It’s important to me that my kids know how to farm. My husband is from a family that’s been farming forever, and his level of knowledge is incredible. The kids are lucky to be able to receive such a gift.

But both kids hate farm work. It’s dirty. It’s constantly an emergency. Animals are unpredictable and they take a lot of practice to handle well. I’m so proud that my kids can deliver a baby animal safely, herd cattle, and bale hay. But it’s probably because to me it’s special to grow up on a farm—because I grew up in a city. I love the farm.

So much of what I want for my kids is stuff I would have wanted for myself, like the freedom to read whatever I want all day long, and take violin lessons from a young age. Conversely, the things I’m very secure about—like my IQ or how well-read I am—are things I don’t bother about in my kids.

The life that is true to each of us comes so easily that we forget that our life is not something most other people want. For me, being a high achiever is huge. I only want to do stuff that I can be great at, and I don’t like what most people call fun. For me, fun is working hard to achieve a huge goal. I have always been very aware of how my kids can excel and how I can set them up for big success. It’s taken me until now to realize that maybe they don’t even want that. Maybe I should really tone it down.

I’m not alone. Most people I coach about homeschooling decisions have the same problem I have. It’s just that it’s much easier for me to see it in other people than in myself. Most homeschooling worries I hear are actually parents worrying about making sure their children have the type of childhood that would have been best for the parent. Which, actually, has nothing to do with homeschooling.

We just can’t help it.

Strangers say crazy stuff about homeschooling. And I can ignore it, because I’ve made a successful career for myself bucking trends and being a trendsetter. I’m comfortable there. Except when the stranger asks about math. Then I get anxious, because I was bad at math. So I worry a lot that my kids won’t know enough math to feel comfortable in the world.

Here’s how the conundrum plays out for other parents:

If you are gay, you needed a gay-friendly city when you were growing up, but it’s statistically unlikely that your kids will have that problem now.

If you grew up in a war zone you will need to be in a stable environment now, but your kids don’t have that same need for stability.

If your parents never believed you could play piano, you can’t make up for that by giving your kids piano lessons.

But we do that all the time. We give kids opportunities we wish we had. But that’s not what kids need. Kids need choices. And after providing a bunch of choices, we need to step back and let the kid be who they are.

Alex Rodriguez is great at practicing. Even as a kid, he practiced baseball with more focus and determination than other kids. No one had to teach him how to be a great athlete. He was born wanting to practice.

Warren Stephens is driven to make money. No one had to teach him how to do it—winning in business comes naturally to him. He won’t worry about whether or not his kids are great at business because they don’t need to be.

Sally Mann is obsessed with documenting Southern family life. She made art even as she was raising three kids. And she faced down child pornography charges. No one needed to show her a path toward art. She would have found that path no matter what.

I’m convinced that each kid is driven to be who they are. Who we want them to be, or expect them to be, is a distraction to them.

So tell me: what are the ways you steer your kids to make up for the childhood you would have wanted for yourself?

 

19 replies
  1. Jana
    Jana says:

    “The life that is true to each of us comes so easily that we forget that our life is not something most other people want.”
    This is so insightful!

    And this is one of my favorite posts. We parent to try to fill ourselves in. Brilliant.
    jana

  2. Stacy
    Stacy says:

    The farm life is so awesome. I’m jealous! I’m not even clear on what you do for a living or what trends you’re setting but I’m not online a lot! I think young kids preteen and below are not good with many choices and benefit from guidance. Eventually they tell you whats what. I don’t get parents who enroll their kids in 800 classes. How can the kids really learn study matter or a skill that way? That I think is parental ego and self longing. Why do you think genes or just your genes entirely spell math aptitude. My son is great in math not a genius but high achieving and I HATED it. I taught him slowly through sixth and then I had to get a once a week tutor. I thought it wouldn’t be enough but my son is bright enough to learn math on one hour a week. Listen we may have to hire a little help if we don’t feel we can handle certain material. But I homeschool because I wanted to teach my kids. Most other subjects I can do really well. I was never looking to make home like an elite private school. Extra curricular I chose till they got older. They quit music which is fine why do it if you’re not into it. But they stayed with the sports I chose and are doing above average plus made all their friends there. Sports makes for close knit groups. All parents live vicariously but kids push back.

  3. Rayne of Terror
    Rayne of Terror says:

    I require my kids to be in a sport most of the year starting in the second half of kindergarten. As long as they are paying attention and trying, that’s good enough for me. If we’re on a break, we always know what sport is upcoming. We’ve tried rock climbing, ice skating, wrestling, soccer, basketball, and baseball. We didn’t have money for sports until I was a freshman in HS and by then it was mostly too late for me. My oldest (11) shows aptitude for baseball so I signed him up for 6 weeks of pre-season camp at the community college without asking his opinion. I swam because no one was cut from the swim team, and ended up going to state my first year for distance swimming. Changed schools & never swam competitively again after that. I played basketball at nerd boarding school also because no one was cut from the team. Lena & I shared a uniform, dressing every other game, but at least we got to play.

