Don’t teach kids to do what they don’t want to do

Nicholson Baker is one of the first writers who blew my mind in the minimalism department. His first novel, The Mezzanine, was about a guy who went up an escalator. That’s it. His next book, Vox, was about one single phone call. (Though to be clear, it was phone sex. I was a bookstore clerk when the book came out, and it was at the top of our most stolen book list for months because people were too embarrassed to buy it.

People who hate reading Nicholson Baker say he’s claustrophobic and monotonous and boring. So it’s ironic that he wrote a piece in the New York Times about his stint as a substitute teacher and how the classroom is claustrophobic and monotonous and boring.  It’s called Fortress of Tedium. Isn’t that a great title?

There is such a widespread cultural understanding that kids hate school, that The Onion turns it into satire. And along with the hatred of school is the parent refrain that kids need to learn to do things they hate to do.

We keep talking about how we are about to revolutionize the education system.

1920s: Movies will revolutionize education. (Even Thomas Edison believed this.)

1960s: Television will revolutionize education

1990s: CDs will revolutionize education.

It never happens. And the reason it never happens is that parents have already convinced themselves that it’s fine for kids to hate school. Real education reform cannot happen because parents are too invested in the status quo. Even when schools attempt to get rid of homework – because a heap of research says there should not be homework in grade school – the parents are still up in arms. Parents don’t want fixing school to mess up their own lives.

Kids learn best when they are ready to learn. So they should choose when and what they learn. Otherwise, it makes kids hate learning. And it also trains kids to think doing things they don’t like makes sense.

This is a great thing to teach kids if you think they will grow up to be factory workers. Which we already know is how schools were set up. But today we train kids to expect to do work they like. We tell them, do well in school, work hard, get good grades and you’ll get a job you like.

But if you’ll get a job you’ll like, then why do you need to learn to do things you don’t like?

Here’s another way to look at work: You can get other people to do things you don’t like to do. For me, the worst part of doing a startup is the paperwork. but there is a place called Your Company Formations that can do all that for you. And I don’t like payroll. But I can have ADP do that. I could order out pizza so I don’t have to go out for lunch. I mean, the world is set up so you can pay to avoid stuff you don’t like to do. And we respect people who construct a life focusing on what they do want to do. So why teach kids otherwise?

I look at how my family operates and we each try to do only what we want to do. I cook because I want to have nice family meals and I want the kids to feel cared for. I don’t have to cook. But I like to.

Even when I don’t like to, I like that in theory I am doing it, just not at that moment.

My son walks his goats every day. He doesn’t love walking the goats, but I gave him the choice of getting rid of the goats and he chose to walk them. He loves his goats and he does what he needs to do for them to have a nice life.

My point here is that we don’t do stuff we don’t want to do. Instead, we decide what we want and then take pleasure in doing what needs to be done in order to get what we want. The disconnect with school is that kids do not need to do school to get what they want. Nearly 90% of what kids do in school is not necessary in order for kids to meet their goals.

Kids need to learn how to determine what is worth doing. And then kids need to take responsibility for learning how to set their life up in a way that prioritizes whatever they decide is worth doing. Because that’s what we need to transition into successful adults. And school does not teach that.

25 replies
  1. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    Such a smart way of reframing how to do things you don’t necessarily want to do that are necessary for what you do want. Thank you.

  2. Erin Wetzel
    Erin Wetzel says:

    Related to the discussion of putting up with doing things we don’t like, I love this blog post by Mark Manson:

    (excerpt) “What determines your success isn’t “What do you want to enjoy?” The question is, “What pain do you want to sustain?” The quality of your life is not determined by the quality of your positive experiences but the quality of your negative experiences. And to get good at dealing with negative experiences is to get good at dealing with life.”

  3. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I taught my sons to ride bikes. I loved riding my bike as a kid. I logged thousands of miles on mine I’m sure.

    My youngest son did not want to learn. It was a giant fight to teach him. He learned, but then he almost never rode again. I regret the fight, it wasn’t worth it.

  4. Jenn Gold
    Jenn Gold says:

    That link at “kids learn best when they are ready to learn” is one of the best articles I have ever read about how kids learn. Very insightful. Thanks for this info.

  5. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I have observed a vicious circle in grade school: kids are forced to do things they don’t want to do; they become cynical about school; even things they might otherwise want to do are now viewed with suspicion; everything a teacher asks becomes something they don’t want to do, and are forced to do.

    I don’t know that parents all believe it’s normal to hate school; I think a lot of parents believe their kids should love school and might do so if their teachers were only sufficiently unctuous. They’re wrong, of course; that just makes kids suspicious of flattery.

    Two weeks into his great school adventure, my son is dismayed by the amount of stupid bullshit involved in school – pasting stuff into a book that they have to carry back and forth, supposedly transforming it into an Interactive Notebook; drawing little mandalas of Cultural Symbols… You know when there is a glue stick and colored pencils on the list of supplies for math class that something has gone wrong. He expected a more mature learning environment.

    And yet he retains the great advantage that he is there by his own choice. He doesn’t have six years of disappointment and cynicism informing his daily encounters with teacherly foolishness. He will still ask for more, he will still look for a signal in the noise.

    The craziest part of it all is that none of what happens in grade school really counts for anything. Kids will mostly learn to read if you just leave them to it. A kid who is interested in math can blaze ahead of age peers in a couple hours a week. The biggest lesson learned is tedium, and that is a terrible lesson.

