Thi, my connection to the world of high schoolers, told me that she did not get a high enough score on her SAT. So her mom took away her phone. Thi’s score was 2180 which is the 98th percentile, but the score was not good enough for her mom.

Later Thi said she thinks her mom wants her to go to an Ivy League school. But only for bragging rights.

And I thought, “Of course. That’s what all parents want.”

I adore Thi. She is tutoring my son in biology (over Skype) and guest blogging (on my blog), and having scintillating conversations with me over email (well, at least I think they are scintillating) so I think her parents did a great job.

But these are not clear-cut measurements. And there is no universal seal of approval to identify good parenting. So I can understand her parents wanting clear cut measurements. We do so much for our kids, give up so much of our lives to making their lives good. So of course we want some way to judge our parenting.

Sometimes I look for signs in the New York Times for what might be benchmarks I can hold myself up to. I like that this article about standards for parenting says homeschooling moms on farms in Wisconsin make impossible mom standards for everyone. Does that mean I’m a winner? Because then that photo of my son walking his calf is sort of my victory lap.

Or maybe the cow is just a cow and parent victories are more of a class thing. For some people good parenting is getting the kid out of a war zone.  Some religious people judge good parenting by how assiduously their kids follow the rules of the religion. Some parents feel like they’ve accomplished something big if their kid is the first in the family to go to college.

Amy Chua wrote a whole book about how Asian and Jewish parents judge whether they are good parents by how prestigious a college their kids attend. Which might explain why Thi and I understand the language of Ivy League bragging rights.

Then I thought to myself, “If I’m being honest, I am looking for bragging rights, too.”

But what will they be? I don’t think I’m trying to get either son into an Ivy League school. The Ivy League doesn’t have the type of music program my youngest son aspires to.

And my older son knows he wants to go to a school with an astrobiology major, and he knows he doesn’t want to do anything that is not a requirement to meet that goal. I sniffed around for a list of the best undergraduate programs for astrobiology and I found this list, which includes no Ivy League schools.

My son could go to Harvard and major in biology, but frankly when I heard from Thi what her high-performer friends are doing to get into an Ivy League pre-med program, I told myself to forget it. (Example: There’s a two-year waiting list to get an internship at hospitals in her region because all the kids want to stack up summer internships to bolster their applications.)

So then I was thinking, “What am I doing?”

Then it hit me: I’m unschooling. I did not teach my oldest son math until he was twelve. I did not teach my younger son to read. Ever. And they are both at grade level. And I think I can keep this up, letting them play video games for a huge part of each day, letting them structure their own time and make their own priorities.

So my bragging rights will be that my kids did whatever they wanted to do, and they got into the same schools that everyone else’s kids who went to school eight hours a day got into. That’s how I see it, at least.

So that must be why I like Thi so much. I am like her mom. I put my kid’s education as a top priority, and I want accolades for doing that.


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38 replies
  1. BenK
    BenK says:

    As a Harvard alum now interviewing students for Harvard, cookie cutter internships don’t do much for one’s chances. They may help with attaining medical school afterwards; that’s a distinct process.

  2. Tenzing Thinley
    Tenzing Thinley says:

    After 9 months of traveling globally as a family I am changing and coming to some of the following realizations as a parent:

    Here’s how I think you can be a good parent:
    1) Provide the kids with a foundation of love. Not math, not reading, not anything else. Out of this love will come their own creativity, their own curiosity and discipline. Forced discipline never works.
    2) Be a rebel as both an educator and as a parent. By this I mean doubt and teach your children to doubt. Doubt what has been taught to you, doubt your own education, doubt a school curriculum, question the actual objective of your child’s education, stop shoving down beliefs and societal teachings that you yourself clearly do not understand(how cruel is that?). Doubt begins a search, begins their curiosity, begins learning and begins the formation of their own truth.
    3) Teach them awareness and how to be happy, not disneyland happy but inner core happy. By observing ego, being aware, compassion and inner confidence.
    3) Memorization is not intelligence. Consciousness is intelligence.
    4) Teach them that with competition comes with a great deal of hypocrisy.
    5) Teach them that in this day and age, information is universally available. Teach them the difference between living a life by answering to someone else’s expectations with a certificate or degree or answering to one’s own calling.
    6) Last but not least to be a good parent one must fix yourself. Fix yourself from all the hypocrisies you feel by unlearning all that was wrong, remove yourself from a lifestyle that causes you nothing but anguish, remove clutter in the brain and in life. Fix yourself before you end up harming your own child’s future.

