Parents need to deprogram their own brains first

The process of keeping your kids out of school usually involves some level of deprogramming yourself. Parents have to get rid of all the conventional ideas we have about school to see that we don’t need school in the conventional way. As parents we have to teach ourselves to go against the grain of what society promotes as education.

One of the reasons I love having this blog is that we are all deprogramming ourselves together. Since I’ve launched the blog you guys have sent me one amazing link after another, and each link has helped me move closer to peace with the idea that I’m doing something I never in a million years thought I’d do with my own kids.

Each link is another step toward assurance that I’m doing the right thing.

So today I’m sharing a bunch of links that have helped me, on my three favorite topics:

1. Are video games harmful?
Check out this video from Steven Johnson, author of the book, Everything Bad is Good for You. In the video Johnston considers what would happen if books had come after video games. We would face the same struggle to incorporate a new media into our established ideas about parenting. We’d say books are one-dimensional and video games are immersive. We’d say books are solitary and anti-social and video games encourage collaborative play. Do you get the picture?

Our disdain for video games is not about the nature of the media per se but rather based on a natural limitation against picturing childhood radically different than what we grew up with.

2. What is the purpose of school?
I couldn’t resist clicking when someone sent me a link to Great name, huh? The organization produced a video based on John Taylor Gatto’s book, The Underground History of American Education. The more I understand about why we started public school in the first place, the more clear it is to me that we cannot adapt public school to fit today’s needs for education.

3. What math is important to learn?
A school administrator in Ithaca, NY did a controlled study in 1929 to see if he could drop math from the curriculum. It turned out that kids who did not start learning math until sixth grade ended up performing as well in math in sixth grade as the kids who started learning math in first grade.

It’s an amazing experiment, and as Peter Gray points out in Psychology Today, it’s amazing that more people haven’t heard of the study. It’s a testament to how scared we are to process information that conflicts with what we’ve been told for decades.

The New York Times published an argument for dumping higher math in favor of statistics. The article is written by Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, and a author of the book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It. He is someone who is working hard to help parents deprogram. 

I have lots of links in this post, because there is evidence all around us that can help us think in new ways. But looking at it now, at the end, I see that the most important part of this post are the questions. Parents need to ask incisive, uncomfortable questions in order to get real answers about school. And we need to be ready for images of learning that we never expected to see.

I used to think I don’t ask homeschool questions because they are hard to think of. But recently I’ve noticed that I don’t ask questions because the answers can be so difficult to process.


38 replies
  1. C.A. Lewis-McCarren
    C.A. Lewis-McCarren says:

    Thank you so much for this Penelope. My heart has ached and struggled all summer because I’m soooooooo overwhelmed, tired and feeling like a loser because of worrying that I’m NOT giving my two special needs sons what they need. It’s so hard to “teach” and results of my efforts are so exceedingly SLOOOOW. The School Sucks video gave me hope – and a little more clarity as to the “why” I’m going down this road with them…’s just a rather slow and lonely road more often than not. :-/

  2. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    I think dumping math in favor of statistics is one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard. In his Article, Hacker mentions that people should learn to research the reliability of numbers. In my experience its not the numbers that are unreliable, but the data itself.

    Why? Almost nobody cares whether the data is from a “natural” experiment (as employed by Google, Amazon, and Wall-Street traders), or an unnatural one (student tests, surveys, indexes, etc.) as employed by almost all political scientists, macro-economists, and of course public educators.

    If you want to ditch math, fine. I love it, but you don’t have to. Replacing traditional math with statistics seems like a sure route to a proliferation of unsubstantiated claims based on averages and public policies based on statistically insignificant regression models with a high R2 value (or worse, statistically significant models based on idiotically repurposed data).

    I wish more people understood stats well, but stats is not a replacement for math; it’s just a different tool to employ during decision making.

    Other than that, great points.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I think that all forms of math should be offered and available for children to learn, in any format and on their schedule and presented in a way that helps them learn best.

      The way most schools teach math is forced and regimented, and now… being taught in a way to have students score well on standardized tests.

      If a kid doesn’t want to learn algebra, why force them to learn? Put them in something else like statistics or business math instead.

      If a kid wants to be an engineer and loves math, give them everything all the way up to multi-variable calculus, thermodynamics… etc., don’t limit learning for this kid.

      This is why homeschool works so well. Customized education.

