Where is the line between self-directed learning and self-sabotage?

Pretty much all research about education reform points to how important self-directed learning is (especially for kids living in poverty, in case you’re wondering.) It made sense to me theoretically, but in practice it meant my kids are playing video games, fighting with each other, and shopping at GAP

I had to convince myself to embrace self-directed learning. I did that, in a large part, by writing about it on this blog, and you guys would keep telling me your own experiences with self-directed learning. I’d hear you talk about having to put aside your own learning preferences and instead learn to cope with the choices your kids make. Your stories have inspired me to cope as well.

So here I am in the ridiculous position of having a kid who wants to jump through every high school curriculum hoop in order to go to college.

I do not want this. I want anything but college. I have been trying to play the college game. I am actually pretty good at the game. I wrote a five-year plan for preparing for applications, and here we are in year two and we are executing the plan. But it’s hell.

One reason it’s hell is that my son has OCD and it interferes with his time management. I also have OCD, and it ruled my life. Every time I stopped one obsession I’d start another.  I wrote in my diary for six or seven hours a day, I threw up ten to fifteen times a day, in school pictures my eyebrows were almost gone. I couldn’t stop until I found medication that worked. (If you’re curious: Vyvanse, NAC, and Inositol.)

You know how people in AA say they feel like a higher power helped them stop drinking? I literally thank god every morning when I take a pill because I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude over not suffering from OCD, and I need some place to put that gratitude. So you can imagine how important I think it is to treat my son’s OCD.

We have been using medication since he was young. (Started with Sertraline.) Medication is hard to get right, and it doesn’t work for him as well as it does for me. We talk a lot in our family about what is okay to do (stuff that no one sees – pulling hairs that shorts will cover) and what is not okay to do (stuff that kills you – picking your nose can lead to a brain infection).

I get so frustrated with him because I’m trying so hard to figure out what to do about the OCD and he is not able to stop himself. I yell. Even though I know what it’s like to not be able to stop, I still yell. Then I hate myself. I hate myself because as a kid I got yelled at all the time for doing autistic/OCD stuff that I had no ability to control. How could I do that to my son?

I want to work with him on the OCD stuff, but it’s so hard because he has a really heavy course load and he’s studying all the time. He doesn’t want to stop studying to deal with the OCD. So I really lost my shit and screamed and yelled and shook his head in the way that a crazy parent kills her baby. “You have to care more about looking normal!” I yelled. “You will get fired! You won’t make friends! People don’t want to be friends with people who look crazy! OCD is crazy!”

He has been to a lot of therapy, so he did exactly what he is supposed to do. He said, “Mom, you’re making me sad and I’m overwhelmed so I’m leaving for a while. I’ll be back in an hour.”

Fuck. Heartbreak. I hate myself. But I have been to enough therapy to know not to tell my kid I hate myself. So I said, “Wait. No. I won’t yell. Please don’t leave. Tell me how you feel. I’m sorry. I care how you feel.”

So we sat on the sofa together and cried. Then I said to him, “I think the problem is that there is not enough time. You have so much school work. You are taking on so much. And I know you’re so smart, but there are other things, too. Look at all the things we are trying to do.” And I made him a chart to see how much he has going on, and how he doesn’t have time or energy to work on OCD stuff and all his school work.

I thought this would make things very obvious to him. I thought we’d agree that he should cut down his course load and just go to a state school, which he would get into fine with just his test scores.  But no.

He ripped my list into pieces. Then he reordered the list items. He said one half was things he cares about and one half is things I care about. The top of his list is school work. He wants to go to the college that gives him the most opportunities.

“But you won’t have opportunities if you can’t get the OCD under control,” I told him.

“Mom, the OCD and the social skills and the family time, those are all your priorities. And I appreciate your help, but my top priority is going to the best college I can.”


He continued. “We can treat OCD with medicine. You do that. I can too.”

I was shocked. We are still at the same spot we were when I couldn’t stand watching him play video games all day. It’s so hard to watch him make his own choices. But once I learned the delusions parents have about video games, I learned that he is great at making his own decisions, and he knows himself best, and I’m the best mom when I’m supporting him.

So I’m going to tell you that the picture up top is my son on his way to the AP biology test. He got a 5. I need to be excited about it and excited about helping him meet his goals. So I’m telling you: He’s doing a good job.




17 replies
  1. E
    E says:

    Maybe it will play out like this:

    When all this studying and test-acing gets him into the college of his dreams, he’ll then figure out a way to address the OCD and social skills at university. It will matter more.