  3. Niels
    Niels says:

    I think your greatest source of pride could be that you got out of the way. Your kids did it because you let them. No force feeding, no forcing anything. And they ran with it. You have brilliant kids. Perhaps they have great IQs, but that’s not what I mean. They are brilliant because they took the opportunity and ran with it.

    This is really great to read. You be proud!

  4. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    To be clear, Cornell is in the Ivy League.
    I love this post, and wish more parents would realize that getting out of the way and letting their children go are the two hardest things we have to do.

    • Michele
      Michele says:

      My first thought while reading the article was “Cornell doesn’t have that program?” because of their motto “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        You might want to look at the detailed course composition in the Astrobiology undergraduate programs – there is a considerable “explosion” in more or less exotic programs going on because they attract students. Not all colleges follow this trend. The majority of these programs use 80% of already existing classes/labs/projects and offer maybe one or two in (for example) astrobiology. The rest will be bio, chem, physics, astronomy etc. and is based on courses already offered and just assembled in a different order. Usually the “exotic” undergraduate majors come to be because one or two faculty members are hired who specialize in the field and can offer the one or two specialized astrobiology classes. It is by no means necessary to get an astrobiology B.S. degree to work in the field. Check out the education of eminent scientists in the field – I would bet that not one has an UG degree in Astrobiology. Similarly with other relatively small specialties.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            nice article – it is not quite as extreme but there is a kernel of truth in it. I liked this one:
            “Germans rarely beat around the bush. German workers will directly speak to a manager about performance reviews, launch into a business meeting without any ‘icebreakers’, and use commanding language without softening the directives with polite phrases” – I think I might have not quite mastered this cultural switch yet…

  5. redrock
    redrock says:

    Astrobiology is a pretty narrow specialty and can be served well by going to any reasonable college which gives a good science education. Then specialize in grad school. So the choices are much broader then you think. And I think that the pre-med craze is just for appearance and prestige – most of those kid will never end up in med school (at least that is my hope.. since I doubt they will all make great doctors).

  6. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    A lot of the examples you gave are less about being a good parent and more about feeling good as a parent.

    My dad always fought a feeling that he was just a dumb hillbilly, as he was from a small mountain town in West Virginia and had just a high-school education.

    So he had a singular purpose as a dad: see his kids went to college. He succeeded spectacularly. My brother graduated from Notre Dame, and I graduated from Rose-Hulman, a tough engineering school. Mission accomplished. Dad cried at my graduation.

    Was he a good parent? Well, not by every measure. Dad was like pretty much every other more-or-less normal parent — really good in some ways, terrible in others. But he felt like a good parent because he got his kids through college.

    • Cay
      Cay says:

      Can’t agree with you more, Jim.

      My parents were all right, but I wasn’t treated very well until I entered a graduate program that my parents could brag about. I was treated even better when I got married to a professional.

      I continue to reap the benefits of making my parents feel good, but it’s been a ridiculous path to the kind of love and respect that I believe children should have from the beginning, not have to earn.

      My husband and I ended up in a similar place, but his parents treated him with a stunning amount of love and respect throughout his lifetime. They gave him unconditional love.

      In the big scheme of things, I guess that both of our parents did a pretty good job. The difference is that my parents likely think that they were good because I accomplished certain things. My husband’s parents likely just know that they were good.

  7. C.A. Lewis-McCarren
    C.A. Lewis-McCarren says:

    The tutoring over Skype says it all……. I have home educated since 1995 and from my perspective you are brilliant in your approach for EVEYTHING you are doing for yourself/family/kids. Not perfect. Not easy. Not “normal”….and definitely not conformist. I read somewhere this week about thinking outside the box…… You can’t think outside the box, because in truth, there is NO box!!!!!!! Amazing when we allow ourselves to be bold enough to move to that next level.