  3. terese
    terese says:

    Love it! I passed over 1/2 of my classes in college but could not pass algebra. I dropped out. My mother finally talked me into going to an orientation to a good College and I learned that with the amount of credits I had I could transfer in as a Junior and only take Statistics to graduate. I passed Stats with an A and loved it! I graduated with a 3.5 GPA and secured a good paying job. I have never had to use algebra in 15 years at the job. I am smart and capable, I just can’t “do” Algebra!

  4. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    Good post.
    Point one – I never thought of video-games that way, but it is true. I was a big reader as a kid, and I have very poor social skills as a grown woman. My nephew who is a big video-gamer appears to have very limited social skills as well. I can see similarities.

    Point three – Love the idea of not introducing math until 6th grade. I am an electrical engineer (and we take more math than some other engineering disciplines) and I did terrible in math until 10th grade. Really terrible, like crying and tantrums and parent-teacher conferences. Yuck. I have had numerous people say to me, my child is so good at math! (4th grade) maybe he/she will be an engineer! And I always have an unenthusiastic response. Better to have a child who is curious and not afraid to pull things apart to see how they work, and the focus to remain on that one thing until they have figured it out. That is a child who may be a good candidate for engineering, regardless of their math aptitude.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The photograph of the library is a powerful reminder to me with respect to my formal education. It reminds me of when I was sitting alone in the university library in the Fall of my senior year. I was working on my senior thesis. I was also trying to decide if I should apply to graduate school or get a job in the field I had been studying for the previous 3+ years. I decided then and there I would interview for jobs with the recruiters who came to the campus. I had decided I had enough book and lecture learning and wanted to gain practical experience. I reasoned that if I wanted more formal education, I would take courses while working or go back to school full-time. It became very apparent to me at that moment in the library that if I needed more learning, I would be able to do it self-directed. The library would always be a resource I could go back to, if necessary. Now, in addition to the library, I have a computer and an Internet connection. The Internet connection is not only a resource of various types of media content but also social media communities such as this one. The learning just never ends. :)

  6. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I love the links you share with us, how wonderful to have people send you stuff all the time.

    1. Huge fan of video games. I played them as a child from the original atari pong game to online multi-player gaming in the early 90’s. My husband has always played as well and still does. My kids play. That being said, gaming isn’t a 24×7 thing here. There is more reading, writing, exploring, discovery, playing, music being made, movie making, painting, coloring, building etc being done. I don’t want to paint a false picture when I say my kids play lots of video games. I’m not sure what goes through people’s minds, and frankly I don’t care, but video games are a wonderfully fun and relaxing part of our lives.

    2. We all know the purpose of public school; those who follow your blog consistently. I’d love to know the purpose of elite private schools including boarding schools and international boarding schools. The “statistics” don’t lie… world leaders and innovators come from these schools.

    3. OMG, I am obsessed with math. When people ask me what books I am reading I lose connections with people. Currently I am reading The Mars Project by Wernher von Braun, he was a former Nazi during WW2 and became the head of NASA at one point. He is the father of rocketry as we know it. The book is full of formulas, tables, graphs and sketches… I’m loving this book. However, I have yet to use algebra in my daily life and I think it’s a perfectly reasonable assumption that most people don’t need to know algebra. At this point I’m convinced it remains part of the basic college education simply to employ math professors.

    Hey, what homeschool questions??? I’d be interested to know.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      YMKAS, I’ve given some thought over the years to the idea of the exclusive boarding school. As a poor child in public school in the rural South, I wished I could go to such a place. As a well-off adult in the urban North, I could easily afford to send my child to such a place, but he would have no interest (I’ll see what my girl wants when she’s older).

      I visited some of those schools as a teenager (I was in college, but would always sneak in anywhere I wanted). It struck me that the academics were far from the point then. Sports were a much higher priority, and above all socialization. It’s not quite Seven Up anymore, but grooming to participate in a particular social class, including networking, is still a more important purpose of an elite boarding school than harder math.

      To a large extent, exclusivity is its own point. Business leaders and innovators come from such schools because business leaders and innovators send their kids to such schools to hang out exclusively with the children of other business leaders and innovators.

      The schools could throw out their entire academic curriculum and the results would be the same (honestly, they’d probably be better). If you want to be in the Old Boys’ Club, you have to start when you’re a boy.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Yeah, I figured on the exclusivity and networking. I just thought maybe there was something more for parents to want to send their kids away from them. Is it that networking opportunities are more important for the kids success than being in a healthy family oriented learning environment by doing academics at home? Or are the parents of the same mind as most other traditional school parents… just send the kids to school? Is something lost through doing things like homeschooling until high school?? Is it too late to network?

