The safest path to adulthood is finding a passion

I am struck by the huge amount of research that shows that the school kids attend has no effect on whether a kid gets out of poverty.

We are basically living in a caste system in the US, deluding ourselves that education enables social mobility. Kids whose parents are middle class grow up to be middle classRich kids grow up to be rich. And our schools reinforce those outcomes because our school districts remain segregated. But not by race—by economic and social class.

Recently I’ve read three really interesting pieces of research that show what does make a difference to a kid’s social mobility. Here they are:

1. Tell kids they’re smart.
For the most part, my parents were terrible parents. So I was removed from their house. But one positive thing they did is telling us kids we were smart. In fact, in the 1970s they refused to allow me to take fifth-grade standardized tests. “We already know she’s smart,” my parents wrote in a note to the teacher.

That experience stayed with me my whole life. Even through periods of self-hatred and self-sabotage, I never once doubted that I was smart.

Florida schools did a study on how to better identify gifted kids. They found that when teachers recommend kids for IQ testing, black and hispanic kids are chosen less frequently than white kids. No surprise there—just as it’s no surprise that when all kids are tested for IQ, more black and hispanic kids are placed in gifted programs.

Here’s what is surprising: Getting into those gifted programs doesn’t help low-income kids perform like high-IQ, high-income kids. But there were some extra spaces in the gifted program, and the kids who tested to have average intelligence who went into the gifted programs performed much higher than expected.

So it turns out that if you reinforce an idea that kids are smart, they will believe you. We don’t need school to do this for kids though. In fact, the relentless ranking system in school makes it difficult to tell kids they are unequivocally smart.

2. Train the parents.
The New York Times reports a study where coaches taught the parents about the importance of play, and when poor kids got to play more, they were more likely to succeed over the long term. The conclusion of the study is that you can improve education outcomes by training the parents rather than relying only on the school cirriculum. For children, play-based learning is more effective than curriculum-based learning.

Imagine keeping all the kids at home, even poor kids. But only if the parents have extra training. I can vouch for the impact of training. Because my older son got an autism diagnosis at age two, he qualified for 40 hours a week of special education. While the free services were ostensibly for the kid with a diagnosis, the parent is an equal beneficiary of the services.

I received training from occupational therapists, play therapists, speech therapists, psychologists, and many more types of coaches. The upshot is that I have a set of rules that I parent with. Not strict rules for the kids, but standards for myself to ensure I’m doing what my kids need.

I remember thinking: how do other parents know the best things to do for their specific child without any training? This study tells me most parents don’t.

3. Help the kid find a project.
You can’t give a child a project. Assigned projects are not nearly as effective as a child discovering their interests for themselves. And when it comes to kids living in poverty, a personal passion is as close to a sure-bet ticket out of poverty as anything. Because the kid is not driven away from their home environment , but rather is drawn toward something important to them.

Ironically, kids don’t rise out of poverty by focusing on the need to make money. Although that kind of makes sense because God knows rich kids don’t stay rich by focusing only on money. They focus on their passions as well.

The pictures on this post are from Blake Little. He covers people in honey and takes a portrait.

My blog is not about art per se, but I find myself loving the blog more when it’s sprinkled with pictures of art that I like. Now I know why: This blog is often negative. Your school sucks. Math is stupid. Kids should ditch. But art is fundamentally optimistic even when it’s dark or scary. Because art comes from passion and seeing someone express their passion means there’s someone self-actualizing. Which is, you could say, the opposite of school.



25 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Every time you write about social mobility I’m reminded how damned incredibly lucky I am that I moved from a working-class childhood to an upper-middle-class middle age. And despite coming out of my childhood with a whole passel of issues that it took a platoon of therapists to help me untangle, the one thing I’ve always known, always been told, is that I’m smart. Hell, my therapists have all told me that, usually by the second session.

    I was in what passed for the gifted program when I was in school in the 70s and 80s. Thank goodness for my mom, who grew up upper middle class (she married down because dad was smoldering hotness when he was in his early 20s and she was a goner around him) — because that gifted program was largely filled with kids from families far wealthier than mine. Mom subtly taught me the rules for a rung or two up the ladder. It helped me not stand out. Even then, a couple times my parents had to go down to the school to fight to keep me in the gifted program despite me getting nearly straight As. I have always wondered if it was in part because my clothes were from Montgomery Ward, not L.S. Ayres (the expensive department store in town).