    Happy (great school, great (???? Fill in the blank)doesn’t always = healthy. Healthy can be uncomfortable and unfamiliar at times, but there is always this gut feeling it is on the path of “right”. I think you know what I mean.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    How do I know I’m a good parent? – from the title of this post. I don’t think you’ll ever know. That’s what makes you a good parent in my estimation. I know my parents were asking themselves that question to the end of their lives here on earth. One of the reasons I and my siblings have them in our thoughts to this day. The last sentence in this post – “I put my kid’s education as a top priority, and I want accolades for doing that.” As you know your kids education is never ending as life-long learners. Higher education, wherever they get it, doesn’t end once they get their degree(s). I think it’s important to get comfortable with the fact that you’ll never ever “know”. The cultural, political, education, career, etc. landscapes are constantly changing. They always have been and will continue to do so. The best thing I can think of is to teach your kids how to adapt to life’s challenges as they are encountered.

  9. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    My parents never set a burden of having to achieve xyz.
    Maybe they did a few missteps here and there. But their biggest goal to make sure we felt loved and that we had the grit to face life, the faith to take refuge when nothing makes sense.

    I got the grit and I am so wobbly on the faith front. But they got enough for me I guess.

    That to me is the same definition of what a good parent is. But it’s possible that my shortcomings hurt my kids so bad and I never really notice that they’ll carry so much hurt forever in their lives.

    I want bragging rights of course. That’s what facebook is for. To make everyone jealous of your pretend-awesome-life ;). But I want more than anything happy children and to live to 103 to have coffee with cream and sugar just one more day every day.

    • Cay
      Cay says:

      I love this. You sound like an awesome mom.

      I, too, dream of raising happy children, living past 100, and having sweets because I’ve tried life without sweets and it is not for me :)

    • TLH
      TLH says:

      This feels so true. We all start at different points when we become parents. Some of us had great examples to learn from. Some had bad examples or none at all. Some of us can give our kids the world and some of us struggle to meet their basic needs.

      I think I’ll feel success if my kids feel that I loved them enough. There are other things we can give – time, opportunity – and other ways we can measure ourselves, but the thing that matters most to me is that my kids really know how much I love them.

  10. Penny
    Penny says:

    This is our philosophy. It’s the homeschooler’s way of sticking it to the Man:

    “So my bragging rights will be that my kids did whatever they wanted to do, and they got into the same schools that everyone else’s kids who went to school eight hours a day got into.”

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I liked that sentence so much as well!

      I think my bragging rights, or whatever, will be that my kids were allowed to live authentically with freedom to learn about whatever they wished without coercion, while still learning how to navigate in the world and make a worthy contribution to society.

  11. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Bragging rights! Great topic.

    At my first job I was hired alongside tons of coworkers from Oxford & Cambridge (UK’s ivy league). I held my own and did well so had great bragging rights because I came from a university no-one had heard of (it used to be a polytechnic) and my department didn’t even exist anymore (shut down from lack of funds).

    So personally I roll my eyes at ivy league bragging rights. C’mon Penelope, aim higher! How about your kids do whatever they want to do, go to whichever schools they want to,then go onto do work where they employ all the ivy league kids?!

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The ivy league schools are no doubt very good schools for many reasons. One of them is the network established with peers with which you go to school with and the school alumni. That one has to be near the top of the list if used effectively. However, now that we’re in the Social Age, Relationship Age, etc. where PLN’s can readily be established with some effort with the aid of technology and the Internet, that advantage of the ivy league isn’t as great as it was just a decade ago.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      It’s crazy how many stories I hear, in person, how stanford or caltech et al recruit my fellow unschoolers kids’. It’s also amazing to me how “in the box” these schools still are. If they really want forward-thinking unschoolers that badly then they need to get more outside the box.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        what would you consider for out of the box with Caltech or Stanford? They have a lot of faculty who do not follow the well trodden paths intellectually.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I have a few ideas that I’m going to wait to share for the appropriate post :) but it’s not so much the professors as it is the administration.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        There’s a recently published book titled ‘Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life’ by William Deresiewicz. It’s currently the #1 best seller in Amazon’s ‘Philosophy and Social Aspects of Education’ category. A good review of the book which includes hyperlinks of other reviews of the book was recently published by Pacific Standard magazine and authored by Texas State University professor James McWilliams. It’s available online.

