Fitting in is important

Research is turning up more and more data to support the idea that people become addicted to drugs because of the environment they are in. And it’s compiled nicely in Johann Hari’s  book, Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the War on Drugs.

It turns out that an dull, depressing environment — in many different scenarios — encourages addiction. But if you solve for the environmental problems, at least in mice, the propensity for addiction disappears.

What’s most surprising is that in a good environment the mice can stop their own addiction. So when it comes to addiction, it’s not you, it’s your cage.

I saved this article because I knew I’d use it on this blog. It strikes me as the first step in uncovering evidence that ADHD is also not about the kid but about the cage. If you put kids in the right environment for them, they would stop their ADHD behaviors. Just like mice behave nicely in a nice cage.

But I’ve been thinking lately about fitting in. How much I like fitting in. I have always thought that trying to stand out for NOT fitting in is a luxury for people who always feel like they DO fit in.

My favorite example of this is that the brides who spend the most time and money on their wedding are the ones who love the idea of a wedding and a spectacle and a tradition-bound event, and they are also the ones who spend the most time “making it special” and customizing the ceremony by writing vows, making movies to show the guests, whatever.

When I married my husband I had to try extra hard to make things look like a normal wedding.

I was so happy when I saw my son in orchestra and he was holding a violin over his face so I can’t take a picture. Great. I want him to do what the other kids do.

Homeschooling makes me think especially hard about fitting in. If nothing else, my kids are not really the ones choosing the alternative path, outside of school. I chose that. I’m the one who initially decided that is okay for us. And now my kids find themselves outsiders all the time in a world full of school kids. I don’t want them to have to be more alternative than they have to be. I want them to have a choice.

I find myself hoping for institutional acceptance. Now I know what people meant when they wanted gay rights so they could married just to be like everyone else. Yes, the right to be by your loved one’s bedside at the hospital is very important, but so is institutional acknowledgment just for acknowledgment’s sake.

Because humans are fundamentally social. It’s why a good cage can solve a bad problem. Social support systems work. Community support works. And being part of an officially recognized part of society feels enlivening.

This is why the bi-racial ads from Cheerios and the two-dad ads from Honey Maid are such a hit. People like social inclusion. It matters to us.

It’s why the movement to recognize the contribution of veterans when they return home is so important. Today we work on fitting war veterans back into the social fabric through programs from companies like or Bradley-Morris – companies that ease veterans back into an environment where they feel supported and valued.

I’m realizing in all this that I’ll feel good when I feel supported in my environment. I know that right now I have to be an iconoclast to be a homeschooler. It’s why the community right here on this blog feels so good. But it’s also why I’ll be so happy when Kraft has a commercial about unschoolers explaining why they don’t learn math and they eat mac and cheese every day for lunch because they can make it themselves.

47 replies
  1. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    This post just reaffirmed why I read your blog. You are so so honest. You can articulate so well what the real challenges of homeschooling, and work life are, and you tell them in a way that is personal, and vivid, and true. It must not always be easy to be at home with your kids all day, for you or them, but you have made a decision that is best for your family, and you are sticking to your guns, but by no means do you have your head buried in the sand. I think you are at your best when you reveal the truths about where you are at in your life right now and I thank you for that.

  2. Heather A
    Heather A says:

    Thank you, as always, for your honesty and insights. As a isolated unschooler (who has recently started stocking the pantry with mac n cheese because my 5 year old enjoys making it herself) your blog, and the community around it give me a much needed sense of fitting in.

  3. Emily
    Emily says:

    Love this post! I am always struggling with whether or not to homeschool my child because I know what it is like to never fit in with all the other kids who attend school. I was homeschooled in the 90s. Kids can be cruel to anything and anyone different from their own experiences, and their parents can be, too. It will be a great day when Kraft has a commercial about unschoolers.

  4. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    My co-workers in the twenties amaze me, with the city-living, going it without a car, and the tolerance towards all races, genders and sexual orientation to name just a few things. But they do not seem to be embracing home-schooling, at least now now, before they have kids. The response I get is, “Oh I knew some, but they were weird.”

    All the people I do know of who home-school are Gen X’ers like me, or slightly younger.

    Maybe millenials will be the parents that change public schools for real? They are the institution lovers. Or maybe when they start having kids, home-school will look like a good idea.