    Thing like scaring off someone he wants to date, losing a job or getting booted from a study group for being distracting, etc. – maybe encountering problems like this will kick those topics up his priorities food chain.

    By a certain age, those peer-to-peer moments are far more teachable than anything we parents can impart on them, right?

    Or, likely he’ll have no problem transitioning at all and it will work out just fine.

    It is so, so hard to support them in self-directed learning, to watch them reach and fall and reach again. I struggle too. But we have to *trust* them – no matter how hard life gets for them at some points – because we really have no other choice.

  2. Terri T
    Terri T says:

    Sounds like he’s doing amazing. You gave him all the tools he needs to set a goal and make it happen. Way to go, mom!

  3. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Your son is making adult decisions now. Prioritizing best college over OCD is an adult decision. Maybe the video-game decisions of yore were practice in making decisions. I wouldn’t have been able to support that level of video games as a parent, I just wouldn’t have. I didn’t. I limited my sons’ games. But my sons are older and aren’t making that level of adult decisions for themselves quite yet. There’s probably a connection there.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “He wants to go to the college that gives him the most opportunities.”
    I wonder how he defines “the most opportunities”. That’s a very general and ambiguous statement. Is that another way of saying the most prestigious? There are many state schools where it’s possible to get a good education. As for opportunities, I think that’s something that you can achieve yourself as long as you’re attending a fairly well established and recognized institution and you’re doing well. Personally, I would look for and go to the one that I thought was the best fit.

    • me
      me says:

      If he wants to become an academic scientist (or most any kind of academic) this is basically just wrong. Getting ahead in academia is a big status game. If you are amazing, you can succeed from a lower tier school, but it is much harder.

      He shouldn’t go to a school which is a bad enough fit that it will get in the way of him succeeding. But he roughly should go to the best school he can where he will be able to succeed. (It might be a mistake for some people to take on the kind of debt to make that work, but I don’t think this will be an issue for Penelope’s family.)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well this is just pie-in-the -sky now, but I think at the highest levels you don’t pick the institution, you pick the teacher. The best scenario possible (available to almost no one) is that a professor is excited to work with you and steers you through four years and then on to the best place for you for graduate school.


  5. Niki
    Niki says:

    Thank you for this post. I can relate to your struggles.
    Regarding the colleges with the most opportunities, I agree with Mark W. Having said that, I just want to mention one school because I was so impressed with this place when I visited. Have you heard of Harvey Mudd College? Not too many people know about the school outside of SoCal, but it’s a great STEM school. Out of 10 college tours I attended (including MIT), this place was the most impressive in terms of providing opportunities for its students. I feel like Harvey Mudd might be a type of school your oldest might enjoy attending. Congratulations on getting a 5 on AP Bio to your son, by the way! He met his own goal – how great is that?

  6. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Prestige is over-rated. He needs to interview faculty to learn about what it really means to be a tenure-track faculty member. Publish or perish. Publish stuff no one reads. Or be a real mover and shaker. Then he will find out that almost no one cares about teaching students and they all dread undergraduates. Then you find out that once people get tenure they pretty much blow off everything because they are burned out…In the science based departments, money is the number one subject. How to get it, how to spend it. Grant writing. Lots of grant proposals. That is what faculty do. Then they also have to serve on committees for this and that and that and this. Then they have to be involved in evaluations for accreditation. This is what it would mean to be a scientist in academe. Maybe he would want to go into some sort of R &D company and just work directly for a company. Then he needs to talk to corporate researchers. It is worth having an idea about these two tracks.

    If he wants to be a great scientist, it doesn’t mean he has to go to the top school in his field for his UG. In fact, top schools are rated based on things that mean nothing to undergraduates. Look it up. It has to do with funding. How many publications the faculty have…blah, blah, blah. The funding goes to stuff that benefits the faculty themselves and graduate students. Even lower-tiered schools can provide a significantly better foundation than many so-called elite schools because you often find more faculty invested in teaching UG students. Finding a motivated faculty member who gets students involved in research, publishing and conferences at the UG level is key. Once you get going on that track, you become a novelty for graduate programs at which point you get an assistantship and money is no longer an issue.

    Some state schools like U of Illinois and others have higher rankings in various fields than other schools which have overall higher rankings. The rankings gig is a big joke.