    No one is going to revolutionize school, for the simple reason that the primary purpose of school is not to educate children. That may be what teachers believe, but they are encouraged to believe that in much the same way that soldiers are encourage to believe that they are keeping their nation safe by dying in some irrelevant desert. They wouldn’t do it otherwise.

    The primary purpose of school is, and has always been, to keep kids confined so their parents can work. There is no revolution that doesn’t reconsider that reality, and that reality isn’t changing for 75% of families.

    The Onion article was hilarious. Again, a clear cry for homeschooling, which naturally falls on deaf ears.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      The interactive notebook sounds very childish, but perhaps it will serve a greater purpose down the road.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        JDVT, thanks for your interest.

        At this point, I still think it was the right idea to send him. Of course, it was his idea – I’d be much less likely to think it was the right idea if it were my idea.

        I find it odd that I don’t believe the academics are the strong point of the choice, and sometimes that makes me wonder. I’m sure that his math and science would have progressed faster at home. But I see greater learning opportunities in self-reliance, independence, and social negotiation.

        He texted me a little bit ago to say he was coming home a different way than the usual, because he is staying late to work on a group project with some other kids. The central location of the school helps make this possible – he has several different public transportation options to get back home. So he gets to make a decision about something like that.

        Yes, the family locator function on my cell phone is something I would fret without. I can see he’s at the station right now. It also means I annoy him less.

        He is identifying some people he wants to be friends with, other people whose companionship will not be rewarding, people he can count on and collaborate with, etc. He is advocating for himself within a large, somewhat inflexible institution. These will be important skills for him later in life.

        I also feel that homeschooling him for the past six years was absolutely the right choice. It’s like it made him a more informed consumer of school.

  6. Caitlin Timothy
    Caitlin Timothy says:

    This is so true. Still, I have a hard time paying for things I don’t want to do (minutia) and for breaks (babysitting). I think in my mind I don’t deserve to be off the hook and can’t justify the expense.

    And so my life is dirty. Especially my car. And I am underperforming as a parent.

    Denial is expensive.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      “Denial is expensive”
      Love that. It should be the title of a blog post. Or maybe all blog posts….


  7. sagar
    sagar says:

    How can I motivate my kids to be ambitious and dream? I like this article a lot and agree 100% but I find it difficult to get the ball rolling with them.

    • Pat Sommer
      Pat Sommer says:

      It starts with trust. Trust in you to listen uncritically and without the reflexive suggestions -I am learning to bite my tongue-

      The dreams are there, maybe as unformed clouds; we just have to be patient enough to let the kids share.

      Only then can we become cheerleaders.

  8. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:


    You are on a roll with this article, coming right after the one where you just brought up the issue of children’s rights.

    Towards the end of this post you bring up a very important topic: understanding value pursuit and all the actions, including responsibilities, that might entail. Why shouldn’t kids be “allowed” to pursue the things that are important to them? Why shouldn’t they be responsible for pursing the things that are important to them? Why can’t they figure out if their money is worth less than doing mundane tasks they don’t enjoy? Of course kids should have their rights honored – which is a precondition for attaining fulfilling value pursuit.

    I’d also like to note that honoring a child’s right to value pursuit is the surest way for a child to figure out what is important to themselves and to understanding who they are. This will make figuring out a career for oneself so much easier. The child will know clearly what they like and don’t like. These likes and dislikes will not be a result of maneuvering around and appeasing their parents but will be genuinely reflective of who they are. Don’t we need to know who we are before we can be certain of what we want to do?

    Good stuff, Penelope.

  9. Lizzete
    Lizzete says:

    I agree Penelope. I still remember that I completely hated Gym and Art at school (I was a top student in every other subject) and it was so stressful for me. I also have Aspergers so the social aspect of school was very difficult for me. Now I’m happily married and have a good job. Although I was always a top student, I like working a lot more than going to school. You get to control who you spend time with and what you learn and you can always get another job if it doesn’t work out (it’s not that easy for a kid to decide to quit school). The working world has been a lot easier for me to navigate than school. I still can’t believe that some people told me high school would be the best years of my life.

  10. David
    David says:

    That connection at “children learn best when they are prepared to learn” is one of the best articles I have ever perused about how kids learn. Exceptionally keen. A debt of gratitude is in order for this data.

  11. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    So would doing 3 years of history even though your child hates it and will very likely nor need it but colleges require it fall under the category of doing something you don’t like so you can do what you want?

  12. AMarie
    AMarie says:

    I don’t know…

    I treat school like the goats. Walking the goats isn’t fun, but it’s necessary to have them. I tell my daughter that I agree math homework is stupid, just do a crappy job and turn in anything. Meanwhile, she’s in an absolutely amazing art program (at New Trier, actually. That’s how I found the blog.). The kids who love math have to suffer a bit through the intro art classes.

    Meanwhile, they’re teaching them all basic cultural literacy. I never understood what people meant when they said standardized tests are culturally biased- until I saw their sixth grade test questions- one math question started off assuming you’re familiar with a “monohull sailboat.”

    The “importance” of school is getting kids filtered into their social classes. Not all schools are teaching kids to be factory workers- part of my daughter’s program is putting on installation art shows downtown and also organizing fund raisers (for other organizations). Based on the last minute(years) push to get one of your kids into literally the most prestigious music program in the country, I think you know that’s true.

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