    I can’t wait to see what happens.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I think that generation Y will want to see actual examples of many successful homeschoolers, other than celebrities, famous athletes, rich people or child prodigies. Especially since they do not have kids, it’s a more challenging conversation for them to have since they will need to hypothesize about a life they do not yet have. Or you will need someone like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Zuck, you know…someone huge to homeschool their own children and TALK about it.

      Gen X has a tendency to not care at all about what others are doing. Gen Y cares *too* much in my opinion.

      • Teryn
        Teryn says:

        I see how there could be some truth to the article on addiction. I have a friend who works with the homeless who says that the stereotype of homeless struggling with addiction is true. Even if they didn’t have addiction issues previously that environment and social outcast life tends to becomes a catalyst leading them to try to numb themselves. At the same time I struggled with the article. I think it’s because I found myself picturing the wives, husbands, children, and parents I know whose hearts are broken by their family members addiction. To state that if the addict just felt more connected or loved that they would never have succumb to drugs not only seems disrespectful but also seems to simplify the problem. There’s no doubt in my mind that human connection matters. Just as Heather stated about ADHD though, I think there are biological as well as environmental issues involved with addiction. The complexity of the illness is what makes it so difficult to treat.

  5. kursten schwarz
    kursten schwarz says:

    Thank you.
    This is my favorite post in a long time because it speaks to everything in my life, for my 5 partially homeschooled kids… and for me.
    Seeing this topic addressed makes me feel like we do fit in somewhere, because if you’re writing about it it’s not just us….Which is why this is the one blog I read, and where I look first for a moment of peace.

  6. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I love the idea about a good cage solves the problem. And I appreciate why my dad worked so hard to find “the right church ” for us when we were kids. It wasn’t about doctrine or theology. He wanted us to have a really good environment to hang out. And it worked.

    Also, I just have to say that I’m religious about healthy nutrition just so I can eat mac and cheese from the box and have a strong enough immune system that won’t take a hit when I eat processed food and cake and alcohol.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      My preference is to be cage-free… even the eggs I buy must only be from cage-free chickens.

          • karelys
            karelys says:

            I gotta brag about my egg lady (that I don’t even know the name) you guys!

            I could eat eggs three times a day. I just love organic eggs. So yellow and rich.

            Anyway, they’re cheaper than regular store eggs. And definitely cheaper than organic store eggs.

            Which makes me laugh because healthy eating was supposed to be expensive. And homeschooling used to be for those who had money to afford it. And we’re doing both and we’re not wealthy at all.

  7. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    That article that said it had identified the cause of addiction reached me earlier this week. I liked that it said that human connection is often the solution to addiction — that recognizes the sickness-of-the-spirit component to addiction. Healthy, happy, connected people may very well not tend to turn to substances or food or porn in maladaptive ways because their spirits are satisfied.

    But I’m not sure that restoring healthy human connection to an addict is the sure-fire way to cure them, at least not instantly, because those addictive pathways they created are burrowed deep, like ruts in the highway that your car tends to naturally fall into. Perhaps human connection is a part of the healing, but learning better ways to cope has got to be another.

  8. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I work with a fellow who was homeschooled. One data point doesn’t mean a ton but one thing I do notice is that he doesn’t naturally fall into the conformity of interaction that many of the rest of us do. I’ve often wondered if our conformity of interaction is heavily created by our common school experience; that’s where we learned how to be in groups. This homeschooled fellow is sharp and capable but has some traits that feel like rough edges, to me at least — behaviors that don’t fit in. They’re not antisocial behaviors or jackass behaviors or character flaws, really, just some behaviors that say hey, this dude was never normalized like the rest of us, if that makes sense.

    But I’m not 13 anymore. I don’t shun the different, I bear with it. And I wonder how much more interesting work would be if none of us were normalized by school, and we were all a little bit different like that.

      • Zellie
        Zellie says:

        Yeah, me too. Some people absorb that social aspect better than others. I’m still boggled by human behavior and motivations and how other people are reading me and one another.

      • Melissa
        Melissa says:

        I was thinking the same! Must be an INTJ thing :)

        Makes me contemplate just how much anti-social is behavior displayed in school. Like, if my work life were like my high school, I should expect to be sexually harassed every time I walk to and from the parking lot.

    • Zellie
      Zellie says:

      The hardest thing for me in normal circles is knowing that people don’t mean what they say and don’t think I do. It’s more comfortable to be with a crowd that hasn’t refined the art of saying what people are supposed to say. How can people build relationships on that?

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I always say what I mean. There is no in-between the lines with me either. Apparently I missed the day of school where they taught people the social skills of nuance, obscure sarcasm and doublespeak.