    Cream rises to the top. In this country, there is still room to become a top-quality academic without wasting money on the Ivy League schools. I won’t explain my credentials for making these statements but I can tell you that this is how it has worked for countless people in my family and among many academics I know and the list is extremely long.

    Being happy on the campus is important. Great schools can have lousy campus life. For an UG, that might be worth considering.


  7. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Duh. He’s an INTJ. In the long-term, it’s almost impossible for him to fail. The only way he will do so is if you pressure him into going into an education/career path he hates but starts to feel it’s too much trouble to explain to you that he hates it (which is probably why he has never explained this stuff to you before).

    I guarantee you he will start to tackle the OCD stuff when it starts to interfere with him reaching his goals. That time is obviously not now, but when it comes, he will address it.

    As for the family stuff, he probably needs time AWAY from that, or he will go nuts. Imagine how being all alone for days and days at a time feels to you. Wouldn’t that drive you nuts, having nobody to talk to for too long? INTJs feel that when they have to talk to anybody for too long.

    You shouldn’t worry if he spends less time doing family activities than you’d prefer. He’s never going to stray too far from you. You should know that, because I bet he does.

  8. Zellie
    Zellie says:

    You’re so worried about his tackling the OCD, but realize that OCD is strongly correlated to anxiety. These behaviors are a way to cope with the otherwise unbearable feeling of anxiety. I’d look at anxiety management first. You/he would feel better. The behaviors can be changed much more easily if the feelings are out of the red.

  9. Dar
    Dar says:

    I feel like the whole post is about the 5 on an AP Test
    This was never ever unschooling or self directed learning
    Simple: tiger mom homeschooler. Pushes one child into
    Heavy cello monitors him pays hugely for lessons travels.
    It works. Child 2 doesn’t have same level of raw talent. She buses her time. Grade school
    Really doesn’t matter. He’s interested in science. Hire ten tutors and do test prep pretending this is what you didn’t want all along
    You guys are weird. THIS IS WHAT SHE WANTED ALL ALONG
    She thinks youngest will be yoyoma he won’t but hearing prodigy is enough for her ego. She wants the other to get into an ivy school or hard second tier. Then she’ll write about all the accomplishments saying it’s not what she envisioned. And we all duh. He’s his own person. But Penelope is as high pressure as any tiger mom With same exact philosophy. Push for them
    Choose for them. Stand over them. Make them practice. It’ll pay off. Newsflash usually does. Please explain how anything you did is unschooling or self directed. Stop reading nonsense. Research shows tiger mommying world. You delayed it w one kid to focus on the other. I might like the blog if it was honest. Including using men. Doing anything to win. Tiger mom took the heat. You can’t.
    I have ocd too. Not as bad as you. Vyvanse is an adhd med isn’t it??? Inositol and nac have only shown to help in high doses and in very few clinical studies. Ssris can cause impotence and antipsychotics cause serious weight gain. I cannot see how a stimulant med can help ocd. It might even exacerbate it. Here’s a duh. Why not give your son what you take? I took a lot but no dr ever recommended a stimulant. I’m not as compulsive as obsessive so maybe that’s it. I picked bug bites like mad as a kid but that’s actually common. Nosepicking I read can build immunity. Good luck stopping that. How many people have brain infections? That’s beyond paranoid. It’s just gross to look at and in winter prob spreads big time germs. It’s not hygienic or healthy to yankmhair. That too could cause infection but soooooo unlikely. I get a rash from waxing and I got a temporary burn from lasering. So far nothing from nose picking. I steer clear of my brain. I think you know you need to leave the elder alone to blossom. Have you tried Cbt? Why not follow recommendations of the doctor? How do you pay for therapy? No one good for ocd took my insurance and these people get like $200/hr. Any doctor can medicate but changing thinking is as important. I’ve no doubt both Kids will be successful. You seem to want famous. Let them choose that. And stop pretending you aren’t a tiger mom and have some zen better way. It’s so delusional. And stop reading studies. Did you read the one that said most studies are faulty? I say burn parenting books be
    Intuitive and loving all works out. He’s rebelling against tiger mom just as tiger moms older did. But they’re still close. My book idea for you- tiger mom II Homeschool edition. I think it’d be a hoot.

  10. Shannon Graham
    Shannon Graham says:

    OCD might slow him down a bit but it’s not going to be a blocking obstacle :) I think you have to stop bugging him about it. He already knows it’s a problem. You’re causing more stress which is making it worse. It’s your job to significantly reduce how often you mention it.

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