How to face a decision when all the choices are bad

My older son told me he wants to learn history. He says he needs a normal education. Which means that he’s begun managing his own education since he knows I don’t think there is anything anyone SHOULD know. So fine, he disagrees. Fine.

I told him I support him in whatever he wants to learn. Then he told me he wants to take the AP Biology test this May. How hard should I push him to make sure he’s prepared? I start by figuring out how many tutors he can handle per day. Then I have to decide how much to ask him to do without a tutor. Is it okay to rely on them?

I thought I’d have a picture of my son reading at the top of this post. But I don’t have any pictures of him reading. There’s a reason: He’s having a really hard time reading difficult material and wants audio for everything.  Should I read the AP Biology book out loud to him? I’m fucking sick of mitosis. I think he should learn to listen to a robot — I tried to convince him the British accent really makes things fun.

He told me, “Mom, all you know how to do is be a CEO. You sucked at school. Don’t tell me how to study.”

The real reason CEOs get paid so much money is they are willing to make huge, life-changing decisions with very limited information and in a very public way. Lots of people would say that CEOs are overpaid given the fact that they are not even making right decisions every time. And lots of people would say the CEOs are stupid for not getting all the information. But that’s a misunderstanding.

The more complex a problem is, the more likely there will not be a right answer, no matter how much research you do. The people who most appreciate a right answer are also the people who are most unwilling to go out on a limb with what could be a wrong answer.

It takes a brave person to make a decision when one has to be made, even when there is no right answer, and especially when families are at risk. (Quintessential example: Dropping the first atomic bomb.)

Another group of people who make this sort of decision all the time are women who announce what they will do after they have their first baby. Or their second. Women absolutely do not have enough information to know what they will want to do.

Will they like taking care of a newborn?

Will they miss work too much?

Will their husband be an incompetent co-parent?

Will the baby be especially difficult?

Will money be extremely tight?

There are a lot of variables. And they are not even objective variables. Yet women have to say whether or not they are taking maternity leave, and how long and whether or not they are coming back after maternity leave.

Generally no one is surprised when a woman does not do what she told everyone she would do. No one says, “You’re an idiot” or “You’re a bad parent” etc. And women can change their mind four months later. Or ten. Or whatever. We are not surprised.

Parents should feel the same ability to waffle when it comes to homeschooling. It’s okay to be scared to be home with kids all day but be game to try it. Just like a new parent is scared to be home all day but they do it anyway. And parents should feel okay not having any idea what they’ll do with kids at home all day because a new parent has no idea what to do once the baby is home. It’s very disorienting.

It’s okay to decide to homeschool and then decide you hate it. It’s okay to homeschool and decide you want to pay someone else to do it. These are all very common child-care decisions for babies. It’s a very common decision path for people coming to forks in the road over and over again – which is what parenting is.

This blog turns out to be my confessional about all the misguided steps I took while homeschooling my kids. The only sure-footed thing I did is spend my days with them. Every moment I spend with them is a good decision. Beyond that: Who knows?

The more confident you are in your parenting the more you will be able to make terrible decisions and own up to them and then try again. No one ever did a great job at something by doing it perfectly every time. It’s a process. You shouldn’t be scared to give homeschooling a try. Instead, you should be scared of being a parent who tries to make all perfect decisions all the time — those people will eventually find themselves very limited in what they can provide for their family.

25 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    30 years ago I majored in mathematics at an engineering school. (I wanted to be a programmer, but back then to get a CS degree you also had to get an EE degree and I hated EE. So I switched to math and took all the CS I wanted. I designed my own degree before doing that was cool.)

    I **adored** the mathematics lectures. The most fascinating class I took was about imaginary numbers (the square root of -1, represented as i). Imaginary numbers, and the complex equations that involve them, have concrete and essential uses today in disciplines such as electromagnetism, fluid dynamics, and quantum mechanics.

    And so for ten weeks I studied i. And it was utterly fascinating! Well, actually, the crusty old professor just rattled on about theorems and proofs, his chalk clacking hard against the board as he illustrated his points with equations. But it was poetry to me, and I sat through every class rapt, in awe and wonder.

    And then I went back home and opened my book and bleaghhh. A wall of impenetrable text faced me. And then working the problems was even worse.

    So my test scores were in the toilet. “There will be four tests and a final exam,” the professor grunted on the class’s first day. I failed all four tests, and not by a little bit. My highest score was something like 42%. I scored 16% on one test! As we approached the final exam, I was failing with prejudice.

