Schools hold kids to standards adults don’t even meet

School is full of situations where we are expecting much more of kids than we expect of ourselves, as adults. Successful adults are successful at least partially because they have learned to avoid what is difficult or unpleasant for them. Yet, so many adults tell kids they need to learn to do things they hate.

For example:

Learn stuff you don’t like.
Adults spend a lot of time doing what they like, and work hard to avoid everything else. Some people earn less money so they can have a job they like. Some people marry a breadwinner so they don’t have to earn money. Some people marry a caregiver so they don’t have to stay home with the kids.

Those choices are all reasonable trade-offs.

Yet we expect kids to ignore their own preferences. We tell them, “You have to learn to do stuff you don’t like.” Yet every adult I know with this attitude is unhappy and has a sense of helplessness. So the best education would be to tell kids to not do stuff they don’t like. That’s effective preparation for adult life.

Moreover, adults expect to be paid for doing things they don’t like. Yet we tell kids to do school work they don’t like all the time, often without giving any financial reward. At least if we are going to expect kids to do more terrible work than adults do, we should pay the kids.

Develop social skills just for the sake of it.
So many parents put kids with autism in school because, parents think, the kids will have to deal with those situations in real life.

But I have not seen this to be true at all. All the people I know with autism are great at avoiding rooms with 20 other people in them. Adults with autism don’t go to large meetings (unless they get to talk the whole time). And adults with autism don’t go to noisy places. (My friends won’t even go into a restaurant with me until I’ve checked to make sure the table is quiet enough.)

So there is no point making a kid with autism get used to eating in the cafeteria because he’ll never do anything like that again. (Also, people with autism are prone to eating disorders in part because it’s so painful to deal with eating when we’re anxious.) And kids with autism should not have to talk to a bathroom buddy in school because they are never going to talk to any randomly assigned friend in the real world.

We let adults with autism control their social exposure, yet parents think school kids with autism should learn to deal with someone else controlling it. Why?

No kid—neuro-typical or not—can perform at a higher level than their adult counterpart.

Sit still for more than twenty minutes.
We tell adults to stand up and walk around every 20 minutes. But kids don’t do that in high school. It would be chaos to have all those kids walking around every 20 minutes, structurally too difficult.

Offices all over the US are installing standing desks. Which means that cubicles must be reshaped, desks must be reorganized, and workplace attire must accommodate less formal footwear. Yet somehow businesses make the shift and schools do not. Which means we are asking kids to be more sedentary than they will ever have to be in real life.

Also, the kids who are worst at sitting still—those who are kinesthetic learners—almost never grow up to have office jobs, because they hate sitting still!

My husband reminds me of this every day. I always want him to sit on the couch with me and read, but he can only sit still for a little bit before he gets bored and antsy and wants to go outside and take care of the farm. In school he’d be labeled with ADHD. On the farm, he’s a hard worker.

Only play at proscribed times.
One of the first things I learned when I graduated from college and starting working in Chicago is that on beautiful summer days, people call in sick to work. I used to play volleyball at North Avenue Beach and I loved those weekdays when you could find or start a pickup game all day long.

My brother recently moved to Whitefish, MT. It’s a ski town (the local high school even has a ski team!) When the snow comes, perfectly for skiing, the slopes are full, no matter that it’s a workday for most locals.

Everywhere has its own version of a day when weather is better for fun than work. Yet when Washington DC got a huge snowstorm, and there were school kids who were getting their first glimpse of a big snow, teachers sent out a reminder that kids should use the snow days for study, not play.

I want to be better at learning how to play. I don’t ever remember adults in my family modeling this when I was a kid.

Something I love about my husband is that for him a break day is when it’s so hot it’s too hot to work. So he just makes sure the animals are cool enough.

And he’s always got an eye out for a willing water fight.



14 replies
  1. Danes
    Danes says:

    This is all so true!
    I spent TEN years I a job I HATED that was killing me from the inside out, though it paid well. Now, I fear going back to that line of work more than being homeless.
    And I use to live in D.C. I joke with people that it’s the place where dreams go to die because all you do is work and not live and enjoy life, but I’m quite serious. I live in Austin, TX now and I’m realizing that life doesn’t have to be so difficult. This mentality needs to be applied to schools because it is so long overdue.