    But one thing I wish we could move away from in this day and age is worrying about safety for our kids — in the way you mean it in this post. All of us Gen X parents who were expected to get out of the nest and become productive members of society immediately upon finishing school are not, I don’t think, uniformly asking the same of our kids. We’re letting them figure out their lives during their 20s. That gives them more time and freedom to follow some passions until they find the one that fits, and then they can build their own safety.

    • Jim Grey
      Jim Grey says:

      clarification: Letting our kids figure out their lives even if that means supporting them fully or partially until they get there.

  2. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    My parents always told me I was smart. This blog post is so interesting to me :) That has stayed with me my whole life.

  3. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    So interesting to read about the importance of hearing you’re smart. I never really had a project as a kid, which led to (arguably unnecessary) grad school and general aimlessness as a young(er) adult, lots of debt, etc. but I have always truly believed in my ability to earn money and find my way based on how smart I was (am?), apropos of nothing. Like you, hearing it from my parents made me always believe it no matter how much trouble I was in. I appreciate it so much now!

  4. Denita
    Denita says:

    I guess I am one of the outliers. My parents were teenagers and high school dropouts always living paycheck to paycheck. Similar story for my husband. Now he makes over 6 figures and we live comfortably in suburbia. I stay home and homeschool three kids. I always knew I was smart though I don’t think my parents said it. And I never had any “projects,” just rode the wave of public school. Graduating valedictorian and going on to earn a college degree. Just remember that there are always those who the research doesn’t capture.

  5. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    While I am all for artistic photos of naked people, I cannot get over the waste of honey. It makes me feel so unenlightened or something, but, have you bought honey lately?

      • Pirate Jo
        Pirate Jo says:

        Those poor bees! They did all that work for someone’s vanity.

        Also, I can’t stop thinking how much hot water it would take to get that sticky stuff out of my hair and off my skin.

        • J.E.
          J.E. says:

          FYI, honey is a good moisturizer. It’s fairly easy to rinse off with hot water and my facial skin has felt very soft when I’ve used it. After seeing this, I wonder if it would be a good all over moisturizer but I don’t want to buy that much honey.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            It also has some healing properties. I have used it for various things including kids injuries. I love honey, I don’t like seeing it go to waste though….unless it is the crappy ultra heated kind.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    As this post (and others on this blog) point out, it’s the relationship between the adult and child that matter very much to the education of the child. The relationships that develop are different for a child who goes to school vs. one who is homeschooled. The child who is homeschooled gets a very large share of parenting from the parent while the child who goes to school gets some ‘parenting’ from various teachers in addition to their parents. And the lines of parenting and education do blur many times.
    There’s a good executive summary of review research on
    achievement motivation, school engagement, and student voice in the school environment by researchers Eric Toshalis and Michael Nakkula at . The full paper is also available online by the same title. The paper as it relates to the subject of smart (or intelligence) points out that ‘Effort Matters Most’ and has its’ own section on page 2. I’ll add that it takes intelligence and effort to recognize intelligence because everyone has it. Some people like to use it more than others. Sometimes people would like for you to discover what they already know about their own intelligence. Just to check your intelligence.

    • Sam
      Sam says:

      I was told I was smart my whole life. Now I still feel pretty smart. I’m smarter than 99% of the population in an IQ/academically measurable way and ahead of most in a “getting through life somewhat successfully” way. But eventually you realize that most of the time, it just doesn’t matter. Being “smart” doesn’t make one happy, or satisfied with life. Tell your kid that he’s amazing just the way he is and that you’ll love him no matter what. Unconditional love. People will explore interests, pursue passions, take risks, and be generally happier and kinder people if they grow up knowing they are unconditionally loved.

  7. Caitlin Timothy
    Caitlin Timothy says:

    It’s interesting to think about education as a tactic for social mobility rather than the means of social mobility. There are other tactics, and it seems like several have to be at play in order for a person to be successful… The Obama Administration talks about “grit,” and you make a good point about telling a child that he/she is intelligent. Another overlooked tactic is family cohesion and values (family culture): I have a good friend whose parents are immigrants, and she and her brother grew up in a 1.5 bedroom home in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles (think the TV show “Cops”- it takes place there). Anyway, her dad only has a HS diploma, but they lived simply and he worked as a 911 dispatcher (and eventually became a manager) while her mom stayed home and homeschooled her and her brother through high school. They’ve gone on to graduate from college, marry successfully, and have solid families of their own. It’s true that their parents gave them a better education than they ever could have gotten from local public or private schools, but their elevated class status has as much to do with their functional family unit and the values their parents instilled in them (citizenship, duty to family, good manners, healthy lifestyle, respect for elders etc) that made them fertile ground for their educations to really help them succeed long term. They never got into trouble, never got into really dysfunctional relationships, and never had huge personal problems that seriously derailed them. It’s amazing how much diligent parenting in a cohesive family can help lower class kids with an average/above average IQ to succeed…