  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    A buddy of mine is a partner in a software consulting firm that survived its startup phase and is doing well. When he and his wife started having kids, he bought a small farm out in rural central Indiana. He wanted to give his children a life different from the entitled suburban lives his neighbors’ kids all had. So they have limited crops, and raise chickens and turkeys. This year they’re going to try beekeeping. It’s all about a life of meaning: you have to do the chores in the morning or things die. Work has a direct correlation to things that matter.

    I had my friend read your post from long ago about apples and the calf and he said, “That’s exactly it!! That’s why we live out here and do what we do!”

    Maybe there was something about his childhood that he’s trying to make up for. But so what? His young son is fully in touch with the cycle of life, has acres of beautiful country to wander through (with the dogs always following him, as if they know it’s their job to protect him), and can do real work already, and he’s something like age 5. Feels like a major win to me.

    Really, if the things we do for our kids bring meaning and value, who cares if we’re doing them because of something we didn’t get?

    • Sarah
      Sarah says:

      Agreed, but what if the kid doesn’t see your insecurities as a meaningful life? :) For example: My Dad felt cheated on his education and that intelligently he was not valued. So he pushed my siblings and I to be smart. I hated it. I hate it now because he shows me how he thinks my kids are dumb. How do I convince him to stop letting his insecurities dictate the relationship? I ask this rhetorically because I think Penelope’s point was the question of how to teach when your insecurities are not what the kids want to learn?

  5. Caitlin Timothy
    Caitlin Timothy says:

    Really challenging post. I grew up wanting freedom to read whatever I wanted and freedom from busy work, and so I plan to home school. I think all the time, “What if my kids are really athletic or one of them is born to be prom queen? What will I do??” It makes me want to die thinking about sitting on a lawn chair surrounded by orange peels watching kids kick balls on dirty fields under the hot CA sun. But, sports are good for kids (as you point out all the time), so I’ll have to cope, I’m sure. It’s so hard to have parents who want you to be like them and can’t help you be a good version of you… Still, it might be even harder to have a kid just like you and have all your insecurities in your face all the time. Which one’s more challenging?

  6. Virginia
    Virginia says:

    When I first became pregnant with my daughter, a lot of complex feelings came to the surface as I reflected on how my parents raised me. I think I strive extra hard to excel in the areas where I thought they were lacking. For me, those areas include: having a strong relationship with my husband, showing affection, and being more relaxed about achievements.

    I recall you saying that your parents were home very much during your childhood. Do you think this influences your desire to home school and spend more time with your children?

  7. jessica
    jessica says:

    I don’t know too many parents trying to redeem their own childhoods through their kids. I get it, but it’s pretty narcissistic. I mean, also, that’s just plain impossible. The kids are living entirely different existences. Improve upon, learn from mistakes of past and mistakes of others, sure. Support, care, and nurture with a loving network around that respects individual choice from the get go does more than trying to schedule and force an existence based on what one missed out on.
    What’s interesting about this approach is that one can spend so much time trying to do ‘the opposite’ or ‘the other way’ that they miss what’s actually right in front of them. That area should be the focus.

    • Sarah
      Sarah says:

      I think when you grow up with a good childhood you feel this topic is not a big deal. But when it is less than ideal you worry you will make your children suffer from what you suffered. It’s not narrasistic.

      • Erin
        Erin says:

        Yes. What Sarah said.

        Perhaps what we want for our kids is to have happiness…and by reading this post were challenged to not just think reactively, but proactively. “What’s objectively best for our kids?”

        It’s hard to say. Harder still if you’re dealing with a painful childhood and don’t trust your instincts.

  8. John
    John says:

    Whoa boy! This is an issue I struggle with all the time. It’s HARD not to try to live a second life through your (my) kids. I want them to have and take advantage of opportunities I never had, regardless of whether they want those or not. Perhaps I want them to help erase the regrets that I have for missing out on stuff or for not achieving some accomplishments.
    It’s hard, but I try to remember that my kids are their own persons, not little mini-me’s. I try to help them discover themselves, not discover me. I try to remember that I wanted my mother to just revel in my present performance not keep on pushing toward some future accomplishment and that I wanted my father to just be there. When I remember, then these reminders help me be a better dad and a better homeschooler.

  9. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Interesting post, very insightful. I think a certain amount of this is unavoidable. For example, I grew up bumping around from one rural nowhere to another. The only think I liked about moving is leaving each place. I am bringing my kids up in Boston, a city I love, and they’ve only ever lived in one house. Surely that’s compensation.

    I was pretty miserable as a kid, and school was a big part of the reason. I ran away from school a lot. I would run away from school and go to the library to read, because it’s about all I wanted to do. Besides, nobody is going to look for a truant in the college library.