    I see it now: I needed video. There was no YouTube in 1987. There was an Internet, but you wouldn’t recognize it as such given what it is today. But if I had something like Khan Academy for i, I think I could have done it.

    I see this in me at work. I’m a software developer. The best way for me to understand something is to listen to someone talk it through as they whiteboard it. The marriage of audio and video is what does it for me.

    In high-school English class I learned about deus ex machina, a literary device in which an improbable, contrived intervention solves an intractable problem. It may be a weak way to end a story, but when it happened to me in this situation relief washed over me and I nearly cried and danced at the same time. A week before the final, the professor held up a sheet of paper dense with text. “This is a list of all the concepts we studied in these ten weeks,” he said. “I’m going to give you a choice of finals. One will be composed of problems like you’ve worked on all the tests so far. The other final will show ten concepts off this list. You will define and prove each one. Who is interested in this alternative final?”

    My hand shot up; I was the only taker. The professor gave me his sheet of paper. At home, I wrote definitions and proofs for every concept and memorized them. On the day of the final, I regurgitated the ten requested answers. I got a 99% – which was enough to raise my grade to a D-.

    Did I mention I needed this class to graduate, and failing it would have meant I had to stay on an extra year? Woot! I graduated on time!

  2. jessica
    jessica says:

    What does he actually mean when he says he needs a normal education?

    I don’t see that correlating with him beginning his own independent education. It reads to me as if he feels behind and needs direction to learn what he needs, to take the pressure off a bit, by someone other than mom. Running an intense schedule to meet a test deadline (like a CEO), is the opposite.

    The first question I’d ask is: Is he at AP Bio level if his reading comprehension is that low? And then, does he still want to unschool? And then, if he does what does he actually need to get the academics done and in a reasonable fashion?

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      It also might be his way of saying he needs an outlet completely separate from the family, with all that’s going on. That could be all it is. Doesn’t mean homeschooling or unschooling are completely off the table- he just needs more outside support at the moment.

  3. Fatcat
    Fatcat says:

    This is a normal stage in homeschooling. They take ownership of what they are learning and towards the end, they feel like they need to make it more like what others are learning. Have him watch biology videos on Youtube, suggest he might try Khan academy and then let him be unless he asks you for assistance. It will be fine.

    My oldest just graduated from college. My youngest got a great ACT score and has been accepted into 2 colleges. (He only applied to 2, he’s picky.)

  4. Rayne of Terror
    Rayne of Terror says:

    I’m a great reader, but I learn best through lecture. It was that way with music, even though I started learning to sight read music in Kindergarten, I always had to hear a piece first before I could get the timing right. The BarBri bar exam course is terrible lectures for half the day and memorizing rules the other half the day for six weeks or so. I failed the first attempt. For the second attempt I got CDs with much more engaging material and passed with ease.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    It sounds to me that he wants an education that covers the traditional 7 subjects. Now that you are living in a city it should be easier to outsource that. I would look for classes he can take. I was able to find a high school accredited biology with lab that my kid could take through a privately run STEM learning center. She is by far the youngest in the class at 9 years old. She just learned about meiosis and I’m glad that I have nothing to do with teaching those topics to her. I’ll gladly find the right class for her to take if it’s what she wants.

    When I read your son’s words I don’t get the feeling he wants only tutors, maybe a good combination that includes tutors, but not as his only option. I know that hiring tutors was your only option on the farm, and it seems like you are still “living on the farm” so to speak. There are a lot more options available to you now! What does your new community offer as far as after school (or during school) classes in science and other subjects?

    I wouldn’t push too aggressively on the AP test. Maybe he just wants to take it to experience it, and then be prepared for the next time he can take the test. What are his motivations for wanting to take the AP Biology test in May?

  6. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    It may part of the progression of growing up.

    At puberty we want to be more like our peers (age mostly) and separate from parents as much as possible without really cutting ties.

    In our culture being ahead is always a positive. Being behind is always a negative.

    Once you reach adulthood neither is anything. Nobody cares if you remember 8th grade level math (I don’t). People only care if you’re well spoke and a good reader for conversation’s sake. Affinity.

    I find it very lovely that he is in charge. He gets to pick. If he’s insecure about where he stacks against his peers, or if it’s out of curiosity, or whatever the driving issues is, doesn’t matter. He’s still picking his path rather than being stuck at zero options.