        My kids would freak out if I sent them away, I’m not sure what sort of psychological and emotional damage that would do to them… I can’t imagine my kids being more sensitive than any other.

        • Amy K.
          Amy K. says:

          For what it’s worth, American boarding schools are around 20 percent international students. It’s a popular choice for Chinese and South Korean parents who want their kids to go to a top US University and to get an education that is less about rote learning than it would be at home. And the boarding schools like the int’l students because they pay full tuition.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Right, so is it out of parenting fear that parents send their American children to boarding schools?

            For example: My unschooled daughter is tested in the PG range of IQ. By the time she is ready for college (assuming here she will go) she will have had her entire life to pursue her own interests, master a few, and lets assume she gets accepted into a top tier ivy school. Is she missing out on anything at all compared to the kid who went to Exeter his whole life and who also will attend the same ivy league school?

            Doesn’t college bring everyone back to the same playing field?

          • Amy K.
            Amy K. says:


            I don’t have an answer for you, but I’m chuckling remembering my own college experience 30 years ago. I was woefully behind the boarding school kids in Bong Management and Grateful Dead Appreciation.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Yeah, true. Another point here is that I think unschooling is a great “hook”.

          • Commenter
            Commenter says:

            YMKAS, I don’t think fear has anything to do with it.

            The haves don’t have to fear their children won’t grow up to be haves. Fear is for the middle class. You and I both know that connections have more to do with good jobs than education does. If you know you have them already, where does fear come in?

            We all want our lives to be comfortable and nice; if you’ve taken care of the baser needs, you’re pursuing endeavors at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. Not having your kids hanging around all the time seems to be an important precondition for self-actualization for a lot of people.

            A lot of parents don’t find parenting inherently fulfilling, and find ways to avoid it (honestly, I’m kind of glad I’m not them). Most middle-class people say they need their kids out of the house so both parents can work. Even if both parents don’t have to work, many stay at home parents find other activities (volunteer work, parties, travel, etc.) more fulfilling than hanging out with their kids. It’s not me, maybe it’s not you, but a lot of people, once money is not a concern, find their kids in the way of their fun.

            If it’s the way you grew up, you may have a lot of wonderful memories of boarding school and think nothing of shipping your kids off as early as nine. Hang out with the blue-bloods sometime and all the stories come out.

            The kids can have a comfortable and nice life too at a well-catered boarding school, and when they come visit you can have fabulous vacations in your summer house on Nantucket or a ski vacation at Deer Valley. Quality Time, they call that. It’s outsourcing parenting to the extreme. I don’t see it as an unreasonable choice, though it’s not mine (I prefer Quantity Time).

            As for whether your kids can make good connections in college, having skipped formal education until then, of course they can. Being part of the upper middle class is defined by having a really good job. College credentials and connections should be sufficient for that; they were for me.

            I have a friend who went through an entire elite education track from Pre-K through college on scholarship. Everybody was very nice to her, but in the end those still aren’t her people; she went back to her life and they went on with theirs. I’m sure there’s more to it than she’s comfortable talking about. The point of mentioning it is that the wrong networking opportunities won’t do you any good at all.

            I am of the distinct impression that trying to keep up with the joneses at an elite prep school could be crushing and dispiriting for a middle-class kid. We have a fundamental societal myth of upward mobility here, despite the stats, but in my experience there’s nothing more disliked among the elite than a social climber. I received my share of snubs over the years, enough from college chums with boarding school backgrounds to know that wouldn’t really have been fun for me.

            Appreciate what it is that you _can_ give your kids. No amount of wealth could buy a mother like you.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Thanks for responding… these are tough questions that I have to think through. Like your son, my daughter would not be well-served in *any* sort of formalized schooling at this age. But it’s so hard to find others to have a frank discussion with about this topic.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Ugh, yeah, there are people that I know who do this… they never see their kids… but I’m the crazy one for homeschooling. I just don’t want to interrogate them about it and was just looking for an answer from someone here, and you have gone above and beyond in your response, and I very much appreciate it. I think perhaps, west coast and east coast are very different. It’s very easy to social climb if you want to here.

        Here is what I’m shaping our unschooling experience to be, thanks to Anne who I think shared the link in another post and many thanks to John Taylor Gatto.

        I think if my curriculum involves these things (John Taylor Gatto’s 14 Themes of the Elite Private School Curriculum) then they will be prepared for anything.