    • Cay
      Cay says:

      I went to public school. Although I always had friends, I never felt like I fit in.

      This is a big reason why I want to homeschool when I have children. I know how much energy it takes to fit in when you are stuck in a seven hour system designed for… whatever. And how big the opportunity costs are in the long run.

      The point I’d like to bring up is that going to public school did not teach me how to fit in (I reacted to the system by skipping class, getting into trouble, and graduating early). Rather, it taught me that I would never fit into a “normal” system.

      You can’t “normalize” someone who isn’t “normal”, and in most circumstances, anyone who has an intelligence level of a couple standard deviations away from the average won’t fit into the category that people think is “normal”. To compound that issue, I am an INFJ, statistically among the rarest personality types. I was never naturally going to think/act like the majority.

      In my case, it would have been much better if I had received a more specialized education that included teaching the social skills I needed in a way I understood — rather than threatening me with punishment for not doing things that did not make logical sense to me.

      That said, there are countless ways to homeschool/unschool, but it is only one factor among several that could help explain nonconformity. Consider culture, gender, age, race, religion, politics, socioeconomic status, etc.

      For the record, I am pretty good at fitting in when I want to, and school did not teach me how to do it. It happened through years of experience and self-directed learning.

  9. Kina
    Kina says:

    We have been thrown into homeschooling due to a series of very unfortunate situations. Even though I have found “under-the-radar” places in NYC to take my now homeschooled kid to go to, learn, and interact – I feel very lonely despite the very nice community of homeschooling parents here. Here’s the strange thing: when my kid was in school, I never felt the urge to connect with the parents; Now that I can no longer go back to the past status quo of institutionalized fitting in I want place to fit in.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Hi! I’m Jessica, we are in NY, and we unschool our kids. One is 7, the other is 2. Let’s meet up!

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            LOL! I’m sure I could convince my husband to move to NYC after we vest our SpaceX stock options. ;) No brainer… plus I love ordering food instead of cooking. We will be visiting at some point so maybe we could arrange something. :) Go through Penelope and add me to the email..just because I’m nosy.

  10. Heather Bathon
    Heather Bathon says:

    I gotta weigh in on the ADHD part of this post – unfortunately, changing the cage doesn’t change the kid with ADHD, any more than changing the cage of a diabetic improves insulin resistance. That kind of statement is unnecessarily provocative.
    Homeschooled / unschooled kids with ADHD may be in an environment better suited to accommodate their behavioral and emotional issues, but their neurology is what it is. There is much more to ADHD than being hyper or unable to sit still.
    To learn more, try this:


    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I used to work with a man that had either ADD or ADHD. Pretty sure it was the later.

      His job was very reactionary. Lots of physical and outdoor time. Lots of things to keep track of. And other than reporting back to me on a few things he didn’t have anyone hovering over him to handle his time properly.

      He didn’t use medication. He said that he purposefully chose jobs that would accommodate to him in this manner.

      I felt so happy when he told me that. For a long time Aspergers was maladaptive. Until the needs of our civilization made those traits coveted in many work environments. As the economy changes and work changes I am sure that certain personality and neurological traits go from problematic to gifts.

      I have wondered for a long time if this is what it’s like or if it’s too reductive to be a useful theory.

      Changing the cage has worked for a couple diabetic friends I know. Type 1, no insulin, perfectly healthy. So I am hoping that this is true as well for ADHD because if it is then that’d be amazing!

      • heather Bathon
        heather Bathon says:

        ‘Changing the cage has worked to keep your diabetes type 1 friends off of insulin’ – either you’re extending the cage metaphor to include changes other than work/school environments, or your friends are very, very lucky.

        I’m happy your co-worker with ADHD found work that allows him to flourish. I’m thrilled for any person who creates a life that suits them, with or without medication.

        The fact remains that neurological differences like ADHD or Aspbergers are complex, with emotional, social and perceptive impact on an individual. Ultimately, we carry the cage with us, not the other way around.


  11. Jenn Gold
    Jenn Gold says:

    This post made me uncomfortable and a little bit anxious, I dont want them to be too much of a misfit though I dont want them robotic either. It left me more anxious than anything else…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Sometimes I think this is why I write. So that I don’t have to feel anxious alone. But I have to say this in the comments section instead of in a post because it doesn’t feel that nice. Like, if only I could feel super great about everything and make you all feel super great as well….