    He’s sweet and admirable.

  7. Dana
    Dana says:

    If you were more hands off, would he study on his own for the AP test in May? I’m not sure how old he is, but by now he should take responsibility for managing his time and decide what he wants to study. The joy of learning happens when we pick the topic and study all we can on that subject. Let him loose in the libary with the goal that he comes home with some books on the area of history he wants to study. We make it much more complicated than it needs to be. Direct him, yes, and give him all the tools he needs — but then give the power back to him. This has worked well for our family with trial and error. I’m not that far ahead of you, but I can say that it does get easier, Penelope. I have 2 commercial pilots and a wanna be horse whisperer — nothing what I thought it would look like but they are following their passions. Hang in there!

  8. May
    May says:

    Conventional classroom structure isn’t always terrible. Following along lectures and seeing how others study and learn is an interesting experience. If he is surrounded by smart peers, he can scaffold off of them and also learn to socialize better. lol

    I think INTJ, like ENTJ, enjoy being surrounded by excellence and “smart peers”, but actively seeking them out will be harder for him. Being plunked in a class of excellent peers is like.. easy mode socialization for him probably?

  9. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    How exactly is your son going to succeed in college when most of the material he’s supposed to learn will be in books and papers? A lot of it will be stuff he’s not interested in. Are you going to read his college textbooks to him, too?

    Maybe he should ask Melissa how she made a zillion dollars as a kid so he can follow in her Aspergerry INTJ footsteps and make a ton of money for himself so he can hire someone to read everything for him.

    Or maybe he needs to be on ADD meds.

    Either way, if he doesn’t get his study habits on lockdown, he’s going to drop out of college within the first couple of semesters. Which would be fine if it didn’t seem like college is a pretty big life goal for him.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      I was thinking the same thing, Wendy. If I were saying of a kid, “He’s having a really hard time reading difficult material,” I might tend to wonder whether he’d do great studying science at college. If he can’t read an AP Biology textbook, how is Organic Chem going to go down?

      I homeschooled my son for six years. I’ve been a parent for almost thirteen now. I imagine I have done great at some things, and poorly at others. I won’t be certain what those things really were for quite some time.

      I don’t think letting my son go back to school in seventh grade will turn out to have been an error.

    • Wendy
      Wendy says:

      I should add, since I realize now my comment might be more anxiety-inducing rather than helpful, that this seems (at least to me, as an INxJ with Asperger’s like your son) like a reading comprehension problem.

      Which I can relate to because I also had this problem in school when it came to difficult material, even though I’d been “testing” as a so-called college-level reader since elementary school. Basically if anything had a lot of big words, even if I understood what all the words meant on their own, I wouldn’t understand the material. I had to learn to take notes on what I was reading to parse texts in a way that I would understand.

      I wonder if it’s possible for you and your son to look into Cornell note-taking (or whatever formal note-taking process might fit for him). While I didn’t follow that note-taking process exactly, learning it helped a lot in being able to focus on and understand difficult written material. It basically was a way of “translating” the information for myself.

      I don’t know how helpful this suggestion is, maybe not at all; maybe you guys are already doing this. Maybe your son just needs to be in school learning around other kids to give him a sense of competitiveness. I hope things work out either way.

    • The Study of Humans
      The Study of Humans says:

      For professional certifications, I struggled with having to read the material. I have a low tolerance for learning material I don’t immediately recognize the value in learning.

      To get around it, I recorded myself reading the material and then listened to the recording on the train, while working out, driving around, etc.

      With more college material going online, and technology similar to Whispersync used by amazon, he could go potentially go back and forth between reading and listening. I imagine there are more tools out there used by students with disabilities for this sort of thing.

  10. The Study of Humans
    The Study of Humans says:

    My biggest fear with trying and failing at homeschooling is then having to send my son to school as one of the few new kids. When I switched schools in 6th grade it was the beginning of a very challenging time for me. I was shy. And an introvert. I chose the wrong girl to be friends with because her BFF pushed me out, and I passed up opportunities with others before realizing it wouldn’t work with this one. My confidence suffered all through middle school and most of high school. It wasn’t until I entered into the corporate world that I began to realize I was likable, funny and cute enough (I skipped college).

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      He’s at the age where he should be able to decide what he wants and figure out how to achieve it. He’s being assertive in that sense.