        1. A theory of human nature (as embodied in history, philosophy, theology, literature and law).

        2. Skill in the active literacies (writing, public speaking).

        3. Insight into the major institutional forms (courts, corporations, military, education).

        4. Repeated exercises in the forms of good manners and politeness; based on the truth that politeness and civility are the foundation of all future relationships, all future alliances, and access to places that you might want to go.

        5. Independent work.

        6. Energetic physical sports are not a luxury, or a way to “blow off steam,” but they are absolutely the only way to confer grace on the human presence, and that that grace translates into power and money later on. Also, sports teach you practice in handling pain, and in dealing with emergencies.

        7. A complete theory of access to any place and any person.

        8. Responsibility as an utterly essential part of the curriculum; always to grab responsibility when it is offered and always to deliver more than is asked for.

        9. Arrival at a personal code of standards (in production, behavior and morality).

        10. To have a familiarity with, and to be at ease with, the fine arts. (cultural capital)

        11. The power of accurate observation and recording. For example, sharpen the perception by being able to draw accurately.

        12. The ability to deal with challenges of all sorts.

        13. A habit of caution in reasoning to conclusions.

        14. The constant development and testing of prior judgements: you make judgements, you discriminate value, and then you follow up and “keep an eye” on your predictions to see how far skewed, or how consistent, your predictions were.

        • DB
          DB says:

          YMKAS – I love this list! It seems like 13/14 are really describing an appreciation and full understanding of the scientific method. Which, when you think about it, is the only reason humanity has made any progress whatsoever. :-)

    • Jen
      Jen says:

      Obviously I’m not Penelope, but regarding #2, the main purposes of any elite private school appear to be networking and exclusivity. This applies to fancy K-12 prep schools as well as, say, the Ivy League.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        So… are networking opportunities completely lost by not being a part of that environment for day one? Or is that just a parenting fear?

        • Hannah
          Hannah says:

          You might want to check out the documentary Born Rich, and you will see how ludicrously insecure these billionaire young adults are.

          Based on my personal experience, a smart, young person can network into most groups with relative ease up until MBAs, marriage, and babies take over, but not being in from day one means that you have to make a conscious decision to work yourself in instead of a conscious decision to opt out.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            You may be right that some super wealthy rich kids are insecure, probably a lot aren’t. Just like kids from any class… some are, some aren’t.

            What is interesting is that my husband can network himself into anything, like being on the executive track. He really sets himself a part from all the other MIT nerds he works with. (and I mean nerd with all love and respect… I’m a nerd) So I think it takes more than being smart, and capable… but you are on the right track.

        • jessica
          jessica says:

          Ok, I’ll admit it
          I put my 4 year old through the testing and rigor to be accepted to a top private school in manhattan. He was accepted to two. He went.

          We made excellent friends with other parents that made the same choice for their kids.

          All of the parents were educated and competent. The kids, for the most part, well adjusted.

          It was as much about networking for the parents as it was for the children’s social sphere.

          We didn’t not care about our futures or our children’s futures. Private schooling gave us a pretty good network of similar income and similar interests amongst our group of friends.

          And I think it would surprise people that most of the families were pretty down to earth.

  7. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I think the biggest fundamental misconception we have to unlearn when we leave school behind is:

    I have to plan out my child’s studies.

    Almost all schools work through planning out curricula and telling kids what to study and when. They do this not because it’s the best way for children to learn but because it’s the best way to control mobs of children.

    Schools have kid-mob control down pat. That’s their core competency. Curricula, desks, permission slips, peer pressure, authoritarian teachers, etc. are part of that control. Schools gain the ability to make large groups of kids kind of pay attention most of the day, and preserve the image of progress. But we homeschoolers do not need either the control or the image, and our goals should be different. In exchange for relative calm in a classroom with 30 kids in it, schools pay huge costs in enthusiasm, fascination, and fulfillment. We do not need to pay those costs.

    I like math. I like to share math with my son, who also likes math. On the other hand, my son hates handwriting. Someone else’s ten year old might love handwriting and hate math. It really doesn’t matter in the long run. When and if my son feels he needs better handwriting, he’ll learn it. When and if the other kid feels he’ll need math, he’ll learn it. In school, it is forced, because that’s the system. At home, neither one of us really has to plan this, and we would lose a lot if we felt like we had to.

