’t recommend this for most families, but that’s an example of a very specific plan. Another student I met in the Carribean. He was spending his high school on a sailboat with his father (his parents were divorced). He studied through correspondence school and worked four hours on studies each morning on the boat. To take his exams, they had to write and set up dates in advance at various ports throughout the Caribbean and Central America, where there would be a proctor for him in a school or church. (This was in the 1980s before the internet.) I was actually very impressed with the education he was getting and the way his family had worked out the divorce arrangements. The student had attended one or two years of high school and was willingly doing this with his dad. But these sorts of arrangements work only with parents who are really dedicated and serious and who have a definite plan for SOMETHING in a specific travel experience, for example. I had another student whose parents went to Cuba and took her out of school, and I’m sure she learned more on that trip than she would have learned during those weeks in my class (I did send math work with her so she wouldn’t get behind). As an educator, I support parents who make careful choices like these.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      Mary, as a person who attended seven schools, who took classes at nine colleges in three countries, who has four degrees, including a PhD, speaks four languages fluently, has traveled the world, and who left a rewarding six-figure career to homeschool his children – all without ever graduating from high school – I have to disagree with you here.

      The principal thing I learned in school that helped with my college education was typing; the second most important thing was how to break rules and get away with it. School was otherwise largely a waste of my time. The most interesting part of it was finding ways to skip it so I could go read a book or go on a journey instead.

      These children are fortunate their parents realize how much more fun, interesting, and educational their lives can be without school. It’s sad their parents are bringing them back afterwards. May their journeys be long and their school days be short.

      It is wonderful to take your children out of school without any time frame or goal besides enjoying life, childhood, and seeking knowledge. I did, and now my nine-year old reads at a high school level, loves algebra, knows how to make conversation with adults, and, yes, types very well.

      He would not be the same if he had stayed imprisoned in a school that couldn’t meet his intellectual needs or his need for physical safety. His education, his connection to his family and his community, and his engagement with the worlds of science and literature are all improved by the lack of school in his life, and it will be easier for this child to become an adult without the artificial society of the schoolyard.

        • Commenter
          Commenter says:

          I’m glad to hear you’re in favor of something, Mary. But the “it” you’re not in favor of is not the “it” I’m in favor of, nor by any means the “it” Penelope is in favor of.

          According to what you wrote, you are in favor of children remaining in school for the duration of their childhood, except for short, purposive extracurricular breaks “with a good and specific plan,” that must be arranged with their schools, during which they will still do work for their schools, and after which they will go back to their schools.

          This is not what I am in favor of. I am in favor of children leaving school as early as they want to, and never going back.

          I am in favor of parents being in charge of their children’s lives, not schoolteachers, and using schools only in so far as they are convenient to the children and the parents.

          I don’t always agree with Penelope. I think she’s a little too Trotskyist about homeschooling. For example, if my child requested to go to school persistently over a long period, I would arrange it. My three year-old loves preschool very much, and if she requests to go to school in a few years, I will oblige her. Then, when she realizes it’s not all that, I will welcome her back home.

          In this post, I also think she’s being too ideologically purist. I think there may be reasons that half-assing school is the best choice for a family, and I think breaking out of jail temporarily is better than not at all (especially when one considers that some of them will realize they don’t really need to go back).

          I also think she makes a good point, that the “school sabbatical” phenomenon is a sad indictment of the system. Parents and children are doing this because they are realizing how narrow, limited, and unfulfilling school is. It’s a pity they can’t act more fully on their convictions.

          I also agree that if the most important thing for the kids and their parents is that they win the college admittance game, they should stay in school and kick the other kids off the ladder. If the most important thing for them is learning, they should leave and not go back.

          I expect that in years to come we will see a sharp increase in individualized learning throughout the course of childhood, including some school resources and some not. One facet of this change I expect to upset schoolish folks is that the locus of control over these lifestyles will move away from school and back to the family (where, IMHO, it belongs).

    • mh
      mh says:

      I think taking children out of school so they can read library books, ride bikes and play LEGO for a year would be every bit as valuable as yachting around the world.

      Having said that, we are planning our family summer odyssey road trip. Looking at 5500 miles this year,which if we make it, would be our second-longest cross-continent trip.

      School offers very little to interest children. Once you learn to manipulate your elders, what else is left to learn?

  8. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I so agree with this. I am one of the ones half-a$$ing public school. Any chance I get to take my daughter out to giver her other learning opportunities that she WON’T get in school, I take it. “Take Your Kid To Work Day”, Career fairs in town, etc.

    My problem is my husband & I aren’t on the same page. He wants her to go to school like a “normal” kid, while I want to homeschool. I’ve been experimenting with supplementing the public education with homeschool learning & teach her life skills or learn something she’s interested in doing. It’s hard with being in school 8 hours, sports activities & then at least 2 hours of homework a night. And forget about music lessons. No time for that anymore!

    I think it will take (Heaven forbid) a catastrophic event in order for my husband to agree to homeschooling. But maybe I should stop half-a$$ing it & support the educational system so my daughter doesn’t get confusing messages.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Some schools will give the child credit for extra curricular activities if you handle it well with the principal.

      I had all my basics done in high school and I got credit for having a job. I couldn’t believe it! I got to make money and skip boring class and hang out with actual adults and still get credit??
      Some kids went to the community college and did sports/music/drama/art classes (like pottery and stuff). It’s community college. I mean, the best program that people all around the state were fighting for was nursing. But other than that it wasn’t much better than … high school?
      But many kids liked it because the dynamics were different. Same responsibility but no micromanaging. I was amazed that you could sort of partially homeschool and partially attend school. Partially go to college for some BS classes just to escape high school. Some kids went to college full time. They didn’t need to set foot on high school. And it was great for them because the choose classes where attendance wasn’t necessary, just results on tests and assignments. They were having a blast taking dance classes, music, art, just hanging out. They were smart enough to ace all classes without having to attend (sometimes just the bare minimum).

      If this is a point of contention in your marriage I’d say exhaust all possibilities before driving a wedge. Education is good but a stable household is better (in my opinion) for a child and for the family in general.

      If your husband feels uncomfortable try other options that free up time as much as possible and still put your child in a track that is “normal” or “common.”

  9. Kate C.
    Kate C. says:

    Sometimes putting a toe in unknown waters will convince you to start swimming. Not being one to follow the crowd, it is hard for me to understand that there are many people that don’t dare to do anything outside of what is perceived as “normal and important.” Normal being defined as trying to get good grades in school, going to a good college – the whole rat race thing that has been endlessly discussed here. But I think that it’s articles like this one that might actually give these people the courage to do something that they wouldn’t dare otherwise. That being said, I did notice that the article didn’t touch on the shock of conforming to school after the freedom of multi-month pursuit of self-defined goals.

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