      In fact, that’s probably the skill he needs to develop most at this time. I don’t think P should be handling the outsourcing and structure so much, because how he gets it done on his own is a vital learning process. It builds confidence, as well, that he can go out and do what he needs to do, and get the credit for it. She shouldn’t need to be pushing him at anything, if he is that interested in studying for something so specific (a test). And this is the time, where the hands-off approach would liberate him to taking responsibility and accountability (not ‘P didn’t do enough to help!’). If he fails the test, he needs to be able to self assess and decide if he wants to try again (unschooling!).

      He can mimic her management style or he can select his own. Perhaps laying out several paths (P’s strong suit) and having him choose which route to go- i.e. a science learning center, part time tutoring schedule, school, a mix? And then he must follow through, since he is trying to reach his goal. There should be no micromanaging involved in this, he should pick his route and stick with it himself- it’s on him.

      Kids in middle/high school do this within the school structure- want to make the football team? Weight train and practice for a year out. Want to take AP bio? Do well in the previous years math and science, and be accepted into the course. Want to play in Varsity band/choir/cheer/tennis/ advanced art — do the required work. The convenience of school is that it lays out the longer term paths for kids to choose the direction and interest they want to achieve within the environment. It takes the pressure off the kid, in that regard. The difference is they are forced to make these decisions- but I can see how the structure benefits those that need a bit more guidance to achieving their goals.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      I’m not really sure what “failing at homeschooling” looks like. Is it not studying something that ends up being important later? I think we all do that. Is it having bad days with your kids? I think that happens to all of us. Is it simply your kid wanting to go back to school? Isn’t that most homeschoolers, at some point?

      I would be wary of projecting too much based on your own bad experience in sixth grade. Our kids are different from us, and from each other. I switched schools a lot as a kid. At one point it was three schools in three states in three years. I never really took it too hard. I liked having a chance for a fresh start. I learned how to make friends quickly. I think that switching schools a lot was better than the alternative, for me. By college age, it was very easy for me to up stakes.

      If one could choose when to reenter school, the easiest time would be at one of the points when all the other kids change schools too. At that point, everybody has a story why they’re there, and yours is just one of many.

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think the best tutor will teach your son how to learn on his own. The tutor will learn how your son learns, tell him his learning strengths and weaknesses, and make him aware of the learning methods available to strengthen comprehension of those materials he finds difficult. I agree with Wendy’s question – “How exactly is your son going to succeed in college when most of the material he’s supposed to learn will be in books and papers?” – as the same question came to my mind. He still has time to discover a method of studying that makes the difficult less difficult. The first thing I would do is try to find out what makes certain material difficult in the first place. The tutor will need to have much patience. Your strengths as a CEO don’t appear to me to translate to the patience that’s necessary to do too much tutoring for your son yourself. You seem to cut to the chase rather fast and leave your son in the lurch. So quickly he feels a need to respond with – “Mom, all you know how to do is be a CEO. You sucked at school. Don’t tell me how to study.” – which isn’t nice in my opinion. But he is now a teenager and wants and needs his independence. So maybe you sucked at school but what you are doing is giving him life skills that likely he wouldn’t get at a school. And BTW it is possible to know how to study and still suck at school as there are other factors in the mix that may lead to test scores and grades that aren’t so good. I mean, how can you become a CEO and not know how to study (which you do every single day) as your livelihood depends on it?

  12. Stephanie Dunn
    Stephanie Dunn says:

    Hmmm. Take this comment lightly because I’ve just discovered this blog and only read two posts so far, so I don’t know squat about you yet. The first post I read had quite a different tone, like you felt empowered to be breaking away from the damaging influence of mass schooling. It must have been written a long time ago. This one sounds much less secure. So please understand that I’m commenting as exploration, not judgment.
    The thing that strikes me most is the fear that your son will fail. Is it a confusion of values? I mean, even though you rejected mass schooling, are you still judging yourself and him according to some abstract definition of “smart” that views formal academic rankings, i.e. intelligence rankings, as indicators of actual personal value? Is it that failing might threaten his, and your, self-worth? Or is it just that failing is an enormous practical pain in the ass that goes on that all-important personal record that the rest of the world measures people by?
    Why is the idea of your son failing the AP test so bad?
    And why are you even considering ushering him through it to guarantee success?
    Rejecting imposed schooling is not the same as rejecting an adolescent’s choice to claim membership in the “normal” community. His yearning to engage in something more “normal” seems like such a healthy desire to me, and one I’ve had to respect in my own son.
    One of the tragedies of our compulsory schooling system – based as it is on pre-defined requirements and authoritarian judgment – is how successfully we all embody its values, learning to judge our own worth by them. The other tragedy is that basic human belonging becomes subject to those values. Adopting a different value system is really difficult since it conflicts with basic belonging. For me it’s been an earnest attempt to be more real in the world, that sometimes has the unintented consequence of separating me from that world.