    Likewise, I don’t really have to have an over-arching plan to cover history, rhetoric, grammar, foreign languages, math, writing, science… We talk about or study things as they come up, and if he feels later that he missed something, he will have the skills to take care of it himself.

    The new Scientific American came, and the boy sat down with it eagerly. Black holes! Epigenetics! Pathogens! I could plan a curriculum and make him sit down at a certain time and study it, but it would be a massive waste of our time. He’ll learn better science from reading current magazines than he would from me or forty year old textbooks.

    What’s keeping my son up at night these days is musical theater. I have to pull him away from his songbook and tell him to go to bed. He sings beautifully and loves his rehearsals.

    Did I need to put that in a curriculum? Did I need to plan that out for him? Do I need to plan whether he’s going to continue with that in the fall or next year? Do I need to tell him to stop and do math instead? No on all counts. What I have to do is find opportunities for him to pursue his interests.

    Maybe next year it’s botany, or guitar. But the most important thing he’ll learn next year is that it’s great to be eleven. That much is in my curriculum for him.

    • mh
      mh says:

      “But the most important thing he’ll learn next year is that it’s great to be eleven. ”

      This is exactly right.

      Commenter, I’ve used a couple of your comments this summer with family members who are skeptical about homeschool — thanks for takng the time to write.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        MH, I’ve appreciated many of your comments too.

        I always find something to think about here, and I’m glad my thoughts have hit the mark sometimes.

        Penelope’s posts, and the thoughtful comments they receive, have helped me understand better what I’m doing. My comments wouldn’t be here without yours.

    • Amy B
      Amy B says:

      Commenter- this response reads something like a homeschooling manifesto!
      I love it, and I’m thinking I’ll print it and hang it on the fridge. I’m truly thankful for the community that Penelope provides here. I’m realizing more and more that this journey is a bit like giving birth. Each birth is it’s own, as is each incarnation of this thing we call homeschooling. I feel like PT is my personal umbilical cord as I grow this body of knowledge and gain confidence to survive on my own as a new homeschooling mum.

  8. Alicia
    Alicia says:

    I just really love the part about video games – that is so true! What if we had been able to text on our phones before we could call? We would all be saying, “Why would you actually want to talk to someone, you would both have to be available at the same time, and coordinating that would be such a hassle”.

  9. Academia Oposiciones
    Academia Oposiciones says:

    I believe that there is indeed mathematical processes that after all not necessarily serve to perform professional life, because never actually put into practice.
    The good thing about mathematics is that it reinforces other learning, such as the insistence to practice and challenge the ability to study, to think practically. The erratic thing of learning mathematics is when it can frustrate the child.

  10. Adia
    Adia says:

    can someone post the link to the video she describes in #2. I’m not finding it on that site and i’d love to watch it!

  11. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    If a parent has come to the conclusion of taking their child out of school, they have definitely revisited some of their assumptions about children, learning and “education”. For some, this would involve a process of “deprogramming”. For others, they might have just wanted something “different” for their child. In whatever way they came to this decision, their child will benefit.

    Penelope often describes school as baby-sitting. For those of us who are familiar with all of the negatives of school (especially public school) this might seem self-evident. But I don’t think it is fair to assume everyone who sends their kids to school is doing so because they just need a place for their children to be while they work. Many (most?) parents of school children really do think school is where kids (are suppose to learn?) learn the basics and “essential” subjects.

    Other than the “socialization” concern I think most parents don’t consider homeschooling for a few reasons: the time commitment, the reduction to one income, the self-doubt in “teaching subjects”. I can definitely sympathize with the income component, especially with taxes as high as they are now. I think if parents really understood how child learn and retain what they learn then the other two reasons (besides socialization) would fade away.

    Penelope has done a good job of linking to articles on the subject of learning, discussing her views on learning and demonstrating through personal example with her children of how they go about learning.

    The fundamental draw of unschooling for me is that it respects the volition of the child. Children should be free to pursue their values – as long as they don’t hurt themselves or others. It is through this pursuit of values (including parents explaining things to them) that children learn. The tie with a value is what makes learning real to children and why they can easily retain the information associated with the value. Think about that. Try remembering all of the pursuits you had as a child, that were outside of school, and completely of your own choosing. What kind of feelings do you remember about this pursuit? What additional things to you learn while pursuing this value that were also applicable to other areas of life? If you didn’t make those connections at the time, imagine if you had a parent that could help you do so, along with being supportive in your particular value pursuit. That would be a hell of a bond that would develop between parent and child.

    Aquinas Heard

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