  12. Heather Bathon
    Heather Bathon says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I’m curious as to why my comment was not posted – maybe I was too unflattering or too direct. I’m a bit surprised as I thought you generally encouraged views differing from your own.

    No need to respond.



  13. DB
    DB says:

    I felt betrayed when my parents sent me to kindergarten kicking and screaming. I remember actually not hating the cage too much though until a Catholic nun slapped me hard in the face in 4th grade for some reason. Thank God my dear Mom called that woman and told her never to lay a hand on me again.! That was in the 60’s and a lawyer would sue the school nowadays.
    But once I learned the basics, reading writing math geography Etc I then felt extremely bored from then on- was in honors classes – 3rd in my class etc and just smoked weed, drank booze and stared out the window till drama rock and roll and journalism saved me which was all I ever wanted to do beside ride horses- ( there was no agricultural schools nearby although I may have enjoyed that)
    So I had no real ambition which is still Kindda how I feel- but perfectly content.
    My own kids went to some pretty fancy colleges and grad schools and didn’t seem to mind school too much and are all screaming successes in their professions BUT with mortgages and huge college loans etc.
    My feeling tho is that were not all meant for success, or college ( or rocket science) because as you know someone has to fix the pipes when they freeze or when the power goes out- and like the farmer , raise the un-factory farm food ( and fix the tractors). So I guess I just wish, like my own blue collar upbringing showed me , we would put as much emphasis on encouraging kids to REALLY do what they want to do, ie for girls to be plumbers or fisher women and boys to be house husbands etc and maybe push for more Vocational type home schooling. Or do any if you folks do that?

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      DB, I have been through the quarter life crisis (supposing that I’ll live to be 100 I guess) and back.

      A lot of that is figuring out if I want to do career, family, or what.

      A lot of that has been getting to know myself and mostly, growing in self-confidence to follow a path where I know that I can be okay with turning my back on what is already stamped as “success” when it comes to the work you do.

      I’ve had LOTS of interviews lately. And it’s always nerve wracking when you go to interview and think “what if they offer me a job and the other people are not ready to get back to me and that’s my #1 choice?”

      Anyway, I have arrived at the conclusion that what I want is money because money=flexibility. But after a certain point, I deem my time more valuable than money. And my free time would actually be used to do things that feed my soul and brain and creatively create more money.

      We’re going down a path that most of everyone around us disagrees with. But I have to ask myself everyday that things are hard (with the toddler, trying to mix work and parenting, turning our backs on being a two-income household) “what is our purpose with all of this?”

      I want children that are self-directed. I want kids who think for themselves and have enough grit and self-confidence to choose what they want and go after it.

      And what if that doesn’t look like a high flying career?

      That’s fine with me.

      But first things first. Learn the skills that are needed for a good life regardless of income level.

      And be happy above all. Everyday. Just try really hard to be happy every day. Because we call 25 the quarter of a lifetime but no one really knows when life will be snuffed out. So might as well make everyday count right?

  14. Deena
    Deena says:

    Great post with many points of reference. All of the discussion about “normal” and “normalizing” brings a quote to mind:

    “The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well”.

    I am a lifelong advocate of non-conformity and think the school system is designed to be tortuous for anyone refusing to be assimilated. I wish I could have been Home schooled.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s so true about the only normal people being the ones you don’t know. That’s also true about the people who are doing things that feel impossible to you. It’s not like some people are superhuman and some people are dumb-dumbs. It’s more like we don’t see what everyone gives up in order to look super human.

      Things like Facebook, and Instagram encourage people to show only the good stuff yet give an impression that we are really seeing something.

      So much of my coaching is helping people to see that what they are giving up is totally normal to give up. Everyone has to give stuff up in order to get stuff. I wish there were an Instagram feed that focuses on what people give up…

      Wait. I think that’s what I want this blog to be!


  15. DB
    DB says:

    While I appreciate Carl Jung and modern psychology in general- I also feel a little caged up 1984ish angst with ANY ” personality type” labels.
    How can anyone so freely admit to belonging to a Personality ” type”? It’s way too cagey for me… Pun intended. Ps my best ” homeschooling” experience was dropping out and marrying a Harvard guy who also never attended class including law school graduation but left with a degree at the top of his class and went on to be wildly “successful”,( read mortgages, law school loans etc). While I learned the most during my marriage I am most proud of the children and grandchildren that came out of it all…. Life, any life- is too difficult to bottle into one category, nest pas?