    Since offering solutions to other people’s problems usually just comes off as belittling the problem, I’ll say that I’m wrestling with similar issues. I’ve decided to let my son fail or succeed on his own, while being available to help in ways that seem reasonable, and don’t feel like torture. It’s up to him to ask me for help, though. That means not allowing myself to become a slave to AP classes I have no personal interest in. He’s a Junior in high school, but he spent Freshman year out of school, and I was hoping he’d want to stay out.
    The trick for me is that I no longer care about college. My son does, though. As far as I’m concerned, college can happen if he wants it to, or it can happen later if a good reason comes up, or it can never happen at all. College is a tool he might want to use. I’m not a believer in the academic god anymore. So I’m pretty clear that failing a class or exam has no meaning beyond the specific failure. It is not a measure of worth, just a sign that a different approach is needed to acheive that specific goal. If he is set on the goal, then he needs to find the tools to acheive it. If that means watching hours and hours of youtube biology videos as a stand in for boring text, go for it. Likewise, if your son’s success means finding a more traditional class to join, look for one. All the tools available are valid.
    My sadness, though, is that this sounds like a recognition by your son that his status will be judged by others according to their standards, and he’s trying to find a way to measure up. I hope he figures out how to navigate this. I, and my family, are navigating it as well. It is this conditional acceptance into “normal” community that I dislike most about school. Whether I believe in that screwed up god or not, it has the power to cause real pain and conflict.
    Best of luck. Love that boy!

  13. MBL
    MBL says:

    Y should listen to free AP Biology podcasts on iTunes. And there is a 6 hour audio on Audible (can get free month trial with prime.) I also found some videos. Even if he doesn’t get everything he needs from them, listening to them first will give him something to “hang the text on” and it should make much more sense.

  14. lauren
    lauren says:

    this is great. everything is always changing. we jump in and out of the stream of change and keep swimming, around rocks, under branches.
    i will have a brighter, more flexible day because of your empathetic wisdom

  15. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I too have a very intelligent son who loves to learn but hates to read. He will avidly listen to audio books and watch anything on video but can’t stand to be forced to sit and stare at a written page. This may just be a phase he’s going through or it may be that way his brain chooses to process info, part of who he is. With the amount of available electronic textbooks and their audio versions growing I’m not too worried about his academic future. He will find a way to survive in college when the time comes. Maybe it’s the violin teacher in me that says auditory learning is ok. We try “emmersion reading” where he has to visually read oblong with the audio track, but he still prefers straight up audio. He also watches a lot of video. History Channel and Discovery documentaries are a favorite as well as the CrashCourse video channel on YouTube. Those we practice rewinding and taking notes so at least he will be able to Handel lecture in college. And since we live five minutes from a small community college that lets highschoolers, public or homeschooled, take up two classes a semester for “dual credit” meaning he’ll get college credit for the courses he successfully completes while still in high school for a discounted tuition cost. I don’t think AP anything will be in our future. The way I see it there are too many what ifs with AP. Why study so hard for an expensive
    test that you might do portly on or if you do well have the college
    you choose not accept your AP score? I had a friend who scored
    excellent in all her high school AP tests only to be placed as a
    college freshman in mid to upper level classes she found she
    couldn’t handle because she missed some critical experiences by
    testing out of the basic courses instead of actually taking them. She
    almost failed out of school and ended up taking some of the basic
    courses she tested out of anyway. So we will be homeschooling and
    taking “dual credit” a few courses at a time. If we need too, he can take online college courses while in high school. So far we haven’t needed to hire any specific tutors, but I’m not above doing that there is a need for it. The thing about homeschooling is you do what works for you and your kids. There is still time to figure out what works and the why’s and how’s. Life is about problem solving and if we can teach our kids how to navigate a problem as complex as “how can I learn that best?”, then we’ve done our job as parents.

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