  8. Helen
    Helen says:

    There is other research saying that telling kids they are smart is harmful because it leads to a fixed mindset (we have x amount of intelligence, and that determines what we can do) vs. a growth mindset (we can always learn new things, intelligence is malleable and can be increased). I don’t have time to find links, but they are not hard to find. Here’s one article:

    I think what kids (especially girls) really need to be told is that they are resilient. Tell them they have grit. And allow them to prove it to themselves.

  9. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    Lately I have been considering that upward mobility does not matter. In the big picture, it makes sense that people want to move up in the world. But on the one-to-one level, most people I meet want to stay right where they are. And it makes me wonder, why do I want something for someone else, that they do not want for themselves? What people say they want and what they really want are often very different things. Maybe people say they want to move up the ladder, but what they really want is more respect, love and help to stay right where they are.

    • Roger
      Roger says:

      I disagree. Most people do not have satisfying work but neither is it awful so they stay in place. Now if family is the center of your world you only care if that isn’t working. I think it’s far easier for men to do this. I suspect one reason Penelope’s first marriage dissolved was because she valued her labor over her husband’s and he felt resentful that she near made the choice for him to be with the kids. Most men I know are far more miserable staying home than any woman I’ve counseled is. Women get sad without adult companionship. I always recommend reaching out to parents siblings if friends are scarce. Women are not driven to work as much as men are. I’ve found very few exceptions in my career. I read the whole brouhaha with Sheryl sanders and let’s be realistic. Sheryl Sanders is a workaholic woman. She likely values work over family. This isn’t to suggest lack of love. It’s priorities. Women seem to be very jealous of other women who have big success in work and have families or women who have big success in families and make them feel like shabbier mothers. It’s not a contest. It’s priorities.

  10. aquinas heard
    aquinas heard says:

    I disagree with the idea that it is important to tell kids they are smart. However, I think most parents hold this view mistakenly. I think parents’ common motivation for why they do this will help explain why this idea is mistaken. Parents do this because they hope that by their constant (?) labeling of their child this way their child will internalize this is as being true. There are two mistaken parts to this idea.

    I am interpreting Penelope’s use of the word smart as being equivalent to raw brain power, as is in IQ. Kids are wherever they are on the “smarts” continuum. They might be “dumb” (not ignorant) to genius or more likely somewhere in between. Whatever their level of smartness, that is not the most important thing about them. And this should definitely not be instilled in them. How could something they are born with (level of intelligence – which I’m assuming is mostly fixed to a certain amount) be the basis of an EVALUATION of who they are? The things that people, including kids, can be judged about are things that are in their volitional control. This would include their actions and what they say. These are the thing which *show* who they are. This is their character. Character is what matters most about a person. Agree?

    The other mistaken component implied (to me) by Penelope’s idea is that a child should primarily assess themselves based on their parent’s evaluation. Even with the when it comes to smarts, children will interact with other children and come to their own assessment of where their intelligence lies on the spectrum by (choosing to) comparing themselves to other children. If they come to the conclusion that they are not as smart as their playmates, no big deal. Why would they consider it a big deal if they know it is not the most important thing about who they are? But, if a parent keeps stressing (by labeling) their kid as smarts they will think this is an important part of who they are. How could they not come to this conclusion? One of the most important people in the child’s life keeps pointing out this non-volitional aspect of them.

    I sympathize a little bit with Penelope’s mistaken motivation for why she does this. Penelope has admitted she had a horrible childhood. Her being labeled as smart provided some basis for her to feel good about herself (self-esteem) even while her parents were being horrible towards her. I would argue that holding on strongly to this evaluation was done so as a defense mechanism. I’ll leave it at that unless further discussion ensues. I also add that I was regularly labeled as very smart (and handsome) as a kid. If anyone is interested, I can go into personal detail in how stressing these non-volitional aspects of myself messed me up when I was teen.