  2. Kate
    Kate says:

    You nailed it! I’m beginning to think that people want their kids to have to sit through what they had to endure-kind of a right of passage or something. Homeschooling is just to scary for so many parents. For the kids-it’s not a problem.
    xo Kate

  3. Lizzete
    Lizzete says:

    This is so true Penelope. As a woman with Aspergers (and INTJ), I can say that the workplace is a lot easier socially for me than school. Although my job (external audit) involves a lot of social interaction, the roles are clearly defined and there’s a technical component to most interactions. I was surprised to find I do reasonably well socially at work. I’m not the most popular person or anything, but the vast majority of people are pleasant and appreciate my skills. I just have to focus on being kind and helpful.

    At school, it was a nightmare. I was a very good student but I was bullied all the time for being weird. I just didn’t know how to relate to the girls at school and many classmates made fun of me every day. Also, being the best student doesn’t get you any friends at school. I was just a very dreamy girl who wanted to read/write all day but that sort of personality seems to attract a lot of bullies in high school. They said really mean things to me everyday (such as you’re very ugly, no one will ever like you, etc.). That caused me to have a very low self-esteem during my high school years. By the way, I’m now 28 and I’ve been married for almost one year to a wonderful man .

    In the workplace, being good at my job has caused most people to respect me because my skills are useful. I wish I had known in school that struggling socially at school doesn’t mean you won’t find a work environment where you can succeed.

  4. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Yes! Especially: “We tell [kids], “You have to learn to do stuff you don’t like.” Yet every adult I know with this attitude is unhappy and has a sense of helplessness.”

    I know lots of people who think this, and they’re all SJs who got where they are via grit and the gnashing of teeth. They think that, because they did it, everyone else can and should, too. I think people don’t realize that this brute force method of adapting to one’s environment is very personality-dependent. Neither my NT husband nor myself (NF) ever accomplished anything this way, and I couldn’t imagine any SPs I know getting to their version of success that way, either.

    So, does this meant that SJs must learn to swim with the sharks in order to feel like competent adults? And why are they so loud about that everyone else should be in the tank with them?

    • Pirate Jo
      Pirate Jo says:

      I liked that comment, too – this was a great article overall.

      To SOME extent, it’s true we have to do things we don’t like. Do we enjoy taking our cars in for repairs? Do we enjoy balancing the checkbook? If you are a parent, do you enjoy changing a diaper? What about filing tax returns? Is it fun to wheel the trash dumpster outside to its spot on trash day when there is snow on the driveway? How about brushing your teeth? Isn’t there something you’d rather be doing? How about waiting for that software to download onto your computer? Coasting down a hill on a bicycle is great fun, but first you have to climb the hill.

      To some extent, we just have to suck it up, even if that means there are things we have to do that we’d rather not. (Have a sense of humor about it!) But when things you don’t enjoy suck up a lot of your time, then you aren’t enjoying your life, and you WILL feel unhappy and helpless.

      Here’s an idea I’ve had – what if the way to “be happy” simply means spending as much of your time as possible doing things you enjoy? Find your happy place and stay in it as much as possible! If you love drinking good coffee while reading good books with a critter curled up on your lap, do it! If it means painting, or making beautiful things out of needle and thread, do it! Find a way to make money that doesn’t ruin your life, and then make it your goal to spend as much time as possible doing what you truly enjoy. If you can find a way to make money that you truly enjoy, then spend your time working and ignore the people who call you a workaholic.

      The best way to avoid having to spend a lot of your time doing things you don’t like is to head them off at the pass. Don’t go into a field of work that you hate. Be careful about whether you decide to be a parent. Extra money always helps, because then you can pay people to do the things (such as housecleaning) that you don’t enjoy. (Personally, I’m always saying I need minions. I have no minions, which is unfortunate!)

      In answer to your question, “Why are they so loud about that everyone else should be in the tank with them?” I think it’s just that misery loves company. People doing things they hate have been raised to think they must do these things, and they think you are shirking some kind of duty if you aren’t also doing them. All along they had the option to ignore what everyone was saying and just not do those things, but they didn’t. Probably because their parents and their churches and their school systems rewarded obedience above all else. If you simply declare that you don’t care about those things, and don’t do them, it becomes hard for them to justify why they keep doing it.

      Why didn’t YOU just tell everyone to eff off when they said you had to live in a certain zip code? Why didn’t YOU just tell everyone to eff off when they said you had to have kids (or not have them)? Why didn’t YOU just tell everyone to eff off when they said something snotty about your furniture or your clothes? Why didn’t YOU just tell everyone to eff off when they said you had to become a fill-in-the-blank/whatever? Why did you work for a whole year at a job you hate to buy that super-expensive car, when you could have just taken the whole year off and not worked and done something you like instead?