    My son left school for five years now. Why go at all if it’s not working for you? When he wrote essays in the fall for applications, he said it’s the nicest thing he ever saw anybody do, springing him from school. I honestly saw it in part as payback to my own self. As a child I reached into the future and made my adult self promise to never let his own kid go through what I went through. Promise kept.

    But does my son like to read? Am I going to find him napping between the stacks? Not on your life. He hasn’t cracked book one of Harry Potter. He reads one book a month, for a book club he’s in. Everything else is science; he reads every scrap of extra material for his science classes. Given a choice between boy wizards and neural plasticity, between space opera and gene therapy… he goes for the non-fiction every time. I have shelves full of books he’s really not going to read. Maybe his sister will.

    There are a lot of things I didn’t have as a kid, which I am giving my kids. Some are important, some minor. A two-parent household. A persistent residence. A choice of schools. A choice of no school at all. I think those are important, and my kids do too.

    And then there are the little things. I introduced my boy to a lot of things I didn’t have the chance for as a kid, because my mother never would have paid for them or they just didn’t exist in the boondocks. Stuff I would have loved as a kid. Violin, fencing, riding, skiing. Fancy private schools. Some took, some didn’t.

    I think it’s important to let your kids quit. That’s one of the ways you know it’s not about you. We can’t help trying to provide our kids with opportunities we didn’t have; we all do that. But if that’s not what our kids want, it’s a good idea to step back a bit and let them sort out what they want for themselves.

    I’m surrounded by parents with very different ideas about this than I have.

  10. Anna
    Anna says:

    Still reading, but,

    “my kids can deliver a baby animal safely, herd cattle, and bale hay.”

    Uh, anyone who says that is not an education just doesn’t know. That is serious homeschooling right there. That is no small thing. I grew up in cities and know nothing of those things. It just seems to me that those things are an incredibly valuable education, not just for the tasks themselves, but for the things those tasks teach.

  11. Erin
    Erin says:

    My dad got angry a lot. So I apologize to Phoebe when I’m unfair. I know what it’s like to have your spirit crushed by a parent who is too insecure to admit when they were wrong.

    Me and my siblings all struggled (struggle?) with depression. I worry about Phoebe’s mental health. I don’t think that was even on the radar for my parents. They worried more about keeping our eternal souls safe from being damned to hell, or at least appearing like we were sinless for the sake of our church reputation.

    (I feel like I’m whining saying this. But you asked.)

    • Erin
      Erin says:

      As a side note:

      I was great at school and I don’t really worry about my kids education. I was really smart and my parents were proud of me but there wasn’t really any crazy pressure there.

      I was terrible at life tho. And I worry about my kids’ lives outside of school. Which is one reason im so adamant about unschooling in some fashion. Being great at school never made me great at life.

  12. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    I’m raising entrepreneurs. Anyone who is not a self-employed entrepreneur or business owner is a “slave”. Personally, I never went down that corporate path, but I made other mistakes in that same vein.

    • Teach By Type
      Teach By Type says:

      Interesting. My husband is an entrepreneur and my kids say he’s a slave to the business.

      Corporate life (in my experience) is so much easier. Everyone has a ‘boss’. Even business owners. Sometimes it’s a difficult client offering much needed money, sometimes it’s a manager.

      You have the option of saying F you to each of them whether or not you own the business. Just a matter of how much you need what they’re offering you.

      Sue

  13. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    In a lot of ways, having kids allows us to do-over what we didn’t get as a kid. My parents divorced, with all the drama before and after that comes with it. I knew it was a high priority to avoid that. I wanted a stable and sweet family life and I wanted my kids to see that my husband and I like each other and we are committed to the family. I am much more conservative, in general, than my mother – heck, we even go to church! By the way – I also knew I would only marry a man from an intact family.

    I hated public school. That trauma was worse even than parents divorcing. Thus my kids went to private school, then homeschool, then early college. I wanted the education to fit the kid and I wanted life growing up to have some joy. I would not have had kids if I thought I’d have to send them to public school.

    My oldest wishes we’d pushed him to be an elite athlete from a young age. That would have made ME crazy, plus he had constant injuries and growing pains even with recreational sports, so not possible regardless. Sorry, life conditions aren’t perfect!

    One thing I LOVED about growing up was the freedoms we kids enjoyed. Nonstop unstructured play with neighborhood kids, outside in surrounding farm, forest, lake. Now where we live this doesn’t exist because kids are overscheduled. But I have tried to give them opportunities for hours of unstructured play, at least, even if it’s in a gym or summer camp with adults around.

    I have become aware of the benefits of farm life for kids. We are moving to acreage in a week. My youngest is 11 and will benefit hugely from this experience. Meanwhile my older son is now living abroad and wants nothing to do with farm life. It doesn’t fit his personality so it worked out ok that he missed out on growing up on a farm.

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