  13. MBL
    MBL says:

    This sounds trite, but I think the bragging rights that I would be most proud of would be if my daughter were to grow up and answer the question
    “What bragging rights do you think your mother aspired to have?”


    “What on earth are you talking about? She wanted what was best for me, for me.”

    If I can pull that off then someone should nominate me for an Oscar.

  14. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Thanks for the Thi update! I hope in the future she and her mom will be able to have a better relationship than the one they seem to have now.

  15. Kats
    Kats says:

    Being a good parent to my son has meant flexibility, relaxation, and trust in my son’s development. (This has been a learning process for me!) I learned to not get locked into one solution, when there hasn’t been one. Right now he is 13, a leader, doing well in school, happy and self-directed, with a positive self-esteem. He attended two different Waldorf-oriented schools from K-5, which gave him a love of nature, art, and the real as opposed to virtual experience. He was home-schooled for two years, which helped him develop his passions further. He requested to go back for 8th grade to our local public middle school, where he is doing extremely well on all levels, learning how to take tests, explore computers, make friends, and negotiate a large school. My bragging rights are that he is happy, knows what he wants, is loved by many and has good friends. Any schools he chooses will be those that continue his process as a young man. I think in our culture we focus too much on the school and the grades, and not enough on the personal development!!

    • C.A. Lewis-McCarren
      C.A. Lewis-McCarren says:


      It is evident that you HAVE been very mindful about your son and how his “education” in life is more than just tests, grades and that he is more than just a GPA competing with others. I have found in my own journey that focusing so much on these “indicators of potential/success” that they are nothing but a distraction from focusing on the whole child/person and that they do set subtle limits – even if they are not really noticeable in everyday life.

      It is encouraging to know that parents are beginning to see beyond what they are taught/told is the acceptable “norm” in raising a child. It isn’t all about sckrool….it is all about giving that individual child the room to discover and develop into the person they are to become and also realizing that each of us has much to give to this world – passion and purpose should always be paramount in how we approach anything in life. Teach and exemplify this to a child and they will bloom.

      Penelope is a great example of what this looks like in REAL LIFE. It is all great and fine to see this written down nicely organized in steps, with great pictures of perfect moments….. I think that this blog does an excellent job of promoting real life as it is and that it isn’t perfect – far from it. HOWEVER, having the confidence (or sometimes having none but doing it anyway) is what gets us results and authenticity in what we are doing. I for one and happy to see the wounds, bad choices and horrific crash-n-burns in my past – because I know I was LIVING and doing my best at that place and time to be the best parent I could.

      Kudos to you….but better yet, those hugs and looks of confidence from your children are the priceless gift you will have forever.



  16. Kats
    Kats says:

    Thanks for your acknowledgment and validation that it doesn’t have to all be “perfect” to do well at the job of parenting.

    I agree that Penelope’s site is a real example of being flexible and allowing “mistakes” to be part of the whole wonderful and confusing picture of parenting.

    I read this website frequently over the past two years, when I was homeschooling my own son, and so fearful, sometimes, that I was not “doing enough” to prepare him for life and school. The private school we took him out of, thought little of our homeschooling.

    This year, as we were searching for high schools, we just got tired of the search for the “perfect” school (some coming with the price-tag of $40k, which he would have needed a scholarship for!) My husband and I realized that our son already had a sense of direction, and would do well anywhere. (Our local public school is good, as schools go, and our son wants to go to school.) Our son wants to go local and wants to have room for all the things he loves. These include cooking, 4-H, mountain biking, sports, a business he started, volunteer work with the homeless, and helping with the younger kids in the neighborhood (which he is very talented with).
    He did not decide local until he had an opportunity to explore the other private schools, and realized that they all involved tests and test preparation. He decided his life, now, was more fulfilling and he didn’t want to spend his time preparing for a test. We support him in this.

    Raising a young person has underlined the fact that life is about change. Something good one day, may be deplorable the next!

  17. Teryn
    Teryn says:

    I think being a good parent is about knowing and learning your individual child. It’s about supporting them through all the different stages of life. I don’t think it has anything to do with our children’s successes or failures. Some of the kindest people I know had tragic abusive childhoods. I also know addicts with the most loving of families. I wish our society would stop defining good parenting based on choices children make and look at reality. The only behavior that matters for being a good parent is that of the parents themselves.

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