      How would things look if you just taught your kids (and yourselves) to be true? Well, people would probably be pissed, but it would be to your great advantage if you don’t care what they think.

      • Caitlin
        Caitlin says:

        Misery does love company….but I wonder if there’s something else, too. I think certain personalities (like SJs) experienced that they were able to get through the systems that they hated, so other people should be able to get through it, too. Also, SJs looooooove duty and the idea of being dutiful, so perhaps they get their self-esteem and feel really moral by doing things they hate because they fulfilled a duty that was given to them. I’m wondering if there’s a way that they can understand/appreciate the benefits of avoiding these vacuous customs or if it’s a lost cause. Because if the same people keep saying “You have to learn to do stuff you don’t like.” in the face of reason and evidence, eventually we’re going to have to decide whether it’s worth having the conversation…

  5. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I think her whole section about Aspergers kids also applies to introverts too.

    And I’m so excited for my son that he figuring out at 17 that he would never be happy working inside all day long. So far ahead of the game.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I would title this post – ‘Schools expect children to learn in ways that adults don’t model’. There’s individual learning styles which is the category of this post and there’s learning which is specific to the individual – both apply. An article published today in MindShift ( ) references a TED talk by Tim Harford given last fall where he talks about learning in messy and challenging environments and situations. It’s a good one which I had already seen. What I really liked, though, was another link in the above article which makes the case for why learning should be messy – . It is an excerpt from a book written by a 17 year-old school student. Within the article, there are clear distinctions made between classroom (subject-based) learning and project-based learning which is referred to as ‘anti-disciplinary’. Besides the case studies of three different schools, I found the end of the article interesting. A big problem with school is all the competing interests from government regulations to administrators including teachers. All the entities involved are trying to establish performance parameters for themselves and also assign a grade for the student. It’s very rigid and controlled unlike learning which is many times messy and dare I say chaotic. I still believe that choice is the answer whether it’s some form of school or homeschooling. Each individual’s personality and temperament along with other factors will determine what works best for the child. Too many times it is the child’s (student’s) voice that is least heard.

  7. Rayne DeVivo
    Rayne DeVivo says:

    I was thinking about this a couple weeks ago when my son had six school play performances in one long weekend and a large social studies project due at 8 am Monday. In my work I’m in charge of my deadlines in a lot of ways. I can see I have an enormous project due on X date and tell clients their project timeline needs to be flexible around my problem date or find another attorney because I’m too busy. I wouldn’t set a trial and a house closing back to back.

  8. Heather
    Heather says:

    Your husband sounds like mine – not been able to sit still, preferring to work outside, being a hard worker. What’s his MBTI personality type?! I’ve been trying to figure my husband out.

  9. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Most of the reasons seem to be crowd control… Keep them busy and they are easier to control. Education hasn’t changed much In the public setting.

  10. Bryce
    Bryce says:

    Another thing that makes life in school miserable for kids is that they aren’t free to quit — to walk away from people, places, things and situations that are harmful to their well-being or make them feel negative emotions, and they have no recourse in dealing with those situations.

    Take bullying, for example. As adults, if people are picking on us at work, we can go to our bosses, our bosses’ bosses, file a grievance with HR/our union/the EEOC/NLRB, file a lawsuit, or when all else fails, quit and find a new job/start a business. And when we do raise a concern, it’s generally dealt with promptly and we can get a transfer/get the bully fired/censured.
    If people pick on us in our neighborhood, we can go to our homeowners’ association, file a complaint with the local government/police, file a lawsuit, or when all else fails, move to a new neighborhood. And if people pick on us in the mall, we can contact security, or shop at another mall.

    Not so for kids in school. They can go to their teachers/counselors/principals, but they can only do so much. If the people in charge don’t help, they can’t avoid the places where the bullies hang out, go to a different school or learn outside of school altogether.

    What’s more, kids for whom English/math/etc. aren’t their strongest subjects can’t avoid these classes and take more classes in their strongest subjects. Kids who aren’t athletically inclined can’t avoid phys ed or choose to lift weights or run sprints instead of playing kickball.

    Perhaps the greatest relief I felt after leaving high school was that I now had some sense of control over my destiny and could choose the people, places and situations in my life.

    Read this for more information:

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