    For those interested in understanding better how this process works, I would encourage you to read these 3 short pamphlets by psychiatrist (extraordinaire), Edith Packer: Understanding the Subconscious, The Art of Introspection, and Happiness Skills.

    The important thing for a child is not their raw intelligence but how they CHOOSE to use whatever intelligence they do have.

    • Roger
      Roger says:

      Raw intelligence matters so much. It’s actually how a lot of poorer people learn to wheel and deal. I value hard work over intelligence but I would never negate the effect of intelligence on success. Frankly I think the biggest predictor of success is not divergent thinking but one or more of these raw intelligence hard work top social skills. Divergent thinking is only helpful when you’re Ambitious. I’ve seen many hard working but not ambitious people usually with poor social skills alienate all their coworkers thinking they’re right about everything. They don’t usually get canned because they’re productive but they tend to stay in place getting incremental small raises. I once worked with a brilliant intern smarter than me who had zero social skills. We didn’t clash but I found myself constantly sticking up for him because he acted like he knew more than all of us together. He had NO IDEA how to manage costs so it was easy for him to think all his ideas were the best when it came to certain choices. He was wrong as much as he was right and never thought he was wrong. I don’t think he had autism. I think there are autistic personalities just like there are obsessive personalities. Is it part of our wiring? Sure. But this guy was very manipulative so I think he knew what he was doing. He had a way of inflating himself that was underhanded and not asocial. He cared so much about what others thought of him but not if others liked him. I was the only one who respected him as a person. I don’t know if I liked him. Brilliant people who alienate others must be super ambitious or really lucky who they hook up with or they will not rise.

  11. says:

    How many poor immigrant kids got lifted out of poverty?
    Clearly you can’t paint a broad stroke here. Poverty is self perpetuating among single poor moms. And their kids. And rich liberals who don’t want to use the word SHE recommend this as authentic living. The tech crowds grew up sneering at organized religion but they filled the hole. Their religion is global warming and save the world but since they’re not defining specific problems they solve nothing. Big waste of mind power if you ask me.
    Penelope, you are clearly a bright lady with a good sense of humor. I do NOT see a single sign of any type of autism in you, nothing. (Sorry it’s my profession) and far be it for me to diagnose you from afar but there are strong signs of bipolar disorder and soft signs of bpd but you seem to be managing well and I think the farmer and farm life are much of the reason.
    One thing I’ve noticed is you don’t actually bring up money amounts. How much vc funding you got. If this blog makes any money. How do you actually make money since making money seems to be the focus of your career training? I’m interested in providing services over the Internet but what you do with the 1:1 coaching doesn’t seem easy in terms of Steady flow of clients. Do you coach one person a day, two or More on average, five a week what? Do you have a high powered nanny as you called it or does the farmer help or do you leave your kids alone for hours? You claim to be a preacher of honesty and your day in the life is a big enigma. Here’s a newsflash. Your son you profess is musically gifted, he is so because you said his dad was. Your intervention and the teachers are helpful but not essential. But instead of being so happy he’s so gifted you think about unattainable goals. There are many many kids as talented as your son but to be one of those kids is low probability. To be invited to Carnegie Hall, not as part of your teachers recital, you probably have a greater chance of being bitten by a shark.
    I’m asking for numbers on your career if you’re okay sharing.
    I also would advise you that there are wonderful mood leveling medications but you never know how you will be affected so you have to try till one clicks. The biggest problem is tolerance buildup. I think one day almost everyone will be on these meds but I think they are essential for certain people to function. But I watched a video of you interviewing and you read all the signs fine and there’s not a single thing about you that is autistic. Nothing. Maybe your son doesn’t have it. I don’t know him at all but I would never be able to diagnose you with any form of autistic disorder from what I’ve seen. You should monitor your emotional states with your hormonal cycle. Oftentimes you can find big correlations. I’m being very serious. Good luck. Appreciate the farmer. He’s a true stabilizing force. The kids seem very content so do not second guess your homeschool decision. They may have fewer friends and moments of boredom but plenty of kids in school have those and you should think about what your kids DO have. They have a great place to live. Two parents who love them and dote and give them lessons and life skills. They are very privileged in a great way. Roger.

  12. Matthew
    Matthew says:

    No-one cares how much you know untill they know how much you care – Theodore Roosevelt. Not achieving the freedom I deserve is not acceptable.

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