Homeschooling, parents are always looking out for minefields. There is no blueprint we can follow and there aren’t many established best practices. But the thing that makes it a minefield is we can’t see the danger before we step on it.

The minefield I have most recently discovered –– because I’m standing in it –– is the breakfast table. I read tons of studies saying that kids who eat meals with their families do better in life, so we’ve logged about 15 years of family breakfasts. But here’s another thing that happens during the meal: kids gain a sort of apprenticeship in the work their parents do. It’s called the breakfast table effect.

I have thought about this for a long time because I had to put an instrument in my son’s hand for him to become a cellist. So I had to like the idea of playing an instrument before my kid would play an instrument. And he had to have some talent to want to play as much as he does. I told myself it was mostly genetics.

The nature/nurture studies show that twins who never meet usually pick similar careers. So I don’t think parents can make a kid like to do something. There is too much research to show it’s already programmed when the kid is born. But what kids do as kids is still very influenced by parents –– for example, there’s no cello lessons if there’s no money.

A joyous childhood or bad childhood is a result of parents. And if kids are going to be really good at something in childhood it will be in large part from their parents. This is where the breakfast table effect comes in. Your kids are going to spend their childhood learning about the things you put in front of them. Which means your job. The work you do.

I see this now because my older son is writing. A lot. I didn’t encourage it. I mean, it makes no money. And also, I don’t believe in teaching kids to write formally. It strikes me as pointless. Yet he’s been writing every day, and sending it to me for feedback. Something I’m sure he learned from seeing me edit other writers.

That got me thinking about other kids who have a breakfast-table-effect thing going.

I wrote about the famed Wojcicki girls following in their father’s footsteps into college majors.LH

I noticed that Michael Jordan’s kids played basketball. Which probably wasn’t great for them. They didn’t have much talent and then while they were kids they didn’t branch out to see what else they were good.

I read a crushing piece in the New York Times that I recommend everyone reads about two boys growing up in an army family. It’s a piece about the breakfast table effect of the army. It’s also a piece about how difficult it is for parents to encourage kids to do things we don’t do ourselves.

When we talk about what we do in our own lives, we have an enormous impact on how much joy there is during our kids’ childhoods. It’s scary to me. It’s almost as scary to me as the idea that what we talk about during their childhood has almost no impact on their adulthood.

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5 replies
  1. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Honest question: You used the word “scary” twice in the past paragraph and the article is about “minefields”. Can you explain what is scary to you (in terms of your comments in the last paragraph) and how is there a minefield metaphor here? Is it fear that you are shortchanging your kids from the chance to be …..what, exactly?

    I think many people are thrilled to just have breakfast on the table…and children there to eat it…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a fair question. First of all, I am terrified of being a bad parent in a way that normal people are not; I was removed from my parents due to abuse so I have a terrible model for normal and I always have to be careful. So scary for me is maybe not universal. Or even normal.

      That said, it’s scary to me to miss something really big. For example I spent way too much time worrying about academics and video games when my kids were little. I should have focused on life skills like meditation, conversation, the discipline of waking up and going to bed at the same time.

      So I try to look now at what I might be missing. I’ve found that as parents we spend a lot of time looking at stuff that is on our radar and the stuff we are missing is such a big miss because it wasn’t even part of our thought process. I’m fascinating by the stuff that isn’t on our radar that has enormous impact. And it scares me to miss it.

      I guess it scares me because I only get one shot at raising kids. It’s my life. I want to do it well. I want to live with my eyes open. But, if I’m being really honest, I just should work on living with my heart open.

      Thank you for asking a question that is important for me to answer for myself.


      • Katarina
        Katarina says:

        Just an observation from a total stranger who is completely unqualified to say this, but having read your blog for a long time, I am convinced that your sons are very grateful for all you do and have tried to do for them and they appreciate the opportunity to have autonomy of spirit most of all.

  2. Vic
    Vic says:

    Full breakfast effect here. Both parents in academia. Both my brother and I followed the same path. Until I branched out to corporate world to have a more stable life.

    I love it. But interestingly, years after, I still feel cognitive dissonance. Since a kid I’ve imagined myself at a university or a research center. So it requires a lot of… I don’t know, story telling to make sense of it? Conversations with my family also highlights it: they don’t understand what i’m doing, what my challenges are, what my success/failures mean. So, in a way, the effect is still there in adulthood.

    I tell myself that feeling slightly uncomfortable is a sign of carving one’s own path. It’s breakfast effect detox.


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