  16. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    Penelope, it was so disheartening to read your endorsement of that article about how love is the answer to addiction that has been in my newsfeed like crazy. Here are some of the responses to it that I think got to the essence of why this oversimplification is so hurtful to addicts and their loved ones. You should write a follow up post!

    “This article is scapegoating by also blaming whatever normal people may be in the life of the addict.

    The fact is, even the above statement “addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you: it’s your cage” is purely illogical and pseudoscientific. We’re physical beings. The above statement uses the word ‘adaptation’. This means the clever among you should be asking, “What adapted to what?” Answer: the brain to its environment. It is the essence of mental illnesses, including addiction, that the brain is not adapting to its environment properly! So stop this childish attempt to redefine words to suit the agenda of the exploiters. It IS you, and you need help. The second you think it’s your “cage”, you are emphatically delusional and addicted. This entire article simply reinforces common psychotic delusions often induced by substance abuse, and what a shame if victims read it.”

    “I think I’ve figured out why I’m so angry about this post. It’s because I completely agree with him about social services response – that our government should put addicts in rehab not prison. As a society we should agree that the most helpful way to decrease drug addiction is to offer therapy and rehab to anyone who wants it.

    But instead of using all his time and effort toward that end the author instead created an overly simplistic, feel good piece that would sell his book and get shared like crazy on social media. If this author really dived into all things addiction he would know it is not simple like he’s made it out to be. Like how he spoke of the heroin addicts and rat park and the patch as so clear cut when each of these examples are fraught with controversy and evidence to the opposite. HE HAD TO KNOW THESE THINGS AREN’T SIMPLE. Which made me think he went this route anyway for the money. “If you want to see citations for assertions made in the article, buy my book?” Makes sense, since selling the book appears to be highest on his list of goals. Which pisses me off because he had some really great insight that is now going to hurt as many as it helps. If you really want to help addicts, then call it like it is – a complex brain disease with genetic , neurological and chemical components, an element of choice, and often a good helping of trauma or neglect. I agree, Johann, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection.” Since you understand that, it makes your click-bait premise even more offensive to those whose loved ones don’t get better. To end like that:
    “We should have been singing our addicts love songs all along”?

    F*** you, you “addiction expert”, I loved my addict all the way to her grave. You know what might help others not have to do the same?

    Ethical journalism.”

    “It reads like someone who is desperately trying to figure out “why” and unhappy with the answers and so he creates his own feel-good answer because the truth is too complicated.”

    “Here’s my take, it is simplistic to say that love fixes everything. Far too many parents have loved their children implicitly, and they have still ended up as addicts, far too many spouses have been loved unconditionally and still been drunks and addicts – far too many parents have been loved by their children and yet they are incapable of accepting that love – human connection can only happen when the reasons that the addiction is necessary are out of the way and the addict is refraining from using the substance that keeps human connection at bay. The steps help us to figure out how to reconnect with other humans – the addiction is in the way of that – it’s not other people connecting with me, it is me having the ability to connect with them – and a higher power – I can love or be loved as much as either I or another is capable. When I was in the throes of my addictions I had no capacity to be loved, love myself…

    His naivete regarding chemical hooks saddens me – the chemicals are in my body – it is the rush I receive from even thinking about my addiction and planning a binge. Yes, some addictions do add their own chemical highs, but it is enough to have my body crave and respond to its own chemical concoction that feeds my addiction.

    I find far too often these “new evidences about addiction” are just ways to keep people from having to work the steps and have a relationship with a power greater than they are. So much of this is beautiful, but the underlying problem is not that addicts need more love and connection – it’s that they need to understand why they can’t and clearing things out of the way so they can, and keeping them clear so they don’t relapse. It’s work people, plain old hard work. It’s not easy, but it is simple. I would challenge his main thesis, and yes, far too many addicts think that the opposite of addiction is sobriety – it’s not. That isn’t recovery. The opposite of addiction is serenity – and that allows me to connect on all levels of my being – physical, emotional and spiritual.”

  17. A
    A says:

    I started a new job this year, and the conversation always turns to where are you kids in school? When my response is that we homeschool, some jaws drop. The not so surprising part is many of my physician colleagues blurt out responses that I know they wish they would take back 2 seconds after it leaves their lips. I used to dread those conversation. I understand what you are talking about Penelope, about wanting to connect with a group. I have no regrets about homeschooling. It is the best decision we have made for our family. Our homeschooling community is amazing, more welcoming and embracing than anything we ever had in a formalized school setting. I come here to your blog, as it is my connection to the homeschooling world that I wouldn’t otherwise find.

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